Any Mojo in Dojo?

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Publication date:

November 25, 2021

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Twenty dojo points! The target for my daughter today, as she told me over breakfast this morning. Then, she ran out of the door to catch her school bus.

Ever since she started grade one this September, school has become  a quest for dojo points. When she comes home and I ask her what she learned in school that day, she has to think for a while. However, she has no trouble telling me how many dojo points she gained (or lost), and where she stands in her class tally. For her, and to my horror, learning is something you do in between the dojo-point race.

Clearly, dojo points are conditioning my daughter and her classmates to behave in certain ways. School discipline is imposed using a reward mechanism, and one that seems to work and catches on very quickly. My question is this: what else are my daughter and her classmates learning being subjected to such behavioral conditioning?

Rats in a maze

You have to have young kids in school to know about dojo points. I had never heard about hem until my daughter started grade one. When I searched online, I was surprised at the number of sites talking about dojo points. Some of them suggested that parents use them at home as well, and a few of the sites offered apps that would help you keep tract of them. Listening to my daughter, dojo points seem to be all the rage. But what are they exactly?

Dojo points are a reward mechanism to mold compliant behavior in school. In fact, it is a giant operant conditioning experiment in which kids become Pavlovian lab rats. If they do what is expected of them, they earn dojo points; if they misbehave, they lose dojo points. The teacher keeps track of the allocations, and a score board is prominently displayed in class. When a child reaches a certain number of dojo points, he/she gets a small reward (e.g., a sticker, an eraser, etc. ). With this reward mechanism in place, kids learn to behave in the way school expects them to.

Note that teachers are adopting multiple roles. Besides being traditional teachers and conveying knowledge, they also become arbitrators in the dojo-points quest, and Santa Claus in dishing out rewards. This affects the kids perception of what school is, what teachers do, and how the world around them operates. The reality is that kids learn from everything they see and hear around them. The dojo-point reward mechanism does condition their behavior, but in more ways than one.

We all know that carrots and sticks work, but they can work too well or have unintended consequences. I am not a behavioral psychologist, but looking and listening to my daughter, I worry. I worry about the learning culture and the mindset that this operant conditioning instills in her. I looked for research on the topic, but I did not come across anything that put my mind at ease.  So let me share some of my concerns.

Dojo points!

When I started my formal schooling, there were no such things as dojo points and no quest to get them. We went to school, did what we were asked to do from teachers (and parents), and tried to get good grades. All my parents were interested in was my report card, something I have not yet seen my daughter bring home.

If we misbehaved in school, we’d get a tough talking to by the teacher. In a few cases, I got a wack around the ears from the teacher, but never from my parents; or I had to write pages and pages of “I will not do this or that again”. I wrote those in reserve when I felt like it and was always well-stocked in them. Knowing myself a bit, I knew I was going to need them.

If you haven’t noticed yet, kids learn to strategize quickly. My daughter does it in her dojo-point quest. Being able to do it well is a valuable skill. If kids will naturally do it, an opportunity arises to teach them about it. Unfortunately, imposed learning regimes give teachers neither the incentive nor the time to explore these learning opportunities. They are required to follow sanctioned curricula, and use dojo points to move the kids along on the production line of formal education.

In fact, dojo points are a good stick for teachers to use when kids get out of line. They do lead to compliant behavior and that might have fueled their excessive use. I do not blame the teachers. They find themselves in an imposed and often chocking educational model. In that model, there are plenty of lines for the kids to get out off! If you create a frustrating learning maze for students and teachers, you are going to have to call in Pavlov to achieve anything.

The educational system, together with lax parenting, created a need for dojo points, but their excessive use has unintended consequences. Some of these shape a learning culture that we should not be aiming for. Being an educator myself, I always believed that knowledge and curiosity should motivate learning, but that seems to have gone by the waste side.

As a parent, we also use rewards and punishment but sparsely and then only when they are absolutely warranted. They are mechanisms to use exceptionally, not routinely. As any corporate leader knows, if you have to use them routinely, you have failed to create a proper culture in your organization.

The question I have is precisely what learning culture is instilled in our children with the incessant use of dojo points? What are the kids exactly learning beyond adjusting their behavior?

Conditioning whom for what?

The main objective for using dojo points is to manage behavior. If the kids lose points any time they get out of line, they will learn quickly that it is better to stay in line. As I will explain later, the mechanism itself provides learning opportunities, but those are unfortunately not leveraged to the extent they could. For example, why not explain to the kids the rationale for standing in line? If everyone always gets out of line, what would be the consequences? Would anyone benefit from this? I will come back on the use of simple logic and the learning it promotes. The fact is that telling kids what to do but not why deprives them of much learning, and learning that would really benefit them in life.

As with everything that works, we tend to overdue them and often become blind to the unintended consequences they produce. Too much of a good thing is never good, and educators should keep that in mind when they become overly dependent on dojo points. Dojo points should condition kids’ behavior, not teachers’ behavior.

What kids will learn

The first thing that kids will pick up on is that behavior is linked to rewards. The consequence of that might be that their behavior becomes trigger-dependent; i.e., unless there is an reward, why should I do this? This is teaching them a very narrow path for life, and not the most inspiring one. My belief (and hope) is that most parents don’t want their children to be conditioned and grow up with the belief that the only motivation to do anything is the rewards that come with it. This is not the way to built inner beauty in children. We should want our kids to learn – and be inspired by – helping others, even if there is nothing in it for them. I prefer my daughter to learn to give, and take the initiative when giving is warranted.

