Monday, 28 September 2015

When the Pupil is Ready, The Master Will Appear

From a Zen Koan, anyone who has attempted to gain mastery
in something has probably experienced this to some degree,

but it doesn't usually happen in the education system.
I always have my ear to the ground, waiting to hear from a student who wants something more than curriculum.  On a good year I'm lucky to find one or two students who are looking for a career rather than a credit.

I came across this saying the other week and it got me thinking about that hope I hold out for ready pupils.  Teachers are paid to deliver curriculum whether students are ready or not (though the good ones try to minimize this friction); students are mandated to be there.  The option to be formally uneducated isn't available in Ontario nowadays, we've institutionalized education into a mandatory process.  This regimented system reduces student readiness to engagement and throws the concept of patiently waiting for student readiness out the window.  That patience suggests a process where student learning is the main focus.  Have we lost the freedom to patiently wait for student readiness to the systemic efficiencies of regimented grading?

That a teacher will appear when you need them to advance your learning is a wonderful thought.  It suggests that teaching is implied in mastery, which isn't the case nowadays.  In a time before mastery was monetized, keeping it alive by passing on skills rather than maximizing personal income was a big part of mastery.  Waiting on student readiness also places great value on the student, making their preparedness the priority in learning.  Engagement isn't an issue with the student who seeks a teacher.  Perhaps the issue is that we're buried in teachers nowadays.

That the teacher-student relationship has been subverted by the education system is old news.  Historically, learning was an experience unique to each individual, usually prompted by innate skill and desire.  Systematizing education might mean more people get educated, but not in with the same rigour and certainly not for the same reasons.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of systemic education is the externalization and abstraction of learning criteria.  By setting standards and holding students to them we create a system that has measurable criteria for curriculum, teacher and standards effectiveness.  We do this to create the appearance of academic credibility, so learning is not the focus of this kind of education, system integrity is.  This modern approach to learning creates a strange distance in the classroom from learning which has led to such insightful comments as, "Those who can do, those who can't teach."

When the Zen koan that kicked this off was written a thousand years ago people who taught did so from their own mastery and were driven to do it to keep their expertise alive. Students were driven to learn from a radical sense of self preservation; their learning was central to their lives and livelihood.  Teaching wasn't considered a skill in itself, but was an important tool to keep mastery alive.  When we separate teaching from mastery, as helpful as that is for school systems to generate curriculum, qualify teachers and graduate students, it leads us to a strange place where teaching and learning have little to do personally with the people in the classroom.  Education has only evolved into this odd system in the past two centuries. 

For the vast majority of human history education has been a bespoke experience, unique to the individual.  It didn't happen on a rigid timeline overseen by bureaucrats, and it often didn't happen at all.  When it did happen it was focused on mastery learning, which couldn't happen until the student was ready for it.  That kind of patience is missing from our classrooms and is one of the main reasons it feels so forced, and fake.

Imagining that pre-industrial intensely personal world of learning from our perspective way up here in the regimented twenty-first Century is difficult, yet it is how human beings learned for millennia.  In that long ago world many people were left behind, but for the few who were driven to achieve excellence the master would appear when needed.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Ebb & Flow of Pedagogy in Education

The intention of Dusty World is to work through ideas I'm having around teaching.  Since I'm a technology teacher, a lot of those ideas are tech-focused.  This week, after years of forced contracts and an unbelievably rough round of negotiation, my union has voted to accept an austerity contract that was bargained virtually at gun-point.  Since our last bargained contract we've been wage reduced, had benefits striped and work load increased.  By the end of this contract we'll be looking at more than a 10% reduction in take home income when inflation is considered.

The politics of the agreement aside, what does something like this do to my work environment?  Instead of focusing on pedagogy and excellence in learning, I find myself performing damage limitation.  Knowing that my employer focuses on finances rather than pedagogy is difficult to hear, but when the school board association walks into negotiations demanding dictatorial control over teacher time, stripped benefits and wage reductions, you can't help but come to that conclusion.

