Reflections on the Class Dojo Kerfuffle

Based on the posts I’ve been seeing in my Twitterstream lately, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I am a Class Dojo user.

I know the complaints that people have with the app:  Awarding points for good behavior feels Pavlovian; allowing peers to see points awarded and taken away from their classmates can be publicly embarrassing; and patterns established over time might just result in kids being unfairly labeled.

Heck, #edulegend Alfie Kohn took his criticism of Class Dojo straight to Defcon 1 in this week’s New York Times article.  “This is just a flashy digital update of programs that have long been used to treat children like pets, bribing or threatening them into compliance,” he argued.

Here’s the problem:  Our collective beef with Class Dojo rests in the flawed assumption that the tool FORCES teachers into crappy instructional choices. 

Take the examples shared in the Times:  The teachers spotlighted displayed their Class Dojo screen publicly in front of the class, left notifications — the dings and donks that announce that points  have been given or taken away — turned on for everyone to hear, and gave points for ridiculous things like bringing in supplies for classroom activities.

I can’t support any of those instructional choices, y’all.  The records that I keep about the struggles of individual students ought to be private — and displaying them in front of the entire class and announcing them with buzzers and bells is ludicrous.  So is giving awards to students who can bring in supplies — which inherently devalues students who can’t.

But there are lots of other ways to use Class Dojo to support responsible practice.  Here are a few examples from my classroom:

Recording anecdotal evidence of student mastery of required concepts:

One of the best sources of evidence that students are mastering required concepts are the countless one-to-one interactions that happen during the course of a school day.  Every time a student shares thinking in a classroom, makes a contribution during a group conversation, participates in a hands-on activity, or asks a question after a lesson ends, teachers gain insight on their progress.

The challenge for me has always been documenting these interactions.  Sure, I could probably give you a pretty good sense of which students have mastered key concepts and which students are still struggling to master key concepts — but with 120 kids across four class periods, I’d be lying to you if I told you that I know EXACTLY who knows what.

And I’d also be lying to you if I told you that I’d never been surprised by a student who showed me that they HAD mastered key concepts in the course of an informal conversation.  In fact, it happens all the time in middle school classrooms where kids are inconsistent, demonstrating mastery one day and struggling mightily the next.

Until Class Dojo, I kept no real record of the interactions I was having with students on a daily basis.  Now, when a student shows me that they have mastered content in a nontraditional way, I can pull out my phone and record the interaction.  That gives me a more sophisticated sense of who knows what in my classroom that is built on evidence instead of hunches.

How’s that a bad thing?

Spotting students who aren’t being challenged — or who are working beyond their ability level — in differentiated lessons:

One of the things that I’ve had to wrestle with during the course of my 22-year teaching career was the suggestion that kids who are off-task are nothing more than bad kids who don’t know how to behave.  In reality, off-task behavior — particularly in differentiated classrooms where students are working on different tasks all at the same time — is almost always evidence that the task that I’ve assigned to individual students isn’t appropriate.

So I’ve started using Class Dojo to record student behaviors during differentiated lessons.  My goal isn’t to figure out who needs to be punished.  Instead, my goal is to figure out who needs extra challenge — or who is working beyond their ability level.  Spotting patterns in off-task behavior has nothing to do with rewards and consequences for kids.  Spotting patterns in off-task behavior has everything to do with helping me to improve my own instructional practices.

How’s that a bad thing?

Reinforcing Classroom Culture:

One of the things that I am the proudest of this year are my efforts to build a positive classroom culture.  Stealing ideas from Pernille Ripp’s Passionate Learners, my kids and I developed a set of classroom promises at the beginning of the year.  The entire process — which I described here and here — was SUPER productive.  In fact, this was the first year that I actually felt like my kids were invested in the “rules” that we were creating to govern our learning space.

But classroom promises — like the norms in professional learning communities — are useless if you don’t spend time celebrating the people who are following them.  Kids in middle school classrooms need constant reminders of the reasons that classroom promises matter.  More importantly, they need to see constant examples of just what classroom promises look like in action.

So I’ve started to ask my STUDENTS to award Class Dojo points to kids who have honored our promises at the end of many class periods.

