Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Failing Forward

Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the
road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.
- C.S. Lewis
Four years ago I decided to show what we know in the information technology focused computer engineering course I teach at Centre Wellington DHS.  The Skills Canada I.T. and Networking Administration contest seemed custom tailored to do that for us.  That first year we took two competitors down to Guelph and finished second and third to an urban(e) high school in the regional competition.  We took what we learned from that first round and applied again the next year, this time winning our way through to the provincial competition for the first time.  Had we not known the competition by failing at it the first time, we never would never have been able to re-orientate ourselves and get out of the regional battle.

That first student we sent to provincials was a polymath, gifted at pretty much everything, but once again we were unprepared and we ended up finishing fourth overall.  Like mechanics and other stochastic skills, I.T. is experiential.  You can be the sharpest person in the room, but the more experienced technician will usually figure it out first because the problems aren't always obvious and linear; instinct based on experience plays a surprisingly large part in analyzing problems.  Still, fifth in the province wasn't bad for our second go at it.   Our competitor came back and debriefed on the provincial competition just as our previous students had with the regional competition.

Our third go at it had two competitors having to face off challengers regionally.  They finished 1-2 and we were off to provincials again.  Our second run at the big competition showed just how much the scope of the competition could change year to year.  We once again finished in the top ten, but didn't medal.  As before, our competitor came back and did a thorough debrief, helping the next candidate (the one who'd finished second regionally) get ready in more detail than ever before.  The old adage goes: I was able to reach so high because I stood on the backs of giants.  In our case this is completely true.  Had those previous students not leapt into the breach and shown us the way, we would never have seen the steady improvement that we did.

We just got back from provincial competition once again.  We gold medalled in I.T. and then finished top three in all technology competitions combined - meaning we didn't just beat other competitors, we also got a near perfect score in the process.  The first thing Zach, our gold medalist, did when he found out he won was shout out to the people who came before him, thanking them for the doing all that dangerous reconnaissance blind.

We're off to Moncton next month to compete in Skills Canada at the national level.  Ontario's is the biggest provincial skills program with the toughest competition, and we scored highly, but it's our first time nationally.  I didn't consider changing our approach.  Our goal is to go there and learn.  Zach has benefited from the failures of previous students, and now it's his turn to go first and pave the way.

Can a small town school compete against massive, urban
school boards?  Yes, yes we can.
At first glance it might look like those previous students failed, but they didn't, they were part of something bigger than themselves that has succeeded.  I know some people look at competitions like Skills Canada and wring their hands over how harsh it is on tender adolescent egos, but our failures made us better and our approach meant we were resilient in the face of those failures.  Even when we were sending different individuals year on year there was a team feeling as new competitors read over the notes, advice and encouragement of now long graduated students (all of whom are enjoying post-secondary computer focused success).  In many cases current competitors connected with grads through social media in order to further develop this mentorship.

The education system has focused relentlessly on student success.  A big part of that push is to mitigate failure wherever possible.  When failure is removed from learning you can't develop nonlinear, experiential skill-sets or take risks on new challenges because those things in particular demand failure in order to learn.  You also can't learn to fail forward or consider your learning to be a part of something larger than yourself.  No fail learning is remarkably selfish on a number of levels, damaging not only a student's ability to learn stochastic skills, but also weakening their resiliency, resolve and humility before a task.

The concept of no-fail learning is very academic in origin, no real-world learning process would consider such an approach viable.  It's unfortunately ironic that one of my best teaching experiences and a unique learning opportunity for many students has to happen outside of the classroom, where the many benefits of failure are still allowed to happen.

A couple of years ago I realized were were on a multi-year trajectory, so I started putting up posters in the classroom for each competitor so that new students would realize they are part of a dynasty!


Our school mascot is a falcon... geddit?



Sunday, 1 May 2016

Driving Your Own Learning

This quote was used in a presentation I gave in 2013. The revolution is
sneaking up on us, changing our habits and how we think and learn
without us even realizing it.
Recently a number of people have told me something along these lines: "I don't have to remember anything any more, I can just Google it."  I don't necessarily disagree, but this approach to off-loading knowledge does raise some interesting questions.  In a best case scenario we end up with people who have the cognitive freedom to make more diverse and interesting connections, but more often I see the other side of the coin, where people are using technology to reduce their effort and involvement.


