Friday, 24 April 2015

Neurology: Is it the car, or the car and driver?

We had board PD today (a 3 hour lecture).  It was a presentation on neurology in learning and layered curriculum by Kathie Nunley.  I'm generally a fan of a nuanced scientific approach to human activity (as opposed to a simplistic approach to things that usually support buying something).  Dr. Nunley's neurological approach to education offered a number of insights to what we're doing wrong.  If we don't consider biological imperatives in learning we will never be as efficient as we might be.

There was a moment where I came to the end of neurological approach and the 'ol philosophy degree kicked in.  Nunley had a slide stressing the importance of the appearance of choice in learning.  She stressed how engaging it is for students when they feel like they can choose their learning.

My knee jerk response was that this was manipulation, which led me down a metaphysical rabbit hole.

Neuroscience, because it's looking at the brain, comes dangerously close to itemizing our sentience.  It also tends to reduce multi-dimensional complexity into simplistic linearity.  This idea that the appearance of choice would prompt more efficient learning would encourage any right minded teacher to manipulate their students into thinking they have learning choice in order to harness better retention.  No right minded teacher should be manipulating anyone into anything.

An analogy immediately came to mind.  Is neuroscience the car or the car and driver?  On a neuroscientific level our minds are very complex mechanical devices.  Our actions are driven by a brain developed from millennia of evolution.  There is no free-will, only complex autonomous reaction.  If that is what we are, you should have no trouble manipulating these processes to get a desired result, especially if it's a good end.  School systems should treat the people in them like cogs in a machine, because that's all they are.

If neurology is the study of the car then we can make immediate and scientifically informed choices that will improve its maintenance and operation.  As Nunley suggested in her presentation, dietary and developmental principles can be applied to maximize the functionality of our brains.  If neurology is the study of the car and driver then there is nothing else to consider.  In addition to the spiritual considerations that a number of people would find difficult to swallow, concepts like ethics or metaphysical ideals beyond the immediately knowable world of science (like honesty) may be ignored.  Neurology is the rational tool that justifies treating people like machines because that is all they are.

One of the reasons I like teaching technology is because students don't get to work in imaginary value structures.  Those would be places where the science of neurology reigns supreme, where the teacher should manipulate students to lead them to success.  It's where a 60% means you've done enough.  In the world of hands-on experience 60% is as useful as a zero.  If you don't believe me have 60% of your next brake job done and see how that goes.

Teaching technology means I get to take students inured to reality after years of 'learning' in a school system and put them in close proximity to what is rather than what we wish.  Their discomfort is obvious.  They respond with comments like, "it didn't work, but I tried real hard.  Do I get an A?"  No, you don't, and reality is unimpressed with your intellectual resilience and general work ethic.  Thank goodness human value structures don't decide everything. 

Fortunately, and despite our best efforts, we don't live in a reality based on human value structures.  The large, unknowable universe that surrounds us makes itself felt constantly.   The tiny portion of reality we feel like we have a grip on because of science is only a gross approximation; mathematics and human ideas that roughly simulate reality enough to make crude use of it.  Science thinks in terms or breakthroughs and mastery, but neither actually happens.  Neuroscience offers us some useful insight into how brains function, but it is still far from understanding our minds; the driver is still safely out of their hands.

I tend toward moral absolutism.  One of the reasons I find science so agreeable is because it attempts to tell no lies, but in the case of neuroscience it seems to make some assumptions on how much it thinks it knows about being human.  Brains aren't all we are, even though we use them as a lens to make sense of the world.

I'm going to take many of the suggestions around how to best maintain and maximize brain efficiency from this PD, but I'm not surrendering morality in the process.  If I'm going to give a student a choice it's going to be a genuine choice because I believe those are superior to the appearance of choice.  In ways not immediately measurable I know that treating students and the subject I teach honestly creates the kind of fecundity that science is still having trouble quantifying.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

What is Professionalism?

A long, contemplative ride
on the road less travelled to
self directed PD.
I attended Edcamp Hamilton this past weekend.  On a Saturday morning what did almost one hundred teachers and administrators do on the eve of a strike?  They spent their own time and money to travel to Ancaster to direct their own professional development.

Discussions ranged from technology integration to how to most effectively assess student learning (along with dozens of other topics).  What is magical about the edcamp experience is that teachers direct their own research and reflection.  There is no top down directive or education consultant being paid to sell an idea.  No one is paid to be there, no one is expected to be there, yet the room was full at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.

