reward merits

Image courtesy of Marion Doss

This is one of those posts which started off with one idea and then ended up following the rabbit down the hole. Welcome to my Wonderland (it isn’t actually that wonderful, except in my mind).

Yesterday, ClassDojo announced the addition of messaging to their service. Being that I am not a K-12 teacher, I haven’t really looked at ClassDojo that much since I am not in their target market. After saying that, I decided to take a closer look at ClassDojo, not because I am interested in using it, but because something about the concept doesn’t sit right with me. Instead of me making a rash judgement based on a few morsels of information, I decided to dig a little deeper. That led to me to something else, which led to something else, and eventually to this blog post. I hope this make more sense once I have finished writing this. Stick with me. Either this will be something interesting to read based on the brilliant things I come up with, or it will be a train wreck where no one gets injured (except for my pride, but that happens often enough that I am used to it).

So what is ClassDojo? Good question. I was asking myself the same thing yesterday so I started at the source instead of reading someone else’s opinion on it. A visit to the ClassDojo website starts with a series of five, one-line testimonials displayed in beautiful full-width photos of teachers and students in their classrooms. Scrolling down a bit, there are a three main features highlighted beside cute cartoons featuring a pink monster. At the bottom of the page are the obligatory reviews featuring high profile media sources such as NBC, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR. Okay, so far it looks like this is a popular service for students and teachers, but what does it do exactly. Well, to start off, some key words appear multiple times: behaviour (I am using the Canadian spelling here since it is MY post and I am Canadian. If you don’t like, tough), engagement or engage, recording and/or data, and accomplishments. It is interesting to me that not once do they use the word negative, only positive, to talk about behaviour. That tells you something right there. So far, what I can decipher to this point, ClassDojo is used to tell students when they have done something positive as a means to encourage them to not do something negative. Sounds good. Focus on the good, not the bad, and as one testimonial put it, “create a positive classroom culture.” Maybe I have been to quick to judge this service, but something inside me is still feeling like there is more to this story than meets the eye. Time to dig deeper.

I had remembered some time ago that I had visited the ClassDojo site for some other reason and had seen the term classroom management or something along those lines. Time to pull up the Wayback Machine (love this site!). I pulled up the history of the ClassDojo website and it appears that the first archived page appears on September 24, 2011. Remember, this is the first time the Wayback Machine had archived this page and may not be when it first appeared online. However, it is a good indication of what the early days of ClassDojo were like. So what did I find? Good question. The first thing that strikes me is the page title: Realtime Behavior Management Software (their spelling, not mine). Not only does it appear in the title, but it is in their logo. Hmmm. I go back to the current page. After searching for a while, I do not find the term ‘behaviour management’ anywhere. Okay, time for a Google Advanced search. Found it! It is still there, but not in prominent places. What does that tell me? Well, it appears at some time in the past (seems to be around mid-2012), ClassDojo made a change in their marketing of the product at took out the term ‘behavior management’ and instead focused on more positive terms such as culture and engagement (engagement was always there, it just seems to take a more prominent role in marketing).

Okay, enough digging around in the past. Let’s start looking at how it works and what it does. Without getting into details, essentially there is a cloud-based site accessible through the webpage or mobile apps. Teachers upload their class lists and students can access this site and create their own avatars based on a cute monster theme. Teachers set up goals/tasks/criteria that the students are ‘assessed’ on (I’m going to lean more to judge here since most of the criteria is very subjective). These can be either positive (marked in green) and/or negative (marked in red). When a student does something in class that is positive, they get a point; if they do something that is labelled negative, they lose a point (so much for focusing on the positive). The idea is that this is supposed to be displayed at the front of class for all to see. Students can also log in with their mobile device or when they get home to see how they did and they can comment back on what they can do to improve. This data is also collected and is available in chart form for staff and parents. Lastly, there is a new messaging system that can be used to keep in contact with parents.

