Is The Digital World A Branded World?

Who Is Paying For This?

I’m at the Google Apps for Educators Summit in Kitchener on a Saturday morning.  I’m a Google fan.  I Android, I use UGcloud for school work, I use Google+.  I’m aware that all of these services require a means of income or they’ll evaporate, hence the Google ads I see on them; I’m OK with that.  In a field that can get grabby and greedy, I think Google is more balanced in how it performs its business than most.

As a teacher I’m a bit more cautious about how online tools are framed in terms of learning.  This morning’s keynote with Jim Sill asked what kind of world do we live in.  I suspect the desired answer is a giddy, Silicon Valley logo filled blurt:  I live in an Instagram world! I live in a Google world!  I live in a Facebook world!  When the question turned to how you access this magical world, it revolved around brand names for apps.  Tying brands to information offers you a unique way to infect unrelated material (and learning itself) with your logo and corporate image.  Google has done this perhaps better than anyone (though Facebook takes a pretty good run at owning friendship).


Is the 21st Century really an information revolution, or a branding revolution?  I watched We Are Legion: The Story of Hactivists last night and I’m feeling the dissonance this morning at a conference that is all about companies branding information and funneling it to eager teachers who want to be relevant to their students.  I’m not saying yea or nay to this kind of business, I’m just wrestling with the chaotic freedom the information revolution inspired in hactivists last night and the business of information this morning.

If the information revolution really is about a radical change in how information moves (and I think it is), then talking about apps and brands is akin to focusing on the make of hammer you purchased when you’re learning carpentry.  It would seem strange if, in learning carpentry, the master carpenter went on and on about the brand of hammer they are using.  They might mention why they like it briefly, but they wouldn’t start calling carpentry “Mastercraft hammer”, that would be odd.

Google: a great tool, but be careful not to brand
learning and information with it

People identify with brands, it gives them a sense of belonging, it offers them a ready-made identity in a field where they might not know much else. Excessive brand loyalty is usually the result of ignorance.  I’m less interested in the kind of hammer you’re selling and more focused on how the wood is being fitted together.  I happen to enjoy using my Google hammer when online, I just don’t know that I identify an important revolution in human development with their peppy logo, and I’d hope they’d be OK with that.

That Guy…

I’m that guy! I always wanted to be that guy!

It’s been spring-ish in Ontario for the past couple of days (after the ice storm).  I’ve had the bike out a few times.  I still get a charge out of waving to another rider.

Yesterday I went out for almost an hour.  The front end felt a bit soft, but now the bike feels balanced on a knife’s edge with the right pressure in the tyres (the front was at 20psi after a winter in storage).  That was the first fifteen minutes of the ride, trying to find a gas station with a working air pump and then paying a buck… for air.  Once that was sorted I was south on the small highway out of town.  I’d never gotten the bike properly warmed up before, it’s an eager, responsive creature, even at low RPMs, but it seems happiest between 3500 and 4500 rpm for cruising..  I’d also never gotten it up to highway speed before, wind noise is surprising, though it shouldn’t be; a 100km/hr wind wouldn’t be quiet, would it?

I’m getting better at remembering the indicators.  The stuff drilled into me on the course has stayed.  I’m always in neutral and on the clutch when I start it, and I don’t get on until I’m completely suited up; good habits to have.  Had the bikes we practiced on had indicators, I would have probably internalized those too.  I don’t want to look like a (dangerous) n00b riding down the street with a forgotten signal flashing.

I took a left turn off the highway onto a back road and made one of my few control errors.  I thought I was in 3rd, but I was in 1st.  I dropped the clutch too hard and was thrown forward. As I reacted I accidently pulled on the throttle… my first wheelie!  On Highway 6!  Fortunately I was sitting close (as an instructor had told me during the course).  I let go of the throttle, and with my weight forward got back on 2 wheels.  As I rounded the corner the kid sitting at the stop sign was all worked up by my wheelie, so he smoked the tires on his Cavalier.  Had he known how freaked out I was, he wouldn`t have been so excited by the whole display.

You get cold on a bike, even in good gear when it`s cool out.  I got home with cold hands and a big smile on my face.  I got to know my Ninja a bit better, and have an appreciation of just how athletic she actually is.

