Friday, November 21, 2014

6 reasons to reject ClassDojo

“I like it because you get rewarded for your good behavior — like a dog does when it gets a treat.”
-Grade 3 student on why he likes ClassDojo

Recently an article in The New York Times took a closer look at an App called ClassDojo.

While some see ClassDojo as a revolutionary new way to teach and manage a classroom, I see it as more of the same primitive behaviourist practices that should be abandoned. The philosophy and pedagogy behind ClassDojo is nothing new. Carrots, sticks, rewards, punishments, bribes and threats have been around for a long time. ClassDojo simply takes adult imposed manipulation and tracks it with mindless efficiency.

ClassDojo reminds me of Gerald Bracey who said:
"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all."
Bracey was speaking of standardized testing, but I think the spirit of his words can be applied more generally:
Poor Pedagogy + Technology = Accelerated Malpractice
Here are 6 reasons to reject ClassDojo:
  • ClassDojo gets character education wrong. Children's psychiatrist Ross Greene reminds us that when a situation demands a child's lagging skills, we get unsolved problems. Because we know that misbehaviour is a symptom of much more complex and interesting problems, we need to see these unsolved problems as teachable moments. ClassDojo reduces children to punitive measures where the misbehaviour is seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to the teacher that needs to be snuffed out. ClassDojo judges and labels students by ranking and sorting them and distracts even well-intentioned adults from providing children with the feedback and the guidance they need to learn.
  • ClassDojo gets motivation wrong. There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic & extrinsic. The problem here is that we need to stop asking ‘How motivated are my students?’ and start asking ‘How are my students motivated?’. Motivation is not a single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated then you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something, or not do something, based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. But that is not even the interesting part—the real catch here is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. When you grow students' extrinsic motivation by bribing them (or threatening them), you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for what you want them to learn shrivels. Rewards can only ever gain short-term compliance from students when what we really desire is their authentic engagement.
  • The public nature of ClassDojo is inappropriate. Making this kind of information for all to see is nothing more than a way of publicly naming and shaming children. I know very few adults who would put up with this kind of treatment at their workplace, so then why would we ever subject children to this? A doctor would never post their patients' health records publicly, and an accountant would not post their clients' tax records publicly. A lawyer would not post their clients' billing information publicly, nor would a teacher post their students' Individual Program Plans for all to see. So why would a teacher ever think that it would be appropriate to share ClassDojo publicly? To do so would be unprofessional and malpractice.
  • ClassDojo can only ever be experienced as coercive and manipulative. Like Alfie Kohn says, rewards and punishments are not opposites -- rather they are two sides of the same coin, and they don't buy us very much other than short-term compliance. ClassDojo is by definition a way to do things to kids when we should be working with them. And for those who use ClassDojo only for the positives and the rewards, remember that with-holding a reward or removing a privilege can only ever be experienced as a punishment. The best teachers understand what Jerome Bruner meant when he said, "Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment, but as information."
  • ClassDojo prepares children to be ruled by others. School already places a premium on blind obedience and mindless compliance, and an App like ClassDojo that implicitly and explicitly makes following the rules the primary goal of school prepares children to be ruled by others. When we allow operant conditioning to infect the classroom, we see children less as active, free thinkers and more as passive, conditional objects. Under these conditions, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) is less likely to be a problem than Compliant Acquiescent Disorder (CAD). It's important to remember that mindless compliance is responsible for far more of the atrocities against human kind than needless disobedience.
In Japan, a dojo is considered a special place that is well cared for by its users, so it is customary that shoes be left at the door. Similarly, I propose that schools be considered a special place that should be well cared for physically and pedagogically, so it should be customary that before entering schools Apps like ClassDojo be left where they belong -- at the door.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In the real world, we wouldn't judge a teacher by their students' test scores

My family has farmed for over 100 years in the Red Deer, Alberta, area. I'm the first teacher in my farming family, and I'm in my 15th year of teaching.

Here's a post I wrote about the effects of poverty on learning with a farming metaphor.

Teachers who are proud of their high scores and ashamed of their poor scores are a part of the problem. Here's my article on Telling Time with a Broken Clock: the trouble with standardized tests.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What if a child is manipulative?

When compliance becomes an adult's ultimate goal with children, we will resort to, and justify, manipulation, which includes rewards, punishments, carrots, sticks, bribes and threats.

So what's the problem?

Show me a child who manipulates others, and I will show you a child who has grown up being manipulated.

Not only does the end not justify the means, but a well intentioned, but misdirected, means can ruin the end.

Here's what I mean.

