One Size Fits All, Even When It Doesn’t

It’s taken me until Sunday to be able to talk normally again after week one of face to face teaching in a pandemic.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our board has done an incredible job of charting a path through this poorly planned and funded return to school during a medical emergency, but this has still been one of the worst weeks of my teaching career and not because of all the barriers to teaching.

Top of list are the mandatory medical grade face masks I’m told we have to wear (though the Ministry says, “All staff in schools must wear masks, with reasonable exceptions for medical conditions”).  With a head circumference well beyond the human average, these masks are too small for me and leave me at the end of each day with marks on my face, sinuses and ears.  My head is so big we had to bring my son in for testing for encephalitis because he got my big head.  The specialist immediately said everything was ok when he saw me and realized big heads run in the family.  There is nothing worse than being atypical in a pandemic when every system contracts to only suit the average (that’s a theme).

In addition to not fitting my big head, these masks are very restrictive in terms of breathing, especially if you’re working in a poorly ventilated south facing classroom that hits thirty plus degrees celsius on even a cool day when it has 30 or so computers and twenty people in it.  Being a tech shop I’m also moving equipment around.  In setting up the lab I moved over two thousand pounds of computer parts into place.  Being required to wear a mask that’s too small and restrictive while doing physical work in a hot room had me seeing stars multiple times this week.  The Ministry states that reasonable exceptions are allowed but everywhere I turned this week (union, admin, online) told me to just wear the damned mask.  My biggest anxiety is returning to another week of feeling like I’m being waterboarded by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I have a history of sinus issues.  My sinuses are so atypical the specialist who did my deviated septum surgery two years ago (so much blood!) had never seen anything like them and was forwarding them on to researchers.  I can breath much better after the surgery, but wearing a high filtration medical quality mask like that for six hours a day means I resort to mouth breathing almost constantly while wearing it, so I leave school every day with a sore throat and inflamed sinuses.  When I expressed this I was told to just wear the mask like everyone else.  My wife is severely immune compromised and I come home every day to immediately put my clothes in the washer and take a scalding shower.  The last thing I want to do is contract this but not being able to breath properly while having to talk more loudly through a mask is destroying me.  There are sports filtration masks I’d be willing to purchase myself but all I keep getting told is to shut up and wear the mask.

Being the only person wearing a medical grade mask in a room of 16 grade nines wearing everything from homemade cloth masks to bandanas, I’m left wondering at the veracity of this demanding compliance.  A number of other staff are also struggling with this one size fits all zero flexibility approach.  They’ve told me that they (variously) pull the mask off to get fresh air if they’re short of breath and/or fold the bottom of the mask up or fit it poorly so it lets air in and out, which is like not wearing a mask at all.  If the only solution is to wear this thing so poorly that it doesn’t do anything then I think we need to rethink our one-size-fits-all policy.

Beyond the mandatory waterboarding mask, the week went well but mainly because I’m making unsustainable catches at the wall all day every day.  All of the IT tech we had in the lab was in the middle of being used when we were shut down at March Break and it was in much worse shape than I realized.  I spent most of the week triaging and rapidly repairing broken computers so that grade 9s could use them, which isn’t sustainable.  A diving catch is a spectacular thing but if that’s all you’re doing all game you won’t be playing the next week.

I got a really good piece of advice from our spec-ed instructor when I was at Nipissing University for teacher’s college: “your first job is to be ready to come in to work again tomorrow.”  This often gets forgotten in the teacher martyr complex and I see people (myself included) throwing themselves into unsustainable situations that end up preventing them from working effectively the next day.  This whole week felt like that.  Every time I looked for support it wasn’t there and the weight I was carrying got that bit more impossible.

Tuesday was the worst day.  After spending all morning trying to get broken tech working (for my classroom and half a dozen other classrooms in the school), and then struggling to get all the grade 9s through safety training because at least two of them are functionally illiterate (which raises interesting questions around the legalities of dragging them through purely text based online safety training) the teacher who was supposed to come in and provide relief saw how busy I was and said, “if you don’t need me I’ll go” instead of showing some initiative while watching me try to be in three places at once.

