Sunday, 25 May 2014

Suffering And Sacrifice in Eastern Thinking

A student used this as a graphic
text in an English Elearning course
I had an English student hand this in yesterday as an example of a graphics text.  The assignment was to create three questions with answers based on the graphic text.  This is a surprisingly quick way to assess a student's understanding of a graphic text (well done Elearning Ontario).

But ya gotta be careful with the manga, it can get deep quickly, especially when you throw cultural differences into the mix.  The student's understanding of this snippet fell into a number of problems, not the least of which was the yawning gap between how a Christian middle-class, white teen in rural Ontario and the Buddhist, Japanese writer of the manga interpret suffering.

The student took "a painless lesson is one without any meaning" and focused on the lack of meaning.  He suggested when random, pointless things happen to you, you should just roll with it; suffering just happens arbitrarily.  I like how student's analysis of a text often tells you more about them than it does about the text.


Incompetence: when students suddenly decide to try they
think instant success will follow because the only thing
preventing it before was their lack of effort.  It turns out
that mastery requires  a bit more than showing up once.
I wrote back suggesting that without fully committing to what you're doing and suffering loss and sacrifice in the process, you never really learn anything.  Only by being fully committed to your lesson, and possibly losing something valuable to you in the process, can you hope to truly learn.  A painless, safe lesson is meaningless because you'll never learn (keep) anything from it.  It's also useless because you're not working at the ragged edge of your abilities, so you're not doing anything you haven't done before.  Put another way, no risk, no reward.

The student didn't seem interested in my interpretation.  It fits a Western 21st Century teen's world view to frame learning in terms of pointless suffering and minimal personal investment.  By being an intentionally ineffective agent in an arbitrary world, you can blame everything except yourself for your circumstances.  Your abilities are never in question because you are never the architect of any failure.


Eastern thinking is an ongoing fascination for me.  I did my first two years as a teacher in Japan. This student's graphic text was especially resonant because I'd just read this the week before:
The nail that stands highest gets hammered down.
What looks like cruelty takes on a different tone
when you consider how stress and suffering
are integrated into Eastern Culture.

Struggle for Smarts: How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning
From a Western perspective, struggle is "a sign of low ability — people who are smart don't struggle, they just naturally get it, that's our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity."

Like the author of that article, I saw Japanese students almost revelling in the difficulty of what they were failing at.  That difficulty and failure is what made it all the more satisfying when they eventually found success.  The Japanese don't toss out suffering because it's difficult, they use it to leverage learning and they do it in a culturally immersive way.  What looks like cruelty to foreign eyes is actually a sign of respect from a Japanese perspective.  If everyone is focused on doing their best then the rest will happen.  We're much more focused on the end result in the West.


They don't say good luck in Japan,
they say gambate, do your best.
I studied Kendo while I was in Japan.  In the thousand year old temple that was our dojo I was the only gaijin.  For the first six months I couldn't get anyone to teach me defence.  My Sensei (a principal at the local high school) said I should be focused entirely on attack, if you think defensively you'll never succeed.  I liked the boo-ya Bushido samurai thinking behind this, but suspected it was really because the other students loved beating the hell out of me with a stick.  I used to come home cross eyed from getting hit on the head, but I wouldn't give up, I'm stupid like that, but it turns out that this stubbornness was what the Japanese enjoyed most about me.

I also played hockey while in Japan.  I had all sorts of trouble getting comfortable with my team mates until we had a wedding party that never ended followed by a morning hockey game.  We were a wreck, but seeing me in that kind of misery seemed to break down all the barriers.  Did the Japanese like to see me suffer, or did they like to see me gambatte?  It's all about the effort, not the result in Japan.  It took me a long time to see it from an Eastern point of view.

Resiliency and genuine, deeply personal learning are born of failure, Eastern thought embraces this.  Western students, by contrast, preempt failure by refusing to fully commit to learning in the first place.  When they fail they shrug because they know it isn't their failure;  you can't lose if you don't play.  Our glorious sense of Western individualism is remarkably fragile.  Isn't this all about protecting egg-shell egos?  Western education systems encourage this approach by presenting learning in the most impersonal, abstract way possible and hiding any failures.  Safety nets abound ensuring that students can disengage from learning the moment it becomes difficult.

You'd never expect a Western school to take the weakest kid in the class and have them display their lack of skill in front of everyone as happens in that article, but then you'd not expect Western students to earnestly cheer the student when they overcome repeated frustration and see success either.  I suspect Stigler is right, we frame struggle in terms of a lack of intelligence rather than recognizing it as the foundation of resilience and genuine learning.

