Sunday, 31 January 2016

Consumerist Learning

I tried carrots, sticks and begging. I offered repeated hands-on opportunities with thousands of dollars of equipment (that I maintain just for their use), access to the latest industry standard training methods and information, flexible deadlines, and just about everything else imaginable. We're at semester's end and I'm exhausted trying to get students to take an active role in their learning.

As consumerist thinking gets more deeply embedded in our culture more and more students think I'm some kind of educational store clerk who isn't doing a good job of serving them. The only relationship they can understand me having with them in the classroom is that of an employee. This isn't only a student perception. Many of the powers that be would love to see a de-professionalization of the teaching profession (it's cheaper!). This is a current social trend.

Disaffected students looking to control how I assess them fall into two camps: the risk averse academic and an exciting new kind of student: the five-oh (a term coined by seniors at my school for a student who is aiming for a grade in the forties because they know it'll be rounded up to a pass). You don't have to do an awful lot to get a mark in the forties. You can miss weeks of class, not hand in major assignments and fail tests but still pull off a forty. You also tend to do a wonderful job of poisoning a classroom when this is your approach.


What drove me around the bend this week was several of these poisonous five-oh's approaching me to complain about their term grade. One seventeen year old who had missed three weeks of class and failed to hand in multiple unit summatives, all while playing games on the class PC and ignoring instruction even when he was there, approached me to demand an explanation for his terrible grade. It was somehow my fault that he categorically refused to do anything useful. I suggested we look at his participation in the current group-study project for the final exam. He hadn't even signed up for it - he is nothing if not consistent. I told him something that's as much a survival mechanism for me as it should be a consolation for him:  


"look, you don't care. You seem to be OK with that, and I can live with it too, but not if you're going to come up here whining about grades you haven't earned. The grade you have is charity, but you come up here demanding more. If you'd have put in any kind of effort at all I'd be doing back-flips trying to help you, but you didn't, and you still aren't. Your grade is reflection of your terrible work ethic. I don't know what you know, but what I've seen suggests it isn't much. That's also a result of your work ethic. Are we done here?"

It turns out we were done there.

Less bothersome because they don't actively work to dismantle the entire learning apparatus of education is the risk-averse academic. I've run into 'you don't teach properly' frustrated student thinking before. This is inevitably spouted by a relatively successful student who has been taught to be a passive consumer of learning in an overly structured and systemic classroom. These students tend to be academic kids who have figured out the game, and like the five-oh, they are looking to exploit it while doing as little as possible themselves. You give me pointless, linear, obvious information, I consume it then regurgitate it for you. You think I'm very smart and give me an 'A'.


Marking exams the other day I came across just such a 'you didn't teach us anything', they got this in the response section:


"I didn't really teach you?  I have provided you with gigs and gigs of material and thousands of dollars of hands on equipment in an environment designed to support everyone from experienced to brand new learners. If you think learning is someone putting ideas in your head you've misunderstood learning (telling people what to think is indoctrination). You learn when you internalize information, and that happens best when you are the one discovering it.  You can't own knowledge you haven't earned.  Learning isn't a handout, you're not a passive consumer of learning, it's an active endeavour on the part of the student.  If you're waiting for someone else to tell you what to think, you aren't learning anything at all."

This is a relatively successful student who refused to make mistakes and sat there passively, waiting for clarity. Clarity means getting concise, linear directions that make clear a pointless exercise (so you can follow the pattern and get an 'A'). Guess what his parents do for a living? Yep, they're teachers. Fortunately for him (if not for learning
Thank goodness 'tech millionaires' (the same people
who have monetized your attention) have a solution
to one of the last non-economic human relationships
left in Western culture (I bet it involves monetizing
the teacher-student relationship somehow!)
itself), he'll find many teachers more than happy to play the game with him. 

I encourage and reward failure and admire brave attempts at understanding stochastic processes that defy easy description. I guess I'm a nightmare of a teacher.

Between the insidious five-ohs and the ever-so-smart risk-aversers, I'm exhausted.  I'd day dream (as other high school teachers do) about teaching in post secondary, but this consumerist thinking has infected it too, with helicopter parents demanding to know what they're paying for when their university child (in their twenties) gets a low grade.  I'd prefer to teach high school anyway, you get to help a student find their way from the ground up.  When it works it's very rewarding.

You'd think that teaching an optional subject like computer technology would get you out of the five-oh infection, but thanks to guidance dropping kids into a class they have no background in just to fill up their time tables, and the five-ohs themselves seeking out courses that they think will be easy (computer engineering?  that's video games, right?), I've had a rough semester.  The next one doesn't look much better since I've already found half a dozen students parachuted into senior computer engineering classes without the required requisite (computer engineering?  that's playing video games, right?).

