Ben Williamson: “I am a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute [at the University of Edinburgh], examining the intersections of digital technologies, science, and data with education policy and governance. My current research focuses on two key themes. One is the expansion of educational data infrastructures to enable information to be collected from schools and universities, then analysed and circulated to various audiences. The second is the emergence of ‘intimate data’ relating to students’ psychological states, neural activity, and genetic profiles, and the implications for increasingly scientific ways of approaching educational policy and practice.”
This appeared on the blog: Code Acts in Education May 10, 2017
A globally popular educational app used by millions of teachers and schoolchildren worldwide has begun to deliver mindfulness meditation training into classrooms. Based on a mobile app that teachers can carry in their pockets, ClassDojo is embedding positive psychology concepts in schools worldwide. In the process, it may be prototypical of new ways of enacting education policy through pocketable devices and social media platforms, while activating in children the psychological qualities that policymakers are seeking to measure.
ClassDojo, launched just 6 years ago, is already used by over 3 million teachers and 35 million children in 180 countries—with penetration into the US K-8 sector at a staggering 90%. Originally designed as a behaviour monitoring app to allow teachers to reward ‘positive behaviour’ using a points system, more recently ClassDojo has extended into an educational content delivery platform to promote the latest ‘big ideas’ from positive psychology in the classroom.
Starting in early 2016 with a series of video animations on ‘growth mindsets,’ the ClassDojo company has since developed classroom content about ‘perseverance,’ ‘empathy’ and, in May 2017, ‘mindfulness.’ All its big ideas videos feature the cute Mojo character, a little green alien schoolchild, learning about these psychological ideas from his friend Katie while experiencing challenges, personal worries, setbacks and doubts about his learning abilities. In the mindfulness series, Mojo has to confront what Katie calls ‘The Beast’—‘your most powerful emotions, anger, fear and anxiety’—which, she tells Mojo, ‘can get out of control.’
The big ideas videos have been wildly popular with schools. ClassDojo has claimed that the growth mindset series alone has been viewed over 15 million times. The announcement of new big ideas series is accompanied by online content which is shared to its vast worldwide community of teachers via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. To promote its new mindfulness series, ClassDojo has announced a ‘month of mindfulness’ across its social media accounts and communities.
ClassDojo’s expansion hasn’t just included video content delivery. It is also now used as a communication platform between schools and parents, to compile student portfolios, and to allow students to share their ‘stories.’ Its stated aim is to ‘connect teachers with students and parents to build amazing classroom communities’ and ‘happier classrooms.’ As a result ClassDojo is now one of the hottest educational technology companies in the world. It has raked in huge venture capital investment from Silicon Valley VC firms (about $31million in total, including $21m in 2016 alone), and is the regular subject of coverage in the educational, technology and business media.
It would not be overstating things much to suggest that ClassDojo has in fact become the default educational social media platform for a very large number of schools, functioning ‘like a social-media community where … the app creates a shared classroom experience between parents, teachers, and students. Teachers upload photos, videos, and classwork to their private classroom groups, which parents can view and “like.” They can also privately message teachers and monitor how their children are doing in their classrooms through the behavior-tracking aspect of the app.’
Many of ClassDojo’s features would be familiar to users of commercial social media such as Facebook, Snapchat and Slack. ‘If you’re an adult in the United States, you’ve got LinkedIn for work, Facebook for friends and family. This ends up being the third set of relationships, around your kids,’ one of ClassDojo’s major investors has claimed. As well as being geographically based in Silicon Valley, ClassDojo is strongly influenced by a Silicon Valley mindset of technical optimism in social media for relationships, sharing, and community-building. Like many recent education startups in Silicon Valley, ClassDojo’s founders are seeking to do good while turning a profit—specifically in their case by building a globally successful and scalable business brand on the back of building happier classroom communities through social media apps and platforms.
While social media organizations like Facebook and Twitter are now dealing with adverse issues such as fake news, political disinformation and computational propaganda on their platforms, however, ClassDojo has defined itself as a platform for diffusing positive psychology into schools. It’s aiming to achieve its ambitions directly through the mobile apps carried by millions of teachers in their pockets.
Emotions that count
The success of ClassDojo is due at least in part to the recent growth of interest in ‘social-emotional learning.’ A term that encompasses a range of concepts and ideas about the ‘non-cognitive’ aspects of learning—such as personal qualities of character, resilience, ‘grit,’ perseverance, mindfulness, and growth mindset—social-emotional learning has lately become the focus of attention among educational policymakers, international influencers and technology companies.
