Sunday, 30 August 2015

Digital Amplification of the Mega Self

I've finished Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head, and I've been ruminating on it for a couple of weeks.  Crawford makes a number of educational criticisms in this philosophical treatise that attempts to free us from Enlightenment thinking gone mad.  This post is on how digital economics amplify and feed off our sense of self.

Crawford's historical argument is that the Enlightenment rejection of authority has been amplified by neo-liberal values and digitization, turning what was once an early scientific rejection of church authority (rationality vs. superstition) into a sort of hyper-individualism that rejects obvious facts about reality in favour of opinion.  In our modern world opinions have the weight of truth, the irony being that the Enlightenment push to free people from authority has enabled individualism to such a degree that it is now ushering in a new era of superstition.

This person-on-a-pedestal is happily embraced by modern marketing which will go to ridiculous lengths to emphasize just how individual you can be if you all buy the same thing.  The modern, insulated self is also coddled by digital media designed to cater to your every whim.  Whole worlds are made where people feel they are accomplished because they followed the script of a game.  Ask any student, they self-identify with their social standing in game play, yet their greatest achievements don't actually exist.  The scripted interactions in gaming lead many people to believe that they've done something other follow a process they were supposed to complete.  You can never win a video game, you can only finish it, like a book.


Crawford uses the example of Disney's original cartoons in comparison to the modern Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to emphasize this change in how we (teach our children to) approach reality.  The original cartoons emphasized the tension between what we want and what reality demands with characters battling the elements, often with machines that don't work as they're supposed to.

The modern Disney playhouse teaches children an almost deified version of technology.  The machines are psychic, performing their functions perfectly before you even are aware that you need them.  Any problems are resolved by the machines, there is never a question of them not working.  Classic Mickey can often be seen repairing broken machines, modern Mickey is permanently happy as the machines resolve every problem that might arise, it almost plays like an Apple ad.  Digital environments designed to cater to your every whim... sounds like the perfect twenty-first century learning environment.




Gamification in education tends to play much like Mickey's Clubhouse, offering an experience so safe that it's virtually (pun intended) meaningless.  When you can't fail, you can't succeed.  When you're following a script instead of self-directing your learning, you're not really learning.  I'm a massive fan of simulation, even digital simulation, but gamification isn't that.  In my simulations students often fail.  If they didn't, it wouldn't be a worthwhile simulation.  What I hope the simulation does is give them the space away from worldly cost concerns to experiment and try more radical approaches.


When I was a younger man I played paintball a fair bit.  When I played, I often tried to live out silly movie fantasies.  I wouldn't have done this with real bullets, but in paintball it isn't for real, right?  One time I left my gun behind and ran straight to the other team's flag, grabbing it and legging it while they were all standing around getting their defence set up.  I didn't even get hit because no one was ready.  Another time I tried to do the Arnold-Terminator thing, walking down a road, slowly taking aim and shooting people and ignoring the fact that they might get me back.  I shot six people before someone calmed down enough to get me. When they play paintball, most people run and hide like it's real.  They do the same thing in video games, camping or hiding even though the entire thing is bogus.  If simulation becomes real in the mind of the user, it ceases to have the same effectiveness as a learning tool; just ask Kirk.

Pedagogically, educational technology suffers from much of the same marketing creep as Mickey's Clubhouse.  It often tries to do too much, but it's also infected with attention grabbing nature of the digital economy it's derived from.  The software we use in education is derived from platforms designed to ensnare attention for as long as possible in order to make money from it.  In an economy where nobody makes anything, the only value people have is as consumers.

Crawford goes into detail about how we don't have a digital technology attention issue, we have a digital economics issue.  Machines are designed to keep user attention because the economy that profits from it made them that way.  We build machines to ensnare user attention (familiarity helps this, it's why education is 'given' tech 'for free').

We children of the Enlightenment, having freed our minds from superstition and social authority by amplifying individuality, ushered in scientific and industrial revolutions.  The Enlightenment championed democracy rather than the mystical divine right of kings, but something insidious latched on to that democratic push.  Democracy became democratic-capitalism and now we're saddled with an economic system that is happy to make use of the individualism championed in the Enlightenment.

Digital technologies latch on to our already amplified sense of self, multiplying it and allowing us to exist beyond the constraints of the real world (at least until there is an internet or power failure).  As long as that comforting digital blanket is wrapped around our minds we are free to believe whatever we want (the internet will provide proof).

If you feel like there is something wrong with how we're doing things, Crawford's challenging book will give you the philosophical latitude to do an end-run around this mental trap that's been centuries in the making.


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

How We've Situated Ourselves


I'm wrapping up Matt Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head, and it's leaving a lot of questions around education.