This is another example of the system checking a box rather than providing actual support.  Our union has argued for us to get relieved during our nearly three hour marathon face to face sessions (two times a day, thank-you) and I appreciate that effort, but the teacher coming in isn’t qualified or knowledgeable in my field of study and is little more than a babysitter who can’t even legally oversee hands-on shop work.  The week before we were told by admin to just skip our prep/relief and keep working if that’s what we wanted to do, but that is neither sustainable nor compliant with the contract we’ve agreed to.  Being asked if they can just leave and take a 45 minute break from giving people breaks while I’m obviously struggling both physically, mentally and emotionally was… (how can I put this professionally?)… aggravating.

Under normal circumstances I’d have sent the two functionally illiterate kids down to resource who would have walked them through the training one on one.  I can’t do one on one when I have twenty other grade nines all needing my attention at once and while I’m responsible for safe hands on work with live electricity and tools in a technology class.  I can’t send them to resource though because our resource room has been closed and all our spec-ed specialists are now teaching regular classes online.  You don’t want to have an IEP or learning challenges during a pandemic, all the spec-ed support has evaporated.

Anytime I’ve asked for someone to assist me with something they’ve reflected it back on me to do.  If a student needs special supports it’s entirely on me to do that.  If a student doesn’t have digital access at home it’s entirely on me to do that.  Towards the end of the week I had board purchasing asking questions about things from last year that I had neither the bandwidth nor knowledge to answer so I just ignored the emails.  When you’re drowning you don’t go looking for more water.

If you’re operating an engine it will have an operating range.  You work in that range as a balance of efficiency, longevity and performance.  There are moments when you might push past the 100% mark in order to get a burst of power, but doing so means you’ve just shortened the life of that engine.  The diving catch made by a baseball player is one of those 120% moments where you do something unsustainable to make the catch, but you can’t keep doing that all day every day, it’ll break you.

Even with all the barriers to teaching thrown up by this pandemic and this particular government I had a good week instructionally.  I was able to differentiate to different students and pretty much everyone in the class was able to do something they’d never done before by the end of the week (build their own PC).  That one on one work with students learning their strengths and developing skills is what I love about my work, and I’m good at it.

I’m unable to do IT again next week with a new class because we don’t have any working tech left, so I’m doing backflips this weekend trying to work out how to teach electronics in two places in two different ways at once.  Our two cohort system means I’m teaching remotely to one cohort while I’m teaching face to face with the other all day every day (they flip).  It’s twice as much prep but as you’ve read above we don’t really have any prep time.  They gave me a teacher who isn’t qualified and doesn’t have any background in my subject to cover the online learning, but that’s just more people I have to direct.  I asked if we could just collapse my class into a single morning cohort then I could be the afternoon online teacher.  The class is only 22 so it wouldn’t be huge and it means I’m not buried alive and trying to be in two places at once.  You can guess the answer: it wouldn’t look good.  They don’t want any pictures of full classes out there.  It makes sense pedagogically and in terms of staff work load, and with appropriate safety precautions there would be minimum risk of pandemic transmission, but if you don’t have optics on your side in a pandemic you have nothing.  I’m not the only teacher who asked for that.

In addition to trying to generate a week of prep every day both remotely and face to face, I’m also trying to get more IT tech in so I can do that unit with my second class.  Getting parts in a pandemic is challenging.  I’m hoping I can work it out and RCTO has been fantastic in getting back to me and making it happen, but that’s just another of those unsustainable balls I’m juggling that’s up in the air somewhere.

I can manage the avalanche of prep, but doing it while in physical distress all day because of an inflexible mask policy means I’m not going to finish this semester on my feet.  I have to find a way to engineer a solution to this because no one around me will.  The most frustrating part is that the solution is obvious but in a pandemic flexibility and individual needs are the first thing we burn.

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Media Literacy: Technical Challenges & Digital Ignorance

Originally published on DUSTY WORLD, September, 2018…

Last year I attended the FITC digital creatives conference in Toronto for the first time.  I teach a senior high school software engineering class where we focus on project management in terms of game design.  We use Unity to develop interactive 3d games, sometimes in virtual reality.  We use Blender to learn how to 3d model.  I attended FITC to try and get some perspective on how we can use current industry standards in our work, but this conference did much more than that.


