What Do You Take With You?

Part 1: What do you take with you into the future?

We live in a time of radical transformative social change. One generation’s experience is markedly different from the next. How we communicate with each other dictates our social structures, and we are in the middle of a communications revolution.  In times like this many traditions and habits fall by the wayside. If you have to cling to an ideal in order to ensure it survives this sort of disruptive evolution, what ideal do you cling to? After hearing a colleague describe themselves as unionist, and experiencing my own fall from grace, union isn’t what I choose to protect at all costs.  In fact, like many other institutions founded at the dawn of industry, unions and local boards are beginning to appear less and less able to deal effectively with our times.

I didn’t become a teacher to support unions, I became a teacher to support educational excellence and hone my profession.  Protecting education means protecting educational workers, but protecting educational workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. I was initially hesitant to become active in my union because of their blanket coverage of all members, regardless of competence. The occupy movement and the radicalization of economics in the past few years pushed me into action; at least unions offered protection from this short sighted narcissism. So many people are happy to give away their rights in order to dream of being rich while being made serfs. My union offered me a political mechanism to fight that idiocy.

I don’t join things easily, I tend to skepticism, but OSSTF claimed moral high ground on so many issues that I couldn’t help but become a believer. What’s not to like about an organization that claims democracy and is founded on the idea that wealth should be fairly divided and members should consider the common good before their own?

When times were good accounts were managed well.  Grievances were dealt with, expectations of the membership were minimal, people focused on the important work at hand. In the past year we’ve come face to face with a government that appears to have no moral centre whatsoever, and a public that is more than willing to be lied to in order to become incensed with us.  The resultant mess has me asking some hard questions about the antiquated organizations involved in our education system.

There is a lot of history tangled up in how we manage education in Ontario, and I don’t think it’s creating a transparent, representative system. We’ve got local boards that don’t actual bargain with their employees anymore, we’ve got local unions that don’t actually bargain for their members anymore, we’ve got a College of Teachers who got chucked into the mix the last time a psychotic government decided to play fast and loose with education, we’ve got a Minister of Education who has more in common with Mussolini than John A. MacDonald, and carnage across the province with strike days, almost strike days, crippled extracurriculars and frustrated citizens on all sides. If you think this has been well managed by any of the combatants involved, you must be crazy. I argue that this is the result of a tangled, historical organizational mess, and it’s time to move Ontario’s education system out of a Victorian mindset.

In what follows I’m considering alternatives that actually protect education workers (what we have now obviously does not), and puts the focus on our profession rather than the antiquated political structures around it.

Part 2: Behind The Times

The stumbling approach to this last round of bargaining suggests that unions are having real trouble dealing with twenty first century realities. From social media causing a surprise grassroots movement that bypassed provincial executive plans to a stubborn refusal to change their ancient communications habits, unions in general and mine in particular have looked like confused Victorian gentlemen at a rave.


Local boards, like union locals are in even more trouble.  They have been made redundant, looking on as the provincial ministry directly bargains with provincial union organizations. There is no local bargaining in Ontario any more. With so many vestigial political interests around the table it’s no wonder that Ontario’s education bargaining has been a mess this year. Perhaps it’s time for a historical cleanup.

I’m now wondering what Ontario education would look like without local political interests like boards and unions, assuming that we can find other ways to protect this vital resource in a centrally bargained environment. The old players certainly aren’t protecting quality of education, in this past round of bargaining they haven’t done anything at all except watch as provincial heavy weights speak over their heads.

This questioning began when @banana29 shared this article that questions the value of unions in Ontario education.  If you can get past Wente’s heavy handed right wing propaganda in the first few paragraphs, the piece asks some hard questions about the role of unions in maintaining status quo in an education system that struggles to keep up with our times. Her intent is to dismantle public education and infect it with market interests (it is the Globe & Mail), my intentions are quite different.

Part 3: Wente Article Response:

Technology In Education and institutional drag

Wente makes some  pretty simplistic arguments for technology in education. If you think Khan Academy is the future of education then you’re about as pedagogically sophisticated as a donkey. Having said that, technological implementation in education has been slowed at every turn by boards and unions, both of whom have frantically told teachers not to use new communications mediums to communicate with and teach students.  Running at the speed of the slowest adopters of technology is no way to run a relevant education system.

Technology being used in classrooms lags years behind what students experience everywhere else, and doesn’t begin to prepare students for the rapidly changing world they are graduating into.  Teachers struggle to engage students on antiquated software and hardware, and no one wants to consider what a teaching job beyond concrete walls looks like. It behooves the unions and boards to keep school in the classroom where the have a lock on how to manage education as a production line. Ask any teacher who has done elearning how their non-standard work hours become a real problem to both boards and unions.

Not only does this luddite thinking infect the classroom, but also the management of both unions and boards.  Communication with members remains firmly stuck in the last century. Video meetings? Shared online resources? Social media? These things are adopted hesitantly or actively discouraged by parochial thinking. Teachers using them then bypass local roadblocks because that is what modern communications are capable of. From unions trying to control a message to boards trying to limit student access to communications – information is flowing around these road blocks on smartphones and social media, yet they don’t realize how irrelevant their control mechanisms have become.