Do As I Say

Reading Shopclass as Soulcraft a second time has me thinking about the similarities between Crawford’s and my work histories.  I walked out of high school before I finished.  I wasn’t failing anything, I was just sick of the officious and arbitrary nature of the place.  I wanted to learn how to do *things*, but I was being taught how to sit in rows and do what I was told.  I’m not very good at that.

“Teaching takes a back seat to the more socially salient task of sorting, and grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses.” p 146 Shopclass as Soulcraft

From there I bounced around your typical low income jobs (night time security, Canadian Tire) before finding myself an apprenticeship.  This I did for a couple of years before finishing up high school and going to university.  It only took me until second year to get into trouble at university, brashly questioning the veracity of my professors.  The younger profs tended to want to change your life.  I have a great deal of trouble buying in to systems, especially when the people advocating them put themselves in the centre of this marvelous new way of thinking.  I’ve always felt that these Rasputiny types aren’t in it for mastery, they are in it to be masters.  My skepticism in this has been born out in politics as well.

“The master has no need for the psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate. He does the same work as the apprentice, only better… for the apprentice there is a progressive revelation of the reasonableness of the master’s actions.” p. 159

When I worked as a Millwright, I had a number of senior mechanics who taught me the ropes.  They taught me by doing the job, showing me the job, letting me do the job while they berated me for doing it badly, letting me do it on my own and if it worked, it worked.  It was messy, but at no point did any of the senior guys have to tell me they were the experts and I should do what they say, they let the work demonstrate their expertise.  I seldom saw that kind of do as I do, not as I say demonstration of expertise in formal education.

Students are always looking for credible teachers.

Many teachers I know don’t practice what they teach.  Many business teachers teach business, they’ve never run one.  Many art teachers teach art, but don’t make any themselves.  Many English teachers teach writing, but don’t write themselves.  You might make the argument that they teach, and that is what they are good at.  I’d argue that this is an abstraction of an abstraction, and whatever it is they are teaching, credibility is in question; student engagement necessarily follows (they subconsciously pick up on a teacher’s own doubts).  If you’ve ever shown students your own work, they look like meerkats; they long for credible learning, and showing mastery does that.

Last summer I took my additional qualification for computer studies.  I worked in I.T. after university, mainly because objective skill sets pay a lot better than abstract ones.  Ask anyone with a Masters Degree in the arts or humanities how the job search is going for proof of that.  While in university I worked as an auto mechanic because it paid way better than the knowledge economy job my arts degree was preparing me for.  I’ve always migrated back to those objective skill sets because it feels like credible work.  You don’t have arbitrary managers downsizing you based on abstraction, personal dynamics or their own towering sense of self importance.

I love seeing those MBA types on the side of the road, their BMW SUV’s tire flat, waiting for someone who can *do* something to come and move them back into the clouds they live in.

Crawford makes a compelling argument for respecting those skills that we tend to diminish.  Objective, experientially gained mastery is often looked down upon by the academic class which itself rules education with a university-clad fist.  Objective mastery isn’t up for debate, or the charismatic manipulation of office politics by experts in “human management”.  If you know what you’re doing, reality responds, and no amount of talking is going to change that.  I miss that kind of traction in education.

Ninja in my Garage

The Ninja finally crept into my garage last night. She’s crouching there quietly as freezing rain falls all about, waiting for that first chance to ease out onto the open road and put some wind behind us.

She’s under used and poorly looked after.  Someone took her pretty electric blue and painted it an angry, flat black… now flaking.  As we get to know each other I’m going to see what she needs to feel better about herself; a paint job is in her future.

In the meantime, as the freezing rain falls outside I’m going to take off her fairings, clean her up and make sure everything is squeak free, topped up and ready to go.  A bit of time to become familiar with the bike isn’t a bad thing.

I was wandering around Canadian Tire the other day and saw a little, electric air compressor and started dreaming about a garage that’ll do it all for me.  A little compressor, a lift to get the bike off its feet for work, and a shopping list of synthetic super fluids.

I’ll be figuring out how to get into all the maintenance and starting to look the body work and what I can do to make my Ninja pretty again.

Objective Learning, Humility and Real Achievement

I’m re-reading Shopclass as Soulcraft, which begins with Matt Crawford asking what value hands-on work offers.  He questions the abstractions in which we all traffic (consumerism, academics, politics) in the information age.

