How to Change Education (From the Ground Up)

Seven years ago, my co-founder Liam and I launched ClassDojo from the studio apartment we shared. Today, ClassDojo serves tens of millions of children in over 180 countries every day, and is growing fast. We tend to be pretty heads-down doing the work; this year, Liam and I are working on sharing a bit more about what ClassDojo is all about.

“We must be prepared to insult systems for the convenience of humanity, not the other way around” — John Taylor Gatto

Make Education Something People Love

‘Love’ isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when most people think of education. Yet consider how you felt the last time you were immersed in something you truly love. I bet you felt in flow, the hours flying by, your attention held, curiosity piqued and persistence growing, even in the face of setbacks. You put in the time and energy to explore and master what you’re doing, without being forced into it.

What would happen if your child grew up with an education like that—one they loved? They would explore and deepen their interests. They would see, appreciate and develop their talents and capacities. And in doing so, they would begin to unlock their unique ingenuity. That being true for just one more child would be tremendous: imagine the contributions of just one more Einstein, Hopper, Dr King or Musk. Now imagine that possibility for all of the one billion children on the planet. The impact on our world is beyond comprehension: human ingenuity is the most important force causing the world’s wealth, power and living standards to rise over time. With so many more people able to realize and contribute their full ingenuity, we’d solve many more of the pressing problems the world faces. We’d bend the curve of human progress far faster. And because education is upstream to almost every other problem, we’d all be happier, healthier and kinder, too. That’s the kind of future we need to bring about.

This is why ClassDojo’s long-term goal is to help every child on Earth get an education they love.

The People’s Choice

Such an education for every child might seem impossible. But what holds things back?

Historically, K-12 education has operated as a top-down industry. Companies have courted the people holding the purse strings for the system—not the teachers, children, families and school leaders actually doing the work every day. Their needs have at best been a secondary concern.

Put another way, most attempts at change have involved serving the system, rather than the human beings.

But this way of doing things is dissolving rapidly. People are increasingly realizing that what is right for the system is often wrong for the human beings. We believe the world’s $10 trillion education market is at the beginning of a shift away from appealing to top-down decision makers, and towards serving the people education is supposed to serve — children, and their families—with the experiences they actually want and need; ones they love.

A similar shift toward serving the people rather than the system has happened in other industries. Customer satisfaction is growing as the Internet has given people the freedom to choose the bundle of experiences they want. Take entertainment: consumers’ TV experience was once determined by a few network executives deciding a linear broadcast schedule, giving everyone the same programs at the same time. Now Netflix enables each of us to choose the entertainment bundle that suits our taste. Or travel: vacation stays used to be dominated by pre-packaged experiences, decided on by a few hotel chains. Now Airbnb enables us to choose the bundle of stays and experiences that are right for us. These industries shifted from top-down decision-making to serving their customers as the decision makers, giving them the freedom to get experiences they really want.

Now it is education’s turn.

Today, the majority of U.S. families are dissatisfied with their children’s education; in fact, a situation of constant dissatisfaction has existed for decades. Families have been limited to a narrow sliver of the learning experiences they truly want for their child. Most are limited to what their school can provide, for the hundreds or thousands of children in attendance—children with very different needs, interests, hopes and dreams. Most families can’t afford to move to another school, or get access to better learning experiences. They are left quietly unsatisfied. But people are beginning to realize that they don’t need to put up with an unsatisfying education experience any more than they’ve put up with such experiences in any other part of their lives. ClassDojo’s journey so far is testament to the fact that teachers, children and families want better, and increasingly, are choosing it. Some inside information:

  • From day one, ClassDojo’s growth has been 100% organic, fueled entirely by word of mouth to tens of millions of users. We haven’t spent a dollar on advertising.
  • On the strength of those referrals, today ClassDojo reaches 95% of US schools. 1 in 6 U.S. families with a child in primary school use ClassDojo every day.
  • ClassDojo has grown to a further 180 countries, making it one of the first global consumer brands in education. In 10 of those countries, more than 25% of primary school teachers use ClassDojo.
  • Today, ClassDojo reaches about 3% of all children in primary school in the world.
  • Our Net Promoter Score is 76. That’s worlds apart from the legacy education companies — Houghton Mifflin, McGraw Hill and Pearson are 3, 6 and -2 respectively — and much more like the world’s most-loved consumer brands: Netflix, Nike, Apple or Disney.
  • In response to demand from families, we launched “Beyond School”, the beginnings of an optional subscription for families that helps them get more educational experiences for their children beyond school. Revenue from Beyond School keeps ClassDojo free for all teachers, children and families.
  • This was all done with input and feedback from tens of millions of teachers, children, and families around the world, supercharging our team of just 40.

I am excited about this shift in the world, and our progress so far. There is much to do. Raising happy, successful children is the most important job teachers and families do, and they’ll never stop demanding more and better. So we can’t rest on our laurels: if we fail to serve teachers, children and families, they are free to choose something else that does. That’s convenient, because our incentives are perfectly aligned: our existence depends on us serving children, and the teachers and families who care for them, every day. As it should.

Change From the Ground Up

This ground up approach is critical to achieving our vision of helping every child get an education they love. That’s because education is not a product, like an iPhone or a Tesla, that can be built and shipped. Education is an experience that gets created every day by the people on the ground — the teachers, children, families, and school leaders doing the work. They are the most important part of the education system. The way to improve education is to help them make it happen, and that is ClassDojo’s plan: we listen to the people. We first helped them work together as a community. And then we help them get the educational experiences their children love. I’ll write more on this plan in a separate note.

For now: can this ground-up approach really change things? We believe it already is, and is beginning to build the future.

For example, one crucial part of education is having a connection between school and home. Teachers want support from families at home, and families want to know what their children are learning; however, building an effective relationship can be difficult when you only get to chat at a parent-teacher conference a few times every year. ClassDojo helps teachers, children and families share more easily and more often. They now share billions of pictures, videos and messages every year, starting real world conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. 80% of families say ClassDojo helps them feel much more connected to their children than ever before.

And we’ve heard from teachers and families everywhere that there’s much more to learning than maths and reading. For instance, when we asked them about the one topic they wanted to teach more of, teachers overwhelmingly said ‘social and emotional learning’, especially ‘growth mindset’. This topic is about helping children believe they can grow their capacity (TED Talk here), and has decades of research behind it—yet it hadn’t found its way into many classrooms. So we partnered with the world’s leading growth mindset researchers at Stanford to create original learning experiences on growth mindset. In one school year, more than 10 million children (~1% of all children of primary school age in the world) tried these experiences in their classrooms, and shared them home with their families.

The most exciting part of this is that both of these ideas came from ClassDojo’s community. We heard real needs from teachers, children and families — the people creating education — and were able to help them get what they needed. And then those ideas spread rapidly around the world to everyone who could benefit from them, in weeks rather than in decades.

In the ‘top-down’ world, companies were incentivized to focus on selling to the districts with the largest budgets, which in the US are directly correlated with the highest property taxes. This approach simply reinforced an uneven playing field, a zip code lottery. ClassDojo’s approach doesn’t rely on salespeople targeting top-down decision makers—which means our network can reach and serve children in all communities equally, all over the world. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

The ability to help every community get the educational experiences they need for their children, faster and cheaper than ever before, is an exciting development. We’re just getting started.

Onward

So this is our audacious view of how to change education: from the ground up, by serving the people doing the work. To do this, we’re building a rare consumer company in education, one dedicated to serving the people.

If we succeed, every child will get the chance to contribute their unique talents to the world. We believe there are few things as meaningful, necessary and world-changing. We’re optimistic because we’ve seen just how much communities of teachers, children and families can do together. We’re even more excited about what they’ll do next.

If you’re interested in helping every child on Earth get an education they love, I’d love to hear from you.

- Sam

You can see what people are saying here, sign up for ClassDojo at classdojo.com, or join us to change education from the ground up.

Building ClassDojo, trying my hardest to do good things for education

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store