Instead of encouraging teachers to experiment with new technology, local interests tend to parrot panicky, unfounded broadcast media ideas about them. We are ruled by ignorance and paranoia when it comes to technology in education. The question is, how do we create an education system that can experiment and advance at a reasonable rate without being slowed by the insular thinking of its slowest adopters?

Can you protect education without a union?

In spite of its shortcomings Wente’s article did make me wonder, what would education look like in a future without a union/board system?  I speculate on this not as a means to dismantle, demean or weaken the profession. I am under no illusions, teaching needs to be protected from short sighted business-think, but after watching McGuinty’s Liberals gut years of collective bargaining I wonder if unions are the right social mechanism to protect us anymore. Could education prosper and even improve without union/board paradigms?

Centralizing control is happening already. Modern communications will continue to force this change whether unions or boards like it or not.  If we’re going to evolve from a parochial, historically restrained system to something adaptive and forward thinking, we need to think of a new way to organize and manage the vital social service that is education in Ontario.

Part 4: Education: an essential service

Vital is exactly what education is. A first rate education system means that all the other essential services (police, medical, fire) have less to do because the populace isn’t feral and desperate. A properly run education system means the vast majority of the population comes closer to expressing their potential. It means that socioeconomic status isn’t the prime breeder of crime and poor health; failure is less an excuse of circumstance. Good education means less people in jails, greater economic output and interested, active citizens powering our democracy. In this context, how could anyone not see education as an essential service?

Education should be declared an essential service. This automatically guarantees third party arbitrated contracts, which would mean that bargaining isn’t the wild west that it is now, and governments couldn’t simply bypass it with cynical, undemocratic laws like Bill 115. It would also mean that militant unions aren’t necessary because the system in place would be implicitly fairly bargained. 

Arbitrated bargaining would also take the unionized target off teachers’ backs and let them adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye. Education workers would still be protected, but the system itself would be the protection. Depending on militant unions hard bargaining with local boards didn’t work and has evolved into unrepresentative (OECTA) or misrepresentative (OSSTF) provincial bargaining. Our process of bargaining is a broken, divisive, old fashioned habit that antagonizes the general public, vilifies our profession and makes hay for cynical governments.

Part 5: Freeing ourselves from history

local vs. provincial bargaining

When union locals used to bargain individually with their school boards each area’s special interests were baked into contracts. This made sense because of Ontario’s vast size and the unique and isolated nature of its many settlements. If you travel around Ontario now you’ll see the same Justin Bieber haircut everywhere. Clinging to isolationist thinking in an information revolution is asinine. Communities are no longer isolated, they no longer need individual contracts.  If you don’t believe me, believe union provincial executives who (foolishly I think) agreed to align all contracts in the province resulting in this past round of failed provincial negotiations.

The fictional professional association for education professionals
in Ontario (except it shouldn’t be fictional and we shouldn’t be
 running education on socialist ideals, it’s a profession!)


If we can bargain provincially (and it appears we do), why not have an Ontario Educational Association (modeled on the Doctor’s OMA) bring in elected representatives from across the province every four years to iron out a contract with the government while a neutral, third party arbitrator ensures the process is fair. This is a far less dramatic, adversarial process, but I think everyone in education (except the ones who profit from the fighting) would like to see less hurtful public drama and more focus on the profession itself.  

Unions themselves have made their locals irrelevant by focusing their own membership through isolated, politicized provincial leadership. The result has been confusion and a failure to represent member’s interests. OECTA agrees to contracts without even asking its members, OSSTF has the rug pulled out from under it by a grassroots social media movement.  Unions have centralized power and are then astonished when their remote members aren’t thrilled.

It’s time to give up the idea of locally defined educational organizations, both boards and unions, and begin a process of creating a democratic, less politically tangled system of educational representation. This isn’t so much a matter of amalgamating existing districts as it is a rethinking of how best to represent educational interests in the province. A system based on current cultural divisions (rural-natural, rural-agricultural, small town, suburban, urban) would certainly allow us to continue to address regional differences without carrying the weight of a redundant, regionally defined historical system.

how many public school systems do we need?

If we’re trying to free ourselves from history, it wouldn’t hurt to stop funding semi-private, religious schools that are only willing to serve a specific population. 

Once again, this made sense in Ontario a long time ago when Catholics and Protestants had to agree to live together, but Muslim, Hindu, atheist and every other stripe of religious belief must all wonder what this is all about when they first arrive in Ontario.  These people constitute the vast majority of new Ontarians, it’s time to recognize that in a representative, equal for all public education system.

Part 6: Removing politically inflicted value in our education system

I’ve always had trouble with how unions favor (and reward) seniority over any other contribution to the profession; at best this is simplistic, at worst it encourages disengaged senior teachers to interact less as their careers mature (check out who is doing extra-curriculars in any school for confirmation of this).  We are one of the few professions that, as one colleague once put it, “have all the colonel level people sitting out of leadership positions, we’re led by lieutenants.”  This is entirely the result of union value theory, and it harms the profession.

The basic job of teaching, if grossly simplified, becomes a person doing minimal hours of work, with nothing value added, using the same lessons year in and year out. Ultimately this hurts the learning environment for everyone. Unions and boards protect the (small minority) of teachers who approach the profession in this appalling manner more than they do teachers who push boundaries and attempt positive change.  Status quo thinking defines most educational leadership.

