Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Watching The Sun Rise: Reflections on life and teaching in 2012/13

Stephen Hurley at VoicEd asked for a reflection as the year ends, so I'll give it a whirl.  This is going to be tricky to do without spiraling into Nietzsche's abyss.

This past school year started with the worst summer of my adult life.  I'm still recovering from my mother's suicide and I probably shouldn't have resumed teaching in the fall, but I did out of shear stubbornness.  Rather than trying to deal with this nightmare in a quiet year I got to do it during one of the most turbulent political periods in Ontario education.  You need only look over Dusty World in the fall to see the white water political ride education in general and my board in particular went through.

In a few short weeks, as OSSTF swung from a confrontational stance with the Liberal government that I supported by volunteering on our district executive and attending many rallies, I found myself suddenly muzzled by an organization that I realized I have very little in common with.  Rather than standing up for what is right, they would rather do what is expedient.  I've never been good at bending a knee to bullying, even if it does serve a political end.  It's half a year later and our OLRB complaint against OSSTF for misrepresentation is still awaiting an outcome.  Being an idealist I find this very upsetting.  It seems any organization is politically self interested before it can stand for anything else.

It's easy to forget that teachers are people, and the job is a deeply personal one.  This past year has had a number of strange confluences both personal and professional for me.  As my school and board tried to leverage the suicide of Amanda Todd to address bullying I couldn't help but feel that this was manipulating misery for some kind of administrative end.  The contrite, 'suicide is bad, don't bully someone into it' struck me as simplistic.  That cyber bulling got selected by the media as the cause of her suicide (which a number of anti-technology teachers immediately trumpeted as proof that we should back off on it) was doubly frustrating.  That Amanda, like my mother, suffered from years of mental illness tends to be ignored because dealing with something as complicated as mental illness is more than most organizations, no matter how well intentioned, are willing or able to do.  That provincial and federal governments have basically bowed out of caring for the mentally ill has put a great deal of stress on already over stressed families.  If we're going to address mental illness it better not be on a poster stuck up in a high school.  This trivializes a very complex issue.  Suicide is never a simple result of bullying, it's the most profound, existential decision you're ever going to make.  It deserves more than a soundbite.

Between the fractured politics in education and my own personal baggage 2012/13 has been a difficult year to manage.  As the storm subsided and we began our two years of government mandated contract, the school trundled on and extracurriculars resumed, kind of.  In a subdued second semester I began to get some closure with my Mum and tried to find ways to get back on my feet again.  The first semester was like watching a horse with a broken leg that didn't have the sense to lay down.  At the end of second semester I'm able to stand without it hurting so much.

With some perspective on a year that felt like nastiness was crowding in all around me, I'm able to see the good that happened too.  My wonderful wife has done backflips to help me through this, all while battling the same political nonsense and working on her Masters.  My spectacular son continues to astonish me with how deep he is getting, even as the education system continues to wring its hands over how not-normal he is.  I got a new principal who knows what she's doing and who appreciates the work I do.  I've been able to develop my professional interests both as a department head, teacher and online PLN presence.  My board has been developing a real 21st Century presence in educational technology and I feel like I've played an important part in arguing for that.  The year has been very professionally satisfying, if you ignore the Ministry, the union and the media... which is probably good advice.

Even with a nasty political infection, education in Ontario has been able to produce outstanding results, and I've been able to develop my professional self in satisfying and challenging ways.  No year is ever going to be without challenges, and the challenges of this year have been mighty, but that I'm able to find intense intellectual satisfaction in my profession is a great help when dealing with all the slings and arrows life can throw your way.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Fear & Arrogance

Quote from Bull Durham
The industrial mindset around education tends to look away from this approach to learning, but there is something to be said for bravery in the face of overwhelming odds; it's a true commitment to what you're learning.  Of course, if you're going to learn something like it matters then failure should be an expectation if anything other than competence is demonstrated.  In a school system that prides itself on stats it generates about itself, this kind of without-a-net learning doesn't happen.

When I say true commitment I mean a willingness to put your learning to the test (and I don't mean a standardized test).  There is a reflective aspect to learning that we tend to ignore in education.    We like to say we're looking at meta-cognition and self-aware learning, but only without questioning the context we frame it with.  Unless a student is considering the school system in which they find themselves complete with all its financially forced lunacy, the metacognition they are asked to endure in class is little more than another attempt to pretend rows of desks and student numbers are the ideal.  In that environment the student who shrugs and walks out of class in order to truly test themselves in a trade or other real pursuit is the only one answering the metacognitive question correctly.