When our time together starts, I’ll say something like, “Remember that if we are going to have a happy, safe and fun classroom, we are going to need to participate, cooperate and be positive during today’s lesson.  Be on the lookout for someone who does those things well today because at the end of class, I’m going to give you the chance to recognize them.”

Then, I’ll use Class Dojo’s randomizer to call on a few students right before dismissal.  “Who do you think deserves to be recognized?” I’ll ask.  “And what have they done to make our classroom happy, safe and fun?”

You see the simple twist in the conversation, right?

We have spent so much time arguing about teachers who use Class Dojo to shame kids into behaving that we have forgotten that Class Dojo can be just as valuable as a tool for reinforcing the positive things that happen every day in our classrooms.

How’s that a bad thing?

I’ve spent the past few weeks rereading Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody.

At the end of the text, he makes an interesting argument.  He says one of the barriers to change in any circumstance is the inertia of experience, which can often prevent us from seeing the full potential in any situation.  When we grow comfortable with how things are, we also grow less likely to consider anything that rests outside of what we know.

Here’s how that applies to the Class Dojo Kerfuffle: If the only thing that you believe about classroom management is that there are bad kids who need to be controlled, you are bound to use tools for recording student behaviors in coercive ways.  Similarly, if the only thing you believe about teachers is that they are classroom managers who are hell-bent to punish bad kids, you are bound to assume that people using digital tools for recording student behaviors are old-school curmudgeons who should be forced into retirement.

Avoiding these traps depends on people who are willing to unlearn the obvious.  Instead of making your decisions about new tools based on what was once true, start making your decisions about new tools by imagining what can be.

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

If We Are Going to Have a Happy, Safe and Fun Classroom…

We Have a Life Outside of School, Too

The Role of Hunches in a PLC


11 thoughts on “Reflections on the Class Dojo Kerfuffle

  1. Dean Shareski (@shareski)

    I agree it’s not about blaming Class Dojo but it’s about creating awareness about the dangers. In the same way we should question the dangers or challenges of teaching from a textbook in sequence and not utilizing other resources.

    I’ll share something specific from my experience working for a technology company. Discovery Education, among other things, provides video content aligned to curriculum. The default use is for teachers to find a video and press play. We recognized that that was not great pedagogy and that more could be done. We have developed various strategies for teachers as well as segmented long videos to avoid showing a 20 minute video. That’s us realizing we could do better. That still doesn’t preclude teachers from using our stuff poorly but we feel responsible to make learning better. I think the challenge that class dojo faces is that many teachers truly believe in behaviour modification through rewards and punishments. I’m not sure how they should or shouldn’t handle this but it’s tricky.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      This is a great example, Dean, of a responsible action on the part of a tech company.

      Another company that does this well is Mastery Connect. They are trying to encourage responsible formative assessment practices, so the free version of their tool only allows teachers to give 10 question assessments that cover one standard. The result is anyone using the free version of the tool HAS to give short, standard-specific assessments. That’s cool because that’s the kind of assessments we should be giving anyway.

      And while I totally appreciate tech companies that do those kinds of things — and totally agree that teachers should push tech companies to develop products that encourage responsible practice — what’s bugged me in this conversation is the number of teachers who want to point the finger at Class Dojo without being willing to recognize that the only reason Class Dojo chose the entry point they did was because they knew it was what their market wanted.

      That’s a teaching problem, not a tech problem — and I want teachers held accountable, not tech companies.

      It’s really been a neat conversation….Challenging my thinking, which is cool.

      Hope both you and your wife are doing well…

      Rock on,

      1. Dean Shareski (@shareski)

        I want both to be accountable. If tech companies are more than just profit generating organizations, they’ll recognize the need to partner with teachers to work together. Teachers, naturally should be accountable to students directly and companies indirectly.

        It’s a tenuous relationship because at some point, the stakeholders may have conflicting goals but I think there’s enough in common that at the very least open dialogue can occur that focuses on the question, “what is best for children?”

