Sunday, 2 April 2017

Positively Encouraging: Teachers Doing No Harm


In another confluence of events I'm reflecting on just how much of an effect teachers have on a student's trajectory.  A misread tweet on how damaging assessment can be was followed by a post on Google+ and punctuated by a graduated student showing up unexpectedly this week.  It all got me thinking about how damaging to students teachers can be.

I got into computers when I was ten years old.  By the time I was twelve I'd published code and was writing my own programs.  It took a single dismissive remark by my computer science teacher to knock me off that trajectory for years.

I did grade ten computer science on a freaking computer punch card reader and did well.  I'm not a mathlete and struggled with the theory, but as a hands on coder I'm more than capable - I sympathize with the machine and understand what it needs.  In grade eleven we finally got to move to 286x86 IBM PCs and I was very excited.  I'd signed up for grades eleven and twelve in consecutive semesters, but after the math teacher running the program basically turned it into a math course, I didn't do very well.  When I walked into the grade twelve class in semester two he looked down his nose at me and said, "Tim?  Really?"  I dropped the class shortly thereafter.  If you asked him now he'd probably say he was doing me a favour.  He did me no favours.

Last week I had a young man drop by who graduated a couple of years ago.  He asked me if I remembered what our computer science teacher at the time had said to him in grade eleven.  He'd basically done to this kid what my computer science teacher did to me.  Jake said he bounced back because I essentially designed our new software engineering course around his suggestions, which encouraged him not to give up on his love of coding; he's about to finish the programming course at Conestoga and he's debt free because his game studio is making him enough money to pay for his college.  Teachers who have never published anything telling people what they can and cannot do really get on my nerves.

This student and I both tend toward a right-brained approach to things, thinking laterally and often intuitively about problem solving.  We're foreign beasts to predominantly left brained math and science types.  That linear, concrete thinking allows left brained teachers to place a lot of faith in grades - they believe that they are something more than a vague, abstraction of a student's abilities.  When these mathlete computer science types look down their nose at you in condescension, they believe that the D they gave you means something.  I would posit that their certainty makes them a liability in any classroom.

Becoming a high school teacher was never a goal of mine.  With a few exceptions I didn't enjoy school when I was in it and I certainly wasn't aiming to make a career of it.  Now that I find myself teaching I'm constantly aware of just how damaging those gatekeepers in my own background were.  

In grade ten I wanted to be an astronomer more than anything else, but a series of science teachers made a point of crushing that dream.  I'm hardly stupid, and I was willing, but it was their way or the highway and I don't bow to authoritarianism very well, especially when my scrappy, experimental approach to problem solving bares fruit.  They didn't like that I struggled to a solution myself rather than following the well trodden path of 'the right answer'.  In retrospect, and with some pedagogy to back me up now, I'd wager that my hard won answer is still with me today while the A+ students who memorized the process have long since forgotten it.  Learning is supposed to be messy.

When you think in absolutes you have the potential to do some real harm to children.  Every day I make a conscious effort to consider how what I'm saying will encourage genuine learning in my students.  I'm not an easy teacher, and often have the biggest friction with the A+ crowd who just want to know what to write so they can do what they're told and get that A plus they've become accustomed to.  In those cases I celebrate their efficiency while expanding their resiliency.  You don't need to belittle someone because they do things differently to you.

As teachers we could do a lot worse than following the Hippocratic oath doctors use.  If at any point you think you're helping a student by disciplining them with assessment, you're not - that was the subtext of my tweet to the Ministry.  

If at any point you dismiss a student's approach to a subject because it's not the same as yours, you're protecting yourself more than you are helping your student.  In my experience this approach is usually founded on a lack of confidence in your own abilities.

Try and be what you're supposed to be: the adult in that student's life who can dispassionately see their potential and then do everything possible to realize it.  This can be much harder work than simply attacking kids with numbers because they don't conform to your process, but it's much more rewarding.

So many secondary teachers fall into a comfort zone around their familiarity with their subject and are unwilling to see any other way to do it.  It might take a bit of lateral thinking, but seeing the value in how a student approaches a subject instead of assessing them based on how closely they follow your methods would be a significant pedagogical step forward.  We'd suddenly be assessing how they are grappling with their learning rather than forcing our methodology on them, and that would mean far fewer teachers slamming the door in student's faces with or without realizing it.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Fake News Epidemic


I've often been at odds with how new media makes its billions.  People self-identify with new media like nothing else because it is such an intimate part of their lives.  The hardware is always at hand and the software makes personal demands on our information and our time that would have felt foreign and invasive twenty years ago, but like a frog being slowly brought to a boil, we haven't noticed how it's killing us.