That English student stepped in a surprisingly deep puddle with that graphic text.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

"You Never Teach Us Anything"

I had an interesting chat with a student yesterday.  He's yellow, I'm green:

"You never teach us anything."
"By teaching do you mean do it for you?"
"Um, yes?"
"I don't do everything for you because unless you figure it out for yourself, you haven't figured out anything at all."
"... but you never help."
"I don't think that's true, I offer suggestions, and give you a framework to develop ideas in, I've provided you with thousands of dollars of free equipment and access to professional level learning resources.  Have I never helped?"

"Ok, so you've helped, but you don't teach."
"What do you think teaching is?"
"When someone tells you want you should know..."

"Do you think that's what a lesson is?  When someone gives you information?"
"Yeah, isn't it?"

Good question that, isn't a lesson when you tell people what they should know?  Isn't teaching when you do everything for the student so they can be passive receptacles?

That a strong student who has 'figured out' the education system has such a poor view of our profession is worrying.  I wonder how many teachers it took before he saw pedagogy as a fill in the blank exercise.  

I wonder what it will take now to have him take possession of his own learning.  I don't imagine that will happen before post secondary, and when it does it will be a shock.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Archetypal Emotional Response In High Stress Learning

An editorial piece I read in Bike Magazine a while back has stayed with me.  In it the author (a veteran motorcycle trainer) was describing how a rider's emotional response to high stress situations limits their ability to learn from them.  It struck me because I still catch myself falling into both of the archetypal mind traps he describes.  I now struggle to get beyond them and adopt the clinical approach of a master learner that he suggests.

In a high-stakes, emotional environment like riding you can't be trowing tantrums or assigning blame (though many do), you need to be calm and aware in order to both assess a situation as its happening and accurately recall and learn from it later.  Emotion is a natural response to high stress situations but it often gets in the way of attaining mastery.

The author of the piece (I'm still looking for it but I think I lent the magazine out) suggests that people fall into archetypal behaviors when they are stressed and emotional. These behaviours prevent you from making coherent decisions in the moment as well as preventing progress by hiding memory details behind ego and emotion.  The two archetypes we fall back into are child and parent.  Since we're all familiar with these roles it only makes sense that we'd revert to them when we are under pressure.

The child throws tantrums and reacts selfishly, aggressively and emotionally.  People falling into this mind-set shout and cry at the circumstances and focus on blaming others.   The child is emotional and blind to just about everything around them except the perceived slight.  This approach tends to be dangerously over-reactive.  Have you ever seen a student blow up in an asymmetrical way over a minor issue?  They have fallen into the child archetype emotional trap.

The parent mind-set seems like an improvement but it is just as effective at blocking learning.  The parent shakes their head disapprovingly and focuses on passing judgement.  You'll see someone in this mind-set tutting and rolling their eyes at people.  The parent is focused on passing judgement loudly and publicly.  You can probably see how easy it is for teachers to fall into this one.

The child is selfish, emotional and immediate.  The parent wraps themselves in a false sense of superiority that makes the user feel empowered when they might otherwise feel helpless.  Both archetypes attempt to mitigate frustration and ineffectiveness behind emotion and ego.

I've seen students stressed out by exams or other high-stakes learning situations fall into these traps but it took that motorbike instructor to clarify how students can lose their ability to internalize learning by falling into these archetypes.  He describes riders who shout and yell at someone cutting them off.  They are responding to their own poor judgement and lack of attention with the emotional outburst.  Suddenly finding themselves in danger, they lash out emotionally in order to cover up their own inadequacies.  That emotional blanket effectively hides any chance of reviewing and learning from a situation objectively.  

The parent adopts that judgmental stance.  Last summer I had a senior student who rides a motorcycle get involved in an accident.  He had bad road rash and was bruised all over.  He went with the parent approach.  The woman who hit him was panicked and frightened because she hadn't seen him.  Her own mother had been hurt in a similar motorcycle accident and she felt a lot of guilt over being the cause of this one.  The student said 'she came out of no-where'.  I said, 'that's odd, cars weight thousands of pounds.  I've never seen one appear out of nowhere before.'  Rather than review his own actions and perhaps learn to develop better 360° awareness, the student was happy to piggy-back on the driver's emotional response and pass judgement.  He never felt any responsibility for that accident and still believes that cars can come out of nowhere.