There is value in learning about something external from ourselves, something with absolute requirements unlike the everyone’s a genius in their own way/student success means everyone passes/let students direct their own learning so they aren’t bored mantras you see whirling around edu-speak these days.  Crawford is focusing on trade skills in the book, but he’s arguing for any skill that has needs beyond whatever criteria we choose to apply to it.  This would apply to languages (you either understand and can communicate in it or not), technical skill (you can rebuild that carburetor so that it works, or not), or even sports (you can ski down the hill, or you can’t).  These kinds of skills get short shrift in schools these days because we can’t bend the requirements sufficiently to pass everyone and claim success.

Conestoga’s Motorcycle Training

This past weekend I took a motorbike training course.  It was exhausting, and very rewarding, and it had a six and a half percent failure rate. Those people paid four hundred and fifty dollars and were unable to complete the requirements of the course in a road test.  They left frustrated, and in some cases angry, but in a very real way they demonstrated that they could not control and place the bike.  The instructors were transparent and explained the failed components in detail, but people still left early with high emotions.  It’s hard for people who are used to paying and passing to suddenly find themselves having paid and failed.  Doesn’t payment equal success?  Doesn’t consumerism replace competence?  It does in many situations, and increasingly in education.  Students become clients (especially in post secondary where they are paying directly for it), but even in k-12 tax payers are the clients and success for all is what they are paying for.

It’s fair to say the test asked us to demonstrate about 60% of what we’d been asked to do that weekend – it wasn’t brutal by any means, but controlling a motorcycle is a tricky business, and some people found the learning curve too steep.  Whether it was full body coordination or keeping what you’re doing organized in your head, there was a lot to manage in doing this test.  The criteria were clearly explained and had been practiced relentlessly for two full days, there were no surprises yet some people were unable to *do* what was required.  Alternatives weren’t offered, differentiation was self directed – by you – while you were learning on the bike, the instructors offered advice and it was up to you to take it or not.  Those that failed generally didn’t take it.  Riding a bike isn’t like driving a car.  You’re alone on it, you don’t have a voice in your ear making suggestions or stepping in with alternate controls, it’s all up to you.

The curriculum was demanding and had specific requirements that couldn’t be ignored. It was physically exhausting and required twenty four hours of your time over a single weekend, early wakeups and hours outside in very changeable April weather.  When someone showed up late on Sunday they were dropped out of the course (and seemed utterly flabbergasted at the situation); 100% attendance was required, and in order to see success you had to be there mentally, physically and emotionally.  There was a high correlation between failures and people who were always the last to show up.  As Crawford mentions in his book, learning an objective skill requires a degree of submission and humility to the task at hand – something that we ironically iron out of schools in order to demonstrate success.

For the rest of us, marks were given and certificates (which include a big drop in insurance costs as well as a direct pass to the next level of licensing) were given out in a ceremony.  People who got perfect scores were mentioned, and applauded. Everyone still in that room realized how much work they’d put into their success that weekend.  But they’d put in more than effort, they’d also been willing to be taught, to check their pride at the door and learn something challenging and new from the ground up.

There is an important difference between submission and humility. One can be humble and it enhances self worth, and allows learning in the oldest educational context we possess.  Submission is about the power of the strongest, humility is about an honest awareness of one’s circumstance.  A master at a skill is honoured when their apprentice is humble before the task because they are receptive and teachable, and they are also respecting the skill that the master possesses. That humility allows you develop perhaps the most powerful learning tool available to us, self-discipline, which in turn grants the serious student the ability to master skills that would otherwise defeat a dilettante. You assume the mantle of a serious, even professional student when you are able to apply self-discipline gained through the humble acquisition of meaningful skill.  In school we constantly seek ways to amateurize learning in order to satisfy a Taylorist economic logic.  We try to streamline and ease student passage, forgiving absence and inattention in a misguided effort to generate successful data.  Any statistic you’ve ever seen about education has nothing to do with learning.