The second thing dojo points might create in children is a scoring mindset; ie, behavioral patterns that are driven by keeping score of gains and losses. I do not want my daughter to grow up and keep score in everything she does. The behavioral mindset we should instill in our children – and aim for ourselves – should not be one that is triggered by external reward but one that is internally motivated by human decency; e.g., a moral compass that always points to helping  those in need. The odds of making it in life – and being happy – are much higher focusing on connecting and not collecting.

The third thing kids will succumb to is competitive behavior. Nothing wrong with competition being a motivator, but it can become excessive. My daughter knows exactly who the competition is and how many dojo points they have. When I listen to her, she wants to beat those at the top of the score board, and not help those at the bottom. With undivided attention on the top of the pyramid, how do we instill values of team play, and promote the virtues of helping those less fortunate. I prefer my daughter to know, respect, and appreciate the entire pyramid, top to bottom. Furthermore, I want her to not only focus on outcomes but also learn about the efforts others made to get to where they are. Competition is healthy if the process as well as the outcome are explained, understood, and appreciated.

The fourth thing kids will learn is gaming. Again, strategizing is a very valuable competence to acquire, but it should be learned for its logic and not just for beating the system. Kids are smart (and much smarter than most educators or parents are willing to admit), and if you leave them to it, their behavior will become short-term (how can I get the most dojo points fast?), and they will gravitate towards the low-hanging fruits (what is the easiest way to get dojo points fast?). These are all important and valuable concepts to know and understand, and they should define a learning agenda around the quest for dojo points. Left to their own whits, kids will learn neither how to make trade offs nor to balance effort versus gain.

Finally, the quest for dojo-points can warp kids perception of authority, and undermine teachers and the learning they hope to achieve. My daughter has an acute sense of fairness, and she will scrutinize rules and outcomes. On a number of occasions, she told me that she did not understand why a classmate got so many dojo points. Explaining the rules clearly and assigning dojo points in the transparent manner are key to making her understand and accept the fairness of the mechanism. Absent of this, she will create her own immature and incomplete judgements about fairness and, more importantly, trust.
As adults, we know that life is not always fair. However, we should not let young children learn that unfairness is an irrevocable fact of life, because it is not. We should teach them about fairness, trust, and how to earn trust.

What kids could learn

The dojo-points quest is an experiential learning opportunity, and should be leveraged as such. For the kids to benefit from it, logic and explanation have to be brought into the quest. Just leaving them to swim for themselves, we are missing valuable learning opportunities. Here are some we should capitalize on.

First, kids are told rules but not given the logic for them. When my daughter raised her hand in week one of school and asked the teacher why she had to listen to her, instead of getting a valuable lesson on authority and why it is necessary, she ended up in the principle’s office. The next time we waited at an intersection for the light to turn green, I asked her what would happen if there were no lights, or people just ignored them. She learned quite quickly why rules are often necessary, and why authority is necessary to enforce them. Kids are too young to learn those on their own.

Second, kids can learn about the basics of human behavior and how it can be managed. I am not envisioning taking them into behavioral psychology, but just a rudimentary introduction to the carrot-and-sticks game. It would make them understand why dojo points are used. When I took some time to explain that to my daughter, I could see a lightbulb go on. As she explained to me, she immediately understood some of the conversations her mom (a company CEO) had on the phone in the car. If you think kids are not listening to what you are talking about and are trying to make sense of what they hear with their own logic, you got another thing coming.

Third, the dogo-points system provides a great opportunity to teach kids how to build and gain trust. Kids  do not understand distributive justice (i.e., perceived fairness of outcomes) or procedural justice (i.e., perceived fairness of rules and decision processes used to determine outcomes), but they will make intuitively judgments about them based on what they see and the simple logic they are equipped with. Again, why not take the opportunity to explain it to them.

Fourth, we could teach some basic lessons about effort versus outcome. My daughter is taught to always do the best she can and never give up. Her education at home has been much more on process and effort and less on outcome and results. When I asked her why a classmate had 500 dojo points and she only had 150, she could not explain it.  She was smart enough to remind me though that she is not on the bottom of her class (i.e., you do not need to teach my daughter how to present facts, she knows!). The problem with the dojo-points quest is that all the focus and attention is on who earned how many, points, and not on the individual efforts made to gain those points. The necessity of the process and what it takes to make it are completely lost. With that, some very valuable lessons for life are never explored.

Finally, there are lessons that can be learned about individual versus team behavior. My daughter tells me that dodo points can be earned (and lost) by the whole class as well; i.e., not all points are earned Individually. Being a bit of a natural leader (and a tough one at that), her skills to get her classmates in line got her (again) in the principal’s office. She wanted to desperately earn dojo points for her classmates,  but nobody taught her how to motivate them to behave as a team and earn points as a team. All the focus was on outcomes, and not on equipping kids with logic, understanding, and tools to achieve those outcomes. In fact, when I reflect on my daughter’s experience, every time she ended up in the principal’s office, a valuable learning opportunity for her (and her teachers) was lost. Learning is the building of knowledge, and for that to succeed, the full weight of arguments have to be put forward and explained.

Dojo points are more than just a carrot-and-stick mechanism to enforce compliant behavior. They are an experiential tool to aid and enable the learning of valuable lessons for life.

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