The OECD and the World Economic Forum have both begun promoting social-emotional learning and are seeking ways to foster it through technology and quantify it through measurement instruments. A US Department of Education report published in 2013 promoted a strong shift in policy priorities towards such qualities, and listed a then-young ClassDojo as a key resource. New accountability mechanisms have even been devised to judge schools’ performance in developing students’ non-academic personal qualities. The US Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has now made it mandatory for states to assess at least one non-cognitive aspect of learning as part of updated performance measurement and accountability programs.
Notably, too, ClassDojo’s big ideas resources have been produced through partnerships with powerful US university departments. The original growth mindset series was devised with the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) at Stanford University, as was its follow-up perseverance series. The empathy series late in 2016 was co-produced with the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, while the mindfulness series released in May 2017 is the result of collaboration with the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University.
A concern for social-emotional learning is not just confined to dedicated educational organizations. The ed-tech researcher Audrey Watters has described social-emotional learning as a ‘trend to watch’ in 2017, and detailed some of the technology companies and investors involved in promoting it. ‘Ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors are getting in on the action, as have researchers like Angela Duckworth who’s created software to measure and track how well students perform on these “social emotional” measurements,’ she has argued. Meanwhile, ‘startups like ClassDojo,’ Watters adds, ‘promise to help teachers monitor these sorts of behaviors.’ She concludes by asking, ‘Can social emotional learning be taught? Can it be tested? Can it be profited from?’
Pocket policy platforms
ClassDojo needs to be understood as the product of a complex network of actors and activities including business interests, policy priorities, and expert psychological knowledges concerned with social-emotional learning (as I argued in earlier research published recently). With education policy increasingly influenced by the social-emotional learning agenda, ClassDojo and its academic partners and venture capital investors are increasingly part of distributed ‘policy networks.’ Although much education policy is still performed by government authorities, it is increasingly influenced by diverse sources, channels and sites of policy advice and ‘best practice’ models–of which ClassDojo is a good example
In this sense, ClassDojo is acting as an indirect best practice policy model and a diffuser of the social-emotional learning agenda into the practices of schools. In reality, it may even be prefiguring official policy. With venture capital funding from its investors driving its development and growth, ClassDojo has already distributed the vocabulary of social-emotional learning worldwide, and influenced the uptake of practices related to growth mindsets, perseverance and mindfulness among millions of teachers. It has done so through producing highly attractive content and then distributing it through its vast social media networks and communities on the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms too.
‘If we can shift what happens inside and around classrooms then you can change education at a huge scale,’ ClassDojo’s CEO Sam Chaudhury has publicly stated. ‘We are looking for broad concepts really applicable to every classroom,’ its product designer has added. ‘We look for an idea that can be powerful and high-impact and is working in pockets, and work to bring it to scale more quickly … incorporated into the habits of classrooms.’
Although ‘working in pockets’ here clearly refers to potentially high-impact but small-scale startup activities, it is notable too that as a mobile app ClassDojo is already working in the pockets and palms of teachers. ClassDojo, in other words, represents a new way of doing large-scale policy through classroom apps that are already working in teachers’ pockets and hands rather than through political deliberation and direct interference. This would be an impossible task to coordinate at global scale through traditional government organs of education—although the interests of the global policy influencers OECD and WEF suggest ClassDojo could be prototypical of attempts to roll-out social-emotional learning into the habits of teachers through pocket-based policy platforms. Its method of enacting policy-by-app is being achieved by mobilizing practical classroom applications that can be carried in teachers’ pockets and enacted through their fingertips, generously funded by Silicon Valley venture capital, without the encumbrances of bureaucratic policymaking processes.
Beyond being a pocket-policy technology that prefigures official policy priorities, ClassDojo also represents another policy innovation—that of using an app to translate psychological expertise into practical techniques for teachers, and of acting as a technical relay between disciplinary knowledge and practitioner uptake.
The kind of policy that ClassDojo anticipates is already developing in other sectors. Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn have identified the emergence of ‘psycho-policy’ as a new approach to policymaking in the area of ‘well-being.’ Techniques of psycho-policy, they argue, are characterized by being heavily influenced by psychological concepts and methods, and by the ‘coercive use of psychology’ to achieve desired governmental objectives. As such, psycho-policy initiatives emphasize the ‘surveillance of psychological characteristics’ and techniques of ‘psycho-compulsion,’ which Friedli and Stearn define as ‘interventions intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, notably through the imposition of positive affect.’
