Profile of ClassDojo Founders Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don
Managing student behavior is one of the biggest challenges teachers face. Further, how schools choose to deal with student behavior can have a significant impact on children's character and social-emotional development. ClassDojo is a technology-based classroom tool that was designed to help teachers improve classroom behavior and share information on student behavior with parents and administrators. Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don, two education technology entrepreneurs with experience as teachers, launched ClassDojo in 2011 and have seen it grow to reach more than one million users.
Sam was born in the United Kingdom and lived in Wales and Abu Dhabi before earning a degree in economics from Cambridge. Liam was born in Germany and grew up in London before earning a degree in computer science from the University of Durham. They both live in San Francisco.
What's your "elevator pitch" for ClassDojo?
Sam: ClassDojo helps parents, teachers, and students build positive behavior at school and at home. Started 1.5 years ago, ClassDojo has now grown to serve millions of students in over 30 countries.
ClassDojo is currently available for free to parents, teachers and students. Teachers sign up and they invite students and parents to join, too. Parents are highly engaged because they can now get real time information from the classroom about how their child is developing character strengths, beyond just grades.
Why focus on classroom behavior?
Sam: I studied economics at university and taught economics in high school as my first job. Then I worked at McKinsey in London in their education group.
Liam: I was doing a Phd.D. in computer science, and I had spent some time teaching robotics to high school kids too - so we both had some experience in the classroom.
Sam: We realized that some education companies seem to make things no one really wanted. We thought it was important to make tools that appealed to parents and teachers. In our first few weeks after moving to California, we cold-called thousands of teachers in the United States and the United Kingdom, and were able to talk to hundreds of teachers before we even started building anything. From these interviews, as well as our own teaching experience, we found that improving student behavior is one of the biggest problems teachers face. Forty percent of teachers say they spend more than half of their time managing behavior rather than teaching--and it's often one of the biggest reasons they quit teaching altogether. But there are very few tools to help teachers with behavior - let along actually improve behavior. Nearly all the tools teachers are given are punitive: you wait for kids to screw up and then you punish them. It's humiliating for kids, and it's not how teachers want to spend their days: those tools force make 'behavior' synonymous with obedience and discipline. We wanted to develop a way to help teachers actually build positive behavior with their students.
Liam: We try to shift the focus to expecting and reinforcing positive behaviors from children, instead of punishing them for being bad. ClassDojo collects millions of behavior observations every day and 95 percent of them are positive. That's the way we wanted it to work and what's most beneficial for students; focusing on the positive turns the whole classroom dynamic around.
Sam: Early on we realized most companies and tools focused on grades and testing. After speaking to teachers we realized there's this whole other half of education that's completely unaddressed by technology at the moment. Education goes beyond just a test score to developing who the student is as a person--including all the character strengths like curiosity, creativity, teamwork and persistence. There's so much research showing that if you focus on building students' character and persistence early on, that creates a 3 to 5 times multiplier on education results, graduation rates, health outcomes. It's pretty intuitive. We shouldn't just reduce people to how much content they know; we have to develop them as individuals.
What have been some of your biggest successes to date?
Liam: One of most rewarding things since we started has been massive uptake of the tool and the fact that teachers are using it as we hoped, to build positive behavior. Watching the graph of the user numbers go up has been incredible; there are now millions of students and teachers are using this every day. We hear incredibly powerful stories about the impact the tool is having for students and teachers - they often write to us about it!
Sam: There are few things you can do in life--teaching is one, and ClassDojo happens to be another!--where you get so much positive emotional feedback every day. We get loads and loads of emails (and sometimes even actual mail!) from teachers and parents telling us how ClassDojo has changed their lives and improved their classrooms.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
Sam: One of the biggest ones was actually the emotional side of starting a company. Liam and I had left the UK, left all our friends and jobs, and moved to California. We knew no one, we had nowhere to stay - but we had this dream of having some impact in education. There was this huge risk of failure, and we really had to believe that we could build something people wanted - we had to keep going. It was emotionally tough.
Liam: Right after that stage, there was a total absence of any opportunity to get feedback from teachers to know if we were going in the right direction. Carrying on through that is tough. We were building a tool and talking to teachers to find what they wanted, but since it was summer teachers weren't in their classrooms, and we had to wait to get feedback on actually using it in practice.
What advice do you have for other prospective education entrepreneurs?
Liam: I'm not going to say "just jump in and soldier on" - I actually think that's wrong. I think one of the things we did that was important was that we worked really hard to identify the right problem before identifying the solution. We called over a thousand teachers and spoke to hundreds in order to do that. If you find a problem that people talk about emotionally as a serious problem in their lives--which behavior was for teachers--you can take that leap to developing the solution. The biggest problem most people have is not having a problem.
Sam: I agree. It also really helps not to do it alone. It's such an emotional ride, with lots of ups and downs--it helps to have a co-founder who's going through the same things with you.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next 5-10 years?
Liam: Looking back in 5-10 years I hope to see that this other half of education--going beyond test scores to focus on building students as people--has become really important and that we helped to make that happen by connecting teachers, parents and students. Furthermore, in our first 18 months we've grown faster than any other ed tech company at our stage has. I'd like to see that continue.
Why/how did you come to work in education?
Sam: My whole background is in education. I went to a middle and high school where if you were doing well academically, you were allowed to teach. I majored in economics in University, and after that I taught as my first job out of college. I left teaching because I wanted to have a more scalable impact; I joined McKinsey to do education work with their education group in London. After a while, I started feeling like I wanted to see more direct impact.
Liam: We both had an education background from an early age. My mum was a teacher. I was getting a Ph.D. in computer science and had spent some time teaching robotics to high school students on the side, so I had some classroom experience. We both were drawn to education and we both came to the idea that starting a company might be the most high-impact way of solving real problems in education - so I quit my Ph.D. and moved to San Francisco. And, so far, that idea is proving true.
Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
Liam: My English teacher in high school had a completely transformative impact on me and is part of the reason I was drawn to education. Boys at the school were having more trouble with English, and weren't focusing. So they combined top three groups of boys in a single sex class and really turned around the aspirations and outcomes for those kids. Tim Brady, one of the founders of Imagine K-12, has been a real mentor to us. He was the first investor in ClassDojo and helped us think through a lot of issues as we were building it.
Sam: On people whose example shapes our work, I think of thought leaders in the field of behavior and building character: James Heckman and his work on power of building character early in life; Angela Duckworth's work on persistence and grit; Carol Dweck work on the growth mindset and the praise we give kids. Doug Lemov and Lee Canter talk about the principles that ClassDojo is built on. In addition to the teachers we spoke with, we also looked to the work of these experts for guidance on how to build ClassDojo, hoping we could build something that would have impact. That's beginning to happen!