Many years ago, I made a conscious decision to try and abolish rewards and punishments from my teaching and parenting tool box. (Here are all of my posts on rethinking discipline)

The inspiration for this move came from being a miserable teacher, looking for change. When I read Alfie Kohn's book The Schools Children Deserve, I came across a quote that would re-shape my mindset for working with children. The quote belongs to Jerome Bruner, but it has become my teaching and parenting mantra:
"Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information."
There are many profound reasons to adopt such a mindset, but here's one of my favourite.

When my students or son and daughter try and manipulate me with bribes and threats or rewards and punishments to get me to do whatever they want me to do, I can turn to them and honestly say, "I don't use rewards and punishments on you, so don't you bribe and threaten me."

When I call children on their attempts to manipulate me, I don't get into power struggles or arguments because they know I don't use manipulation to get them to do what I want. They know that I don't do things to them to get what I want -- I work with them. I inspire them. I don't manipulate them.

So when they try and manipulate me, I have the best argument for rejecting their manipulation.

I don't manipulate them, so I won't tolerate them manipulating me.

And they know it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Fooling the Emperor: how is creativity misapplied in China?

This was written by Yong Zhao who is the author writes and speaks about education reform. He blogs here and tweets here. This post was found here.

This was originally published in China-US Focus on October 23, 2014. Adapted from my book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

by Yong Zhao

China’s capacity for innovation has become a hot topic for China, the U.S., and the rest of the world today. There is no question that China must innovate its way out of the “middle income trap.” But whether the country – which over the last thirty years has proven to be able to make everything – can create anything new remains questionable.

The question is not about whether the Chinese people are creative. Creativity is human nature. Genetically speaking, creativity should not have any ethnic bias or favor any one nation. If creativity is evenly distributed, China should have its equal share of the same genetic stock of creativity as any other nation. Given that its population size is more than three times of that in the United States, China should possess three times the number of great creative geniuses such as Steve Jobs. It also claims to be the only ancient civilization that has a non-stop history of over five thousand years and the most powerful empire in the world, which should have given it more time to accumulate creativity and innovation.

But China has produced very few inventions in science and technology that matter much in the modern world, at least not enough protect the nation from Western aggressions backed by scientific and technological innovations. Even today, despite its stunning growth in patent applications and scientific publications, the country has yet convinced many of its ability to innovate and invent.

China apparently has failed to turn its creative potential into significant innovations and inventions. What happened to all the creativity China had? How does creativity get lost in China?

Speculations abound. No single reason can be used to answer such complex questions. But a major culprit is the authoritarian spirit that advocates complete obedience to authority and results in policies that rewards compliance and punishes defiance. While many people believe obedience results in less creativity, it actually can boost creativity, making people more creative. But the creativity is not productive, in fact counterproductive because it is applied to simply demonstrate obedience, without actual compliance, resulting in token compliance – a form of cheating.

For example, to show compliance to the government’s anti-corruption wishes, which include measures such as prohibiting government officials to enjoy expensive alcohol and elaborate banquets in luxurious restaurants, Chinese government officials have been found to be extremely creative: they put ultra-expensive alcohol such as Moutai in Coke bottles or ordinary drinking bottles; they move elaborate banquets to farm houses; they bring chefs from five-star hotels to cook their “working meals” in their local cafeterias. To comply with environmental regulations, local officials in more than one place creatively ordered mountainsides painted in green. In more than one provinces, local officials rushed to cover paved roads with soil and plant vegetables and soybeans to show the inspectors their compliance with government regulations about conserving farmland.

Shangyou Zhengce, Xiaoyou Duice, literally “the higher authorities have policies, the lower have countermeasures,” has become a common phrase to describe the phenomenon of “emperor-fooling.” This is why in China, the authority seems to always have their demands met and wishes granted by its people, albeit at great cost with wasted resources and creativity.

China’s recent campaign for innovation has met the same fate. To stimulate innovation, the government has employed all sorts of carrots and sticks. The Chinese people have again applied their creativity to realize the government’s wish.

Last month, a number of convicts received a reduction of prison term as a reward for their patented inventions. Former police chief of Chongqing Wang Lijun, now serving a prison term of 15 years for abuse of power was granted 254 patents, 211 of which were filed in one year. His counterpart Wu Changshun in Tianjin has 35 patents granted. Most of their patents were related to police equipment and accessories. They were commercialized but mostly purchased by their own departments, and earned them both royalties and fame.

About 10 years ago, Chinese governments showered money and glory upon Chen Jin, who claimed to have invented a sophisticated computer chip Hanxin #1 (or China Heart/Chip #1), which turned out to be a chip he bought from Motorola. However, he creatively hired some migrant workers to remove the Motorola label and managed to pass the inspection of Chinese officials and experts. A professor at Jinggangshan University found a creative way to have over 40 papers published in international journals, which earned him hundreds of thousands of RMB. But these papers were later retracted, together with about 30 from the same university, for fabricated and falsified data.