Teaching is a human activity, and I am the human face at the end of a large, faceless, increasingly politically driven bureaucracy.  I'm supposed to be teaching my students how to manage digital technology so it doesn't manage them, but increasingly I find my time being spent trying to protect my students from a system intent on doing less for less.  When I'm cobbling together 8 year old computers just to give students a chance at hands on learning, or trying to calm agoraphobic students in overcrowded spaces, or sourcing fans to keep the classroom temperature from boiling because we have thirty two old machines huffing away in there, quality of instruction is obviously not the goal.

The education system goes through changes in focus all the time, and the effectiveness of learning waxes and wanes depending on the political climate. I began teaching in Ontario in 2004 and my early years were in a system in recovery from Mike Harris' "unprecedented disinvestment in public education, which destroyed a historical competitive advantage in the space of a decade."

Ontario's public education system, under reasonable management, saw huge steps forward in terms of effectiveness.  Before the cuts began in 2012, Ontario's education system was top 5... in the world, and, with BC, led Canada up the charts.  You can imagine how satisfying it must have been to work in an environment like that.  I'd often find myself developing lessons or reading about teaching techniques on a Saturday night.  I didn't take a summer off in my first eight years of teaching, taking many additional qualifications (at my own expense) and teaching online to expand my skills.  With the amount of time I spent at it, I was probably dancing with minimal hourly wage, but I didn't care because I threw myself into my profession and my profession looked after and encouraged me.

That sort of intensity appeals to me, I enjoy the challenge and get a lot of satisfaction out of doing a difficult thing well, but it depends on support.  Anyone doing anything well does it because they have good support around them.  If you don't believe me watch any professional sport.  When you suddenly find yourself losing common sense arguments around class sizes based on safety and access to tools, you start to wonder whether going all in is that productive, or healthy for you.
One of the best bits of advice I got at teacher's college was,
"always be ready to go to work again tomorrow."  I didn't
used to get frazzled running hard, but now I do.

It was nice to start my career in a time of such positive pedagogically driven education.  I got to do that because the teachers before me suffered through a decade of cheap nastiness.  We've swung back to the cheap nastiness now, but rather than fight it we vote for it.  I was willing to fight for better, but the vast majority of secondary public teachers are ok with less.  How will that translate to their work in the classroom?

I'm going to have to reconsider my survival strategies.  If I throw myself all in and then get slew footed by a lack of support, I tend to get emotional about it.  Rather than do that, perhaps a little distance is the better way; a less passionate, more circumspect approach to the classroom.  How do you think that will play with students?

If I want to test myself by finding excellence in what I do, the Ontario classroom isn't where that's going to happen.  In 2015 it has become a political wasteland of compromise and an excuse to do things cheaply for political gain.  I'll do what I can to protect the students I am given, but the goal isn't excellence in learning any more, it's do less with less.

Fortunately, I have a lot of hobbies.  I'll find other aspects of my life to throw myself into with abandon.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Implications of a Situated Intelligence in Education

One of the big shocks I got in philosophy was reading Bertrand Russell's Analysis of Mind.  If you can get through it, you come to the startling realization that we are barely conscious at all.  Russell does a thorough job of demystifying how our minds work.

With The Singularity looming, a number of films attempt to
imagine what a super-human intelligence would look like.
If you can imagine a being with the mental capacity to be constantly self-aware and conscious, you begin to see just how different from us it would be.  We have flashes of self awareness, moments of conscious consideration, but more often than not we fall back on instinct and autonomic processes.  An always on intelligence would never surrender a decision to involuntary reflex, but we do it all the time.  Basic processes aren't the only thing at stake here.  If you've ever found yourself in your driveway but unable to remember the drive home, you're performing complex mental and physical processes without conscious thought.

That greater intelligence is able to consider and respond in non-reflexive ways to all physical and mental challenges.  Practice is what we use to get around our limited ability to attend to the world around us.  With sufficient muscle memory from repetitive action, we are able to do pretty amazing things with our limited attention spans, but we have to offload cognitive capacity to our muscles and the world around us to achieve it.