Throughout the book Crawford questions the hyper-individualized nature of our post-enlightenment selves.  He does it in the context of skilled manual labour, which does a lot to refute the ideal 'generic/flexible intelligence' we all value nowadays.  Skills situated in real-world demands are immune to academic flights of fantasy.

Below are some quotes I'm ruminating on:


"...manufactured experiences promise to save us from confrontations with a world that resists our will."

Anyone teaching modern teens feels the strain of trying to haul them out of the digital trance they prefer.  I teach computers and this is acute, like trying to teach pyromaniacs how to be firemen.  Many of my students are incapable of seeing the machines they are supposed to be learning about as anything other than entertainment.  Computers are a digital window into a world where you can always be capable and rewards are continuous and timely.

The proliferation of fairly terrible flash games on the internet indicates that many students would rather exist in digital Pavlovian response environments than deal with the pesky real world.  The game play is so bad that I'm astonished anyone plays them, but play them they do, for hours at a time.  Crawford has a section on machine gambling that strikes startling (and terrifying) similarities with how I see students playing these digital games (most of which are thinly veiled advertisements).

Between an isolated and hyper-intensified (almost sacred) sense of self, and the nature of digital economics, people are immersed in a society that has quantified and actively seeks their attention for monetary gain.  Crawford describes this as the enlightenment ideal of a free self taken to bizarre extremes - but these extremes feed nicely into the neo-liberal/globalized digital economy we've created for ourselves.

Distraction is seen as a problem of technology, but it is actually one of political economy: "in a culture saturated with technologies for appropriating our attention, our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others."


Hack the future - or be used by it. Digital technology has
evolved into the shiny gateway to an attention economy
that is as relentless as a casino in catching eyeballs..
Worries about digital-distraction have long been tied to education and technology, but Crawford does a good job of uncovering the economic foundations of that problem.  My concern has always been that poor implementation of educational technology simply feeds students into this harvester.

If we're delivering a single branded approach to educational technology, we aren't teaching fluency so much as dependence.  This is why technology multi-nationals are so willing to 'work with education'.  With students already walking into class having been digitally branded on a personal level, education has jumped on the bandwagon by following student trends (kid's love ipads!) rather than pedagogical imperative.  If we're going to recover students' ability to navigate (rather be navigated by) the digital economy they are immersed in, we can't be driven by the same processes.

If the only point of education is to put more bricks in the wall, then we should just keep on doing what we're doing.  If we want to teach students to survive in a voracious economy that sees their attention as a commodity then we need to teach them what the technology is and how it works.  Open source software and un-locked, non-brand specific hardware would be a good place to start, but you're not going to see lots of ads for it.


"the advent of hyperpalatable mental stimuli... raises the question of whether the ascetic spirit required for education has a chance.  The content of our education forms us, through the application of cultivated powers of concentration to studies that aren't immediately gratifying.  We therefore had to wonder whether the diversity of human possibilities was being collapsed into a mental monoculture - one that can more easily be harvested by mechanized means."


Student directed learning: the kind of thinking
being embraced by Ontario's education leaders
at this summer's conference.  This kind of nonsense
ignores how education has worked for millennia.
The "ascetic spirit" of education is long dead.  If it isn't fun and engaging, it isn't a correct lesson plan according to modern educational thinking.  Students treat marks as a score, demanding them immediately and ignoring feed-back.  There is no delayed gratification in modern education.  Teachers have to justify (up front) any teaching - it can never lead toward a goal that is out of sight.  Where ever possible we are asked to be as transparent and immediately gratifying as possible.  The more forward-thinking, extreme view is that teachers are no longer needed at all.  In an information rich world (conveniently delivered on closed platforms by multi-nationals), students can learn on their own with no direction.  All you need is an I.T. guy to keep everyone connected.

If we're producing generic-intelligence graduates that are able to work anywhere for minimum wage with no real expertise other than a can-do attitude, then we're doing a great job.  Crawford's focus on skilled labour neatly sidesteps the ideal of the liberally educated university student who can't do anything but is ready for everything (as long as it doesn't involve reality).  Reality makes demands on skilled trades that most academics find beneath them.

The danger in digital technology exists in its ability to latch onto and modify our very plastic thinking processes.  A skilled-trades approach to understanding digital technology can elevate us from being users to being architects.  Nick Carr does a good job of criticizing this in The Shallows.  Crawford goes further by explaining that technology isn't the issue, it's the cannibalistic economics that drive it that we should be protecting students from.