We need to recognize all the ways that education workers add to the learning process. This usually falls short when management attempts to grossly simplify the work in order to quantify it. If we’re in the job of marking students in creative, individualized ways, we have to do that for educators too, but too often teacher assessment is simplistic or made meaningless in order to simplify book keeping or to protect union members at all costs.

Leadership positions in teaching also need to be made meaningfully. Forty bucks a week doesn’t cut it (yes, that’s what many department heads get for management work in teaching).  I’d also want to recognize teachers who do extracurriculars, if not financially, then at least through minimizing their required duties. The teachers who do little else could do oncalls and caf duties, those that are knocking themselves out to make their schools a learning community shouldn’t be ignored for it.

The desired result in all this would be competition for headships and extracurriculars (and administration positions) with top candidates selected.  You seldom see more than a single sacrificial person dropped into any of these jobs – not exactly the way to get the best candidates.  Lineups for leadership, coaching and non-classroom school activities would be a powerful way to move us forward.  It’s sad year in year out hearing the teachers trying to run these things begging for people. 

There is a climate of apathetic mediocrity in our unionized system. Members tend to be indifferent to their union and uniformed as to their work situations. They are encouraged to do as much or as little as they please, knowing that the money will always increase; hardly an environment that fosters engagement and improvement. If we want to continue to focus on improvements in education, we should be considering what is needed to put education first, not what is needed to keep the status quo.

Conclusion

Protecting education means protecting education workers, but protecting education workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. It is vital that Ontario’s public school system continue to improve its high standards and fight for relevancy in a rapidly changing world, but the old paradigm of this happening only on the back of unions and boards is dying; their failure is indicated by their inability to protect and support their members. 

A mandated, transparent, less politically charged, non-localized organizational structure would result in less drama and better representation for everyone involved. Advances in communication mean that we no longer need to think locally in geographic terms.  It would also remove the stigma of unionization from teachers and allow them to adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye.

Walmarting the profession to U.S. standards will result in U.S. standards. You’ll end up with business wanting to intervene with Charter schools, which aren’t really public at all.  Equality of access to education is vital to any democracy, Ontario citizens must not lose access to a fair, open, world class public education system.  Never suspect that a system with a for-profit middle-man will outperform a public system founded on excellence. You’d have to be an economic idiot (or con artist) to suggest that this is possible. 

It’s vital that public education be protected from the short-term gain crowd. Unions have performed this function for many years, but in recent times, and like so many other institutions founded before our age of communication, they are being  bypassed by their own member’s new-found ability to communicate directly with each other. 

We keep slipping into an inevitable future, and we’re often only able to bring what we hold most dear to us across the threshold.  Many assumptions and traditions are slipping by the wayside as society and technology continue dancing at an increasing tempo.  If I have to cling to a belief and have it survive this transformative time, it isn’t unionism, localized education or even a political belief, it’s an axiomatic declaration about the power of public education:

Equally accessible, professionally driven and maximized public education is vital to our future success. It allows everyone to realize their potential regardless of their socio-economic circumstances and creates a population that is capable of responsible democracy, meaningful economic output and reasoned problem solving; without it we are lost. The society that protects and enhances public education is the society that produces active citizens whose eyes are wide open, and who are capable of dealing with the challenges technological, social and personal, that we will all be facing in the difficult decades ahead.

I would protect that belief before I worried about keeping the politics of tradition. I would have my profession managed and led on the basis of excellence and engagement rather than nineteenth century, socialist, union ideals. By protecting and encouraging excellence, we could rejuvenate Ontario’s tattered education system under a reasoned, unpoliticized, professional ideal.

Wanted Word: DIGERACY

http://www.ncte.org/governance/literacies

@banana29 just came back from the OLA super conference (where she presented this).  Thousands of librarians from all across Ontario (and Canada) came together for a huddle.  They are pretty keen technologists and aren’t remotely Luddite, but one of their issues was using the word LITERACY to describe a lack of familiarity when using technology.  Literacy is not the right word, we need something a with better etymological roots.

A lot of other words are trying to describe the gap we are beginning to see between people who use technology effectively and those who are used by it.  21st Century Fluencies is a big one, but it’s a mouthful.

Literacy, numeracy; we need a *acy word to link to technological skills in the same way that literature was linked to *acy in our last big media evolution in order to describe the important new skill set needed around reading and writing.

Digeracy might work.  It implies a wider connection to digital fluencies and doesn’t point to a single platform or skill set.  Cyberacy doesn’t have enough consonants in it for me, and technoracy doesn’t work because it points to too broad a concept (this isn’t about technology as a whole but rather the digital evolution of information).

Digeracy points to a person’s fluency in digital environments.  Their ability to understand the flow of information and how to interact with it efficiently.  While familiarity with hardware and software might help in specific instances, digeracy refers to a wider comfort level with digital information.

A person with high levels of digeracy is able to pick up new equipment and quickly work through its strengths and weaknesses in order to optimize their use of it.  They are able to access information in a variety of software environments and quickly understand the capabilities of the digital tools they are given.

Someone with digeracy might specialize in various bits of software and hardware, but they have developed sufficient breadth of skill that they are able to pick up any digital device and make it sing.  Their comfort level is sometimes seen as magical by others.  This extends beyond individual devices and platforms to knowledge of how to make best use of networks as well.

