Mojo is a monster with a problem. He used to like school, but then math got hard, and Mojo decided he was not smart enough. School became less fun, and Mojo wanted to make a run for it.
But he didn’t, because Mojo was designed by ClassDojo, a Silicon Valley edtech start up, and a team of researchers from Stanford University to teach kids things like the importance of a “growth mindset” (the belief that effort matters more than raw IQ) and empathy. Because an empathetic monster who knows the importance of effort does not walk away from tough situations.
In January, ClassDojo released a five-part video series of animated shorts on growth mindset which it created with Stanford Perts, a group of education researchers who try to get effective learning techniques into the classroom (a process which is far harder than it should be). The series has been viewed 15 million times, or by one of every four kids in an American classroom.
Kids meet Dojo, an animated Pixar-like monster, who get frustrated because he doesn’t understand the math he’s working on and feels stupid. Katie, his monster friend, encourages him not to give up. “Anyone can be smart, you just have to work at it,” she explains. Mojo’s having none of it, insisting you are either smart or not smart. Katie persists with her troubled friend: “It’s not ridiculous, it’s SCIENCE.” And Katie goes on to explain neuroscience to Mojo, in first-grade vocabulary.
“This video did more for my kids than any video they have ever watched,” said Cindy Price, an elementary school teacher in Delaware. After her first graders watched the first of the videos in the series, she heard then saying things like “Mojo’s like me” or “Remember Mojo? He didn’t give up and he got it.” (Price is not on Dojo’s payroll, though it suggested her as an interviewee.)
The growth-mindset series was such a hit that ClassDojo then teamed up with Harvard to do a series on empathy, a skill Price says is in very short supply in her students these days. “It’s a topic I’ve been wanting to teach for a long time, I just didn’t know how,” she said in a press release. Working with the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the animated shorts, which will come with discussion guides, focus on the importance of considering other people’s points of view.
“We chose to focus on empathy because empathy is the basis of sturdy, gratifying relationships and strong, inclusive communities,” said Richard Weissbourd, director of the Making Caring Common project. Empathy is also the basis for a sense of justice—which, he noted, appears to be in short supply these days.
Teaching social and emotional learning—also known as character, or non-cognitive skills—is increasingly part of curricula around the world. Research has shown its importance (pdf) in creating successful students and closing achievement gaps. California, controversially, will start testing for character skills this fall.
But teachers also face tougher academic standards for their students, leaving them with less time to do all the things they might want to do in a classroom. Schools are also notoriously bureaucratic. That’s why researchers are teaming up with tech companies to find ways to get content into classrooms faster, and in ways that kids will relate to.
“Social and emotional learning is a vast, complex territory—it’s much of what it means to be human,” said Weissbourd. “Teachers need many different strategies to develop in children a wide array of social and emotional capacities,” including videos.
The first empathy video will be available Oct. 2 (here’s a trailer) to coincide with anti-bullying month, with two more videos released after that.