With information readily at hand, we still fall back on old
concepts of information management in order to try and
understand it.  Computers don't use file folders, the text we
save on a computer isn't even text
, but rather than update
our ideas of how information is being stored, we force it into
paper based memes so we can relate inaccurately..
When knowledge was rare and few people read or owned books the holding of knowledge internally made you powerful.  Being able to learn and retain information was a key focus of education in those days.  That rigorous approach, which was a necessity because of the scarcity of information, produced tough minded academics who could dismiss the unintelligent if they couldn't internalize what was needed.  Our school system today is a historical descendant of that information scarce world - still testing students on information that is readily available to them.

Yet we still value that academic rigour, and for good reason.  A student who develops the mental toughness to internalize and retain information, even if they could just Google it, is building habits that will allow them to tackle increasingly complex materials and processes, especially when that knowledge is implicit to skillsets that demand immediate response.  If you've got to Google how to spell every word in your essay, you aren't going to write a good essay.  If you have no understanding of the French Revolution, including what led to it and what happened after, you'll be hard pressed to create a nuanced presentation about it, no matter how handy you are at Google Presentations and searches.  Using the proliferation of information as an excuse to do less is where we run into problems.


The information revolution has pushed cross curricular
collaboration into overdrive.  Formerly siloed branches of
academia are finding connections through the free-flow of
digital information - a good example of the information
revolution being used to enhance rather than minimize effort
Vehicle based digital control systems offer an interesting parallel to information technology and learning.  In racing the electronic subsystems that have evolved in vehicles aren't used for safety, they are used to increase lap times and allow the vehicle operator to reach limits and stress equipment to levels before unimaginable.  They don't crash less than they used to, and when they do crash they tend to be going faster than before.  Digital enhancement of driving skill is the focus of racing electronics.

Electronic controls on vehicles designed for the general public don't increase operator ability, they leap in and interfere with it.  As a skilled driver I am able to stop a car in snow in a significantly shorter distance than computer controlled anti-lock brakes (locking the wheels causes them to build up snow in front of the tires stopping the car sooner, but anti-lock braking keeps the wheels spinning, preventing that from happening).  For most people who are happy to operate a two ton vehicle with no understanding of vehicle dynamics or interest in improving their skills, anti-lock brakes are a saviour - they prevent those incompetent drivers from having to care.  Most cars come with anti-lock brakes nowadays for that reason.  Instead of improving the humans we developed systems to take over from them.

Google's self-driving car is the logical conclusion of the electronic controls that have been seeping into vehicles over the past thirty years.  For the vast majority of people a self-driving car is a far better way of getting around than them doing it themselves because they do it so poorly.  For the few who are willing to work at it, electronics could amplify their skill, but those kinds of electronics aren't an option in cars sold to the public.  The lowest common denominator (the indifferent human operator) dictates public sales and determines what everyone can have.  The result of this human expectation deflation is to demand less from everyone.  Even those who want to learn more eventually won't because the skills required are obscured by mandated electronics.


I can't wait to get stuck behind one of those when I'm parking.
I need to develop a jammer so I can stop that car and drive around it

The trajectory electronic vehicle controls have taken parallels the path that information technology and learning is on.  If we're not bothering to remember anything any more because we can Google it and not bothering to learn anything any more because a computer can do it, we end up at a pretty dark conclusion.

Ignorance of computers in people who use them constantly gets me so wound up because you can't effectively use a tool if you don't know how it works.  Before school our cafeteria is full of teens using information technology with no understanding of how what they're using works.  I walked by a health class the other day and the teacher said, "you guys and your phones... I'd be happier if you were all just talking to each other (and not doing class work) than I am with you all looking at screens."  Less than 1% of students in my school take any computer courses in order to understand how they work, yet pretty much all of them depend on computers every day all day - and many teachers are expecting them to integrate that same technology into their learning.
Your modern race-car steering wheel has more in common
with a space shuttle console than a wheel.

The race car driver who is tweaking their electronics in order to improve lap times does so because they have an in depth understanding of how the technology at their disposal can improve their process.  You can't use electronics to improve your performance if you know nothing about how this technology works; modern racing drivers and engineers are all electronics experts, modern students are not and neither are the vast majority of their teachers, yet electronics continue to insinuate themselves into learning. Like the intervening vehicle management systems that assume control in order to do a better job than indifferent drivers, so educational technology is stepping in to assume control of learning for indifferent students and teachers.

