Carrots and guns in the classroom!

Kids are amazing! Many decades ago some Japanese school children created a game 'Scissors Paper Rock' of their own volition. Before long this game went 'viral', spread by children in school playgrounds around the world. In more recent times kids have creatively come up with variants (also of their own volition). One example is 'Bunny Carrot Gun'.

Kids are naturally drawn to novelty, surprise, creativity, exploration, experimentation, shared experience and shared ideas. They are born curious and inquisitive and ready to learn. And they are initially wired to find immense joy and satisfaction in learning new skills and constructing knowledge.

That is, until an adult intervenes with... the carrot-and-stick approach. This is a centuries-old pedagogy which, for a child, converts to: "If I'm good my teacher will give me something good. If I'm bad my teacher will give me something bad". In one fell swoop the innate and intrinsic motivation of the learner is torpedoed by the extrinsic. From now on it is no longer about the rewards found within learning but the rewards achieved through compliance.

But at what cost?

I believe that when carrots and sticks dominate classrooms children lose the biggest part of themselves: their love of learning. And this then affects every teacher there after as they too have to maintain the carrot-stick approach to get, and keep, students on task. And so it perpetuates.

The Sydney Morning Herald has highlighted a similar viewpoint in the recent article 'It's all about controlling students'. Researchers from the University of South Australia take a shot at the points system used in the highly popular Class Dojo program. They raise concerns about the potential long-term negative effects on children when teachers use the rewards and punishments aspect of Class Dojo.

I have never used the Class Dojo tool. But having taught in mainstream classrooms for 24 years I have found the 'carrot-stick' approach (and points systems) useful in certain situations for short periods for a set purpose. For example, I have had groups who had never truly engaged with learning and therefore had never experienced the 'rush' that comes with deep participation and accomplishment. Once they had rediscovered this, I could then reduce and remove the carrots and sticks - because learning had once again become its own reward and motivation.

I once taught in a K-12 school for five years that had no rewards or punishments. One of the school slogans was 'The reward is in the task'. The children who had attended this school since Kindergarten generally needed no extrinsic rewards to immerse themselves in learning when they got to secondary level. But children who enrolled at Year 7 often misbehaved because they had become conditioned to carrots and sticks in their previous primary classroom experience. Even though these children had been born with an intrinsic love of learning it was (unintentionally) quashed because they had been given carrots for doing something which they already loved to do.

Carrots and sticks might have their time and place. But if they become all-pervasive then children become conditioned to expect carrots to participate in learning activities - which in turn makes it more difficult for teachers further down the line.

Please read the SMH article - which only covers two perspectives (for and against). I believe every issue in education has potentially 360 degrees of viewpoints and therefore opinions and discussions can and should be highly nuanced. (After all, teaching kids is never black and white!)

Please contribute to the discussion.


James Phelps

Read the SMH article below.

'It's all about controlling students': researchers slam popular app

It’s one of the world’s most popular education apps and used in more than half of Australian primary schools.

Students who sign up to Class Dojo are assigned a cartoonish monster and awarded points when they do the right thing.

Teachers deduct points – which are often displayed on interactive white boards at the front of the classroom – when children act out.

But a new paper by University of South Australia researchers says Class Dojo promotes an archaic approach to discipline and likens it to China's social credit system.

Avatars from the Class Dojo App

Avatars from the Class Dojo App

“If we look at the fundamental basis of how China’s social credit system works, we see similarities with Class Dojo,” the study's lead author Jamie Manolev said.

“They both rely heavily on surveillance, rewards and punishments to reinforce behaviour and convert behaviour data into a score. Those scores are being used to determine what happens to students or citizens.”

Mr Manolev, who is also a primary school teacher, said some schools were using Dojo scores to decide whether students could participate in recreational activities. A student might miss out if too many points are deducted for late homework or talking out of turn.

He said the app was popular because it provided teachers with a “quick behavioural fix”.

But according to Mr Manolev, the technology sends a damaging message that children should behave appropriately just because they might receive a reward.

On the flip side, he said it sends a message that a student shouldn’t misbehave because they might be punished.

This, the researchers said, erodes self-motivation and the development of self-regulation.

“This carrot and stick approach to discipline is all about controlling students through the use of rewards and punishment as opposed to educating students about what good behaviour looks like," Mr Manolev said.

The researchers are also concerned displaying the scores in front of the class encourages unhealthy competition between children.

Melbourne teacher Leanne Cairns has used Class Dojo since 2014 and said while some people believe the app promotes a punitive approach to discipline, she thinks it has many positive uses.

As well as handing out points to students, she uses the app to share photos of schoolwork with parents, document work and communicate with families about sensitive issues.

"The kids enjoy the points system. It is pitched at children's interest levels, they are playing games that have these characters."

Ms Cairns said the app allowed her to monitor potential problems by providing useful data on children who might be repeatedly acting out.

She said the app could help improve classroom behaviour when accompanied with a discussion between teachers and students.

"It all depends on the follow-through," she said. "I might speak to a student who has found it hard to keep their tub tidy five times in a week. I'll ask, 'what can we do to get you there next week?' If you use it a goal-setting tool it can change behaviour."

She said the app was no different to teachers handing out gold stars, or awarding house points, and reflected the realities of the real world.

"In the workplace if you do a good job you get a bonus. And if you do a bad job, and turn up late you may not get paid for the hour," she said.

A Class Dojo spokeswoman said the research lacked the perspective of teachers and used misleading and alarmist phrases.

She said the app helped teachers recognise and encourage positive behaviour. The spokeswoman said a recent survey revealed 90 per cent of Australian teachers believed Class Dojo had made their classroom a more positive space.

"Academic researchers and theorists have put judgement on something that millions of teachers, families, and students get positive value from every day," she said.

"We suggest the authors of this report spend time in the classroom with teachers, as we have done from the start."

She said the app also made parents feel more connected and engaged with their child's school.