Psycho-policy, then, is the use of psychology to impose well-being and activate positive feeling in individuals, and thereby to enrich social well-being at large. In this context, as the sociologist William Davies has argued, the use of mobile ‘real-time mood-monitoring’ apps is increasingly of interest to companies and governments as technologies for measuring human emotions, and then of intervening to make ‘that emotion preferable in some way.’ As a pocket policy diffuser of such positive psychological concepts as mindfulness and growth mindset into schools, the ClassDojo app and platform can therefore be seen as part of a loosely-coordinated, multi-sector psycho-policy network that is driven by aspirations to modify children’s emotions to become more preferable through imposing positive feelings in the classroom.
Viewing ClassDojo as a pocket precursor of potential educational psycho-policies and practices of social-emotional learning in schools raises some significant issues. Mindfulness itself, the subject of ClassDojo’s latest campaign, certainly has growing popular support in education. Its emphasis on focusing meditatively on the immediate present rather than the powerful emotional ‘Beast’ of ‘anger, fear and anxiety,’ however, does need to be approached with critical social scientific caution.
‘Much of the interest in “character,” “resilience” and mindfulness at school stems from the troubling evidence that depression and anxiety have risen rapidly amongst young people over the past decade,’ William Davies argues. ‘It seems obvious that teachers and health policy-makers would look around for therapies and training that might offset some of this damage,’ he continues. ‘In the age of social media, ubiquitous advertising and a turbulent global economy, children cannot be protected from the sources of depression and anxiety. The only solution is to help them build more durable psychological defences.’
According to this analysis, school-based mindfulness initiatives are based on the assumption that young people are stressed, fragile and vulnerable, and can benefit from meditative practices that focus their energies on present tasks rather than longer-term anxieties caused by uncontrollable external social processes. James Reveley has further argued that school-based mindfulness represents a ‘human enhancement strategy’ to insulate children from pathologies that stem from ‘digital capitalism.’ Mindfulness in schools, he adds, is ‘an exercise in pathology-proofing them in their capacity as the next generation of unpaid digital labourers.’ It trains young people to become responsible for augmenting their own emotional wellbeing and in doing so to secure the well-being of digital capitalism itself.
According to Davies, however, much of the stress experienced by children is actually caused more mundanely by the kinds of testing and performance measurement pressures forced on schools by current policy priorities. ‘The irony of turning schools into therapeutic institutions when they generate so much stress and anxiety seems lost on policy-makers who express concern about children’s mental health,’ he argues.
It is probably a step too far to suggest that ClassDojo may be the ideal educational technology for digital capitalism. However, it is clear that ClassDojo is acting as a psycho-policy platform and a channel for mindfulness and growth mindsets practices that is aimed at pathology-proofing children against anxious times through the imposition of positive feelings in the classroom. While taming ‘the Beast’ of his uncontrollable emotions of ‘anger, fear and anxiety’ through mindfulness meditation, ClassDojo’s Mojo mascot is both learning the lessons of positive psychology and acting as a relay of those lessons into the lives of millions of schoolchildren. Its model of pocket-based psycho-policy bypasses the kind of slow-paced bureaucracy so loathed in the fast-paced accelerationist culture of Silicon Valley, and imposes its preferred psychological techniques directly on the classroom at global scale.
Detoxing education policy
To its credit, the ClassDojo organization is seeking to expand the focus of schools to the non-cognitive aspects of learning rather than concentrate narrowly on teaching to the tests demanded by existing policy. Paradoxically, however, it is advancing the kinds of social and emotional qualities in children for which schools may in the near future be held accountable, and that may be measured, tested and quantified. Its accelerated Silicon Valley business model depends on increasing the scale and penetration of the app into schools, and by doing so is actively enabling schools to future-proof themselves in the event they are held responsible for children’s measurable social-emotional learning and development.
ClassDojo has also hit on the contemporary perception of child fragility and vulnerability among educational practitioners and policymakers as a market opportunity, one its investors have generously funded with millions of dollars in the hope of profitable future returns. It is designed to activate, reward and condition particular preferred emotions that have been defined by the experts of mindfulness, character and growth mindset, and that are increasingly coming to define educational policy discourse. The psycho-policy ideas ClassDojo has embedded in teachers’ pockets and habits across public education, through Silicon Valley venture capital support, are already prefiguring the imperatives of policymakers who are anxious about resolving the toxic effect of children’s negative emotions on school performance.
ClassDojo is simultaneously intoxicating teachers worldwide while seeking to detoxify the worst effects of education policy on children. In the process it—and the accelerated Silicon Valley mindset it represents—may be redefining what counts as a valuable measure of a good student or teacher in a ‘happier classroom community,’ and building a business plan to profit from their feelings.