Like a fluent reader and writer with literacy, or a mathelete with numeracy, the technologist with digeracy is comfortable enough to swim in the digital ocean, to experiment with what they haven’t seen before and quickly come to terms with it.

Game Mastery

I misspent an awful lot of my youth Dungeon Mastering. We often spent whole days, ten-twelve hour stretches in a row, playing Dungeons and Dragons in various basements. During the summer it wasn’t uncommon for us to do whole weeks of days (or nights) like that.

If you’ve never played the game before, it’s basically a combination of story telling, creative writing, map making, art and random dice rolls. You create a character with a set of statistics and you go out and adventure with them. As you gain experience, you get to improve your statistics and get better chances to survive battles and face greater challenges. The characters develop based on their experiences (and their luck). Over time people get mighty attached to them. The players control themselves, the DM is the story teller, the one who controls the world in which they find themselves. When it’s done well, it feels a lot like you’re all creating a fantastic narrative together, and none of you knows how it’s going to end.

I ended up falling into the role of the DM because I could story tell well, and I learned to roll with the dice, I didn’t try to force the story when a lucky dice roll would change my expectations. Early on I’d over-script adventures and then have trouble when the dice allowed characters to do things I didn’t expect (or shouldn’t have had a statistical chance of happening). It took a bit of practice (and developing confidence) to trust that the story would unfold before us.

In one case I planned to kill off all the characters in the first five minutes, and then have them adventure in the after-life trying to get their lives back. As I mentioned, people get mighty attached to their characters. Dying freaked them out, they fought and fought. Finally, a tiny little hobbit-thief was the last one standing, facing the Grim Reaper himself. I had to give him a chance, otherwise the dice (and game) are pointless, so I said he had to roll a natural 20 (a 20 on a 20 sided dice) to successfully attack death. He actually did it. Right then I had to throw away my plan and go in a new direction. It wasn’t as nuanced as what I had prepared, but it mattered more to the players because they were authoring it, rather than having it read to them. Giving players no authorship in the game made it empty, pointless. That game became infamous, as did the Halfling who foot swept Death.

After a while, DMing all came down to world building (those are two of dozens) for me. I didn’t worry so much about what they would be facing on a situation by situation basis, as long as I knew where we were and when we were. The more richly we’d develop the world, its politics, religion, history, geography, the easier it was to create a rich, interactive experience around my players (this was a very collaborative thing, players would bring maps, histories, heraldry, costumes and all sorts of other surprises to games).

Our first road trip at 17 years old was an adventure in a rickety Chevette from Toronto to Milwaukee for GenCon, the gaming fair put on by the makers of Dungeons and Dragons. In the ’80s, this place was the Mecca for gaming. Tens of thousands of attendees in the largest conference centre in town. We attended lectures on ethics in gaming, integrating history and geology into world creation, and we played tournaments with thousands of others. We met the artists and authors that we loved; a professional conference for geeky seventeen year olds!

We took that richness and turned it over into our game play. Our stories evolved from dungeon crawls for loot, to archetypal quests to modern day parables about the evils people do. At its leading edge one of our games could speak to our own alienation and sense of desperation, while simultaneously giving us a means to exorcise it.

All of this made me aware of how a game works on a fundamental level. If you apply certainty and destroy choice (and chance), you kill it stone dead. If you place one participant in a position of absolute power so that they become a teller, rather than a participant, you’ve killed it again. You play a game best when you play it within its own context. Any game that breaks the forth wall falls to pieces. Game coherency requires consistency, not to a person’s will, but to the circumstances of the game. The best games are flexible enough to become richer as players add their own content (experiences, objects, ideas) to the game.

I’ve seen players cry when their character dies, but not only in sadness, also with respect. A good death is a good story, it honours the player’s efforts, the character’s beliefs and the game itself. The nice thing about a game is that sometimes Valkyries can then bring that dead hero to Valhalla, and you never know what can happen from there… good games give you a chance to maximize people’s involvement in them using the full spectrum of human emotion and intellect.

This has been percolating since I met another former DnDer (@liamodonnell) at OTF21C a few weeks ago and said, “everything I know about teaching, I learned from DMing.” It’s the truth.

I wanted to turn this into a rant on gamification in education, but in looking back on this, I realize that these ideas are very important to me. I’ve always had a great deal of trouble believing, but my years spent as an acolyte of gaming have made me just that, a believer.

I’m going to leave the other bits below, but feel free to stop reading here. I’m happy with clarifying a good idea rather than attacking a bad one.

 

Notes that didn’t make the cut:

Games aren’t ephemeral, if you want them to work, you have to nurture coherency within the game context

Not knowing what was going to happen also, ultimately, made it easier for me as a game master. I got to share in the story instead of telling it. I wasn’t a transmitter, I was part of a cast, bringing a story to life.

Any of this sound familiar from a teaching perspective?

If you deliver your teaching with cardboard certainty and inflexible perfection, your students have no authorship in that experience, it means nothing to them. If you teach as a participant, the interaction has life, and everyone involved is authoring it. It might not be as efficient or technically perfect as you’d like, but then I think perfection is entirely overrated.

The real danger is when those cardboard teachers try to use games as if they were a sugar coating you can apply to make something edible. Gamification tries to use game play as a way of getting people to do things, but that is a disaster.

Gold stars aren’t a new idea, but they sound like one if you throw fancy terms like gamification on them.