By pulling back the curtain and revealing the machinery that feeds this relentless economy we enable students to dictate the terms of their digital experience.  What happens instead is that we present digital technology as if it's just another educational tool, which allows the underlying economy to seep into education unseen, feeding students into a mechanism that wants to commodify their very thoughts.

Monday, 27 July 2015

A Thin & Fragile Pretense

I'm still mulling my way through The World Beyond Your Head, by Matt Crawford.  It's a slow go because I'm re-reading and thinking over what I'm looking at, often paragraph by paragraph.

On page 153-4 Crawford is talking about the way in which we depend on established values when transacting with each other.  He is talking about how he bills his motorcycle repairs, but I found a surprising correlation between this and my current views on grading:


P.153-54 The World Beyond Your Head by Matt Crawford



This could easily be re-written to describe my own battle with grading:

Consider the case of a teacher. In handing a final grade to a student, I make a claim for the value of what they know about what I have taught them, and put it to them in the most direct way possible (a grade). I have to steel myself for this moment; it feels like a confrontation.  (I hate grading, I feel it actively discourages learning by implying there is a definitive end)

 The point of having posted criteria, rubrics, due dates, class rules,  and the use of complex grading systems with byzantine weights and balances, is to create the impression of calculation, and to appeal to the authority of an institution with established rules. But this is a thin and fragile pretense observed by me and my student - in fact the grade I present is never a straightforward account of the skill of a student. It always involves a reflection in which I try to put myself in the shoes of the other and imagine what he might find reasonable.  (Freeing myself from the tyranny of grading programs is both professionally satisfying and existentially terrifying – what are we all doing here if not making numbers?!?)

This lack of straightforwardness in valuing learning is due to the fact that learning is subject to chance and mishap, as well as many diagnostic obscurities. Like medicine, teaching and learning are what Aristotle calls "stochastic" arts. Especially when working on complex skills at the high school level, in trying to teach one discipline (learning how to code), I may unearth problems in another (the student has little grasp of basic logic). How should I grade for work done to solve a problem beyond the realm of what I’m supposed to be teaching? Should I hand off this new problem to spec-ed, or simply blame previous grades and move on? (I do neither, I consider a student who is able to overcome previous failings to catch up to his peers to be superior to a student who is simply going through the motions because this is easy repetition for them)  This question has to be answered when I formulate a grade, and in doing so I find that I compose little justificatory narratives.


When a student receives a grade, I usually go over the reasons with them in detail, and I often find myself delaying the presentation of the grade, because I fear that my valuation isn't justified (I can never have all the facts needed to be completely accurate). But all my fretting about the grade has to get condensed into a simplistic number for the sake of systemic learning on an established schedule (our education system is predicated on the receiving of numbers that are so abstract as to be virtually meaningless). Whatever conversation may ensue, in the end the grade achieves a valuation that is determinate: a certain amount of educational value exchanges hands. As the student leaves the class for the last time, I want to feel that they feel they have gotten a square deal in terms of me not using grades as either a gift or a punishment; I want to come away feeling justified in the claim I made for what I think they know and can do.   (but many teachers don't - empathy and grading can be safely made mutually exclusive thanks to the absolute truth of mathematics, the more complex the calculation, the truer the grade it produces must be)

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sympathetic Teachers

For the past couple of weeks my yoga instructor has been away so I've been learning with another teacher.  I've been with the same instructor for about a year and I've gotten used to her ways.  Our fill-in instructor is actually the studio owner and a more experienced teacher, but I'm used to what I'm used to and I'm finding the change challenging.

The differences in how each teaches got me thinking about how learning and the relationship it is based on works.


My regular instructor pushes herself and her students.
It works for me.
I'm the furthest thing from a yoga expert but I enjoy the process and I've gotten better at it in a year of practice.  My regular instructor is very focused on form and pushing through physical barriers.  Her own practice is flawless.  Our current instructor is much more mentally focused, asking us to be mindful of what we're doing and de-emphasizing the physical side of things (though I still find her classes very physically strenuous).  Neither is right, but they are very different in how they demonstrate their mastery and what they focus their students on.  I've enjoyed the change but I've bonded with my regular instructor and I'm looking forward to getting her back.

The personal nature of the relationship between a master and apprentice is based on choices by both.  Masters tend to select for apprentices who they can work with, and vice-versa.  Back in the day when apprentices were unable to select their masters this wasn't the case, but nowadays you see this self-selection all the time.  When a student finds a teacher they share a wavelength with they tend to latch on.  Variety is the key to this selection process.  I probably wouldn't have stuck it out (yoga is hard work) if I hadn't connected to the instructor's approach enough to overcome the difficult early months.


