Rounding Up: The Other Half of Education

August 24, 2012

Last week, as our summer together in the Bay Area was drawing to a close, a group of Education Pioneers Fellows came over to my house to discuss how we would respond to an essay contest sponsored by Goldman Sachs. The prompt:

What should we do to create a strong US education system that works for all, that improves student outcomes and enables our country to regain its leadership position in the field of education?

Books have been written, and careers dedicated, to tackling this question. There is no easy answer, especially given the three-page limit. The five of us quickly realized that spelling out everything we’d like to change about the current system would be more involved and onerous than starting from scratch (taking 12 minutes to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s animated video both confirmed our instincts and humbled us).

The natural next step was to figure out what the goal of our education system should be, regardless of the constraining status quo. As any seasoned teacher would do, we embraced backward planning to figure out the appropriate course of action. I landed on “empowering productive citizens” as a working definition of what the public system should accomplish. The aspiration is not perfect, but it is sufficient to appreciate that what we have—a system based largely on compliance, standardization, and skill development that is expected to yield an up-tick in test results within an academic year or election cycle—is not close to what we need.

If a healthy democracy of productive citizens is the collective whole we are looking to build, strong performance in school is not enough. The outcomes that matter emerge in the years following formal education, in the widest band of learning and living.

Are students developing the self-discipline, resilience, and values that set them up for fulfilling lives? A NewSchools Seed Fund venture, ClassDojo, has earned an impressive set of positive press for its early success in addressing this question through a user-friendly classroom behavior management platform. The intuitive, student-centered tool empowers teachers to embrace what ClassDojo’s co-founder, Sam Chaudhary, calls the “other half of education,” in complementing traditional classroom curriculum with a strong dose of character education.

As students make choices in class, their behavior has visible consequences: points reinforce pre-selected positive behavior and call attention to detrimental choices. Last night, while our group struggled to draft a distilled essay, we were in full agreement that feeling recognized and valued in a learning environment is essential for personal growth, regardless of age. ClassDojo showcases this recognition in catchy, colorful avatars that ensure every student counts.

To be sure, ClassDojo is not the only way to teach character education, but it certainly is one of the ed tech pioneers charting a course for others to follow. And if we’re serious about re-vectoring our education system to serve broad-minded goals that move our country forward, then Sam’s framing of the “other half” may in fact be the whole game.