I enjoy riding because it is a difficult, dangerous craft that it is very important to do well.  In pressurized learning situations you need an alert, open mind.  I've never once seen this the focus of consideration in school (except perhaps in extracurricular sports).  What we do instead is try and remove any pressure and cater to emotionality rather than teaching students to master it.





Other Links:
Comparing Teacher PD to Motorcycle Training
Training Fear and Ignorance out of Bikecraft
Archetypal Pedagogy

Friday, 9 May 2014

Tao of Teaching

Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching


The best education is the one no one notices, the people are free to go about the business of realizing their potential.  
The next best is the education that is loved, though this distracts people from realizing their potential in favour of a shared idea.
Next is the education driven by fear where testing and failure dictate your future.
The worst is the one that is despised, this education creates such hatred that none can succeed.

Student happiness in their school system



Ah, that Tao te Ching (that's my favourite translation by Wing-Tsit Chan), it pretty much works for everything from governing to ethics to metaphysics to naming a blog...

Chapter 4... blunting sharpness, untying tangles, softening light and becoming one with the dusty world
I first came across the Tao in a fourth year philosophy class. Our prof had the six of us go through this little (5000 character!) classic in detail. It's the closest I've come to finding a holy book. At the end of the course he asked us if we could find fault with the ideas presented in it, no one could. It's a profound, deeply sensitive and honest guide to life. He then asked, will any of you give up your delusions and follow it? No one could or would. Opting out of modern society isn't easy to do. Even finding the path out is difficult.

From bad days in class to moments of clarity, the Tao te Ching offers a voice to the teaching experience:


A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.

A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.

Thus the Master is available to all people and doesn't reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations and doesn't waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.

What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.


The basics that Lao Tsu stresses are honesty, flexibility and an immediacy with creation. You'd think these simple things to keep in mind but we seem wired to cater to the distractions and abstractions of our intelligence.

There is a grace to Lao Tsu's Way that emphasizes just how fractured we are from the world today. As a teacher I see it more than most because I see generations pass before my eyes. Rapid changes in technology affect both how they see themselves while also further limiting their relationship with the reality in which they exist.


It's a pyramid, it must be true!  Hierarchy of Digital Distractions

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Binary Thinking

More notes from Phoenix, along with some editorializing:

Education is an analogue, non-linear, complex, biological process because we are non-linear, complex, biological organisms.  Data and the technology that produces it are none of those things.  Data might point to a vanishingly small piece of this complex puzzle, but it will never explain, justify or encompass education, no matter what vested interests might tell you.


We are such chameleons. The dominant thinking of our time actually changes how we see ourselves. When the social norm was religiously defined we saw ourselves as angels and demons. When industrialization occurred we described ourselves in terms of the machines we were creating. In the information age we define ourselves in terms of digital data. It's important to remember that we are none of these things, but rather the creator of all of them, and therefor greater than them all.

Digital technology is turning our thinking binary.  How do you feel today? A) good B) bad By participating in this data gathering process you have reduced your complex mental state to an absurdity.  Every question is reductive, every piece of data a feathery abstraction of a deeper, more complex meaning. Every time education acts on this reductive logic it becomes less a form of human expression and more an act of compliance with digitally limited technology. There is a branch of thinking that suggests that this is simply because technology hasn't become fast and vast enough to manage the data, but even at its best digital technology will always be limited to how it works. Even at near infinite speeds with infinite amounts of data you're still reducing reality to ones and zeroes, which it isn't.
If digital technology forces reductive binary thinking then any cost savings realized from it will come at the cost of our ability to express ourselves in all the ways that we can.

This is a transitional thought, it led to this line of thinking:

Rigour doesn't exist in data or the statistics derived from it, rigour exists at the limits of human expression. It is never dictated by the limits of hardware or software.

What do I mean by rigour? Thorough and careful - digital data is neither. It is accurate, but only in a very specific sense. We take that fine accuracy and direct it at a far larger array of cause and effect than it could possibly represent, mainly because recognizing the limits of data doesn't suit the people peddling it. Statistics never encompass the truths they claim to.

Mastery is the result of genuine experience. No one ever gained mastery from taking a test.
If genuine experience is what drives leaning, why do we keep inventing abstractions like testing to drive it?

