In a recent guest post, two British Columbia (Canada) primary grade teachers took opposite sides in discussing their use and non-use of the free behavioral management tool called ClassDojo. As described by the reporter in the above article, ClassDojo is software that “allows teachers to give students points to reinforce positive behaviors, assign negative points for undesirable behaviors and allows teachers to track behavior data over time, sharing with parents and administrators through reports.”
I was struck by what appeared to be strong differences between the two teachers over how (or whether) the high-tech tool should be used. Here I will summarize each teacher’s points, offer other teachers’ first-hand experiences, and then add what I learned based on my reading and an interview I had with a first-grade teacher using ClassDojo. There is an underlying issue over teacher beliefs in how children best learn that weaves in and out of the teachers’ comments, an issue I address at the end of the post.
Karen, the first grade teacher said that the tool was too point-focused and undercut her goals of getting six year-olds to manage their impulses. She admits that she has not used ClassDojo in her classroom. Her reasons against using the software tool are clearly stated:
1. Class Dojo reinforces external rewards. They may work in the short run but fail over time to get students to regulate their behavior.
2. One-click assessments of children’s behavior miss the complexity of individual students and why they do what they do.
3. It is “humiliating” to display publicly those students who get minus points; shame doesn’t help students learn.
Erin, another primary grade teacher, felt initially that ClassDojo would undermine her belief that students learn best through intrinsic rewards since the tool depended on points, rewards and punishments. Yet she decided to use the software and discovered that ClassDojo reinforced a child’s responsibility for being in class. In the reading and writing workshop she does annually, ClassDojo helped students state and track their expectations in reading and writing. In addition, the software tool collected and displayed information that helped the teaching assistant monitor special needs students’ behavior in the class as well as the overall group’s behavior. In short, Erin used the tool to “go beyond extrinsic rewards.”
I wanted to learn more about the software tool so I contacted Sam Chaudhary at ClassDojo to find a teacher near where I live to interview. He found Mayrin Bunyagidj, a first-grade teacher at Sacred Heart in Menlo Park (CA). She agreed to an interview.
I spent over an hour with Mayrin, an experienced public elementary and secondary school teacher who has been at Sacred Heart, a private school, for four years. Her classroom has tables sitting four students each with four centers (teacher center for math and language arts, workbook center, project or game center, and computer center with five machines) that students rotate through over the course of a school day. She described how she began using ClassDojo and how she concentrates on the “positives” with her class of 16. Because the school focuses on building character–the “Code of the Heart” (e.g., being caring, ready to work, respectful, and responsible) she showed me on her Smart Board how she uses the software to reinforce “positive” student behaviors daily and connect those behaviors to “Code of the Heart.” With this tool, she no longer “nags students.”
When I asked her whether using rewards (e.g., sitting at the teacher’s desk, winning tickets for a weekly lottery to get bracelets and other school gifts) kills intrinsic motivation, she quickly replied that it has the “opposite effect.” Children want to improve, she said. They work hard to do better, not for the rewards but because they want to. Mayrin suggested that ClassDojo helped her bridge the ideological differences between using extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in motivating students.
After the interview, I began reading in the psychological literature on motivating children in school. Intrinsic motivation, it turns out, is highest among young children and as they went from grade to grade in school, it faded considerably. Older secondary school students seldom showed any intrinsic motivation and only worked for whatever point system was in play. That was the pattern that both teachers and psychologists found. But it was not either-or, a few developmental psychologists found. There were “in-between” examples that bridged the boiler-plated extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards debate that has occurred for decades among educators and experts.
Some developmental psychologists have concluded: “we come to learn to do things not only because they are fun or likely to lead to some immediate payoff but because we have come to believe that we ‘ought’ to do them … to facilitate our own long-term goals (e.g., because it would be ‘good for us’). See: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation PDF
Here is the bridge that Mayrin suggested in her description of using ClassDojo and other teachers who see the age-old debate over extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards less in black and white and more in how teachers can use points and rewards to help children internalize what they “ought to do.” These “bridges,” these “in-between” examples, helped me get past the tired arguments pro-and-con for how teachers ought to best motivate students.
I see these “bridges,” be they built with ClassDojo or names on the chalkboard, as primary ways that schools, past and present, socialize children and youth to live in a market-driven democracy where the values of private and public goods and cooperation and competition are highly prized. Some of us may question those “bridges” as working beneficially or for ill but I have yet to find anyone who can ignore this primary function of tax-supported public schools.
Dojo is originally a Japanese word for space devoted to physical training from wrestling to martial arts–the do arts. Thanks to Janice Cuban for suggesting I define Dojo.