I've spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of my own time getting comp-tech certified as a teacher and building a department up. This year is the first time I'm teaching a full schedule of computer-technology courses, but half way through it I find myself wishing I'd never left teaching English. I thought that teaching computer technology (a passion I've had since I was a child) would be thrilling, a chance to help other kids like I was develop into capable engineers and technicians, but between risk averse passivity and the rising tide of learning poisonous five-ohs, I'm left gasping for air.


Saturday, 23 January 2016

Difficult Metrics: The end of Creativity & Play in Learning

CBC's Spark had an interview with Scott Barry Kaufman this week about his theories on creativity.  His identifiers for creativity include solitude, introspection, daydreaming and having new and varied experiences.  This reads like a laundry list of things education does poorly, or not at all.

The linear and systemic nature of learning in the education system is always on my mind as summatives happen and semesters end.  As I watch the system trundle towards final assessment (which means a lot of number generation), I'm always left wondering where the learning went.

Sometimes the internet feels like a meme confluence.  In this case related ideas of creativity and play mix together, making me question education's intent in designing learning environments that stifle both things.  From the education system's perspective, play is what you do when you're not learning, that's why they call it recess, yet Kaufman and a number of other thinkers believe that play is an incredibly rich learning opportunity.


A tweet by Mathias Poulsen on the marginalization of play in society got me thinking about the role of play in learning.  Play and creativity are inexorably linked in my mind.  When I play I create.  When I create, I'm playing.  I usually learn an awful lot in such a rich environment as well.

There are two aspects of modern society that drive the control paradigm Mathias refers to in his tweet.  Both flourish under the watchful eye of neo-liberal value theory.  Data collection is one aspect of this economic/social model and it's happily provided by digital technology which seems designed to produce this sort of data.  With everything itemized the next step is to monetize it.  With absolute oversight better profits are ensured, but only for the people who can afford the absolute oversight.

Modern economic theory touts data driven metrics as the way toward a more perfect
Data increasingly connects the
dots and defines who you are.
It used to be a more organic
process, but now it's done by
machine.
efficiency, and education has been eager to leap on board this very rational (at least that's how it's marketed) approach.  By quantifying everything we're able to better manage people and property, not that there is a distinction.  The people who manage us are obviously big fans of this data driven approach.  It lends the air of mathematical credibility while also offering an automated ease of use.  No more worrying about people as people when you're managing them from data.


It seems like an air-tight trap.  You are what you do and we can produce oodles of data that show what you do.  But there are aspects of human being that still defy the data driven trajectory of our society.   Creativity and the play that causes it to bloom are a pain to try and quantify and manage, even with the latest analytically insightful digital tools.  The only way education has managed to make data from a process as complicated as learning is to grossly simplify that learning in order to produce data to feed the machine, but play and creativity defy even this heavy handed approach.  You can grossly simplify learning with standardized testing, but all the testing in the world can't capture creativity.

The best corporate thinking suggests making a fertile space for creativity and the play that can produce it, but keep management out of it!  Education isn't as driven by the need to innovate and tends to model its management practices after classroom management anyway.  Education, with its hierarchical thinking and conservative approach, is a much riper environment for data driven absolutism than business ever was.

As a result of this data-driven press, play and creativity are increasingly foreign to the modern classroom.  If it can't be itemized, quantified and easily compared it isn't really useful as an aspect of learning; it's not part of the system.  This is backed up by serious people with data who talk about how a rigorous, intellectually meaningful curriculum can only happen through the mathematical certainty of data-collection.   Less time is given to play and creativity is re-cast as something only geniuses (or the very rich - they're often the same) have, you can't learn by practising it.  Students are encouraged to get in step with the 'real world' and produce quantifiable material by following transparent and unwavering rubrics, lesson plans and standardized tests.  The data produced in this fish-bowl of honesty allows the education system to accurately and completely (except for the bits we ignore) evaluate student ability and direct them to the most efficient career pathway.  This is handy because career pathways are the only reason schools exist any more.

One of the benefits of a liberal society is the generation of a thriving creative class.  If we can't compete on the cheapness of human labour (because we don't the produce quantity of people other societies do), then we can compete on creativity.  Except our data driven approach to learning (and everything else, really) means we are letting creativity atrophy in our children.  

The only people who think creativity is a natural talent you can't teach are people too lazy to nurture their own.  Those kind of people really like data driven thinking because it means they don't have to do much thinking themselves.

The answer is yes.  Sir Ken is a popular educational trope.
Teachers are encouraged to watch a video that criticizes
education and then they're told to prepare students for
standardized tests and grade them with numbers.