We suddenly feel time compressed like never before because we have become a commodity in an always on attention culture.  The tech giants feeding from this frenzy that they have created present themselves as saviours of the people, democratizing media and making the world a better place:


If you ever want a brilliant parody of the bizarre nature
of our digital revolution, you really need to watch Silicon Valley

Yet there is a change in how we are relating to the strange new mediascape we find ourselves in.  Facts are no longer facts and the tech companies enabling this, up until recently, were willfully unaware of how damaging that can be, though more than happy to make advertising revenue from it.

The hand wringing helplessness felt over this epidemic of fake news always struck me as odd, like an alcoholic wondering why everything is going to shit when the answer if obvious (it's the alcohol).  Yet the vendors of our hangover kept it paying off until the damage was done.  

This was brought into sharp focus for me after reading this article by WIRED.  It tells the story of disenfranchised teens in a former Soviet Bloc state who found a way to make silly money by aggregating fake news.  Google, Facebook and others were only too happy to make a mint from this process in advertising revenue.

By leveraging the information collection platforms (aka 'social' media) they have created to produce targeted ads, these new media advertisers found an avenue for stale marketing budgets.  Companies flooded in to Google, Facebook and the rest, desperate to tap a younger demographic unreachable through traditional media.  But social media companies offered something more than just the vaunted Millennial crowd, they also offered targeted advertising.

You don't get Gmail, or Facebook Messenger or any of these other complex, expensive services for free.  You get them because they are constantly mining your data and using that information to target ads.  Social media companies ARE advertising companies.  How powerful is this technology?  Last year Facebook made six billion dollars more than the largest advertising agency in the world.  Google made tens of billions more.

Tech companies present themselves with noble ideas like organizing the world's information or giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected, but they aren't non-profits, quite the opposite actually.  While they might engineer their technology to organize and share, the way they pay for their private jets is to monetize those noble ideas while avoiding paying taxes as aggressively as they are legally able.  

GoogleFacebook and social media itself is now the largest advertising system on the planet.
Take the time and read that article.
It wasn't until things were on fire that any technology company took steps to stop the inferno that they'd designed.
That some shifty Macedonian teens made a bit on the side is really an afterthought.  What should strike you as most illuminating is that the multi-nationals driving social media were more than happy to make millions from obviously false and plagiarized information that was dressed up as news.  If you think this didn't have any effect, look to the damage done to one of the oldest democracies on the planet.


Google stopped cashing in on fake news when people complained,
not before, and the people who lost money on it were the website
owners, not Google, they kept every penny.
By aggregating bonkers right wing fiction into easily consumable content (usually by stealing it outright and dressing it up as news), those kids made years of salary in a month, but what are pennies on the dollar compared to the profit social media advertisers pocketed?  Google and others were not only making a fortune off the fake news epidemic, they themselves were the cause of it, using their customer data collection systems to feed lies back to the people who most wanted to read them.

It wasn't until the flaming mess of the US election that anyone stopped to consider what the ramifications of this approach were.  These tech companies love to claim the moral high ground, but their highest ideals take a back seat to greed.  Perhaps Google needs to try a bit harder with it's motto of 'don't be evil'.


Try harder.
I've struggled with how these companies have insinuated themselves into education, branding teachers and even information itself with their logo.  Looking over nearly seven years of Dusty World I can see myself slipping from a technology evangelist into an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with these companies.  As they've become richer and more influential, their ability to make decisions based on the public's best interests seems to have steadily deteriorated.  Nowhere is this more apparent than this latest social hack: design a system that feeds lies to the people who most want to believe them, and then make a profit from it.  They're making it mighty difficult to like them, let alone admire them.  

Meanwhile Britain Brexits and the US government can best be described as a maelstrom.  At least some poor kids in Macedonia made a bit of money in a world were it's usually the super rich who make something from nothing.  Maybe social media systems are blameless in all of this. After all, they only give us what we want.  If we're too stupid to educate ourselves, perhaps it's what we deserve.  Is it still propaganda if we're doing it to ourselves?

NOTES

NPR tracks down a fake news maker in LA.  
"The people wanted to hear this," he says. "So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then ... our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire."