A good game needs to work within its own limits, but those limits should be deeply embedded within the game dynamics, and they should be designed to be adjustable, games should evolve meaningfully as their players do.

Bad Habits: these tools are not toys

The other week we had a PD on differentiated instruction. Before this long, undifferentiated lecture, I tried to get netbooks into as many interested teacher’s hands as possible. We set up a Google doc, opened up Twitter and began back channeling. It went well, most of the teachers trying it had never back channeled before. In a one way lecture with virtually no two way communication between the audience and the lecturer, we had ourselves a bracing and critical discussion about the material being covered.

That’s not how the vast majority of our colleagues saw it though. The cut-eye from people began the moment I opened my netbook; the assumption is that if you’re on a computer you’re wasting time, not paying attention, screwing around. Admittedly, the vast majority of the angry (embarrassed even) stares came from older teachers, but not exclusively. The passive, talked at audience thought we’d found a way out of the lecture using technology, rather than a way to make it engaging. The highlight came when the lecturer began standing next to one of the back channelers in an attempt to use proximity to get her back on task; even the instructor assumed technology use was time wasting.
One of the most powerful aspects of back channelling, even in the most non participatory lectures, is that it can create a responsive, audience involved activity that allows viewers to engage in learning actively. That many people in the room didn’t recognize what active learning looks like in a world of Twitter and shared documents tells you something about where they see their classes from.
The assumption I’m most interested in is that technology allows the user to screw around, not do what they are supposed to be doing. This makes me wonder what these teachers think their students are doing when they book them into a computer lab, is it a free period in their minds? Or does this have more to do with how people pay attention to a lesson or lecture? If that’s the case, do they assume students aren’t listening when they are taking notes? or not staring at the speaker?
There are some interesting questions around multi-tasking here, but I’ll leave them for another time. What I suspect is that this all comes back to a fear of technology in learning; it’s still assumed by many that internet access is a complete waste of time. They think that the web is Youtube, Farmville, Facebook and meaningless, puerile and unproductive navel gazing. For many students (and teachers I guess) it is, but then, isn’t it up to us as teachers to show students how to make productive use of what may be one of the pinnacles of human engineering?
As old fashioned as this sounds, this may all boil down to what we think about note taking, a skill that is all but ignored in education. Learning how to take notes is vital, and back channelling, shared documents and a plethora of online services (Google docs, Prezi, Twitter, Adobe Connect and other video sharing tools, wall wisher, Todaysmeet, Backnoise, and many others; this is constantly evolving) have created new opportunities for note taking and interactivity with learning interaction and recording that didn’t exist previously. These new skills need to be integrated into basic note taking. We need to stop ignoring technology competency in the learning process.
However you care to illustrate the process of learning, recording your learning in some way is a vital part of the process. It allows you to clarify ideas, isolate material, review it at a later date and summarize your knowledge. Note taking works as a fluid process that integrates the learner into what can be an alienating, passive situation, making them an active participant. I don’t think anyone would suggest that students shouldn’t take notes, but passive lectures (unless you’re at PD) have become a thing of the past. Differentiated instruction and student centered learning have tended to de-emphasize note taking (often replaced with handouts). This seems to cause students new to university a great deal of difficulty.
Perhaps the best thing technology can bring to this are new ways to collaborate, participate and communicate a learner’s response to new material, but not if we’re assuming that the tools used are really just toys.

Raging: how empowered learners respond to being outside the Zone

Getting a student into the zone of proximal development is a tricky business. If students don’t have sufficient background knowledge and skill in what they’re learning, they tend to switch off.  This often shows as distraction, disengagement and disinterest.  In extreme cases students become disruptive, knocking others who might be on the cusp of their ZPD out of a learning opportunity.  This seems to be happening more often in classrooms, I have an idea why…

That disruptive approach is common in online gaming.  It might be useful to look at how raging, trolling and ‘Umad‘ online interaction points to a foreign set of values that many students are familiar and comfortable with.  The vast majority of educators have no experience or knowledge of gaming culture.  When a student in the class room acts on values they’ve learned while gaming, shock ensues.

Teabaggging is one of many tactics designed to belittle an opponent

In a player versus player game, game balance and the opportunity for everyone to participate in a maximal way (in their ZPD) depends on the players all having sufficient skill to make a game of it.  In a randomly generated game, it’s common for a team of n00bs to get pwned by a more skilled team.  This is often accompanied by flaming with the intent to anger your opponents to such a degree that they quit (ideally vocally angry, allowing you to throw in a umad? before they storm off).  In gaming, ‘schooling‘ your opponents is a vital part of the learning process.  It’s the clearest way to state your superiority in skill over an opponent.  The goal is to make it so clear to a weaker player that they are out of their league (way outside their ZPD) that they give up in anger.  This is going to sound very foreign to the overly compassionate, no-bullying, we’re all to be treated as equals approach found in education, but this is where many students spend hours of their time when not in the manufactured environment of their school.

A gamer who is forced out of a game in this fashion is very angry in the moment, and quits the game, usually to pick up another game immediately.  In this game, if they are within their ZPD in terms of their gaming skills (which involves knowledge of the game environment, hand eye coordination, strategy and cooperative play, among others), they are immediately re-engaged.  Their recent failure does not hurt them or follow them in any way, and the adrenaline burst of anger has prompted them to intensively refocus on the game.  I suspect the stats for a player in a post-rage situation improve due to the residual anger and energy released.  They increase their skill with this hyper focus and rage less often.