  2. Dean Shareski (@shareski)

    Bottom line is that technology is never neutral and while I agree it depends how you use it, technologies always have a bias or default approach. It’s designers create it with some kind of vision or intent. While certainly they may desire multiple uses, they also want to provide easy entry points for users.

    You can take any technology and walk down the road of intended use. Class Dojo in particular has a default use that for many folks is questionable. I’m glad thoughtful folks like you choose to use it otherwise but the danger exists for others who might not see the potential consequences.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      I get it, Dean…I really do.

      But what drives me nuts in the broader conversation is the suggestion that Class Dojo is responsible for crappy practice. Sure, the entry point that they are setting is enabling questionable practice — but the fact that they chose that entry point is more of a reflection of our profession than it is of Class Dojo.

      What does it say about US when an app that has achieved pretty incredible penetration in the education marketplace is successfully targeting behaviors we can’t admire?

      If WE weren’t embracing such marginal practices, Class Dojo would change or die. The fact that they are thriving is on us. Rather than pointing fingers at their design, I want to point fingers at practitioners who are buying into that suggested approach.

      Any of this make sense?

  3. Pingback: Reflections on the Class Dojo Kerfuffle | Stric...

  4. noheroine

    Thanks for this write-up. As a pre-service teacher I have not yet found a classroom that doesn’t use teacher-centered or reward driven behavior programs. Your system seems to value the student and not only value compliance and self-control.

    I hope that before I become a “real live teacher” i can find a real life example of this student-centered classroom i read about in books, blogs and the twitterverse. If only so I can have some sort of model to help me create this for my own future students.

  5. Michael Kaechele

    Hey Bill,

    I would fall in the anti Class Dojo camp. That said I can see how you are using this tool in very productive ways. I would totally support the way that you are using it to document learning and grow classroom culture. Unfortunately my experience with Class Dojo is from my children’s teachers who use it as strictly a behavior management system that I find to be pointless.

    So my question for you would be what percentage of Class Dojo users are using it in the ways that you describe vs. teachers using it exclusively for behavior management?

    I see this as another example of (most) teachers using a tool as a new way to do things like they always have: digital stickers or “move down your clip” system. As usual we need teachers to shift their pedagogy rather than just shifting to digital ways.

    Finally I wonder how much Class Dojo promotes itself in productive ways that you describe vs. behavior management tool.


    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Mike wrote:

      Finally I wonder how much Class Dojo promotes itself in productive ways that you describe vs. behavior management tool.


      Hey Pal,

      Here’s what I’m wrestling with: Why is it Class Dojo’s job to promote responsible practice?

      Don’t get me wrong: I’d love it if they WERE driving teachers towards more responsible uses of their tool. It would be really cool, in fact.

      But they are driven by the market. Their job is to get people to use their product. That means creating something that people want.

      The real lesson in all of this is that we have a TON of work to do on the professional development front. The fact that a TON of our colleagues are still in compliance/classroom management mode is the real concern.

      Whether Class Dojo wants to help fix that problem is irrelevant to me. It’s OUR job to fix that problem.

      Does that make sense?

      1. Michael Kaechele

        Solid points to me and Dean that it is not really Class Dojo’s responsibility to bring better pedagogy and classroom practice. I guess I get really frustrated by my own children’s teachers using these methods. I am “that parent” that I think they dread at PTC because I fight some of the things that I don’t like and think are damaging. Class Dojo and AR are at the top of my list of terrible things that they use.

        So hard question for you. How do we positively influence our own children’s teachers to better pedagogy? Or even harder to influence the administration. We have a conversational conference like Educon at our PBL school that I invite them to but they have yet to come 🙂

        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          Great question, Mike — and I’m just starting to play that game now! My daughter is in Kindergarten.

          In a general sense, I try to influence practice by writing about it publicly. While that doesn’t always have an impact on my own kid’s teacher — I don’t know if she reads my blog or even knows that I blog — I figure that by stirring conversation and forcing reflection in education in general, I’m doing my part to change practices.

          And that’s interesting in and of itself: The fact that I can have an impact by doing nothing other than raising my voice is neat. I see it as both an opportunity and a responsibility. And I dig it.

          Rock on,

Comments are closed.