The ethics of using behaviour management software in schools

There is an excellent education application called Classdojo which could, but perhaps should not, be used in your classroom.

According to the ClassDojo website (2018), “ClassDojo is a communication app for the classroom. It connects teachers, parents, and students who use it to share photos, videos, and messages through the school day. They use ClassDojo to work together as a team, share in the classroom experience, and bring big ideas to life in their classrooms and homes.”

A communication tool? No, that’s a little misleading. While the application’s student side interface does allow the students to share photos, message, links, etc., these are by default shared in private with the teacher. Furthermore, student-side sharing requires students to register and install the application on their devices, which some students do not want to do.

The ClassDojo image that students would typically see is projected on an interactive whiteboard and it is not a communication tool. It is a score sheet for good and bad behavior points awarded by the teacher. It has some communication capabilities, and several functions that are useful for classroom management, but it is first and foremost a behavior management application.

The image above shows the ClassDojo classroom tab for one of my university English classes in Japan. Each student is assigned a cute monster icon. The numbers in the green circles represent their behavior scores. Points are awarded subjectively by the teacher when students exhibit predefined behaviors. These behaviors (or as ClassDojo calls them, “skills”) can be customized by the teacher to suit the lesson style. My lessons, for example, rely heavily on active learning and participatory techniques; group dynamics are essential for class success, so I award positive behavior points for “participating”. In a teacher centered classroom, awards might be given for attentiveness. And points might be taken away for distracting behavior.

Over time, patterns of good and bad behavior can be identified, quantified, reported to parents, and used in teacher student conferences. It is valuable information for the students as well; direct feedback to the students is a significant attribute of ClassDojo; the projection of points on the interactive whiteboard might motivate some students to reflect on their behavior. Accumulated points can also be turned into extra credits (which is what happens in my classes).  Robacker (2016) reports on how ClassDojo can be used as the basis of a classroom token economy, where points are exchanged for physical goods.

Personally, I do not apply the red minus points at all and generally avoid negative reinforcement in my lessons. My context, in terms of behavior management, is relatively easy. My students (with the exception of one class, which I will discuss below) are homogenous and well socialized by the secondary school system to show respect to teachers.

I teach English Communication to four classes in two universities, and there are some disruptive students in just one class. English is a compulsory subject in that university, but students can choose convenient times. Due to the university’s scheduling, one of my time slots perennially attracts a lot of sports scholars – baseball and basketball players. These students spend a lot of their time training hard in highly disciplined coach-centered sports programs. They tend to be disinterested in studying English and dismissive of the participatory methods employed in my classes. These students can be talkative and disruptive during lessons. In April 2018, I started using ClassDojo. I can report test scores are about 30% higher, and attendance is 20% better than the equivalent 2016 and 2017 classes. I have no proof that ClassDojo is responsible for the improvements, but I’m satisfied the application is at least not detrimental. When it is used only for positive reinforcement, ClassDojo seems harmless, and possibly beneficial in creating a positive cooperative classroom atmosphere.

The application also comes with several extremely handy classroom management features, such as an attendance log, a projectable timer and a random group maker. In fact, it was these features that drew me to the application in the first place. I intend to continue using ClassDojo for the foreseeable future.

Classroom/behavior management software

In contexts other than mine, for example in the US elementary school system, discipline is a huge problem. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funds the Technical Center for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), whose mandate is to improve the behavior of students across all schools (pbis.org, 2018). To implement PBIS standards, many educators turn to technology. ClassDojo is the most popular behavior management and behavior tracking application, while others include Skyward, Kickboard, Behavior Tracker, Liveschool and Hero.

Given the immense challenges of dealing with unruly students, bullying, special needs, school violence, substance abuse, etc. across North America, behavior management is one of the biggest issues facing teachers and schools. Yet teacher training programs devote little time to it (nctq.org, 2018). Behavior management software offers a simple and effective solution, especially for inexperienced teachers.

I feel uneasy about this. It seems to me that behavior management software in general has both positive and negative aspects. The positive, is that effective implementation of the software leads to better behaved students, fewer disruptions, and an atmosphere more conducive to studying. This is helpful in acquisition-type teaching environments, and also in participatory classes like my own. It can lead to better student production, better test scores, and better relationships between the main stakeholders – the students, schools, parents, and society at large.

Negative aspects include privacy, competency, psychology and politics. Let’s look at those:

  1. Privacy. Data collected by teachers could be used to label a student “a problem child”. A child could be accused of naughtiness, and that accusation – whether warranted or not – could become part of the child’s permanent record. This might be an abuse of human rights, and the issue needs to be studied farther, most particularly by OSEP.
  2. Competency of teachers. The “carrot-and-stick method of classroom discipline is outmoded, and […] behavior apps themselves are too subjective, enabling teachers to reward or penalize students for amorphous acts like disrespect” (Singer, 2014). An excellent teacher will control classroom behavior with delivery, content, style and personality, and might use the software to enhance or fine-tune classroom atmosphere; teachers who need to rely on behavior management software as the basis of classroom control are not excellent.
  3. Psychology. The “carrot-and-stick” method, also called classical conditioning, is well suited to training seals to clap their flippers, or dogs to roll over. The method can be enhanced through the use of clickers that help the animal associate the behavior and reward; this is called “operant conditioning” (Skinner, 1938). ClassDojo’s cute monster graphics and cheerful positive (or unpleasant negative) sound effects act on children much like clickers work on animals. This seems manipulative and disrespectful to the complexity of the human mind. As a parent, I would consider it offensive if the method were used on my child. That said, according to psychologist Harriett Goldenberg (2018), any form of educational psychology will, to some extent, be manipulative. Ethical consideration should focus on the purpose of manipulation rather than the method.
  4. Politics. In the US, PBIS is a federal initiative. The government encourages schools to socialize students to follow behavioral guidelines. At present, these guidelines are vague and schools still have a great deal of freedom. ClassDojo’s designers adhere largely to liberal social and educational values originating at Stanford University (Williamson, 2017). But one can imagine a dystopian future, or a dystopian society in the present or past, where behavior modification is used for extreme agendas and has catastrophic consequences.

Behavior management software works, but there are several reasons to fear and distrust it. In my context, I think the end justifies the means.

References:

ClassDojo. (2018). About us | ClassDojo. [online] Available at: https://www.classdojo.com/about/ [Accessed 22 Aug. 2018].

Goldenberg, H. (2018). Phone conversation with Harriett Goldenberg, 25 August, 2018.

pbis.org. (2018). PBIS.org Home Page. [online] Available at: https://www.pbis.org/ [Accessed 14 Aug. 2018].

Robacker, C. M., Rivera, C. J. and Warren, S. H. (2016). ‘A Token Economy Made Easy Through ClassDojo’, Intervention in School and Clinic, 52(1), pp. 39–43.

Singer, N. (2014). Privacy Concerns for ClassDojo and Other Tracking Apps for Schoolchildren. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/17/technology/privacy-concerns-for-classdojo-and-other-tracking-apps-for-schoolchildren.html [Accessed 4 Sep. 2018].

Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Williamson, B. (2017). ‘Learning, Media and Technology Decoding ClassDojo: psycho-policy, social-emotional learning and persuasive educational technologies’. Learning, Media and Technology, 42:4, 440-453.