I thought I was up at the pointy end of 3d computer generated imaging know-how, we do some exceptional work in class and many of our grads have gone on to work in the industry, but FITC floored me with how CGI 3d modelling has insinuated itself into marketing.  The first presentation that made me question everything I thought I knew was by The Mill and their Blackbird car.  This digital studio has revolutionized how automakers advertise.  The next time you’re watching a car advertisement, ask yourself if you’re actually seeing the car:

 


From a media literacy perspective, if you aren’t aware that what you’re watching isn’t real, are you really media literate?  This can lead to all sorts of strange situations where all of us are media illiterate and at the mercy of the people who aren’t:

Made this week by one of our new grade 11s.  Watching an
already talented artist take these digital tools and run with
them is one of the best parts of my job.

I’d originally attended FITC to make sure we were current on 3d technology.  I think we’re doing a remarkably good job of that in our high school program, but what I was unaware of was just how many 3d modelling jobs there are beyond the film and video game industries.  There are a number of companies now that focus entirely on the very lucrative marketing industry with this technology.  I was able to bring that back to my students and offer up a new avenue for our talented digital artists to consider when they graduate.


I haven’t touched on many of the other surprises from FITC.  Relatively new jobs like computer animation that I thought were secure are in doubt.  Other skills that I never considered (traditional visual arts skills, mime and creative thinking) might be much more valuable in our digital future than I thought they might.  This kind of information makes me want to diversify my software class and encourage greater artistic influence and experimentation.  Ideally, we should be learning these digital tools in order to amplify and express the creativity and complex thinking my students are capable of.  Technically proficiency isn’t an end in itself, we learn the tools to make our thoughts tangible.

 

We’ve got one of the top 2d animators in Ontario in our
grade 12 software engineering class.  He’s pretty handy
in 3d as well!

The media literacy side of it still bothers me.  I’m teaching computer engineering so my focus is there, but so few people are interested in learning how this technology works.  I have a pretty healthy program and I work with less than ten percent of our school population.  Many schools in Ontario don’t offer any digital technologies at all.  In my senior programs I’m lucky to have one or two females in the class.  Tech tends to be male heavy and digital tech is no different.  That gender disparity means a digital literacy disparity too.


I see every person in the school using digital technology every day, yet its a curriculum afterthought.   I’ve long argued for digital technology to be a required fluency, especially if we’re going to use it in every classroom and throughout our days.  If you don’t understand the technology it will influence you in ways you won’t even notice.  You’ll also waste a lot of time not doing it properly.  My experiences at FITC this year have opened yet another angle on digital fluency in terms of media literacy.  If you’re watching something you think is real but isn’t, you’re the sucker that PT Barnum and modern marketing dreams about.

If you’re at ECOO #BIT18 this year I’ll be presenting on the many surprises I found at FITC and how you might start to bring 3d modelling or at least an understanding of it into your classroom.  Hope to see you there.





Here’s the presentation:

 

 

 

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2015 IndyGP Videos & Photos

I’m sorting through the photos and videos from the Indianapolis MotoGP trip… here’s what I’ve got so far:

Prior to take-off

At the Michigan International Speedway

Lunch stop in North Manchester

The back straight at Indy – what a ride!

Bike parking on the back straight

Indy golf course in the infield

Friday practice session for the 2015 Indy GP

Yamaha R1 guts

Dancing through the esses

Danny Kent doing the business (qualified first!)

The Doctor at work

The Maestro Marc Marquez doing what he does

There were many more bikes when we returned!

They compete for motorcycle insurance here?
We must not be in Ontario!

Motorcycles on Meridian

Thousands upon thousands of bikes – if it’s been built it’s here!

Michigan International Speedway
You can sign in and have a look around inside! 

Indy Again

Google auto-made video of the track day

The Poor Right Winger

Originally published on Straw Dogs in the summer of 2012…

What do working poor right wingers hope to get out of slavishly supporting the ultra wealthy?