"...Coler insists this is not about money. It's about showing how easily fake news spreads. And fake news spread wide and far before the election. When I pointed out to Coler that the money gave him a lot of incentive to keep doing it regardless of the impact, he admitted that was "correct."


Google and Facebook take steps to stop fake news after starting the phenomenon and making millions from it



Saturday, 18 March 2017

Facilitators

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/17/the-secret-of-happy-children-get-rid-of-teachers-and-ban-homeworkThis provocative article was shared on Facebook recently.  Teachers sharing and talking about education during March Break, I know, crazy, right?

There is an technologist slant to this article that, like everything else people do in the age of information, reduces complex human interaction into a simplistic informational exchange.  We fall into this trap in every age we live in.  When society was church based we defined ourselves as souls and saw ourselves as intangible spirits in a material world.  When we industrialized people started to see themselves as machines.  In the information age, unsurprisingly, we treat ourselves like computational nodes in a network.  We always seem trapped in our sense of self by the reflection our society casts casts back at us.  In every case we're taking what we are and reducing it to the limitations of the flawed technology we are producing.


By forcing our definition of people to fit the technology at hand we make humans an integral and exploitable part of that technology.  If you can reduce complex human social interaction into simplistic social media exchange and centralize the profits from those interactions you've made a fortune.  The same companies doing this do everything possible to avoid paying taxes to support the societies providing that data.  This is one of the best examples of business leaching off society (other than the stock market itself) that I can imagine.

The fortune to be made reducing students to data is often dressed up under the guise of happier more engaged children, but in my experience the self directed learning suggested by the author of this article is neither efficient nor particularly engaging. Self directed learning requires the kind of focus, self discipline and appreciation of future benefit that most children are incapable of because they haven't developed that bit of their brains yet.  

Many adults are equally stymied by self-direction.  For most, getting into a directed course of action means happily surrendering free will in order to work out of habit.  This a much less stressful way to live a life.  Developing routines and sticking to them means you get to off-load responsibility for the outcomes of those routines onto the people or devices that manage them.  Being able to complain about this while taking no responsibility for what is happening (you're a helpless cog in the system) is one of the most cathartic things your typical human being does in modern society.  Schools are a favorite target of the lazy or aimless; an easy institution to hate because they are trying to develop you into a more fully functioning human being against your every effort.

The brave new world of self directed child geniuses being monitored by cheap, non-professional facilitators that require no special training get a lot of neo-liberals excited about the cheap and engaging de-institutionalized future of education. In the coming age of machine intelligence, computers
 will do all of the thinking and management. Human beings won't have to do anything more than assimilate with those machines... and complain about them. 

Perhaps this writer has a point.  In 20 years when AIs are doing the jobs of most of the non-specialized workforce, why waste money educating them? Students can go to school and perform the same mind numbing habitual activities they do at home. Once we've achieved this nirvana we will have taken the final step toward becoming nothing more than the technology we create.  We will then have truly found the end of history.


Saturday, 4 March 2017

Trust


I came across this excellent article by the Harvard Business Review about how trust relates to productivity in business. It turns out trust goes a long way towards creating a productive learning environment with students as well.  Trust doesn't end in the classroom though.  Between teachers in a building, across entire school boards and in the education system in Ontario as a whole, trust is the cement that turns us from individuals into powerfully focused groups. After reading that article I couldn't help but wonder at the damage done by the aggressive politics that drive out of date and combative management practices in education.

This week we were handed a remedy for a court case won by teacher's unions in Ontario. In 2012 the Ontario provincial government decided to ignore the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and deny the right to strike and force a contract on teachers in the province because bankers had tanked the world economy a few years before and the government's way to fix that was to vilify and then bleed public employees dry.

You couldn't pick a finer example of broken trust within an organization. After a miserable late 1990s under a tea party style conservative government that was bound and determined to diminish the teaching profession in Ontario, the Liberal party was ushered in and a decade of rebuilding occurred. In that time Ontario shot up the ranks in terms of world education. Suddenly, in 2012, in a desperate attempt to garner conservative votes, the Liberal party chose to ignore the Canadian Charter - the document at the foundation of our democratic rule of law - and force a contract on teachers, just to move some money around on ledgers so it appeared that they were more fiscally conservative. The strips to sick days actually cost Ontario more even before the government lost the court case and had to pay restitution. It was a case of desperate and illegal law making and profound mismanagement.  The people responsible have never apologized.  If your boss did that would you trust them?