There are many more forms of creative and entrepreneurial token compliance. Fabricating research papers and faking journal publications for sale have become a multimillion-dollar enterprise in China, so has the creation and sailing of junk patents. Less courageous professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, and professional researchers resort to other forms of creative compliance: publishing the same paper in multiple places, splitting a paper into multiple publications, creatively modifying existing publications, or plagiarizing. As a result, China now receives more patent applications than the U.S. and publishes millions of scientific papers. But the majority of them are of low quality.

By nature, Chinese are no less creative than other people; nor are they less inclined to take risks, or more predisposed to cheating. The authoritarian spirit of absolute obedience to authority seems to direct creativity to risky cheating in order to realize the wishes of the high authority, which may or may not be shared by the people. In other words, while the emperor’s wishes cannot be denied, but people can creatively fool him.

China’s future rests on its ability to turn creativity into constructive innovations and inventions. But whether it can do so depends on how quickly it can change the authoritarian mindset.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The problem with tests that are not standardized

This was written by Alfie Kohn who writes and speaks on parenting and education. Kohn tweets here and his website is here. This post was originally found here.

by Alfie Kohn

I’m baffled by the number of educators who are adamantly opposed to standardized testing yet raise no objection to other practices that share important features with such testing.

For starters, consider those lists of specific, prescriptive curriculum standards to which the tests are yoked. Here we find the same top-down control and one-size-fits-all mentality that animate standardized testing. Yet from the early days of the “accountability” movement right down to current efforts to impose the Gates-funded Common Core from coast to coast, an awful lot of people give the standards (and the whole idea of uniform standards) a pass while frowning only at the exams used to enforce them.[1]

Example #2: Elaborate rubrics used to judge students’ performance represent another form of standardized assessment that’s rarely recognized as such. The point is to break down something, such as a piece of writing, into its parts so that teachers, and sometimes the students themselves, can rate each of them, the premise being that it’s both possible and desirable for all readers to arrive at the same number for each criterion. Rubrics are borne of a demand to quantify and an impulse to simplify. One result, argues Maja Wilson, is that “the standardization of the rubric produces standardized writers.”[2] But, again, even many teachers who are outraged by standardized tests don’t blink when standardization is smuggled in through the back door. Some insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that there’s no problem as long as one uses a good rubric.

It’s my third example, though, on which I’d like to linger. When teachers test their students, the details of those tests will differ from one classroom to the next, which means these assessments by definition are not standardized and can’t be used to compare students across schools or states. But they’re still tests, and as a result they’re still limited and limiting.

As with rubrics (and grades), there’s a reflexive tendency to insist that we just need better tests, or that we ought to just modify the way they’re administered (for example, by allowing students to retake them). And, yes, it’s certainly true that some are worse than others. Multiple-choice tests are uniquely flawed as assessments for exactly the same reason that multiple-choice standardized tests are: They’re meant to trick students who understand the concepts into picking the wrong answer, and they don’t allow kids to generate, or even explain, their responses. Multiple-choice exams can be clever but, as test designer Roger Farr of Indiana University ultimately concluded, there is no way “to build a multiple choice question that allows students to show what they can do with what they know.”

We can also concede that some reasons for giving tests are more problematic than others. There’s a difference between using them to figure out who needs help — or, for more thoughtful teachers, what aspects of their own instruction may have been ineffective — and using them to compel students to pay attention and complete their assignments. In the latter case, a test is employed to pressure kids to do what they have little interest in doing. Rather than address possible deficiencies in one’s curriculum or pedagogy (say, the exclusion of students from any role in making decisions about what they’ll learn), one need only sound a warning about an upcoming test — or, in an even more blatant exercise of power, surprise students with a pop quiz — to elicit compliance.

Even allowing for variation in the design of the tests and the motives of the testers, however, the bottom line is that these instruments are typically more about measuring the number of facts that have been crammed into students’ short-term memories than they are about assessing understanding.[3] Tests, including those that involve essays, are part of a traditional model of instruction in which information is transmitted tostudents (by means of lectures and textbooks) so that it can be disgorged later on command. That’s why it’s so disconcerting to find teachers who are proud of their student-centered approach to instruction, who embrace active and interactive forms of learning, yet continue to rely on tests as the primary, or even sole, form of assessment in their classrooms.

While some of their questions may require problem-solving skills, tests, per se, are artificial pencil-and-paper exercises that measure how much students remember and how good they are at the discrete skill of taking tests. That’s how it’s possible for a student to be a talented thinker and yet score poorly. Most teachers can, without hesitation, name several such students in their classes when the exams are designed by Pearson or ETS, but may fail to see that the same thing applies in the case of performance on tests they design themselves.