Until we start treating education technology as an enhancement to learning  rather than a replacement for it we remain headed on the same trajectory as the driverless car. If that is the case we'd be more pedagogically correct to ban digital tools in learning until we've clarified the learner as the race car driver who will understand and use educational technology to amplify their effectiveness, and not the gormless driver on public roads who needs technology to step in and do their work for them.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Deep Learning AI & the Future of Work

Most jobs have tedium as a pre-requisite.  No one does tedium
better than a machine, but we still demand that kind of work
for humans... to give them self worth?
This isn't the first time our compulsive urge to assign monetary value to survival has struck me as strange.  This time it was prompted by an article on deep learning AI and how machines are close to resolving many jobs that are currently reserved for human beings (so that they can feel relevant).  We like to think employment is what makes us worthwhile, but it really isn't, and hasn't been for a long time.

The graph on the right is from that article and it highlights how repetitive jobs are in recession as machines more effectively take over those roles.  As educators this leaves us in a tricky situation because we oversee an education system modelled on factory routines that is designed to fit students into repetitive labour (cognitive for the 'smart' office bound kids, manual for the other ones).



How can an education system modelled on Taylorist principles produce students able to succeed in the Twenty-First Century?  It can't, because it can't even imagine the world those students are going to live in.  There is a lot of push back in educational theory around the systemic nature of school administration, but I see little movement from management other than lip service.  Educational stakeholders from unions to ministries and even parents like our conservative education system just the way it is.
Between neuroscience and freeing ourselves of academic prejudices
(ie: creativity happens in art class), we could be amplifying what
human beings are best at instead of stifling it. (from Newsweek)
In the meantime, people who are taught to sit in rows, do what they're told and hit clearly defined goals are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  We have machines that do those very things better than any human can, and they'll only be doing more of it in the future.

Ironically, just at the time where human beings might have technically developed a way out of having to justify their survival all the time they are also crippling their ability to do what humans do best.  In recent years creativity,as critically assessed in children, is diminishing.  The one thing we are able to do better than machines is being systemically beaten out of us by outmoded education systems and  machines that cognitively infect us with their own shortcomings!

Machines offer us powerful tools for a wide variety of tasks.  I use digital technology to express my interest in the natural world, publish, and learn, but for the vast majority of people digital technology is an amplifier of bad habits and ignorance.  Many people use the personalization possible in digital technology to amplify their own prejudices, juice their brains like Pavlovian dogs in empty games, and all while living in a cocoon of smug self justification.

Just when we're able to leverage machines to free human beings from the tedium of working for a living, those same machines are shaping people to be as lazy, directionless and self assured as they wish.

In the meantime the education system keeps churning out widget people designed for a century ago and the digital attention economy turns their mental acuity into a commodity.

Rise of the machines indeed.





A nice bit of alternate future, but the description at the end is chilling - it's how I see most people using the internet: "At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper and broader and more nuanced than anything available before. But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted..."

Monday, 4 April 2016

Dealing With The Impossible


Two decade old parts mean things don't fit together.
Making something work in this circumstance seldom
has anything to do with following directions
The other day I was trying to install carburetors on an old motorcycle (I was a millwright before I was an IT guy). I wasn't even sure if what I was doing was possible. I spent a couple of frustrating hours trying before I pulled it all apart and did it over a different way.

What I love about technology and engineering, especially when it involves free-form building rather than following directions, is that you have no idea if what you're doing is possible. This never happens in digital environments - they're all designed for you to eventually succeed. Kids think video game wins are wins, they're not, they're a conditioned response.

Any teacher who thinks free form building is just for fun is the kind of teacher who only wants students to perform conditioned response with a predetermined outcome (I'm guessing so they can control the situation). A lot of people (students and teachers alike) think that's learning. I think it's all about management and control, and it's one of the emptiest things we can do with students.

We shy away from stochastic processes in the classroom because we believe that failure is the inability to do something rather than an opportunity to better understand complex and open ended situations.

When trying to put together those carburetors I was unsure if the process I followed would lead to a successful outcome.  That uncertainty filled me with doubt and made me question what I was doing in a way that no lesson ever would.  We desperately hope for metacognition in student learning and then stifle it with overly restrictive learning goals.  No student ever starts a math problem, writes an essay or even plays a video game wondering if what they are doing is possible, yet most of the world, when it isn't a digital distraction or a lesson, works that way.  I suspect the cockiness I see in student attempts at engineering is grounded in the fact that most of their world (digital, educational, or worst of all: both!)  is a coddled exercise rather than a stringent test of reality.

In a classroom we like controlled circumstances with defined and plausible outcomes because they suit easy analysis of work completion, collection of assessment data and cement the teacher's place as the all knowing master of learning, but that limited circumstance doesn't offer much in the way of learning real world outcomes.

What would a learning environment look like if it wasn't modelled on data collection and teacher insecurities?