This sounds like throw back language, especially in light of the MBA edu-babble popular today. Students teaching themselves in order to stay engaged?  Best not done around a band-saw, as Crawford suggests.  Students able to ‘pass’ with a 50% average? Or with weeks of absenteeism?  They’ve hardly mastered anything.  Students given multiple avenues to success with targets that get closer the more they miss?  This learning is empty and pedantic, and students recognize that. Reward comes with real effort, and real failure.  Guaranteeing success for all?  The surest way to a systemic failure of learning.

I hurt all over from this past weekend, but it was profoundly satisfying.  I worked hard, didn’t treat it like a joke, gave it my full attention and realized early on that the people instructing know so much more than I do that it would behoove me to be humble before their skill and experience.  I think that humility is what led to my success.  That success may very well save my life one day.  Engagement was never an issue.

I won’t see much of that humility and openness to learning in the diploma factory I’m returning to today, though I’ll try and try to put reality’s demands in front of my students and let them be frustrated by it.  It’s real success when you overcome an obstacle and figure something out, especially if you experienced failure in the process.  Not so much when people systemically remove obstacles to keep nearly inert objects in motion.  As self discipline erodes and humility dries up, the process of learning itself begins to break down.

Are you teaching curriculum today?  Or are you teaching how students should passively pass through the Kafkaesque education factory in which they find themselves?

Being taught how to actually do something with objective demands has made me proud, humble and grateful for the skillset I have as a learner.  When I see opportunities to approach learning with humility and develop self-discipline missing from so much of what we do in school, it makes it seem an empty, even dangerous place.

n00b at 43

Tim’s Motorcycle Diaries

I’ve always wanted a motorcycle.  The simplicity and immediacy of the relationship between rider and bike has always appealed.  Finally, at the age of 43, I’m becoming a rider.  A couple of weeks ago I sat in an MTO drivetest centre and wrote my M1, so I’m now licensed in the most rudimentary way.  Next weekend I’m taking my training course at Conestoga College in Kitchener. Following that I hope to be on the road.

This blog will trace the process and development of my riding.  I’ve dug up a couple of entries from another blog that show why I’ve gotten into riding now.  They should provide some background for what is about to happen next.

A Nice, Canadian Magazine to get you into the hobby…

In the meantime, I’ve been looking through motorcycling magazines trying to find one that fits.  I’m not a Canadian publications at all costs kind of guy, but Cycle Canada offers smart writing on a wide range of subjects related to the sport (hobby?).  Being a rider in Canada is sort of like being a surfer in Greenland, you can do it, but you’ve really got to want to.  The place itself isn’t really conducive to the activity.  I feel like Cycle Canada approaches this with honesty, humour and wit, while peeling off many of the preconceptions around biking.  Before I began reading it I thought most people think Harleys are the be all and end all of motorbiking.  I was glad to learn that they aren’t.  I like ’em so much, I just subscribed.

Getting Your Bike License in Ontario

Getting the M1 was easy enough.  Ontario has a graduated licensing system for becoming a motorcycle rider now.  The M1 is a sit down, multiple choice test on the basics of motorcycle operation (which you pick up from a Motorcycle Handbook you can get for about $17 from any MTO licensing office).  There are also multiple choice tests on road signs and basic driving situations.  There are 20 questions in each set and you can get up to four wrong and still pass (so you need an 80% on each piece).  I’ve had my G class (regular car) license for 26 years, I didn’t study for either of the general quizzes and got only 2 wrong.  If you pay attention to your driving, I’d suggest focusing on the motorcycling handbook.  If you have no idea what is happening around you or what signs mean, it might be time to review the general stuff.

I should add, the general driving portion was very wordy.  Remember those long math word problems you used to get in school?  Like that.  It was almost like it was designed to test your ability to parse complicated text more than it was about rules of the road.  Be ready for that and take your time with it.

You have to go to a drivetest centre to write the M1.  There are many scattered around Ontario but only a few open on weekends.  It took me a couple of hours to get to the counter, write the test and then get the results.  They tell me it isn’t always that busy.  The old guy who blocked the only open gate for an hour arguing about his license didn’t help.  The M1 costs you about $17 to write.