The move is well under way here in Ontario to dismantle unionized skilled labour.Teachers have had bargaining rights stripped and contracts made irrelevant by a cynical government willing to do anything to chase votes. It’s the votes that they’re chasing that have me baffled. What do working poor conservatives hope to gain out of supporting right wing positions that seem intent on wiping out the middle class?

I’ve been trying to understand the thinking of the working poor conservative in this. They think that supporting the rich will pay off? It never has historically.  The middle class has a much better history of opening its ranks to up and comers than does the aristocracy. If you’re smart and hard working and able to see things through, you’re almost guaranteed a place in the professional classes.

I don’t mean to sound elitist when I say professional classes. These are skilled laborers, everyone from surgeons and teachers, to nurses and mechanics. Yet these accessible, skilled groups are the very people under attack by right wing interests who seem intent on racing to the bottom in a global market in order to make Ontario competitive. Competitive? With what, China?

Nothing short of a miracle will get you into the 1% who are intent on taking everything for themselves, yet poor conservatives seem unhappy with anything but the complete dissolution of the middle class. I don’t get the thinking. There is a reason why the ultra-rich who are too big to fail are only 1% of the population.

Wouldn’t you want to keep the working, skilled, professional levels of society as healthy as possible in order to eventually join them? Holding out for a place in the 1% feels like desperation, the kind of thing an idiot would do. It seems like the story of a house slave who has been up to the big house and now puts on airs, acting like the plantation owners, thinking that there is empathy there. The rich-poor gap is wider now than it was then. Just because you like their big houses and how they act doesn’t mean you’ll ever see one, or be considered one of them. You’re a tool they use for their own ends, but you’re content to be a tool.

The working poor often battle one sided upbringings that make it difficult to effectively access the educational opportunities they are given (GIVEN!) by public education. I suspect this failure grates on them as they get older, and rather than accept their own failure to grasp opportunities, they would rather dream of ‘being rich’, and nurture an ongoing hatred for the teachers and education workers who they feel put them in their place. It makes for a handy target for a cynical government looking to raise right wing antipathy of public workers.  You have to wonder how far that cynicism can go.

The ‘I identify with Donald Trump more than a paid professional’ thinking speaks to an idealized vision the poor conservative has of themselves. One day they’ll be rich and at their ease through no effort of their own, just like all those rich people they so admire.  They’d rather dream of being like the aristocracy than roll up their sleeves and make something of themselves.  It’s a lot easier to fantasize about being rich than it is to realize you don’t rate as a capable skilled labourer.

Those skilled workers contribute to society, paying taxes, producing educated citizens, protecting people and property, and maintaining its infrastructure.  Only the rich selfishly leech from it, hiding their wealth and avoiding paying taxes at all costs. The idiot sub-class of right winger worships them for this and thinks it’s an ideal they should aspire to.

The professional classes are the engine of the economy. Shop clerks, manual laborers and other script followers don’t depend on their own competence, or care for standards, or invent new technologies, or work to improve their profession and society as a whole. The incompetent working poor grumble, complain, whine, and then vote for the right wing government that looks like it supports their own myopic self hatred. They swing democracies by the tail, bringing back a rule by idiot mob that any Roman would recognize. These asinine people support the ultra-rich, who consist mainly of people whose money works for them so they don’t have to be capable of doing anything at all.

I guess I can see why an uneducated, lazy jackass would sympathize with greed, self-interested and short shortsightedness.  These are traits that the working poor conservative share with the one-percenter.  How could the poor, unskilled right winger have anything in common with a firefighter, doctor, teacher or engineer who performs skilled labour that demands continual effort, improvement and expertise?

A new article today: Ontario the worst place for widening gap between rich and poor

Mostly Ironheads

The Connie is off getting safetied, and the Ninja has found a new home.  I’m bikeless!

One of the things you learn about motorcycle culture is that it tends to exist underground, out of sight.  For example, this week I discovered that there is a bike shop in the small town that I’ve lived in for five years.  I had no idea that down the back of the industrial mall behind the country market is a specialist motorbike shop.  This reminded me of our trip to Old Vintage Cranks a couple of summers ago.

