No sooner had the fifth graders in Jennifer Ellison’s reading class finished watching a series of videos about empathy than they came to her with an idea. They had noticed that when Ellison directed students to pair off and read with a partner, one student in particular, who is autistic, became anxious in the face of social pressure.
"My class realized, we need a plan so that he feels comfortable," Ellison says. "That’s a lot of insight for 10-year-olds." They proposed a sticker-based system whereby reading partners are randomly assigned on a rotating basis. Now, Ellison says, "He doesn’t have that anxiety," because someone is always proactive about asking to read with him.
A small change, perhaps, but a rewarding one for teachers like Ellison who entered the profession hoping to instill values like compassion and respect. And it was all precipitated by a short series of five-minute videos created by the education startup ClassDojo.
With a staff of less than 30 and $31 million* in funding, ClassDojo has quietly grown into one of the most popular technology tools in K-12 education. Teachers use the free ClassDojo mobile app to communicate with students and parents and to compile student portfolios. Unlike many other education apps, which take a no-frills approach to the very serious business of learning, ClassDojo features a cast of merry monsters, and its product design is fun and silly. But more than that, the app aligns with teachers’ vision of the classroom as a friendly learning environment where character matters and positive thinking can lead to powerful results. Last year, 65% of U.S. K-8 schools had at least one teacher using ClassDojo. This year, the company’s reach surpassed 90%.
"This is 90% of America, this is the middle of the country, this is normal people," says cofounder and CEO Sam Chaudhary, who takes pride in ClassDojo's ability to connect with users outside of the Silicon Valley bubble. "It’s not [just] for the people on the coasts. It’s for everyone."
Add in high schools, which make up approximately 5% of its user base, and ClassDojo is present in 90,000 U.S. schools, up from 60,000 in 2015.
"If you’re an adult in the United States, you’ve got LinkedIn for work, Facebook for friends and family. This ends up being the third set of relationships, around your kids," says ClassDojo investor Hemant Taneja, managing director at General Catalyst.
Down the road, as it looks to arrive at a sustainable business model, ClassDojo might experiment with premium features for those connected parents. But for now, the company is focused on building out content and tools designed to layer over its core messaging capabilities. It branched into video content last year, with a five-part series on "growth mind-set," an idea pioneered by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. Then, this past fall, the company introduced its "empathy" video series in partnership with Harvard’s Making Caring Common project.
"To live in our society, it’s important to be able to interact with people who have different beliefs and experiences than you," says Luba Falk Feigenberg, research director for the project, which develops and publishes resources for parents and teachers. To learn empathy, for example, Making Caring Common suggests that students interview and express gratitude toward people in their communities who often go unnoticed.
"Empathy is a precursor to pro-social behavior," Feigenberg says. "You need to be empathetic to be kind and caring toward others." Unfortunately, research suggests that empathy is in decline.
ClassDojo hopes to reverse that trend with its videos, which tell the story of monster Mojo as he directs his first school play, starring his best monster friends. "I never should have let you be in my play!" Mojo wails to his friend Katie, overcome with worry that her performance will reflect poorly on him. When Katie quits the show and her fellow thespians follow suit, Mojo has to learn to walk in their shoes and convince them to return in time for opening night.
The videos could not have come at a better time for schools grappling with the ripple effects of a presidential election laden with invective. "There’s a lot of anxiety," acknowledges Ellison, whose California school serves predominantly low-income families, including many immigrants and students learning English. Nationwide, teachers echo that same sentiment.
Watching a five-minute animation is not going to make that anxiety disappear, but it at least paves the way for better conversations and the potential for positive change. "One in three kids under 14 have now seen those videos in class," Chaudhary says. He argues that empathy, while amorphous, can make a difference: "The number one thing to remember here is that whatever you believe, half the country didn’t agree with you."
*An earlier version of this story said that ClassDojo has raised over $50 million. The correct number is $31 million.