After the M1 written piece, the idea is to go out and get experience.  You have 60-90 days with your M1 before you have to move on to M2.  M2 you can have for up to 5 years, but if you let it lapse after that you’ve got to start over again.  After your M2 road test you become an M licensed driver with full privileges.  Conestoga College offers a driver training course for beginners that moves you from M1 to M2.  I’m signed up to go next week.  It costs about $400 and I’m told you’re at the bikes they provide a lot over the one night and two day long course; it’s very hands on.  At the end of that course I’ll have done what is needed to pass the M1 driving test to move on to M2.  M1 means no driving at night, or carrying passengers, or 400 series highways, and no alcohol in your system at all.  M2 is still no alcohol, but you can do the other things.  You usually have to wait 60 days to get your M2, but if you take the course they shrink that time.  I should be able to push up to an M2 in mid-May after taking the course in early April.  I plan on riding at the M2 level for at least a year or two before getting the full M license.


I called the company that I’ve been with since I was a teen (who has made a small fortune off me) and asked for a quote on motocycles.  They told me to come back in two years.  They then said I should call Riders Plus.  They were very helpful.  Talking to a friend afterward, he’s been riding for thirteen years and has been with Rider’s Plus the whole time.  He’s paying about $600 a year for a 2000 500cc Ninja.  I’ll be paying about $1300 a year for a 2007 650 Ninja, to give you an idea of what the insurance looks like.

I’ll throw on a couple of older posts showing what I’ve been reading and why I’m going through this now.  Over the next few days it looks like I’ll become the proud new owner of a 2007 650r Ninja that has been painted an unfortunate flat black by an adolescent male of questionable taste..  With the bike in the garage and the course next weekend, I should be insured, plated and on the road by mid-April.

More to come as it happens.

Stay On Target

Stay on target… stay on target!

You want to talk about extracurriculars?  About how teachers should do them for the love of their job?  How they should sacrifice their own family lives so that they can ‘save the children!’ The politics around this are thick, and they do a great job of hiding the real problem.

Education isn’t about extracurriculars, extracurriculars are about education.  Royan Lee, the education ninja, asked the question that got right to this during TVO’s The Agenda, last week.  He then blogged about it, which might help all those people so tied up in the politics that they’ve lost the plot.

We’re not in education to enrich those students wealthy enough to enjoy extracurriculars.  I didn’t do a lot of extracurriculars in school – I had to go to work every day after school from the age of 10 onwards.  If you think you’re saving the kids by coaching basketball after school, you’re only saving the ones that can afford it.  The fact that extracurriculars usually cost money (bus costs, equipment, etc) many families can’t manage further underlines this unfairness.

Education should offer everyone equal opportunity.  It should be the most liberal of social exercises; opportunity for all, regardless of socio-economic status.  There is an inherent classism in extracurriculars, but I’m sure all those passionate teachers who are rushing to pick up ECs again don’t want to think about that, they just want to win a few games and demonstrate their ‘passion’.

The teacher as evangelist isn’t helpful in any of this. The martyr teacher only wants to emotionally show how much they care.  As a parent, this isn’t what I want from my son’s teachers.  Passion is great, but if that’s all you’ve got, then quite frankly, you’re creepy, and ineffective.  I’m looking for my son’s teachers to be professionals who are always looking to improve their practice.  If they are so thick as to believe that doing extracurriculars doesn’t impact their ability to maximize classroom learning then they have already demonstrated a lack of understanding around the use of limited resources in a time sensitive environment.  Zoe mentioned this in the Agenda show, but was quickly shot down by edu-babble around ‘best practices’.  There are no ‘best practices’.  Teaching is a constant development of a very complicated process.  When I see teachers throwing out edu-babble to simplify our work and support political motives, it strikes me as a professional failure.

The Spicy Learning Blog

Royan’s blog post raises the question of what is so special about ECs.  If the list to the left are what make ECs so valuable to students, why aren’t these things happening in classrooms?  The target of education should be learning.  If ECs offer advantages, why aren’t they being integrated everywhere?

As I said in the comments of his great post, the education ship is rusty and running poorly.  It’s covered in barnacles like extracurriculars, standardized testing, reduced professional development, government and union politics, social opinion, poor teacher standards and weak administrative development.  While Royan is asking why we don’t fix the ship, the other teachers on the show instead go on at length about how important the barnacles are.

Extra curriculars shouldn’t be extra.  We shouldn’t be waiting until after school to offer this enriched learning environment to the few students who can or will take advantage of it.  We need to fix the damn boat, not get wrapped up in the union/government politics.