Since then trust has been thin on the ground in Ontario's education sector, yet this article on trust goes to great lengths in underscoring just how important it is to create a transparent, consistent and reasonable relationship between the members of an organization:

"Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy, collaborate better, suffer less chronic stress & are happier - these factors fuel stronger performance"

Having worked in the private sector for fifteen years before coming a teacher, I'm often surprised at how unenlightened management practices in education are. Perhaps it's simply a byproduct of being managed by politics rather than productivity.  In any case, the mismanagement of Ontario's education system over the past few years is neither cheap, nor productive.


I've worked for my current employer for over ten years.  In that time I only ever asked for a single exception to being expected to come in to work every day.  In 2012 my mother committed suicide.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as a result but was expected to be in class teaching volatile teenagers.  I went to my principal and asked for help.  She called HR for me to navigate the process but we were told by a senior manager, "we have people at work who have had a heart attack and have cancer, what makes you so special?"  I went back to work with images of mopping my mother's remains off the floor still floating before my eyes.  Can you imagine my level of trust since then?

This month I just got back from surgery.  I went back to work 2 days before I should have because we are only allowed 3 days off before needing to contact HR - something I wasn't going to do.  I'd lost so much blood due to this surgery (sinuses, it isn't a nice one) that I passed out at the end of the school day while stacking chairs in my classroom.  I woke up on the floor in a puddle of blood, cleaned myself up and went home and called in sick again. Damaged trust isn't easily forgotten and can put people in ridiculous situations that need not occur.

Trust looks wish-washy from a conservative mind-set, but it's actually a fiscally powerful incentive.

Mismanagement has a trickle down effect.  Board level administration is required to support and enable Ministry dictates, no matter how politically arbitrary, damaging to learning or asinine.  School level administration ends up in a frictional relationship with their teachers as a result of this trickle down distrust.  The end result is that people tend to duck and cover.  It's difficult to get people to raise their heads out of their classrooms and collaborate on anything because they doubt the veracity of the people who manage them.

"when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A Google study similarly found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work."

Trust creates a bond between teacher and student and student and peer.  Knowing you're working with someone who has your best interests are at the centre of what they do makes learning more effective.  A teacher who students can't trust is a poor teacher.   Students don't know what to expect or what is expected from them.  A teacher who surprises students with tests, sometimes on material not comprehensively covered in class, is a teacher students shy away from.  For the rest of us who are trying to establish a trust relationship with our students in order to empower their learning, these teachers are a cancer on the profession.

When you think about your favorite teacher I doubt it's because they gave you a high mark, or because they were hard to figure out.  Teachers that enable us are honest, direct and help us to exceed our own expectations of ourselves.  Trust isn't a nice idea in those cases, it is the foundation of the entire process.  After reading that article I now realize that trust is actually a mechanical process hard wired into how humans think; it's the mechanism that makes us so socially powerful.

Enabled, energized people in an organization, be it a board of education or a classroom, want to engage.  Engagement is a big buzz word in education right now.  It occurs in high trust organizations naturally.  If it isn't happening in your school or classroom look to how you are developing trust to see why it isn't happening.  Demanding engagement is a sure way not to generate any.

"Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator: A 2014 Citigroup and LinkedIn survey found that nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work."

I'm at my best in a classroom when I'm able to define goals, ensure students have fundamental skills in place and then give them the time, space, equipment and positive encouragement to figure it out for themselves.  This light-handed approach means that when they get something to work they feel that they've figured it out themselves.  This is very empowering.  Another benefit of this light handed approach is that I'm not so focused on talking at everyone that I'm able to see what individual students need to move forward.  I'm happiest when a student learns things they weren't able to do before and feel that they did it themselves.  I know I'm important to the process, but students need to feel engaged and enabled in order to own their learning.  Trust powers that process.

My school and board is at its best when we have clear, tangible goals and decisions are made transparently and rationally.  The more this happens, the more effective these institutions become as places of learning, and the more I trust the people who are leading me.  When I trust my leader there is little I won't do for them because I feel that we're all working toward the same goal.