Like any hard-won skill, creativity demands commitment to change, metacognitive clarity and growth, and it can be frustratingly non-linear.  One sure way to spark creativity is to create an empty space, the solitude Kaufman spoke of, in which your mind is encouraged to produce its own outcomes.  This can't happen in an always-on society where your attention is constantly being sought by digital thought merchants who have monetized your attention.  The habits you develop in this brave new world are so orchestrated that your mind quickly forgets how to structure itself; it comes to depend on digitally structured environments.

Another way to spark creativity is play, but not the kind of pre-determined outcome play you find in video games.  Play in those situations is more like the training of a Pavlovian dog; small rewards for correct behaviour.  You win because you're scripted too.  Open ended play means there isn't a script to follow, there is no right way to do it.  It means there isn't a specific outcome, you're back to conditioning when you demand specific outcomes.  In play-space the outcomes are often unexpected, and can't be described in win/lose terms (once again, a specific outcome).

Creativity has no required outcomes.  The creative process does produce outcomes, but they aren't handed down from on high by curriculum, nor do they look alike.  In a class of thirty students (not much solitude there, but you deal with what you're given), each creative outcome may look so unlike the others that it is nearly impossible to track them all back to the same starting point.  As a standardized test result this is a disaster.  How do you rubric that?  How do you grade creativity?  How do you determine if Billy is 3% more creative than Bob?  The system demands numbers, you better give it them.

We're here to teach people, not have fun... and
intelligence has nothing to do with it!
Fortunately, education has found a scripted way to insert play into learning!  Gamification connects well with educational thinking because they both are directed toward predetermined, specific outcomes.  When educators get all giddy about applying gamification to learning they are harnessing the current digitally driven social trend of attention engagement for their own ends.  They might feel that using this rather nasty process for the good of learning makes it alright, but the ends don't justify the means in learning.  How you do it matters.

Gamification isn't play.  You don't magically produce play by gamifying a lesson plan, though our data driven reflex will happily accept this absurd simplification if it makes us feel like we're with the times, and producing the same thing that Google and Apple are looking for: engagement.  Teachers and multi-nationals all looking for the same thing?  That's got to be a good sign.  Our students are trained by financially bottomless digital giants to spend hours connected online.  Education should harness that reflex, right?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink, unless you can exactly measure the horse, the distance it has to travel and its circumstances and then manipulate the environment so that drinking becomes the only possible outcome.  That's gamification in education.  Data driven thinking would suggest that with enough detail (happily provided by digital multi-nationals intent on not paying taxes while reaping record profits) we can engage a student and invisibly lead them to curriculum required (and usually very specific) learning outcomes.

Societies are societies because they've established patterns of thinking that the majority support.  To diverge from that pattern is to move towards the edges of social acceptance.  If you go too far you'll have passed beyond social norms and become a pariah.  Society is very good at inventing words to describe people who aren't conforming properly.  Creativity produces new thinking and so creatives tend to be outliers.  A liberal society accepts these creatives more than a conservative one (it is a distinct advantage of a liberal society).

If there is one social mechanism that enforces social norms it's the public education system.  It has greater social contact with the population than the police or healthcare and focuses on the most pliable citizens (children).  This is generally done as benevolently possible, except when society itself has made some poor decisions, then public education quickly changes from an agent of personal empowerment to a means of indoctrination.  That education seems unwilling and incapable of fostering creativity through play shouldn't come as a surprise.  That kind of nonsense isn't conducive to a well organized, radically transparent, data-driven, modern classroom.  You're not going to produce cooperative citizens if you ignore those societal truths.

Perhaps asking the education system to protect and nurture creativity and encourage play is beyond its capabilities.  As an agent of social conformity education tends to be the anathema of creatives, the lowest point in their creative lives, but if education doesn't nurture and protect creativity don't expect Twenty First Century Canadian society to do it.  Our society is becoming more stratified and rigid thanks to increasingly rigorous data driven control.  In a world where our attention is monetized and trained to expect digital frameworks, we are increasingly defined and limited by the data collected about us.  Play is a quantifiable waste of time and the creativity that arises from it is being cast aside.  

Ironically, this is going to cost our society billions.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

the end of comments in a flattening media-hierarchy

Oh, the incivility!
Recently the Toronto Star turned off online comments on their website.  I beat them to it by about a year.  I was recently asked why I would do that.  Don't I want people to interact with my online content?

I sure do!  And if they want to they can share my blog and then comment on it to their heart's content.  What do I possibly get out of running a comments section on a blog?  Nothing!  If you ask for a login no one bothers to do it, if you allow open, anonymous comments you get buried in advertising and nastiness, the typical by-products of human interaction.