If that Agenda episode showed me anything, it’s that teachers are just as caught up in the politics of distraction as the media, government and public are.  Stop crying about what the rich kids are missing out on and integrate what makes extracurriculars so fantastic into a public school system everyone can benefit from.

Thank goodness Royan Skywalker got his proton torpedoes on target.

The Subtle Art Of Learning

The transmission of knowledge between people has always been predicated on personal relationships.  We come pre-wired to learn, and the way we’ve always done this is through a mentoring process be it master and apprentice or teacher and student.  This deep human experience goes well beyond cultural norms.  No matter where you are in the world or in human history, the art of learning is founded on this relationship between people.

Schooling systems look to standardize education so they can more easily assess their management of it, it has little to do with effective learning.  In an educational world of standardized marking, testing and curriculum building, the goal is to remove personal connections in favour of more easily quantifiable and  less effective teaching tools.

On top of the system pressuring education from a data collection/ease of management perspective, we also find ourselves in a surge of technological advancement that seems determined to insert itself into every aspect of human behavior, including that most sacred of human endeavours: learning.  This digitization of human relationships can offer a wider range of connection, but it also tends to flatten those connections.  Online relationships lack the dimensions of personal relationships.  Anyone who has met online acquaintances in person has experienced this sudden deepening of previously shallow online connection.

I’ve seen technology do magical things in teaching, and I’ve long be a proponent of pushing technologically assisted experimentation as far and as fast as it will go, but I’ve never thought to swap technology for the personalized process of teaching and learning, yet that is what I see many people suggesting.

Whether it’s a rabid excitement (usually managerial or worse, financial in scope) over MOOCs or the latest gadget that will ‘revolutionize’ how we do things, or simply the drive to make students the centre of all things and reduce teachers to facilitators, there seems a constant pressure to depersonalize and grossly simplify the relationships that are the ecosystem for the art of deep, human learning.

If you see learning as the transmission of information then all these gadgets and systemic processes must seem like magic bullets that will solve all problems, that belief is probably selling your books.  With good management, letting students learn whatever strikes them as interesting, and enough money for toys, you’ll be able to educate everyone for almost nothing!  Oh, the efficiency.

The problem with learning is that it tends to be very non-linear.  A good teacher calls this a teachable moment – adapting to an unexpected circumstance in order to teach a memorable lesson.  These lessons often appear to have nothing to do with the curriculum or even the subject you’re teaching.  A good teacher will bend to the needs of the moment, giving the learning momentum, and keeping in mind the development of bigger ideas in a context lost on students.

A couple of years ago we made a Minecraft server in our computer engineering class.  One of the students quietly spent his lunches over the semester building up enough dynamite in the game to equal the Hiroshima bomb – he’d learned about it in his history class.  At the end of the semester he announced that he was going to set it off.  Everyone was freaked out, they’d spent a lot of time building things on that server and were afraid the virtual world would be destroyed, or worse, the server would crash.  He set it off, the class watched the server churn through the processing, and finally it rendered a massive crater.  We spent some time in a computer engineering class quietly looking at historical websites of Hiroshima after that.  We eventually got to examining what happened with the server trying to process the blast, but not at the cost of the obvious historical and human context in front of us.

In my second year of teaching I was doing Macbeth with some grade 11s.  I happened to mention that my parents were in the middle of a divorce, which prompted an impromptu round table by the distressingly high number of kids in the class who were either going through something similar or already had.  Learning about how to deal with being a child of a divorce by more experienced people (who happened to be my students) demonstrates the two way nature of that teacher/student relationship.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some structure to our school system, and I’m not saying that technology and addressing student directed learning isn’t important.  What I am saying is that learning is a complex process that develops most effectively through meaningful human relationships.  The more dimensionally complex that relationship is, the better the learning.  It is often non-linear, and at its best, it is predicated on a level of trust between teacher and student that allows for exploration and development in unexpected directions.  The artistic nature of learning must drive (North American) education managers around the bend.

Human learning, this effective use of relationships we’ve evolved to teach and learn from each other, is best served by setting high standards for teachers and then giving them discretion in teaching.  Micromanagement is a sure way to kill the teachable moment.  Standardized testing offers simple lies to a complex truth.  Ontario has also found new and interesting ways to damage this relationship in the last year. It’s remarkably easy to interfere with and poison the learning relationship.