I started off mentioning the fact that I am not a K-12 teacher and I am not in the place to make comments on how to deal with bad behaviour in the classroom (I deal with adults and I treat them differently than I would younger students), but something here still doesn’t feel right. My first thought once I went through the training material and the videos was that this more than smells like behaviourism. For those who only have a little understanding about the psychology behind behaviourism, here is my not-so complete synopsis:

  • It is based on the premise that behaviour can be formed or changed through the use of positive and negative stimuli (e.g. rewards and punishments).
  • The motivation for change is based on extrinsic forces.
  • The subject is not normally part of process of setting the objectives/goals.
  • A famous example comes from Skinner’s work with mice in a box with positive and negative stimuli. This became known as a Skinner Box.

For me, the problem I have with using behaviourism in the classroom is that we may change the way a person acts in that situation much like the mice in the box, but the reasons for doing that are solely based on rewards and punishment. The root of the problem in most situations is that it pits one against another and focuses on the individual instead of the group. It does not change the internal motivation and, therefore, only shifts the problem to some other place. What happens to that child outside of the classroom when they don’t get the stimuli that the reward system gives? Are we developing individuals that become more dependent and self-centred?

Okay, I may be taking things a bit far, but it does make me worry about how we are treating the issue of behaviour in the classroom. Take a typical classroom for a minute. According to studies, the classroom is almost neatly split between extroverts and introverts. Also, about 20% of the students will experience some sort of mental illness in their lifetime and about 8% will experience major depression. Take other factors such as abuse, poverty and homelessness, bullying, and so on and we are ripe for problems if we simply whittle things down to the simple push of a button based on highly subjective terms such as ‘helping others’ and ‘staying on task’. What is a student acts out in class due to an undiagnosed learning disability (since that never happens) and we take a point away for being ‘out of place’. How will that help that student feel? It likely will discourage them more since they are unable to do what is asked, causing them to act out in other areas.

As I mentioned at the top, this started taking me down the rabbit hole of behaviourism and how it seems to pop up in so many places in education. Take Bloom’s Taxonomy for instance. Its roots are firmly planted in behaviourism. It is based on the premise that if I do this, it leads to this. Actually, Bloom himself did not intend it to be used as it is now, but it has become do commonplace, no one gives it a thought. What about grades? Aren’t they just another form of behaviourism with the reward/punishment system firmly established in everyday life? And now there is the fight over ‘new math’ versus rote memorization. From what I can see, those who are fighting to change things back to ‘the way we did it’ (don’t get me started on that) would love to see students simply memorize and regurgitate without any connection to the real world. What about most worksheets? Aren’t they simply a form of behaviourism with the tightly controlled situation with no negotiation on what is correct? Oh, I could go on and on, but I think you see my point. Our educational system has been firmly stuck in behaviourism for too long. Is there any merit to it? Of course! The problem is that it only focuses on one thing, do this and you you will be rewarded, don’t and face the music. It does not deal with changing the reason for the behaviour, finding the source of the problem (if it actually is a problem, that is).

One last thing that bothers be about ClassDojo and other areas of education in general is the collection and usage of data. In other words, the area of assessment. As someone who is concerned about the proper usage of information in general (this is not meant to be a knock on standardized test, but I do have some issues there as well), I feel strongly that data should be properly sorted before sharing. Statistics shows us that data should only be shared if it is statistically significant. Publishers of research journals are very careful (or at least should be) on the significance of data, making sure that something be held back even if it supports your position. Anything else may just be an aberration or flaw in the system. Sharing everything can taint a persons opinion without being truly significant. That is how I feel about the sharing of everything with parents. It isn’t that a parent shouldn’t know what is going on with their child (in fact I feel we need to have even more of a dialogue than what normally happens), but just giving them a ClassDojo ‘score’ without the broader picture of what is going on is very dangerous. It would be much better to sit down with the parents to explain things in greater detail and find out what is happening outside of the classroom before passing judgement. Take what I just said and apply it to grades as well. Same thing, only applied to work instead of behaviour. Design an assessment tool to measure something specific and then use the assessment for that thing alone. Don’t take it and start applying it to other areas. Just because little Joey can plug in the correct verb tense in the worksheet you have given him does not mean he has the language skills to get into college. He might, but that assessment doesn’t tell us anything but the fact he can memorize the forms as so carefully laid out (i.e. controlled) by his teacher. I have a number of students who can fire off the answers on grammar quizzes but don’t have a clue how to use it in the real world. Yet, we take that ‘data’ and apply it to college acceptance as if this has some sort of connection. No dice.