Another philosophical thought from my regular instructor.
She wants you to develop quickly, find your limits and
then push through them. In that struggle is found yoga.
In my first year of university I asked my history TA how she knew what to focus on.  She laughed and said it was all about the prof, why else would she be doing her Masters in Scottish history?  That personal relationship is an important part of a student's willingness to put up with the pain of learning a discipline.

In the education system you get the impression that this individualism is a bad thing.  Teachers are encouraged to adopt whichever educational philosophy is in vogue and be ready to move on to the next one when the next book comes out.  Most experienced teachers have learned to not get caught up in this kind of thinking (one of the key failures of professional development).  It tends to be the game of educational leadership to push a school-wide vision of teaching in order to establish some kind of standard.  Teacher assessment uses checklists and fill-in-the-blank templates based on the school system's idea of an ideal teacher.  This implies that there is only one way to teach properly which would kill any chance of a student finding a teacher who speaks to them, unless your students are as generic as your teachers.  When the system assumes surrogacy for learning, human relationships are diminished and the ability to learn is compromised.

Ease of learning is another aspect of this problem.  I like my yoga instructor because she doesn't make it easy, she demands hard work but she's quick to praise both the effort and the improvement that comes from it.  Many students came and went but this only reinforced the success of the ones who stuck it out.  This is the opposite of the everyone succeeds approach in the current education system.  Learning is not easy, nor should it be, but that doesn't mean a teacher should be cruel or dismissive, quite the opposite actually (watch Whiplash for a complex look at this idea).  If learning is a challenge (and someone is trying to sell you something if they say it isn't) then a teacher should offer an individualized and sympathetic means of accessing a discipline rather than making an already difficult task harder.  Empathy is implicit in teaching, but especially so when it's between a sympathetic student and teacher - their shared ideals allow them to tackle ever more complicated learning on the road to mastery.  Not only is this an emotional support while dealing with difficulties, but it's also an aid to communication.  Much less needs to be explicitly stated when you're working with someone you understand.  I'd actually argue that mastery learning can't happen without this relationship.

The concept of edutainment seems to have infected all levels of the education system.  Fun, happy learning where the teacher must provide so much entertainment value that students don't even feel like they're learning (!) is the mantra of modern education.  Expecting students to put up with difficult lessons and experience failure isn't the way nowadays.  The vast majority of the coddled students I deal with wouldn't have come back after the first week in my yoga class.

Perhaps the gee-wiz, 'learning is fun and easy' philosophy of education is really another attempt to undermine the pivotal personal relationship between teacher and student.  When students aren't expected to overcome any difficulties and can't fail you also don't need to depend on the personal bond between teacher and student to encourage a student to withstand defeat, build resilience and eventually experience the kind of confidence that isn't systemically assumed.


That muppet knows mastery learning!  The modern education
version would be, "just show up (optional)
and we'll get you a diploma."
I was looking for a challenge when I started yoga.  I was feeling stiff and old and I was willing to work at fixing it.  Being dared by my instructor to push beyond the obvious discomfort I was feeling only worked because I respected her approach to the practice.  The first time I found my toes again or got heels down in downward dog I was ecstatic.  It took me months to get there.

Almost a year later I weigh 20lbs less, my flexibility is always improving and I find yoga much less painful than it once did.  It wasn't easy and I was tempted to quit a number of times.  The day after often felt like I'd been 'hit by the yoga truck'.  I was able to see improvement, but it happened slowly and sometimes I regressed.  Trust and respect in my instructor is what got me through the urge to quit early.  Why would my instructor spend all this time on her students who stick it out, pushing herself to demonstrate her practice in order to benefit us?

I've taken many aspects of my instructor's practice and made it my own.  Her practice is uniquely her's, but as her student I've been able to closely observe and internalize various aspects of her practice as well as her overall philosophy in order to develop my own yoga.  As a teacher my approach tends to be copied in part by like minded students (the incompatible ones aren't even aware there is an approach, they think it's all about facts).  It's thrilling for me to see a student tackle a difficult problem and see a bit of myself in it - it's almost like I'm the parent of their practice.

I speak with the voices of the sympathetic teachers in my life, any good student does, but if we continue to push for a systematized version of teaching that de-emphasizes the human connections through which we develop resiliency and master challenging learning, we'll end up with students who are unable to do anything other than exist within an ineffective education system.

We should be celebrating differences in teachers because they all speak to different students and allow a wide variety of learners to find their own way to mastery.  The standardized, generic teacher who follows the lesson plan template using the educational philosophy of the moment is no teacher at all (though you sure could pay them less!), and they would be teaching to a standard student that doesn't exist.  Had I walked into that on my first night of yoga I would have walked out again.