ClassDojo and the Measurement and Management of Growth Mindsets

ClassDojo is one of the most successful educational technologies in history. Originally developed as part of a Silicon Valley ed-tech accelerator program, it is highly illustrative of how the entrepreneurial culture and politics of high-tech innovation is now infusing the field of education. Through successful products like ClassDojo, Silicon Valley is seeking to radically disrupt education, and in the process to popularize new psychological theories of behaviour modification that align with emerging governmental agendas around the “non-academic” measurement of school performance.

Changing Behaviours

ClassDojo is a free mobile app that allows teachers to award “positive behaviour” points for individual children’s behaviour and participation in the classroom. Launched in 2011, by 2016 its founders reported more than 3 million subscribing teachers, serving 35 million students across 180 countries worldwide. The website claims that it is used in 1 out of 2 schools in the U.S.

ClassDojo was developed as a working product through the Imagine K12 accelerator program for education technology startups in Silicon Valley. When ClassDojo emerged from its beta phase in 2013, it announced that it had further secured $1.6 million in investment from venture capital sources. The business magazine, FastCompany, listed ClassDojo as one of the 10 most innovative education companies in 2013 and, in 2015, it won the Crunchie award for best education startup from the TechCrunch awards.

In practice, the app allows teachers to award “dojo” points under default categories of “hard work,” “participating,” “helping others,” “teamwork,” “leadership,” and “perseverance and grit” (though the categories can also be customized). Behavioural targets can be set for individuals and groups to achieve positive goals. Teachers can also deduct points (classified by a “needs work” icon). Each child in the system is represented by a cute avatar, a dojo monster, which can be customized and personalized by the user.

In addition to the classroom points system, ClassDojo is also used as a communication tool. Parents are able to login and view their child’s points, and can also access a timeline of class photos, messages and videos posted by teachers. One of the slogans for ClassDojo is “happier students, happier classrooms!”

At root, ClassDojo can be seen as the latest in a long line of educational technologies informed by the behaviorist theory that “desirable” classroom behaviors can be reinforced and reproduced through reward systems. In one of very few detailed studies of ClassDojo, Michael Burger argues that just as behaviorists “believed a reinforcement (whether positive or negative) could influence how individuals act in the future, so ClassDojo was designed as a classroom management tool designed to reinforce students’ behaviors in order to get them to repeat behaviors that earn positive reinforcements and refrain from ones that earn negative reinforcements.”

Having observed ClassDojo being used in classrooms, Burger claims that “students are influenced by the results associated with their behaviors. … [W]hen a student receives a positive point, the other students in the classroom recognize what that student did to earn the positive point. They then think about what they have to do to replicate that behavior in order to receive the same reward/benefit.”

These findings seem to confirm a critique of ClassDojo in the New York Times in 2014, which raised concerns about it being used to award “virtual badges for obedience,” as well as about data privacy and security. ClassDojo’s founders even issued a public response detailing what they thought the paper “got wrong.” They emphasized its use for positive behavior reinforcement. Yet, positive reinforcement has always been the aim of behaviorist conditioning techniques, and assumes particular norms of behavior that are inevitably contested and controversial.

In fact, ClassDojo is designed to reinforce behavioral norms associated with increasingly popular psychological theories of “character development” and “growth mindsets,” in ways that align it with both governmental agendas around “non-cognitive learning” and Silicon Valley agendas about investing in innovative human capital.

Growth Characters

New ideas about “character development” and “growth mindsets” have been popularized recently in education. This is at a time when a new update U.S. federal education law requires states to include nonacademic measures in determining school performance. In several Californian districts, measures of “personal qualities” and “social-emotional skills” including “grit” and “growth mindsets” are already being developed and trialed, albeit not without controversy.

ClassDojo is perhaps the most popular current educational application based on these ideas.

“Education goes beyond just a test score to developing who the student is as a person — including all the character strengths like curiosity, creativity, teamwork and persistence,” its co-founder and chief executive Sam Chaudhury has said. “There’s so much research showing that if you focus on building students’ character and persistence early on, that creates a 3 to 5 times multiplier on education results, graduation rates, health outcomes. It’s pretty intuitive. We shouldn’t just reduce people to how much content they know; we have to develop them as individuals.”

According to Chaudhury, the design of ClassDojo was informed by “thought leaders” such as Peter Heckman, Doug Lemov, Angela Duckworth, and Carol Dweck. Heckman is an economist noted for his work on building character. Lemov is a former free-market advocate of the charter schools movement and author of the popular Teach Like a Champion. Duckworth has her own named psychological lab where she researches “personal qualities” such as “grit” and “self-control” as dimensions of human character.

But, the relationship between ClassDojo and Carol Dweck’s concept of “growth mindsets” is the most pronounced. In January 2016, ClassDojo announced a partnership with the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS), an applied research center at Stanford University led by Dweck that has become the intellectual home of the theory of growth mindsets.

The concept of growth mindsets focuses on the ways in which people differently perceive their intelligence. Some people, Dweck’s work suggests, have an “entity theory of intelligence,” as something that is fixed and unchangeable; others possess an “incremental theory of intelligence” whereby they perceive intelligence and aptitude as subject to change, which can be improved through hard work and effort.

“Teaching people to have a ‘growth mind-set,’ which encourages a focus on ‘process’ rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life,” Dweck has argued in Scientific American. “Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their persistence or strategies (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.”

The partnership between ClassDojo and PERTS takes the form of a series of short animations that help explain the growth mindsets idea for teachers and learners themselves. Over the course of five animations on the “Big Ideas” section of the ClassDojo site, the cute Dojo monster character learns to develop an adaptive growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.