It may sound like I am being harsh here, and I suppose I am to a point. What I am trying to say here is that you need to carefully examine the tools you are using and make sure they match what you believe to be true about how people learn. I suspect there are a number of educators that are using ClassDojo in ways that are not behaviouristic, but the design and purpose of the tool as I see it leads teachers down a very different path. But that might just be how I see it. I am awaiting your comments on this. Fire away.

11 thoughts on “Motivating

  1. Interesting take on a cite I and several of my colleagues have used for the first term over the last couple years with our students. I’ve found by changing to characteristics of positive and negative to behaviours (duh duh duh…cue soap opera of the 60s music) that are what’s being encouraged in class, it has had a significant impact. I make the categories fairly general (e.g. “critical thinking”, “asked informed questions”; “read straight from page when answering a question”, “off-topic discussion focus”, etc.) and attribute these to their characters almost immediately after class, students consider what it was they did or didn’t do to be given that feedback or it prompts them to see me to discuss it further, when they may not bother otherwise. Plus, the quick feedback seems to appeal to them.

    I’ve introduced it a few times at workshops and like you, one time a teacher had a less-than stellar reaction to it. They were concerned that the negative feedback would be damaging somehow, like self-esteem. I disagree. I know your point is more about missing the point regarding motivation, though.

    1. I’m good with the feedback part of it since that is what I do with my students anyway. I guess the problem I have is the extrinsic focus instead of fostering intrinsic changes. I think there is potential for it to be used well, it is simply the behaviouristic foundation is it built on where I have my concern.

      I am totally open to listening to you and others I respect who have used this in their own classroom and have found real success instead of shifting the issue elsewhere.

  2. I agree with your post and how not to use Class Dojo. I started using it several years ago. I modify the program each year and use it to track homework completion. I like that I can give parents a weekly report on this work habit. The Class Dojo site provides a platform to make this easy.

    1. Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful reply. It sounds like you have taken the time to find the ways to properly use the system as a way to engage learners and parents.

      I guess my post was more about the underlying factors in things like ClasDojo and the dangers of relying on rewards and punishment as motivating factors. There can be a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (see Dornyei 1998: ), but most often, it relies too heavily on those extrinsic rewards that only deal with surface issues.

      Anyway, all of that to say I appreciate the feedback and your expertise in using ClassDojo well. Please visit any time.

    1. Funny, I read it a few hours after I had posted it. Chris Wejr posted it at the same time I posted mine. Great comments there and lots to think about.

      I just feel we tend to still focus our attention on ourselves and not on outside sources. For example: I was listening to a talk show on the radio yesterday about a website in San Francisco that posts pictures of those who are talking or texting on their phones while driving. The concept is that of ‘shaming’ the drivers into changing their habits. This may cause some drivers to do it less, shifting this problem to times when they think they won’t get caught or it may cause them to push against the norm and become more rigid in their stance. Showing them the reasons for not doing it (i.e. the detrimental effects of driving while texting or talking on the phone) may cause them to make a change in their behaviour since they are now able to see the underlying issues and will become more self-policing regarding their actions. That is what I was referring to in the post.

      Rewards and punishment in the classroom from outside sources may make small changes, but it won’t cause them to become involved in the process. They need to understand the reasons beyond points on the board. It is rewarding because it helps them AND the group grow.

      Wow, that was a long reply. Sorry about that.

      I thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I always appreciate it. Come back any time!

  3. Greetings,
    I’ve written a couple posts, relating to Class Dojo, that I think might interest you:

    Classes of Donkeys

    and a more lighthearted look:
    Behaviour Modification:

    I love your point that “Statistics shows us that data should only be shared if it is statistically significant.” Just because something is easy to count, doesn’t mean that is should be counted, measured or used as a form of assessment.

    1. Thank you very much for your comments, Dave. I loved your points on the first post about rewards and motivation. It sounds like we are on the same page there.

      Thank you for taking the time to visit and comment. It is always welcome and appreciated / needed!

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