Technology isn’t a solution, it’s, at its best, an aid, and one that should be used to support rather than replace proven pedagogy.  When combined with the hard capitalist bent of most educational technology companies (themselves happy partners with US driven for profit charter schools), effective learning takes a back seat to profit margins, market gain, fictionalized standardized testing scores and quarterly statements.  Technology offers some interesting opportunities in education, but it should never be at the cost of learning.

Systemic micro-management only serves accountants.  If you’re managing education you need to consider how best to improve the quality of your teachers on a macro scale, and that quality isn’t based on their student’s standardized test scores.

If you recall your moments of deepest learning you’ll recognize how subtle and profound the circumstances around your eureka moments are.  A good teacher is more like a gardener than a source of information, creating the circumstances that lead everyone involved in the learning process to greater realizations.  We recall the teachers who create and share these fecund moments fondly because we recognize, on a fundamental level, how they are helping us realize our own potential in a uniquely personal and human way.

Some other philosophy of learning entries:

Elearning & the student/teacher relationship: personal contact in an increasingly edtech isolated world
What is learning?: what we are pre-wired to do
Speaking with dead voices: how your best teachers taught you to teach

Ghostly Distractions & Digital Doppelgängers

Cyborgs are all around us now, and they have trouble finishing a thought

If you popped into a current classroom from any time before the last five years you’d think your students had gone mad, or were in need of an exorcist. Being unfamiliar with the rapid miniaturization and personalization of electronics, you’d be left wondering what it is they are fiddling with on their navels, why they seem to be constantly thinking about something else, and why when you walk into your next class the students there already know what happened to pretty much everyone else in the school (and the ones who skipped) last period.

I was talking to a colleague the other night about this sense of personal dislocation in students, though digital vertigo isn’t a student only issue. The teacher in question won’t even make a Facebook account because he believes (perhaps rightly) that it means the internets will know where he is all the time. He was telling me about a difficult student who was giving him a hard time in class. This teacher has a great rapport with students so many other students leapt in and argued his point for him. Afterwards the difficult student in question seemed overly despondent and would not re-engage in discussion. I suggested that the disagreement in class may not have ended in the classroom but had become virtualized.  The idea that invisible forces were emanating from and reflecting back into the classroom was quite upsetting to this teacher.

The fluidity with which teens pass back and forth between physical and virtual space make them very hard to read, at many moments in their day they are literally in two places at once. That uncommunicative student may still be getting hammered on Facebook long after the physical confrontation is over; digital echoes of a verbal disagreement. The moods so common in teens anyway are amplified by these invisible, always on, invasive connections; their volatile minds are wired to always-on drama.

There was a time when you could read a class by the students you had in it. Relationships were obvious and management challenging but straightforward. If you had the nitro and the glycerin in the room  you could separate them, you can’t do that any more.  You can’t do that if you move them to a different class… or a different school.  I’ve had students who moved up to our small town to get out of the GTA and away from a bad influence only to be intimately connected with them on Facebook the moment anyone’s back is turned. Always on, always connected, always being emotionally amplified – that is the modern, connected high school student.

This creates some  interesting new psychology in the classroom.  That student who used to feel isolated for their poor behavior in class might be experiencing any number of unseen influences.  Instead of being able to modify poor behavior by moving a student, or placing them in classes where their bad influences are not, they are always connected.  Many of those connections may very well be morally supporting or even inciting them; they never feel isolated in their bad attitude and are always supported in their beliefs, even if it is hurting them.  In that sense you might argue for a lack of emotional growth because  you never have a chance to get free of a clique or bad influence.  In the other direction you’ve got the example above where a group of students may easily create an ad hoc digital mob and go after someone. This can happen so quickly and quietly that it’s almost impossible to consider let alone manage.

Working with the emotionality of high school students is challenging at the best of times, but with the drama-net of Facebook fully embedded in every student’s mind, administration struggles with the more obvious cyber-bullying while the subtle ghostly influences go unnoticed, thought every teacher faces them daily.