Much of the article that kicked off this blog post drills into the neuro-science of trust.  We are social animals hard wired to use trust as a means of working effectively together.  If we want to best make use of our powerful social habits, building trust is where we should be concentrating our efforts, especially within the entire educational apparatus where trust is (or isn't) the glue that binds us together in the complex social task of teaching and learning.

https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust


The gallows humour of Despair.com is mostly based on people identifying with how
little trust there is in their workplace.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

A Slippery Slope

Fortunately, the ark didn't have to worry about any of
those pesky fictional icebergs...
Over the past couple of days the concept of professionalism seems to keep popping up, usually after it's been lit on fire.  It began when someone posted a quote on Facebook based on a Twitter storm.  It was described as 'interesting' on Facebook and lots of people on there were very happy to prop it up.  I would have called it asinine.  My first instinct was to write back, 'it's important to remember that amateurs built the starship Enterprise but professionals built the space shuttle.'  But I didn't.

Beyond the amateurs-are-really-good-at-building-things-that-don't-exist thinking, I was more put off by the implicit attack on professionalism.  Ironically, it's the lack of professionalism in our news that's accelerating this anti-professional bias.  When you share media created to force an opinion rather than declare facts, you're pouring gas on the ignorance fire.  From patients spending half an hour on Google and then telling their doctors what their self-diagnosis is and demanding they medicate them for it (self assured arrogance is a wonderful byproduct of everyone's-an-expert), to shady business men taking over super powers (dido), the idea that we don't need professionals any more because we all have access to information and therefore know everything is rampant.

The problem with our information deluge is that it isn't vetted.  With no oversight or fact checking, alternative facts become facts when they are repeated often enough.  Opinions become truths when you find enough people to agree with them.  Part of this comes down to the shear volume of information around us.  We're living in a tsunami of data and we're very bad at curating it.


That quote is from 2010.  The revolution happened, but it hasn't been the touchy-feely future of knowledge that we thought it would be.  Maybe AI can sort it out because we've made a mess of it.

This flood of social media produced data has us awash in information, much of it crap.  With a waning (professional) fourth estate and everyone on the planet rapidly getting to the point where they can broadcast their opinions no matter how factually bereft, we are living in dangerous times.  There was some hope, early on, that crowd sourcing would help manage this onslaught, but it turns out a large proportion of the crowd doing the sourcing are idiots.

Our willingness to absorb lies is amplified by the idea that we customize our social media feeds based on our own beliefs.  Doing so turns our 'news' intake into an echo chamber of ideas that only support our world view; a sort of self-fulfilling propaganda.  This quickly takes on Orwellian proportions as people who once kept their racist thoughts to themselves suddenly find themselves at the virtual equivalent of a Clan meeting.  Those embarrassing prejudices are validated and suddenly become worthy of broadcasting.  This process is a powerful one, and its tail is wagging the political dog in 2017.
Alternative is right - this 'headline' photo is taken from a
2007 HBO film.  Welcome to 2017. 

It isn't just the alt-right who are happy to take this neo-propaganda and make use of it.  With no oversight everyone with a strong opinion is happy to do things like take pictures from a film and publish them as if they are news - just to convince people that what they think is right.

Way back in the naughties ('06 I think) one of my media studies students brought in a video that prompted tears and a lot of conversation.  The inevitability of what they proposed in that video caused a lot of anxiety in our class, me included.  At the time social media barely existed so this seemed like a real stretch, but in the dystopian future they describe in the film the traditional news media has fallen apart, eaten by the internet.  What's left is a shallow, sensationalist mediascape that caters to the quality of thought most people aspire to.  In the past year I've begun to think that this quality of thought isn't anywhere near where I thought it was.


The description at the end might be starting to feel all too familiar:
"At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper and broader and more nuanced than anything available before. But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted..."  
It's what we have today.


We're too busy, distracted and incompetent to vet and even critically analyze the media that engulfs us, and we're too cheap to hire people to do it for us.  It turns out we weren't just paying for information from the fourth estate, we were also paying for critical analysis.  But if we can get sensationalism for free why pay for hard truths?

A philosophical underpinning to all of this is the idea that anyone can do or say anything they want simply by wanting to do it.  Effort to develop mastery, and the professionalism implicit in it, is frowned upon.  We're told by wealthy people that doctors, politicians, teachers and other professionals are shysters who are trying to take advantage of us, and we buy it!  Much of this media push is an attempt to crush unions and the middle class they represent.  We idolize the mega-rich who are so simply because of the situation of their birth rather than because of any professionally developed skill.  The lies we tell ourselves every day are part of a vicious cycle made possible by politically poisoned media delivered through a sabotaged information revolution that makes everything except learning the truth easier.