When you meet a master player, they tend to shy away from the trash talk and simply demonstrate their skill, rather than yapping about it.  This kind of mastery is every player’s goal.  When they get there, they often adopt the degree of awesomeness Jane McGonigal talks about in her TEDtalk.  As nice as it is to see someone recognizing gaming awesomeness, it’s also important to recognize that gaming intensity requires accessing a full range of emotional response in players.  These responses can often seem cruel or unusual to non-gamers.

Gaming’s all-in philosophy is completely counter to the risk-averse, failure-follows you approach of education.  Rather than being allow to epically fail, suffer and re-engage, education does everything it can to ensure that epic failures (or failures of any kind) never occur.  Failure is increasingly impossible to achieve in the class room, and the result moves students further and further away from the culture of one of their richest learning environments.

If you want intense engagement then you need to offer access to a full spectrum of emotion, and a real and meaningful opportunity for failure, but you can’t be an ass about it and hang that failure around a learner’s neck forever.  Until we grasp this simple truth found in the forge of intense gaming, we’re going to appear increasingly foreign to our students, and they are going to keep learning more from World of Warcraft than they ever will from a teacher.


http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html (lies debunked about gaming)
http://janemcgonigal.com/: a great look at the positive power gaming can produce (I’m arguing here about how it’s negative aspects still offer useful truths too)
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.04/genX.html: an interesting summary of the gamer generation
http://www.avantgame.com/: recognizing the power of gaming

Caution, Fear & Risk Aversion in Students

The first ever post on Dusty World from way back in 2010!

.

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
Bertrand Russell

… but we don’t set up schools to nurture a love of learning, we set them up like 19th Century factories.

 

I’m teaching a grade 12 class on computer science. If my computer science teacher knew I was doing this, he would roll over in his grave. I haven’t coded since the ’80s, I’m a technician. I got knocked off coding by that same computer science teacher who could only approach coding from a mathematical/logical direction. My hackering/tinkering/non-linear approach to generating code depended on a natural fluency with syntax and a willingness to break things in order to come up with something new. I never cared about solving for x, I was always about the why.
 
So here I am, in a class full of students who my old compsci teacher would have adored. Math wizes who have learned how to learn so well, they can’t do anything (else).
 
Lisa Simpson (during a teacher’s strike): I can’t take this anymore! Please, mom! Grade me! Grade me! Validate me!!!
 
That’s at the bottom of it all. These A students are so trained to the system, so inured, that they can’t possibly get unplugged from the Matrix. The idea of learning for sheer curiosity’s sake has been beaten out of them by a dozen years of positive reinforcement produced by their spectacularly successful student careers.
 
When I suggest we take a left turn, instead of doing more pointless actionscript programming that no one else on the planet except Ontario Elearning finds valuable, and go after C++, which none of them have any experience in, only one is even willing to try it. The rest are paralyzed by fear of failure, or even worse, not being able to demonstrate consistent mastery – because that’s how we really grade. You only get perfect if you’re already ahead of the material. You can’t get low marks at the beginning, continually improve, and end with an A+, those early failures that produced understanding are factored into your grades. We penalize learning in the class room. There has been some change in this, formative/summative and such, but the vast majority of grading still follows the broken example above. Learning is a non-linear process, experimentation, failure, reassessment, reattempt, fail in a new, more interesting way… but we train students to think it’s an inbuilt ability, which you either have, or struggle with. Grades reflect this.
 
Even the one student willing to self-direct his learning and take on a challenging new language (one that his university uses extensively and we’re pushing him toward with no experience whatsoever) sent me an email anguishing over his grades if he cannot demonstrate fluency in C++ in the 5 weeks we have left. I’ve approached this a number of ways. Firstly, by working with him to set attainable goals (this still freaks him out, he can’t see the mastery in setting the goals to a reasonable level, so feels his marks will suffer). Secondly, I’ve gotten him into a course of study that leads him through the beginnings of C++. The end result should be a working familiarity with a language he’s never seen before demonstrated by some basic scripts that show him coming to terms with the material. Thirdly, I told him to forget the numbers. He is putting hours in on this, not because he has to, but because he wants to. The end result is irrelevant, he is directing his own learning – a dead art in an education system designed to force conformity in order to keep costs down and appear financially responsible. He’s doing something no one else is willing or able to do. He’s also learning something that will immediately assist him in university next year. How is any of this not 100%?
 
I only wish I could overcome the caution and apathy born of risk aversion in the other students and set them free. We feed them a steady diet of caution, then wonder why they aren’t willing to take risks in learning.
 
I’m not the guardian of knowledge, I shouldn’t even get to decide how they learn, I should do everything I can to ensure that they do though.


Update:  I just ran into this student at the Grad ceremony a couple of weeks ago.  He’s in his first year at Waterloo U doing computer science (a wickedly difficult course to get into).  It was nice to hear that the C++ really payed off, in a way that the actionscript stuff never would.  He’s finding it difficult, but he’s seeing success, and his greatest advantage?  Taking a run at the programming language they use at university before he got there, errors and all.