As students migrate to Twitter without realizing the very public nature of it (many think it similar to texting),  coercive social media becomes even more widely broadcast than just between Facebook friends. Suddenly we have social media as means of large scale slander, creating influence well beyond the intent of the ignorant person thinking their tweets are private.

This is a new social situation that affects early adopters while others remain entirely ignorant.  Many teachers don’t consider it at all because they have no experience with social media yet it increasingly influences the students in their classrooms. Kids whose minds are in many places at once, constantly being emotionally tweaked and influenced by social media inputs, not knowing how to manage this pervasive influence in an effective way.

Digital literacy considers media fluency, collaboration and critical thinking, but the extent to which digital media is influencing the minds of our students isn’t really on the table. Their inability to manage their own access (watch a student, they are Pavlovian in their use of social media, they can’t self manage) is only one part of the problem.  In the emotionally charged world of high school, social media pours gasoline on that fire, making teaching a challenge in ways that it never was before.

had to add a wee update. It’s Monday morning and the internet meme from the weekend that all the grade 10s are talking about is of a girl and her feminine hygiene product on youtube.  It sets new (low) standards on what teens are willing to do to get seen online.  

This race to the bottom in terms what teens are able to subject themselves to is radically changing how they approach both sexuality and social norms in general.  Teens nowadays have seen things that would have been virtually impossible for them to see even a decade ago, and this is entirely a digitized influence.

You really don’t want even think about what teens do for truth or dare nowadays, they’ve seen things that will make you ill, they dare each other to.  The entire nasty world is available to them and influencing them moment to moment. Yet another way that online  influence creates a classroom unlike any before.


Stellar work without a bonus?

One of the reasons I love teaching is that the job isn’t about making a fat, old, white guy a bit richer than he already is. Every other job I’ve had has been inherently limited by this focus; the only reason you’re there is to make a one percenter a little bit richer.  That raison d’etre infects everything about working in a money focused business. That I hear people refer to this as ‘real work’ always makes me laugh; it’s real work in the same way that prostitution is real honest work – you lay yourself down for the money.  The argument that working for money adds real vigor and toughness to a workplace is nonsense. What it actually does is create fearful, simpering employees who believe that sucking up to their boss is more important than the work they do.

Ideas like excellence, originality, creativity and even work ethic are pretty much irrelevant.  If they can make more money by tossing out the hardest working, most creative, excellent employee, they will (and do – especially in the short term gains world we live in now). The only time businesses produce excellence is when small groups within the organization are protected from the pimps who are running it. That doesn’t happen often. What usually happens is that businesses take the excellence and research they need from publicly funded universities.

That infectious economic thinking has blighted Ontario education thanks to Laurel Broten’s story telling around fiscal responsibility.  Listening to the tragic prostitutes in the private sector telling us to accept their shabby circumstances because of economic necessity is purely the result of Ontario Liberal Party spin, and it has demonized my profession as a result.
Education: a reason to be optimistic about the future!
Teaching in Ontario has achieved real excellence in the past decade. We are truly world class, one of the very best. What made this happen? Bonuses? Financial incentives? No teacher ever got into teaching to make money. No teacher has ever gotten a cash payout for doing their job at a world class level (we’ll leave that for all those excellent bankers out there). If financial reward isn’t the point of performing at such an outstanding level, what is?
Public education is one of the most powerful social movements we’ve ever created. As Ray Kurzweil states his five reasons to be optimistic about the future, we are more educated than we’ve ever been before. We pay ten times what we used to into education as a society, but our post secondary graduation has increased by 280 times. We are making better use of the talent of our people; that is the crowning achievement of public education: social efficiency on a previously unheard of scale. The irony is that this very socialist mechanism, designed to realize the potential of all members of our society, also drives economic growth.
I’m back at school again tomorrow, dropped in to the political maelstrom of a forced contract, listening to blathering idiots whining about how much teachers get paid and how little they do. I’m tempted to get stingy about my work, but I don’t think I can. I didn’t get into this profession for the politics or the economics, I got into it because it’s one of the finest possible reasons anyone could have for going to work; to help human beings recognize their potential.

What I do is the opposite of the pyramid scheme most people find themselves working at each day; it’s a good in itself, economically, socially, personally. I can’t help but want to over achieve, no matter what the lowered expectations around me might suggest.