With the advent of pervasive social media the idea of needing a comments section within your online content has had its day.  Anyone reading online content has their own social media presence of some sort nowadays.  They are more than welcome to leverage that in order to comment on my content.  In doing so they share my content.  It's the least they can do if it prompted them to have an opinion on it that they want to share.


That's one big infographic!
We've moved from stratified, traditional, paper based media delivery though early adopter online media delivery to a more mature, everyone-has-a-presence-online media delivery system (nicely explained in this essay lambasting education's inability to free the essay from its millennium of bondage).   Embedded comment sections are a hold-over from an earlier internet where online readers tended not to have their own online presence.

Digital technology is forcing an increasingly flat media-scape.  Millennials spend almost no time in traditional media.  They could barely pay attention to Star Wars in the theatre when I was there last week.  I've stopped showing videos in class because asking Millennials to watch media simultaneously is alien to them and frustrating for me.  In a world where people distrust and often ignore the patronizing nature of traditional media it's best not to fight the flow.

If you're determined to hang on to the comment section in your online content you're swimming against the current.  You're assuming that your content is somehow more established, more authentic, more valuable.  You are belittling your visitors' online presence by making them work in yours.  It's ultimately about you refusing to surrender control of your content in an increasingly democratic communication medium.  That idea of control is a holdover from traditional, paper-based media hierarchies, it isn't surprising that a newspaper struggled with this.  You've got to let it all go Neo.

If you want insipid examples of human nastiness and stupidity you'll find them online, especially in anonymous, internal comment sections.  I'd long stopped reading The Star's comment section for this very reason.  I also tend to blacklist those brave (often conservative) souls on twitter and other social media who hide behind anonymous or fake user names.  They feel very brave and are usually overly aggressive in their anonymity.

What's funnier are those people who create social media presences based on their real self and then proceed to advertise their ignorance to the world.  If someone is going to confuse Twitter with texting there isn't much we can do for their employment prospects.  People who are nasty online tend to get bitten though.   It's a self correcting process and it's happening less and less because we're getting better at it.


This flattening media-scape isn't just hurting traditional media, it's also snapping at people who don't realize that their reach has changed.  Democratizing media means empowering people who have no experience with publication, and make no mistake, every time you post on social media you're publishing to the entire planet.  People in Timbuktu can read your tweets if they are so inclined.

There will come a point when there have been enough cautionary tales and social experience with self-publication that people will learn best practices and the vast majority will realize just how empowered and potentially dangerous we've all become in our flat new world.

In the meantime, if people want to comment on my content they're welcome to share away, but I'm not providing a comments section because it belittles my reader's own online presence and dilutes my material with mean and often irrelevant comments.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Money Trap

I know it's hard to imagine, but there was a time when money did not dictate your self-value. This seems a foreign concept in the twenty-first Century, but prior to the neo-liberal ideas that we now take for granted humans valued themselves in very different ways.

Bucky's quote popped up the other day and got me thinking about self-value. Can you imagine a world where the purpose of people was to push the boundaries of their thinking instead of being forced into servitude to an economic system
 that reduces them to drudgery?

Rather than battle this kind of reductionist and inhuman economic thinking, education has been struggling to get on board with it (there is nothing worse than looking like you're out of step with society - it's never wrong).  Pathways to employment is modern education's reason for being, and it plays nicely into 1% thinking that earning money is all that matters, all that makes you worthwhile.


The rich want you to self-identify with your earning potential, then they own your means of happiness. When your self-worth is tied to your ability to earn a trivial income you are drip-fed your reason for being by people who (according to your own core belief that money is what makes you valuable) will happily starve you for their own ends.

Asking a 21st Century person to believe that their income does not dictate their self value is impossible. This kind of viral capitalism is every bit as limiting to human potential as medieval serfdom, dogmatic church states or god-kings.

People are fond of criticizing history for ideas that seem silly in retrospect.  These are the very same people who argue for and justify our current woeful state of being.  Our unsuccessful students aren't high earners.  Our successful students go to work for those oil companies.  It's a difficult thing to see past the myths, misinformation and indoctrination of our own culture, but I suspect you'll never find happiness if you don't, especially in the early twenty-first Century.


***

It's the day before classes start again and I'm up at 6am after too many tedious work anxiety dreams (not of being in the classroom, but of being in school.  Teaching doesn't freak me out, the systemic nature of modern education does).

I had a good break, but now I'm back to seeing how far I can encourage free thinking before I crash into The System again.  I'm a 20%er at heart.  I always tend toward the more difficult road, I get more out of travelling on it but it's tiring being a minority all the time.

This isn't the first time I've been away from the classroom for a few days, found some perspective and wondered if I'm in the best place to learn.  The irony isn't lost on me.