The idea that we are dislocated minds that exist metaphysically is one of the last remnants of pre-Enlightenment thinking.  From souls to Descartes' ghost-in-the-machine, we've long cherished the idea that our selves exist beyond the mundane world in which we find ourselves.  But the very idea of a self only happens because its situated in reality.  Context, rather than self awareness, is what gives us the continuity required to acquire a sense of self.  Your 'youness' isn't a magical property that exists in the ether, it's a consequence of your mind interacting with the world around you.  What you think of as your mind is actually a network that expands beyond your head and through your body into the world around you.

A skilled person recognizes this process and 'jigs' their environment, using their surroundings to support their work.  You see this in everything from a scientist's lab to a short-order cook's kitchen, to a teacher's classroom; they all design their work environment to allow them to do their jobs better (assuming they are good at what they do, of course).  In extreme jobs, like professional sports, this jigging takes on almost talismanic power.  Our psychology places a lot of value in how effectively our immediate surroundings can be used to serve us.   Our intelligence leaks out into the world, forming it to our will, unless we intentionally block it.

I took that advice to heart.
Jigging of their environment is a window into student learning.  As a teacher you can see how thoroughly a student understands a process by how well they manipulate their environment.  The student who can't find the right tool for the job probably doesn't understand the job very well.  My father always used to give me a hard time for leaving his workshop in a mess.  I get it now.  If you can't find a tool when you're in the middle of a complex task, you won't be able to perform the task well.  My father's assessment of the dirty shop was actually an assessment of my understanding of the craft of mechanic.

True mastery learning requires an advanced practitioner to
jig their working environment to produce complex work.
This isn't that.
The stock classroom is a Cartesian throwback to the disassociated minds myth: our minds are magical buckets which we can fill with information.  But of course they aren't, they are fractured, non-continual biological processes designed to interact with the world around them.  A human mind only blossoms in the presence of an interactive reality.  You have to shed the myth of mind to see the absurdity of the typical classroom.

If education is going to adapt to this simple truth, it needs to recognize that learning isn't confined to mental processes.  Even cognitively focused courses of study, like mathematics, are recognizing that tangible representation improves student learning.  If you teach students like brains in boxes, you don't get too far.

Recognizing tangibles in teaching concepts is only the first part of this incorporation of an accurate philosophy of mind in learning.  The real power comes in creating learning environments that encourage student control.  If you're teaching anything sufficiently complicated, then allowing students control of their learning environment will only improve their chances of mastery.  It also allows teachers a vital insight into how well a student understands the material they are learning.  If a student arranges to use a chainsaw to sharpen a pencil, you have to doubt their grasp of the subject at hand.  If a student begins a project and finds they have nothing that they need to complete it (which happens frequently in building electronic circuits in my lab), you have a better understanding of just how little they know.  The worst thing we can do is what we do now, put students in institutionally designed spaces that demand conformity and tell them to do it in their heads... and then agonize over engagement.


Bertrand Russell, On Mind
Finishing off Descartes' ghosts
Rene Descartes, ghost in the machine
If we can't have souls, we can have magical, metaphysical minds!
Matt Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head
A modern dismantling of Enlightenment ideology that has run wild
I recently attended Stratford's Possible Worlds.  
It plays on a conceit that you see in a lot of drama (Jacob's LadderInceptionThe Matrix), that we would be incapable of realizing that the world around us isn't real.  This conceit trivializes reality and sends us back into that superstitious state of magical minds.

I'd argue that our existence actually precedes and produces our intelligence.  We wouldn't be what we are if we were brains in boxes being fed information; reality defines our intelligence.  I had a lot of trouble getting into Possible Worlds because it used science and tech babble to lead the audience through a fractured dreamscape, depending on our belief in magical minds to suspend our disbelief.

Right Now It's Perfect

Over heard the other day while everyone was getting ready for the first day of school:  "It's clean, everything is where it's supposed to be, it's perfect!"

I disagree.  This is as far from perfect as a school can get.  Give it a few weeks full of messy, chaotic learning and then it will start to approach the kind of perfection a school is capable of.

I can't wait to take the shine off it!