Not only do tests assess the intellectual proficiencies that matter least, however — they also have the potential to alter students’ goals and the way they approach learning. The more you’re led to focus on what you’re going to have to know for a test, the less likely you are to plunge into a story or engage fully with the design of a project or experiment. And intellectual immersion can be all but smothered if those tests are given, or even talked about, frequently. Learning in order to pass a test is qualitatively different from learning for its own sake.[4]


Many years ago, the eminent University of Chicago educator Philip Jackson interviewed 50 teachers who had been identified as exceptional at their craft. Among his findings was a consistent lack of emphasis on testing, if not a deliberate decision to minimize the practice, on the part of these teachers.[5]

The first reason for this, I think, is that exemplary educators understand that tests are not a particularly useful form of assessment. Second, though, these teachers learned at some point that they didn’t need tests. The most impressive classrooms and curricula are designed to help the teacher know as much as possible about how students are making sense of things. When kids are engaged in meaningful, active learning — for example, designing extended, interdisciplinary projects — teachers who watch and listen as those projects are being planned and carried out have access to, and actively interpret, a continuous stream of information about what each student is able to do and where he or she requires help. It would be superfluous to give students a test after the learning is done. We might even say that the more a teacher is inclined to use a test to gauge student progress, the more that tells us something is wrong — perhaps with the extent of the teacher’s informal and informed observation, perhaps with the quality of the tasks, perhaps with the whole model of learning. If, for example, the teacher favors direct instruction, he or she probably won’t have much idea what’s going on in the students’ minds. That will lead naturally to the conclusion that a test is “necessary” to gauge how they’re doing.[6]

Assessment literally means to sit beside, and that’s just what our most thoughtful educators urge us to do. Yetta Goodman coined the compound noun “kidwatching” to describe reading with each child to gauge his or her proficiency. Marilyn Burns insists that one-on-one conversations tell us far more about students’ mathematical understanding than a test ever could — since all wrong answers aren’t alike. Of course this assumes that we’re really interested in kids’ understanding, not merely their level of phonemic awareness or ability to apply an algorithm. The less ambitious one’s educational goals, the more likely that a test will suffice — and that the wordstesting and assessing will be used interchangeably.

One can fill a bookshelf with accounts of other forms of authentic assessment: portfolios, culminating projects, performance assessments, and what the late Ted Sizer called “exhibitions of mastery”: opportunities for students to demonstrate their proficiency not by recalling facts on demand but by doing something: constructing and conducting (and explaining the results of) an experiment, creating a restaurant menu in a foreign language, turning a story into a play. In other words, when some form of evaluation is desired after, rather than during, the learning, tests stillaren’t necessary or even particularly helpful. They needn’t be used for “summative,” let alone for “formative,” assessment.

Many of us rail against standardized tests not only because of the harmful uses to which they’re put but because they’re imposed on us. It’s more unsettling to acknowledge that the tests we come up with ourselves can also be damaging. The good news is that far superior alternatives are available.


1. See my essay “Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests,”Education Week, September 26, 2001. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in Canada. Its education system is completely decentralized; each province controls its own policies. Despite the considerable variation in the amount of testing from one to the next, however, all of the provinces have very specific grade-by-grade curricula that every teacher is expected to teach. Objections to this level of control, with the concomitant diminution of autonomy for teachers, are rarely heard — even in provinces where there is outspoken resistance to testing.

2. Maja Wilson, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment(Heinemann, 2006), p. 39.

3. A spate of recent studies that attracted considerable attention in the popular press argues that frequent tests (including self-tests) are more effective than other forms of studying. But the outcome measure in these studies is almost always limited to the number of facts that are correctly recalled on later tests. Rather than offering an argument in favor of conventional assessment, these experiments actually illuminate how words like “learning” and “achievement” — as used by researchers and journalists alike — often mean little more than the successful, and presumably temporary, process of memorizing facts. For a close look at one such study, see this essay.

4. I recently made this point — about how the anticipation of being tested can distract students from engaging with ideas — in a Twitter post that was retweeted more than 400 times. This degree of popularity led me to suspect I had been misunderstood. I followed up with a clarification that all tests have this effect, not just standardized tests. The retweet rate dropped off by 90 percent.

5. Philip W. Jackson, Life in Classrooms (Teachers College Press, 1968/1990).

6. Frank Smith once wrote, “A teacher who cannot tell without a test whether a student is learning should not be in the classroom.” I see what he means, but his formulation strikes me as a bit harsh. Teachers need help to learn how to assess without tests, and they need support and encouragement to eliminate a practice that is still used by most of their colleagues and widely expected by administrators, parents, and the students themselves. Moreover, the barrier to gauging how successfully students are learning often lies not with the teacher but with features of the school structure, such as classes that are too large or periods that are too short. That’s an argument for organizing to change these problematic policies, not for continuing to test.
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