Learning without concrete, relevant feedback is empty, pointless.  The type of feedback students get in school tends to be abstract to the point of emptiness.  We then wonder why their poor grades don't motivate them to try harder to get better abstract numbers, and then teachers agonize over how to 'engage' them.

When I first started to teach in Japan I tried to understand why my classes were so different even though the lessons were the same.  In looking at my learners I realized that some were intrinsically motivated and some extrinsically motivated.  The doctor who came in to work on their presentation to have their work shared in an international conference?  Those classes were stellar.  The employees who were required by management to upgrade their English?  Tedious.  Intrinsically motivated learners are a joy to teach though also a great challenge because of how voracious they are.  When we create an education system we iron out intrinsic motivation in favour of standardized, extrinsic motivations (grades, standardized test scores, report cards).  Any fear or arrogance in daring to explore and expand beyond our comfort zone is stamped out in favour of standardized assessment.

I've been learning the art and science of motorbike riding over the last couple of months.  I can't think of an activity that requires a greater commitment (except perhaps tight rope walking).  The learning process for this activity is ruthless and demanding.  I don't get days off or time to relax when I'm working on my craft.  I don't have someone constantly correcting my behavior to keep me on task.  And it hurts doing it, let alone if I do it poorly.  What got me on a bike in the first place?  Fear and arrogance; the chance to do something difficult well.  Thinking that I could learn this thing with grace and skill was a dare I've always wanted to take.  That I want to be successful in something I've seen kill other people is perverse and satisfying.

We don't like students to learn things that are challenging to them, we like them to all do the same thing on a bell curve.  We process them as statistics that we can then manage.  If you've ever tried to submit a class of all failures or all perfects you know this to be true; they want a bell curve of grades with a median in the Bs.  Student centred learning tries to put an individualized face on this, but the assessment rubric will quickly bring it back in line again.  It's unreasonable to expect a teacher to individualize learning for thirty people, but if we're going to run this like an assembly line we can't bemoan the loss of individual learning.

The real trick with learning is to want to do it.  Once you're there and you have a deeply seated need to figure out what it is you want master, you can begin to develop those skills.  In addition to fear and arrogance (two methods of not being daunted by learning a challenging skill), you should also embrace patience and a willingness to laugh at your failures without ignoring them.  With a flexible, resilient approach to learning in place you are sure to succeed at your craft, though not always in ways you may have imagined.

Mastery takes longer, but this'll get you over the steep bit
at the beginning of the learning curve
I stumbled across the chart on the right a few weeks ago on Google+.  Whenever I hear someone say, "I wish I could draw", or, "I wish I could code", or any other longed for learning you care to name, I think back to this chart and wonder why they never spent the time if they wanted it that badly; they obviously never wanted it that badly.  Learning isn't magic and teaching isn't a dark art.  The learner has to recognize the value of the learning and have an emotional need to achieve it.  The teacher has already walked that path to expertise and cultivates that love of the material by challenging the student to achieve that which is barely within their reach.  Their expertise allows them to dare the student to appropriate challenges.  Learning is a visceral, thrilling self-driven, emotional experience, not a pedantic, systemic process to be forced on rows of victims.

These moments of learning greatness where students reach for more than they should and see success (and failure) happen in schools all the time, but they are usually the result of a good teacher trying to protect students from systemic processing.  They also tend to happen in stochastic learning or extracurriculars more than the ordered learning of the class room.  In the kinetic action of arts, technology or physical education students still have the freedom of unregimented, hands on learning toward less specific ends. That stochastic space allows them room to attempt greatness, to bypass the routine learning and realize a eureka moment.  Formal classroom education irons that out with curriculum, formalized assessment and systemic teaching practice.  The freedom still evident in stochastic learning tends to unnerve the professional student and educational administrator, both of whom have learned to play the game of Education rather than simply encourage people do what they are naturally predisposed to do.  For the true apprentice hands on learning is the last bastion of real learning in our education system.  It may be the unspoken reason that killing extracurriculars in Ontario this year cut so deeply.  Only in sport and other physical activity can we appreciate the immediacy of failure and the joy of real success.  You can't bell-curve reality.

All is not lost.  We could begin revising education towards learning rather than self serving statistics gathering.

Imagine an education system that didn't work to generate its own self-serving statistics.  A school system that was focused on developing an environment in which students were able to develop a deep, intrinsic love of learning, where no extrinsic motivation existed to force them into a mold of grades and average expectations.  Failure in this system could be brutal and obvious, but students would be encouraged to attack their learning with fear and arrogance (and patience and humor) knowing that they would never be demeaned for failing but only for ignoring their failures.