A Single Decision Could Save Our Future

I watched the first episode of BBC’s Victorian Bakers the other day and it’s still resonating with me.  They kick it off by taking modern bakers and putting them in an early Victorian bakery.  Like one of the guys in this, I have a family history of baking.  The Kings I’m named after were bakers on Drayton high street near Norwich for generations.

My uncle John has a great story of heading out for bread deliveries on a horse and cart with my great grandfather Eddie.  They left before sunrise and were dropping off loaves for miles and miles before coincidently ending up doing their last drop right next to a public house around lunch time.  Eddie went in, had two pints on an empty stomach and then got back on the cart.  The horse walked the ten miles home without direction while Eddie had a nap.  My then six year old uncle just sat next to him with his mouth hanging open.

The BBC show does a good job of situating those early Victorian bakers in a time period that is very unfamiliar to modern people.  They were performing a truly sustainable industry that had been done in much the same way since before the middle ages.  For millenia local bakeries in villages and towns across the country had made bread that provided the majority of caloric intake for everyone around them using technology and processes that were passed down from generation to generation.  Every time I take out a bag of garbage or a box of recycling and wait for a diesel monster to take them away, I’m aware that what I’m doing isn’t remotely as sustainable.  It’s a lot of hard graft, but between our fixations on ease of living and short term gain, the idea that we could hand down an industry to our children without it destroying the world is foreign to us, hard work or not.

Using brewer’s yeast from local breweries and grain from local fields, the bakery, attached to a water powered mill, would feed everyone within walking or riding distance.  In the process of mimicking this time period the modern bakers made a number of surprising observations, such as how effectively the locally sourced and unmodified brewer’s yeast raised the bread.  Modern yeast has been bred to grow as rapidly as possible in order to be distributed industrially on a massive scale.  It’s not made for taste or even health, it’s made for ease of productivity.  Most of what we do in the 21st Century is designed to feed industry.  The modern bakers who are used to this GMO’d yeast were surprised at how well the traditional brewer’s yeast worked, as well as how much taste it retained; modern yeast is bland by comparison.  One of them said that he could make this bread in his current bakery and it would sell no problem – people miss the details lost in industrialization.
.
Another naturally rather than industrially sourced ingredient were the local, ancient grains used in this traditional bread making.  An archeologist turned farmer in the area was farming using traditional methods.  So, rather than industry driven monocultural crops that erode soil, he had a variety of grains that naturally grew in the region.  He couldn’t slot that in to modern expectations designed to maximize profit at the expense of everything else, but it did enable the TV production to make a surprisingly accurate traditional bread.  Those traditional grains changed from region to region depending on the local biome, so if you travelled more than two centuries ago, the bread and beer would have tasted different depending on where you were.  Modern grain is bred for rapid growth and tends to be monocultural (and trademarked) in order to maximize short term yields, so they lack that variety and the sustainability that ancient grains had.  Another surprise was the reduced amount of gluten in the ancient grains bread.  Modern monocultures are selected for maximum gluten in order to produce the biggest, fluffiest bread possible.  We genetically engineer grains so they are gluten overloaded then wonder why we’re having a reaction to gluten.
.
GMOs aren’t the issue here other than how trademarked, selective breeding also fits into the industrial farming disaster.  We’ve been selectively breeding crops and animals for thousands of years to good effect.  The issue is how industrially driven economics force agriculture into unsustainable, damaging, repetitive high-yield, mono-cultural crops that are inherently dependent on diesel powered heavy machinery and heavy chemical use.  All of this is done to produce as much cheap food or fuel as possible.  The quality of that food and the fact that we can’t keep doing it this way aren’t in the equation when farmers are forced to look at short term gain year after year.  When we mess around with agriculture in order to increase profitability at the cost of our health or the health of our environment, we’re ultimately destroying the world for the short term gain of only a few people, and leaving the wreckage for the people who come after us.


The economic system that drives our industrial economy goes well beyond a lack of sustainability.  It demands sacrifices to our health and safety in order to drive short term profit.    Thanks to this myopia we have turned a staple food that we’ve eaten for thousands of years into something unsustainable and unhealthy in order to make more of it for less.  The following episode of Victorian Bakers showed how industrialization and the profit driven wealth that comes from it not only made a traditional, sustainable industry nearly impossible, but also produced products that were happy to trade health for profit.  The bakers in the show were never as unhappy as they were in the early industrial bakery.  The next time someone tells you that we need to deregulate industry, show them this:


***

The red countries are already upside down. The green coutries are all trending toward red. We aren’t remotely aimed toward a viable end.


This series has me thinking about larger questions around sustainability.  Pretty much everything we do on an industrial scale is driving us toward extinction or at least a drastic correction.  We’re too selfish to make these changes ourselves, but it doesn’t matter because nature will eventually make them for us.  We think we’re forced into making these decisions because of our population, but our population is also a choice.

Current estimates have us at three times the sustainable number of people the Earth can manage.  We could resolve overpopulation in only a few generations, but it would mean radically altering an economic system designed to ignore sustainability in favour of selfishness and short term gain, as well as acting in a way that we as animals aren’t evolved to do.  Procreation is an instinctive force that most people are unwilling or unable to consider modifying.  Asking humans to voluntarily consider modifying the number of children they have raises all sorts of superstition and involuntary anger.  The vast majority of us are not able to worry about how our great grandchildren will survive no matter what horrible things we’re doing to them.

