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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

Students need interaction, not app taps Add to ...

Michelle Hauser’s second-grader isn’t always a model student. He squirms, he fidgets and he doesn’t always pay attention. Sometimes, he forgets to use his indoor voice. In other words, he’s a typical little boy.

Now teachers have a new way to deal with students like this. It’s called ClassDojo – a behaviour management tool that’s the hottest new piece of classroom technology since the whiteboard.

ClassDojo is an app that allows teachers to add or subtract points for each student’s conduct throughout the day. If Susie didn’t do her math homework, she loses points. If she co-operates nicely with her group, she wins points. The app allows the teacher to post each student’s name on an interactive whiteboard, along with his or her latest score, for everyone to see. Parents can log in at any time to get a blow-by-blow account of how their kids are doing.

ClassDojo is supposed to be a motivational tool to help kids behave better. But it doesn’t always work that way. As other kids racked up points, Ms. Hauser’s son always seemed to be stuck at minus one. Pretty soon, he felt like a failure. “Instead of saying, ‘Keep your voice down,’ the teacher just taps,” his mother told me. “And the kids are seeing everybody’s points and comparing them.”

Eventually, she asked the teacher to take him off the system. But the more she finds out about ClassDojo, the more questions she has. She was surprised to learn that ClassDojo hasn’t been approved or even evaluated by the school board. Any teacher can decide on her own whether and how to use it. No parental permission is required, either. “I think a lot of parents would be gobsmacked by this,” she says.

ClassDojo is one of the most popular products in the fast-growing arsenal of K-12 education software, which has grown into an industry worth a staggering $8-billion or so a year, according to The New York Times. In the United States, ClassDojo is now being used in one of three schools, the developer says. Yet not everyone is sure it’s good for kids. “There’s potential for this to be an extremely negative thing for students who fall on the wrong side of the teacher’s affections,” said Ms. Hauser, a writer in Napanee, Ont., whose own mother was a school principal.

Fairness isn’t the only concern. There are privacy issues too. The company says it doesn’t sell or share the data it collects. But it does plan to make money by marketing additional services to parents, such as detailed behavioural analyses, according to the Times.

It’s hard to put a finger on what disturbs me most about this story. Perhaps it’s the picture of conformity and compliance, relentlessly enforced by the latest innovations in technology. These schoolhouse virtues are quite popular with teachers, though perhaps less useful in the real world. And if taps on apps bring rebellious kids into line, why stop there? Why not a gentle electric shock from time to time? After all, it works for dogs. For that matter, why stop with animals and children? How about an OfficeDojo, so that your supervisor can deduct points for lingering too long around the water cooler, or add them if you ever get around to cleaning up your desk? The possibilities are endless.

Personally, I’m not sure the carrot-and-stick method is ideal to get either animals or people to behave well. “No carrots, ever,” insists a wise old horse trainer I know. “You want the horse to behave because he trusts and respects you, not because he wants the carrot.”

And no technology can achieve trust and respect. It takes actual communication. Not taps on an app, but people, interacting. “My son said the teacher could just tell him to keep his voice down,” Ms. Hauser said. “He said he wouldn’t mind that.”

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