The answer to that one is obvious: it's cheaper and easier to manage if we grossly simplify learning to the point of abstraction. Of course, that kind of hypocrisy and self-serving nonsense provokes awkward questions:

If learning is for the learner, why do we do most of what we do in education for everyone else involved?  Is education motivated by politics or pedagogy?
The easiest most self-serving way for 'educators' to dehumanize students is by reducing them to data. This becomes more self-evident when you realize that most data collected from education is focused on the system rather than improving student learning.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Moving the Needle

There were a number of incisive and critical reviews of both the U.S. education system and the role education technology plays in it at this year's ASU/GSV Summit in Phoenix.  Constance Steinkuehler mentioned data exhaust, which I've already mulled over.  At a later discussion another speaker by the name of Brandon Busteed stunned the audience with this:

“Educational technology has failed to move the needle on either cost effectiveness or student success in the past ten years…” - Brandon Busteed, Gallup Education

This is an astonishing thing to say at an education technology conference, but he went on to back up his statement with a boat load of facts that fit so well with the anecdotal experiences of the teachers in the room that many were nodding along with him.


With the magic ipad, Google Apps and wifi for everyone we must surely be personalizing education away from that industrialized factory model we all find so abhorrent. In this digital renaissance we are using our newly found access to information to individualize learning and cater to the needs of each child, right? Surely we aren't using it to create data from standardized testing. That would be like getting one of those new-fangled automobiles and then hooking your horse up to it so you could tow it into town and show it off.


Since we're in a magical revolution of information technology,
it only follows that student success and cost effectiveness
are both improving, right?  Like most statistics, this one is
completely fake - it was fun drawing the graph in prezi though
The chart on the left is completely fictitious. After reading Busteed's quote from my notes I went looking for data that would prove him wrong; I couldn't find any. What I did find was that in longitudinal analysis PISA results aren't particularly flattering to an increasingly digitized learning environment.  

Pick your country, from strong performers like Finland and Canada to poorer countries struggling to reach the average, it appears Brandon is right, education technology isn't moving the needle, in fact it may be hurting more than it helps. That PISA numbers are at best inconsistent and at worse show a decline (especially in digitally focused countries) in the past eleven years should suggest that educational technology might not be as revolutionary as we suspect, or that we're doing it wrong.

There are a number of influences pushing down student scores. Ironically, many of them are also under the influence of the information revolution. Income disparity is increasing in large part because the world is recovering from an economic crisis inflicted on it by Wall Street quants who harnessed newly available digital technology to play an economic shell game on a global scale. Workers displaced in both economic and workplace digital disruption are not able to raise their children in the same socio-economic environment that they were raised in. The middle-class itself is evaporating as the wealthy harness digital connectivity to push wealth beyond the reach of governments; technology is amoral and caters to the needs of those who can afford it without consideration for right action. Socio-economic factors are one of the key indicators in student success and the vast majority of people in the world are poorer today than they were a decade ago.

***

That digital disruption seems to feed economic disparity on a systemic basis should be a cause of concern for everyone, but especially people in an egalitarian social project like education. Is digitization a tool of income disparity? I'm not sure that we've answered that question yet, though I'd argue that if we are creating consumers rather than hackers then yes, it is. Passive acceptance and integration of digitization is a recipe for a newly efficient kind of serfdom.


This could as easily be the promise of edtech
The way digital technology disrupts existing industry is very exciting to the people who sell it. They have been so successful in presenting the idea of freedom from industrialization that digital disruption has become a desired expectation, especially for younger people. Expectation becomes inevitability but the results are producing efficiencies where we aren't looking for them. Instead of individualizing education (like all the digital education tools promise) we are using digital technology to propagate the worst aspects of the industrial system we're still clothed in, such as standardized testing and data collection. Instead of freeing us from systemic, cookie-cutter thinking, education technology is supporting a political push to re-institute data driven learning on such a wide scale that no one will be spared. The promise of easily manipulable data thrills educational management because it lends an air of credibility to what has always been a difficult to analyze process.

Instead of complexifying and diversifying our understanding of pedagogy, educational technology is supporting a political push to drastically simplify it, and it's doing it under an onslaught of data and statistics. Had other examples of digital disruption led to that promised land of personalization, self expression and equality for everyone I might have hope, but as it stands, if you're just using it you're also just feeding its assumptions.


The art of our times...
When we put technology into the hands of students without expecting them to understand it we're asking them to internalize and accept all the compromises and assumptions inherent in that technology, and make no mistake, all that complex hardware, software and networking are full of compromises.

I've said it once and I'll say it again, unless we teach students how this technology we expect them to use works, we are laying the foundation for a new generation of systemic thinkers that will make factory formatted graduates look like an egalitarian dream. There was still space to be individual among the gears of the old regime, there is no space between the ones and zeroes of the new one.