 

Pledge to look after your great grandchildren by signing here

If, over the next four generations, we volunteered to follow a one child per family policy, we’d have corrected human overpopulation by 2100.  By 2200 we could stabilize the human population under that two billion mark while still being able to develop our science and technology towards less invasive and more sustainable goals.  What we wouldn’t be able to do is continue our short sighted economic system that really only works to convert future misery into today’s profits for a decreasing number of people.  Our economic system is only considered successful if it’s always growing.  The only other thing in nature that works that way is cancer, and a cancer is exactly what free-market driven human beings who think they can procreate at will and ignore the natural consequences are.

It’s possible for us to resolve the mess we’re in.  There is a way forward, but I fear it’ll never happen voluntarily.  I’ll never meet my son’s grandchildren, but I hope he can leave them a world where they don’t find humanity to be a selfish, ignorant, overpowering cancer on the biosphere.  It would be a world where human beings take responsibility for the science and technology that have allowed them to medicine themselves past many of the natural mechanisms that would have otherwise limited their growth.  If we’re going to spend billions ensuring children aren’t dying of disease, then we need to produce less children, or forgo the benefits of that medical science.  The choice is one made by a technologically mature species, but that’s not us.

There could be a future where the reduced human population load on Earth would allow us to continue to develop our science and technology and eventually move our heavy industry out of the only habitable ecosystem we have.  The solar system would be able to provide raw materials for our off-world heavy industry while our home world would became a carefully managed, bio-diverse and sustainable home.  It won’t be groaning under the weight of unsustainable agricultural monocultures we developed to feed an overpopulated planet.  Our biodiverse world would contain self sustaining settlements.  Cities would evaporate and small towns and villages would proliferate, though they would all be able to communicate with each other.  We would benefit from that biodiversity both in terms of sustainability and research.  We can’t make ground breaking discoveries from the massive variety of life around us if we reduce that variety to monocultures designed to feed as many humans as we can stuff onto the planet.

 

Power generation would be regional, small scale and renewable and consumption would be efficient and light.  Settlement size would be dictated by the biome it was located in and how much food and energy could be produced to look after the people in it.  Cellular regional governments would make decisions for their local needs and larger decisions would be made by combined groups on whatever scale was required, right up to world wide decisions on world wide consequences.  High power production for heavy industry would still happen, off world.  The people who wanted to work in heavy industry would work in space and come back to a green and blue home when they wished.  Imagine a world like that pre-Victorian bakery where the benefits of local life are emphasized and enhanced, but with the efficiencies of advanced communications and micro-manufacturing available to improve health, wellness and quality of life.

Space based energy production could be microwaved to the surface when needed.  Heavy equipment built on the Moon from mines throughout the inner solar system would mean access to raw materials without having to upset the Earth’s biosphere.  Saturn is a near infinite source of Helium3 energy.  Once we build the processes to mine the helium there, we have an energy rich, sustainable civilization for the indefinite future.  Advances in nano-technology, gene editing, chemistry and micro-manufacturing would make our current technology look as inefficient and awkward as steam trains do to us.

From that energy rich space based industry we could eventually drop space ladders down to the surface, making the transfer of people and materials to and from space even more ecologically viable and efficient.  There would come a time where there are more people scattered through the solar system than there are on Earth, but it would always be there ready to welcome us home.  Maybe at some point we would build generational ships and head to the stars, looking for other homes.

A future where we are able to hand down our way of life to our descendents without it killing them is only a single personal choice away.  It’s a shame the vast majority of humanity don’t have it in them to do it.  What my son will be telling his grandchildren is that he’s sorry it has all gone so wrong.  As vital resources like water become scarce under the crushing weight of billions we’ll do what we’ve always done when resources get scarce and go to war with each other.  At that point our science and technology will actually be put to the task of reducing human populations radically quickly.  Perhaps in the aftermath of that we’ll find a way forward, but we’re too stupid and self-righteous to make a decision that will avoid that misery now.

I’m a big fan of artificial intelligence.  As I get older I’m starting to think it’s one of the only places I’m seeing any kind of intelligence.  We seem to be regressing politically and culturally.  Given an opportunity to light up a SkyNet that would manage us better than we’re willing to manage ourselves, I wouldn’t hesitate to flip the switch.  It might be the only way we have a future.

 

***

 

Research Links:

The other thing that got me thinking in this direction was Starfarers by Poul AndersonThe characters in the novel are travelling between stars at relativistic rates, so when they return to Earth over ten thousand years have passed.  Anderson uses that as an opportunity to look at how human society could become a long term, sustainable process.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080428120658.htm

https://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=2&series=EN.ATM.CO2E.PC&country=#

https://phys.org/news/2012-08-earth-absorbing-carbon-dioxide-emissions.html

https://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/3_times_sustainable
“If we allow overpopulation and overconsumption to continue, the evidence is mounting that billions will suffer and that we will leave future generations a much harder, bleaker life.”
“Taking these non-renewable resources into account suggests 2 billion people living at a European standard of living may be the upper limit of a sustainable global population”

https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/#worldfootprint 

http://data.footprintnetwork.org/#/

https://youtu.be/ANPaAHhfNck

https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/nature-destruction-climate-change-world-biodiversity_n_5c49e78ce4b06ba6d3bb2d44

The rapid decline of the natural world.