Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Do What You're Paid For: the distance between the mediocrity of work and the goals of education

The majority seem to follow the science.
The Weather Network had an interesting poll today.  The American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that later start times for adolescents would allow them to function better with their funky circadian rhythms.

It's a fact of our biology that our sleep patterns change during adolescence.  Being a teacher I've been aware of this for a long time because my job isn't to punish students but rather to develop their best expression of skill and ability.

The comments on this poll are your typical internet nonsense.  It makes me wonder how most people think (or don't).  The most vocal opponents (a minority in this poll) seem to think school should be about forcing students into alignment with adult expectations, however mediocre, biology be damned.

Some pretty nasty assumptions in these acerbic comments...

Is school about 'commitment, dedication' and the benefits you get from these values?  Of course it is, but it is also seeking your best work.  Unlike the 'adult' world where showing up and doing what you're paid for is the expectation, school is (should be?) about excellence.  I don't want a forced effort and I'm not looking for a pass, though many of my students are.  I wonder where they learn those values?

There are jobs and companies that do embrace excellence, but they are a minority.  If you're working for a pay cheque (and the vast majority are), you're an advocate of the show up on time-do what you're paid for-and-grow up school of adulthood.  For a lot of students school is the last place where they are encouraged to seek their best effort.  The rest of their lives are spent venting their spleen and dragging everyone down on internet comment forums.

Top performance isn't only a matter of effort.  I hear a lot of students tell me, "I'll put in an effort in senior years and get the grades I need to get into university."  They get to grade 12 and suddenly realize what squandering years of foundational skill building really costs.  I have that Incompetence poster up in my class.  It's not meant to be cruel, it's meant to remind students that I'm not there to waste their time or hold them in room for a certain amount of time (like most jobs they'll have when they graduate).  I'm looking for optimal skills building for each student (they're all different).

One of the reasons so many people enjoy watching professional sports is because you're seeing people performing at their very best.  A pro athlete isn't just putting in an effort, they are maximizing their anatomy with diet, sleep and hours upon hours of training and practice.  You're seeing their excellence as the tip of a massive iceberg of commitment.  The doing of unpalatable things isn't the point, excellence is, and you don't reach it by ignoring basic facts of biology.

I worked in private business for fifteen years before I became a teacher.  With very few exceptions, work involved being there on time and doing what you're told.  When I attempted to display initiative it was considered difficult to manage.  One of the reasons I became a teacher is because I have the professional latitude to produce my best work.  I don't just work to a clock, I work to a higher goal.  Rather than aim students at the lowered expectations of the working world, perhaps it's time to embrace excellence.

A few months ago I read an interesting article on the conflict between capitalism (read: neo-liberal devaluation of human capital) and education systems.  These Weather Network poll responses are firmly in that neo-liberal mindset of reduced human capital.  You're a cog in the machine: do what you're told, be consistent, show up on time... if that's what education becomes then we truly are lost.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Head Space

For the first time in my ten years of teaching I didn't teach summer school or take an additional qualification this summer.  I did build a deck that you can land a helicopter on, restore a motorbike I found in a field and travelled across most of Ontario, but I've been far away from thinking about teaching.

What have I learned from my summer of George?  I'd be a very good retired person.  I'm seldom idle, I love learning new things and resolving engineering challenges.  I get a great deal of satisfaction in taking something broken and making it work.  Mechanical sympathy has always led me into technology, I tend toward an empathetic connection with machines.  I also enjoy working with my head and hands in concert (not just one or the other).  I spent the summer practising the engineering process, perhaps I can take a more active modelling role in the lab in order to keep that experience alive (for myself as well as for my students).

The writing didn't slow down, it just changed focus.  Putting experience into words allows me to meditate on that experience and clarify my thinking about it.  It's nice to know that whatever I'm doing, writing is a natural response to it.

I'm now in the process of re-engaging with teaching.  Empathy tends to lead me in this as well, though I find the irrationality and randomness of dealing with people exhausting and frustrating in comparison to the simple honesty of machines.  The education system is all about people, from the social complexities of dealing with fellow teachers and administration to the hugely varied psychology of students, it's a complex system that is more about fecundity than resolution.

After a summer of making things work I'm most anxious about returning to a process that is often irrational, opaque and unsolvable.

Once more into the breach dear friends...

Monday, 28 July 2014

Bending People to the Data

The idea of data driven learning has become very popular.  This isn't surprising since data is beginning to drive everything.  Where it becomes problematic is when data is manipulated for its own sake rather than for an intended purpose.