I've long thought that self-direction is the key element in professional development.  I'd actually argue that PD isn't PD unless it is self directed.  When you're sat in a room being indoctrinated by a talking head it isn't professional or development, it would be better described as mediocre training.  Lecturing a group of people implies that they lack knowledge and need to be informed.  It implies that they aren't professionals but unskilled employees who need direction.

I've got PD coming up this week.  PD often involves a paid consultant earnestly exhorting you to differentiate your teaching practice, but they do it in a completely undifferentiated, university style lecture.  If student centred differentiation is what you're selling, selling it in a lecture is either incredibly lazy or ignorant.  In any case it suggests a lack of integrity.

I'm trying to work out what professionalism
is in a Prezi mindmap
The professional is, at their core, self directed.  You don't become an expert in something without being able to self assess and improve your own practice.  Integrity should drive this self directed improvement by demanding competence.  That competence naturally creates a sense of responsibility that a professional is more than happy to be accountable for.  Self direction and the integrity that drives it creates a professionally responsible environment that accepts stringent accountability.

In order to develop professional standards, professionals need only be left to their own devices, and perhaps given the time and space by management to focus on excellence.  Edcamps encourage this kind of professional development, in fact they can't happen without it.  PLCs also facilitate professional development by leaving the professional to develop their own means of improvement.  I've been involved in learning fairs, unconferences and other teacher centred/teacher presented learning opportunities that have been invaluable as well as empowering.

The difference between a talented amateur and a professional is that the professional is committed to improvement and is thus willing to be accountable to their profession.  The professional abides by the practices and standards of their profession and actively works to raise them.  In this way a professional has a social responsibility to their profession that a dilettante doesn't, no matter how talented they might be.  The professional isn't a one trick pony who acts solely on talent, but a talented individual who begins with natural inclination and then works to develop it into a much wider skill-set that acknowledges the full complexity of their discipline.  Some secondary teachers fall into thinking that they are a subject expert before they are a teacher.  Being a subject expert isn't what they are being paid (professionally) to do, it's teaching.  Teaching is the professional practice we (especially at the secondary level) sometimes forget.

Accountability is where professional development with teachers seems to fall apart.  Management fears that if left to their own devices some teachers will not actively work to improve their professional standards.  In some cases this may in fact be true.  It would be a fairly simple task to itemize the professional development opportunities teachers pursue and account for who is attempting to improve their professional practice and who isn't, but we don't do that in teaching.

You can usually tell which teachers take time to attend to
their professional practice...
The teachers who go out of their way to attend (or speak!) at conferences, who expand their professional qualifications, who attend edcamps, or work in their subject councils, or participate in online communities, these teachers have made quantifiable efforts to improve their profession.  The teacher who rolls his eyes at another board run PD which he is only attending because he is being paid to be there is simply not professional in the same sense.  They are the ones who 'professional development' is aimed at.

Instead of only looking at years in the classroom it would be nice if we accepted that some teachers take on a more professional approach to teaching.  It would be easy enough to quantify that approach.  How many subject areas have they become qualified in?  Do they demonstrate continuous improvement?  How many self directed PD opportunities do they take?  Do they take on positions of extra responsibility? What do they do to support their subject area?  The profession of teaching in general?  Until we accept that not all teachers are created equal, we ignore both integrity and responsibility and are unable to accurately apply accountability to our profession.

Is teaching a job that requires management to take attendance and force simplistic PD down people's throats?  Evidently, in which case it isn't really a professional activity.  Is teaching a profession that demands self directed development through stringent accountability?  If it was it would be driven by teachers' professionalism rather than by attendance rolls and tell-me-don't-show-me lectures.

At the core of professional practice is the self directed development of your expertise.  I've got a PD day (the only one this semester) next Friday.  It will be interesting to see how this board run day will compare to the dynamic and responsive urgency of the edcamp I just attended.  I imagine I'll see differences in the first few moments when teachers I never see doing self-directed PD are whining about why they have to be there (because they're being paid to do it).  Then they will take attendance and the differences will only get more obvious.

Professionalism Resources:

#edcampham discussion suggestion,_Teacher_Efficacy,_and_Standards-Based_Education.aspx