“Growth mindset is a phenomenally important idea that’s been proven to benefit children well into the future,” claims Liam Don, co-founder and Chief Product Officer at ClassDojo. “In developing our ‘Big Ideas,’ series we wanted to make these transformative ideas easy for teachers to incorporate into their classroom, and delightful for students. Our partnership with Stanford PERTS is a good example of how technology can help make big ideas accessible and exciting for students in every classroom.”

The videos are basically high-production updates of the “You Can Grow Your Brain” and “Brainology” instructional resources previously developed by Dweck and disseminated through her Mindset Works spin-out company. ClassDojo approached Dweck about adapting these materials, and the videos were produced by ClassDojo with input from PERTS.

The PERTS executive director Dave Paunesku has claimed that because ClassDojo can track engagement with their videos and tools, the PERTS researchers can gather new insights into how the growth mindset message changes student engagement levels. “We want teachers to think about the kind of norms they want to set in the classroom so that growth mindset is integrated in it,” Paunesku claims. PERTS will then use data collected about the videos and data already held by ClassDojo to analyse how they affect students’ mindsets.

ClassDojo is not simply a behaviorist tool for reward-and-reinforcement. Instead, it is increasingly aligned with psychological and behavioral norms associated with growth mindsets, both by teaching children about growth mindsets through its Big Ideas videos and, through the app, by rewarding children whose behaviors are appropriate to the development of such a mindset.

In this sense, ClassDojo is perfectly aligned with the controversial recent federal law which requires states to measure the performance of American schools on the basis of students’ non-cognitive social-emotional skills and personal qualities, including growth mindsets. This governmental agenda sees children themselves as a problem to be fixed in American schooling. If only their non-cognitive personal qualities, such as character, mindset and grit, can be configured to the new measurable norm, then many of the problems facing contemporary schools will be solved.

Investing in ‘Making People Awesome’

Two key points need to be made here. First, as a product of Silicon Valley’s current enthusiasm for ed-tech, ClassDojo is entirely aligned with the technocratic politics of the tech-entrepreneurial sector.

“The best platforms make difficult-to-imagine ideas simple, and widely distributed for all. Stripe did that in the financial industry, Uber in transportation, and Airbnb in hospitality,” claims Hemant Taneja, one of ClassDojo’s key investors. “The platform ClassDojo has created for classroom communication is doing the same thing for education.”

By being aligned with Uber and other successful Silicon Valley innovations, ClassDojo is being positioned as a technical fix for a major social institution. The implication is that where government has failed, new startups supported by Silicon Valley have the solution.

In a study of the political outlook of Silicon Valley’s technology elite, Greg Ferenstein has identified a particular orientation toward government that he terms “the Silicon Valley ideology.”

“The Silicon Valley ideology thinks about government as an investor rather than as a protector, arguing that the government’s role is to invest in making people as awesome as possible,” he has claimed. “Silicon Valley wants to make people in general educated and entrepreneurial.”

Notably, the Silicon Valley ideology sees education as the solution to major social, political and technological problems. As Ferenstein notes, many Silicon Valley startup founders “believe that the solution to nearly every problem is more innovation, conversation or education,” and “believe in massive investments in education because they see it as a panacea for nearly all problems in society.”

As a Silicon Valley product, ClassDojo embodies this ideology of “making people as awesome as possible.” Notably, Dweck’s PERTS lab itself has a close relationship with Silicon Valley, where the growth mindsets concept has been popularized as part of a recent trend in behavior-change training programs designed to enable valley workers to to “fix personal problems.” Dweck herself has presented the concept at Google and other PERTS staff have advisory roles in Silicon Valley companies.

In addition, Dweck explicitly aligns the concept of growth mindsets to business management, arguing that “managers with a growth mind-set see themselves as works-in-progress and understand that they need feedback to improve, whereas bosses with a fixed mind-set are more likely to see criticism as reflecting their underlying level of competence.”

Having a growth mindset engendered through education is, therefore, seen as a prerequisite for effective management, innovation and entrepreneurship.

The second key point is that Silicon Valley is slowly positioning itself as a government actor. As Ferenstein notes, Silicon Valley is deeply political, and sees government’s role as an investor in making people more innovative through education. ClassDojo is just one tool for Silicon Valley to accomplish governmental aspirations at arms-length, whereby government priorities around behaviour change are being achieved via Silicon Valley innovations in education.

In the absence of governmental investment, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are taking it upon themselves to invest in education, by funding startups like ClassDojo that might make school students into the awesome people of the future.

The issue here is how Silicon Valley is positioning itself not just as a site of technical innovation, but as one of psychological innovation. Governments have long sought to use psychological and behavioural insights into citizens’ behaviours as the basis for designing policies and services that are intended to modify their future behaviours. The Silicon Valley ideology of “making people awesome” and “fixing personal problems” seeks to accomplish this goal at exactly the same time that schools are being encouraged to measure students’ non-cognitive social-emotional skills and personal qualities including growth mindsets.

The emphasis of both is on fixing people, rather than fixing social structures. It prioritizes the design of interventions that seek to modify behaviours to make people perform as optimally as possible according to new behavioural and psychological norms. Within this mix, new technologies of psychological measurement and behaviour management such as ClassDojo have a significant role to play in schools that are under pressure to demonstrate their performance according to such norms.

In doing so, ClassDojo — and other initiatives and products — are enmeshed both in the technocratic project of making people innovative and entrepreneurial, and in the controversial governmental agenda of psychological measurement. ClassDojo is situated in this context as a vehicle for promoting the kind of growth mindsets and character qualities that are seen as desirable behavioural norms by Silicon Valley and government alike.

ClassDojo’s popularity is down to its meeting of teachers’ concerns about behaviour management. But, it has fast become part of a loose network of governmental, academic and entrepreneurial agendas focused on behavioural measurement and modification.

Banner image credit: Class Dojo