It's a complex series of events that have led us to this point.  We're living in an age of data where we are recording much of it for the first time.  We mistakenly describe this as 'creating information', but we've always done that.  What digitization does is allow us to save that data on a massive scale.
We're not creating any more information than we used to, but we are recording it now at an unprecedented rate.
We've been experiencing this information forever.  If I went for a ride on my motorbike in the 1950s I would have experienced roughly the same 'data' that I'd experience going for a ride now.  The difference now is that the go-pro on my helmet and youtube means that data is saved and shared.  We're not creating any more information than we did before, but we're recording it and allowing others to experience the data.

Since this mass recording and access to data is a relatively new phenomenon we should probably take care to contextualize it, but we don't.  We recognize that data driven methods yield results, but in our rush to enter this brave new world of data we happily ignore what doesn't suit our goal and take other data out of context if it serves our cause.  When politics or self-promotion drive data selection the benefits of data driven management are in doubt.

Since it is so much easier to record and share data we're tempted to structure our activities around data creation rather than genuine experience.  I suspect we'll get better at this as technology becomes less invasive and allows us to capture a moment with minimal interference.  The evolution from TV to video to go-pro video is a good example of this progress, as is the smartphone camera and Google Glass.  But in the early stages of this evolution we're still awkwardly focusing on data collection rather than genuine experience.  Selfies at the Tour de France this year are an example.  If you watch any sports event where people are focused on recording rather than experiencing the moment you'll know this is endemic.  From the World Cup to the Olympics, the focus on data collection gets in the way of being there.  This creates some interesting changes in experiential value.  You now need to share the experience rather than relating it after the fact.  Being there is less important than your recording of being there.  Every experience is one step removed.

Education is no different.  Rather than focusing on ways to capture genuine experience in as non-invasive a way as possible, we create artificial situations that produce data for its own sake; standardized testing is a fine example.  Rather than integrating literacy assessment into genuine experience, we create an artificial testing environment that is designed to produce data, students and the complexities of literacy are minor components of that process.  We then base management decisions on the corrupted data that is produced from these artificial situations.

If data collection is the point of the exercise, then the data you're producing is an analysis of data collection, not whatever it is you think you're assessing.

Technology needs to be pushed to produce non-invasive ways of collecting genuine data.  Not only will this allow people to bask in the moment rather than ignoring first hand experience to create second hand data, but it will also serve student learning by focusing on it instead of data gathering processes.  

We need to stop bending the people to the data and start demanding that the data find us where we are, in genuine experience.  In the meantime it is vital that we don't blindly believe that there is truth in data that is produced in self serving contexts.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Architectural Responses to Virtual Mindspaces

I've been watching home reno shows over Alanna's shoulder and noticed that in almost all cases everyone is knocking out walls and creating 'open concept' living spaces.  I can't help but think this is a side effect of personalized media.

Once you had a 'TV room' but it's no longer needed.  We still share media, but we don't sit in a room staring at a cathode ray tube in groups.  Without the need for shared broadcast media viewing spaces we open up our living spaces.  Any time we want some privacy, we simply dive into a screen.

One of the unique features of digital technology is that it creates a self-directed, private virtual space for your interests.  If you want to drop out of your surroundings you can do it in a moment on a smartphone or tablet.  You can see people doing this in public spaces all the time, but it also works at home.  We used to do this with watching TV, but the broadcast nature of that media meant not everyone watching wanted to.  Even the ones who chose the show were passive consumers.  In a world where some people wanted to watch TV and others wanted to read, we built up walls as the two aren't mutually conducive.  With personal devices and media you can have ten people all doing exactly what they want in media rich ways, all in the same space.

Digital media is much stickier and attention grabbing than broadcast media because it's self directed and participatory instead of passive and consumptive.  Digital immersion can happen in much busier places because we are active participants.  It can also thrive in those places because digital media offers a richer variety of media.  It effectively amalgamates all previous forms of media as well as spawning new ones.
Architecture reflects our communication habits: this space
is designed for the telling of information.  Self directed
information gathering and collaboration are not what
this room is about.
Architecture adapts to changes in how we communicate.  Classrooms in school are an architectural response to a model of teaching based on the verbal transmission of information.  You couldn't have twenty teachers all talking to their students in an open concept space, it wouldn't work, so walls went up.  Now that we're evolving into personalized virtual spaces that offer access to information, communication and collaboration on a level unimaginable twenty years ago, what will physical classrooms evolve into?  If you don't have to wait for someone to verbally communicate information, what will schools look like?

We lament digital distraction as a scourge on society, but it is also an information rich immersive experience that offers us a new dimension of mental privacy.  We are increasingly able to collaborate and communicate in complex, geographically irrelevant ways.  Watching how architecture responds to this change in behaviour is one of the surest ways to see how influential this digital revolution has become.