At Roy Waldron Elementary School in La Vergne, Tenn., a fourth-grade girl wasn’t where she was supposed to be. A teacher caught her joking around with classmates, and then instructed her twice: Head back to class. A few hours later, when the student returned home, she had excuses at the ready.
“You know I can see the reason why,” Diane Portillo told her daughter.
“Yes, Mami,” the girl replied, cornered. “I’m never going to do it again.”
Portillo found out about disciplinary incident through ClassDojo, an app that allows parents to follow their child’s conduct, classwork and grades in real time. Throughout the day, educators dole out points: They might award them for solving a tough question at the board or sharing art supplies; alternatively, they can deduct points for things like distracting other students. As soon as the behavior, good or bad, occurs, parents can opt to receive a push notification to find out why.
ClassDojo’s creators believe the platform can better shape the learning environment. An unruly classroom not only makes it hard for students to focus, it can also be emotionally draining for teachers. ClassDojo corrects for that by putting Pavlovian reinforcement onto teachers’ smartphones. That’s the baseline benefit: Educators regain control of the classroom as behaving oneself becomes a game. But what’s perhaps just as important to academic success is how the app keeps parents in the loop, allowing them to track points, view schoolwork (in slideshows like a Snapchat Story) and message directly with teachers.
Amid the deluge of other digital learning tools being tested in American classrooms, ClassDojo might not be as familiar a name. But chances are that someone in your school district has already downloaded the app. In 95,000 schools (roughly two-thirds of the nation’s public, charter and private academies), at least one teacher is currently using ClassDojo, according to Lindsay McKinley, a spokeswoman.
ClassDojo was designed specifically with teachers in mind, says Sam Chaudhary, one of ClassDojo’s two co-founders. “For 40 or 50 years, we’ve had a lot of people trying to do things in education from the top down. When there’s a new policy at the district level, it’s pushed down into schools and classrooms. That hasn’t, by and large, been very effective,” he says. “We started the opposite way: from the ground up.”
A former teacher in the British secondary school system, Chaudhary met his eventual co-founder Liam Don, a game developer, at a weekend hackathon at Cambridge. The two traveled to the Bay Area on a 90-day tourist visa, where they approached teachers and asked to hear about their experiences. “We had this amazing freedom, in a way, because we had never lived or worked in America. We didn’t know the system,” recalls Chaudhary, now CEO. “We didn’t start with a solution or even assume that we knew the problem.” The teachers they interviewed kept bringing up the same issue — namely, that the various players in a kid’s education weren’t working as a team. To get parents and teachers on the same page, Chaudhary and Don proposed building a communication tool that could provide live updates about students, and in 2011 ClassDojo was born.
Five years and millions of downloads later, teachers report that ClassDojo has dramatically eased communication with parents. Stephanie Smith, the fourth-grade teacher at Roy Waldron Elementary who corresponded with Diane Portillo daily on ClassDojo, used to rely on paper worksheets to connect with parents. She’d write down assignments, add one of three colors (red, yellow, green) for the student’s conduct that day, and ask the kid to bring back a parent’s signature the next day. “It was very tedious and a lot of extra work just to make sure that parents were even looking at it,” says Smith, a teacher with 12 years in the classroom. Even if the sheet did come back signed, Smith wouldn’t know if a parent had actually read it or just signed it pretty much blindly. It became a daily exercise in frustration.
But now, Smith has ClassDojo, and she uses it all day, every day. “Lunch, recess, field trips, anything like that — ClassDojo goes with us,” she says. Smith begins assigning points as soon as work starts. A sound plays, and the room goes quiet as the students hope another will be awarded soon. (The points can be used within the app to buy customizations for an avatar, and often, they can be cashed in at a concessions stand on Fridays.) “It’s nonverbal communication, where students just know what they should be doing,” she says. “It saves time, my voice and words. It’s so much easier than fussing at them to be quiet when all you have to do is push a button.”
Outside the classroom, overworked parents, like those who are employed in La Vergne’s warehouses or commute the half-hour to Nashville, might just stand to gain the most, Smith says. In those cases, a mom might have only a short time to check in on her children’s schooling. “It used to be that they would ask, ‘What happened at school today?’ Like all kids, they’d reply, ‘Nothing,’” Chaudhary says. ClassDojo, which also has an automatic-translation feature compatible with 35 languages, skips that guessing game. Appraised of what’s going on in each subject, a parent feels more involved and their child will likely know it. “Students need all the help and support they can get,” adds Smith. “When their parents and teachers are closely connected, they know they have two people investing their time in them. It helps them realize, ‘Maybe I should take this to heart. This is important.’”
While the cartoon avatars have won plenty of student devotees, ClassDojo isn’t without its critics. The company, for one, hasn’t collected any data on the app’s impact and instead points to the number of people participating as proof the app is working. But a recent study by the Center for Learning in Technology at SRI International, a nonprofit think tank, found that the most popular ed-tech apps are usually the ones that fit best within the status quo, even if they don’t improve student learning. Anecdotal evidence of teachers who use the app also doesn’t give a full picture, adds Brett Clark, the director of technology at Greater Clark County Schools in Jeffersonville, Ind. “That’s like polling people in McDonald’s about how they like the food,” he told The New York Times, without surveying anyone who refuses to eat there. “They are not asking the teachers who looked at the app, walked away and said, ‘Not in my classroom.’”
For his part, Chaudhary says proof is on the way. While more curricula are still in the works, ClassDojo has already demonstrated one important rule for how education technology should be integrated into the classroom. In place of advocating for sweeping change, the platform has prized small but meaningful online tools, and the reward has been millions of downloads. In other words, the role of technology in the classroom shouldn’t be to replace teachers, but to simply help them do their jobs. After that, the company will need to show how — and whether — it measurably helps the kids.