I’d contacted the owner, Lloyd, over the phone during the week about getting the Concours safetied.  He doesn’t usually work with ‘metric bikes’, but he was willing to look after me.  Mostly Ironheads is a full service shop that, in addition to offering everything you need to maintain your bike, also offers you some genuine historical motorcycling perspective.  While chatting with Lloyd he showed me a 1934 Harley Flathead engine that he was in the process of rebuilding.  In the front of the shop you’ll also find a collection of customized Harleys from various decades.  I’m going to bring the 3d-scanner when I return for the Connie next week and get some models of this classic American iron.

It’s convenient to wander around department store styled dealerships and bike shops, but it isn’t all that interesting beyond what you’re shopping for.  Places like Mostly Ironheads run at a different speed.  The proprietors are always happy to spend some time chatting with you and the chances of seeing something genuine and learning something about motorbiking are much higher.

If you’re travelling through Elora, Ontario on two wheels (and many people do to have lunch by the river in the summer), be sure to pop down behind Dar’s Country Market to Mostly Ironheads and have a look at a hidden piece of Ontario motorcycle culture.

Mostly Ironheads Website

Mostly Ironheads on Facebook


3d models of some historical Harleys

The Centre Cannot Hold

I stumbled across this interesting article on curiosity and the neuroscience associated with  it:

“Encourage students to chase their own interests, cultivate curiosity.  It fires up brains and makes them better at remembering new information.  It also engages students in the best possible way.”


“When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes.”

If you’re not a teacher and are a big fan of the new Ontario government’s ‘teach ’em like we used ta‘ approach to learning, this is what we call pedagogy.  There is a lot of neuroscience that directs modern pedagogy in the classroom.  Put in simple terms, we don’t just make this stuff up; the education system spends a lot of time and effort understanding how learning works best and then training teachers to work with that.  Scientific research guides modern curriculum building, at least until right wing populist ideology dislodges it in Ontario.


Showing a teacher how curiosity can be used to amplify retention and encourage a focused approach to new knowledge acquisition is pure gold.  I fear the ‘take it back to basics‘ stance of our new government means this neuroscientific research is ignored in favour of the conservative reductive approach of rote memorization and zero differentiation of instruction.  It’s a common conservative belief that everyone (especially in the public sector) needs to suffer in order to show they are trying, but don’t expect anyone to learn anything in an environment like that.  Contrary to this grossly simplified view of education (in that case advocated by an American with no teaching experience), we’re not in it to punish anyone.  You don’t learn well when you’re being subdued.  You don’t teach particularly well in those circumstances either.

Some other gems in from that article:
“teachers can be models of how to be comfortable with uncertainty”


“When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes.”


***


An interesting connection with that piece on curiosity and information retention was this article in The Guardian about the age of skim reading. The author draws some interesting connections between Western society’s rise of populist regimes and the new lack of empathy and critical analysis in the population:


“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

If you’re wondering why we’re suddenly faced with these shocking politicians who seem out  of sync with the world around them, it isn’t them that’s out of sync, it’s you (if you’re reading this you aren’t the new normal).  The conservative ‘you must suffer to pay the private sector’s bills‘ thinking plays nicely with the lack of patience, empathy and curiosity we’ve been cooking for the past fifteen years in the incessant digital noise of the attention economy.  It’s easy to blame this on information and communication technology, but the tech itself has allowed us to make enormous scientific and technical advances.  Smart people have leveraged it to great advantage  It’s the attention economy that grew out of it that is causing problems for everyone else.


I’m a big fan of digital tools, but we’ve done almost nothing to actually learn how they work so we can use them effectively and without compromise.  In the past decade education systems around world have handed off control of our online learning environments to advertising companies like Google who have monetized everyone’s attention.  You don’t get the same return on investment if you don’t keep your users in a permanent state of data churn.   You do that by designing systems that encourage short attention data churn.  Every time we accustom a student to that environment we’re training the attention economy’s future users, whether they’re actively advertising to them or not.  As education systems become complicit in preparing our children for the vapid attention economy, many of their parents don’t notice because their noses are in a phone too.  Our political circumstances are a direct result of us all being immersed in this nasty mess.

One of the first casualties of new media has been long form reading:

“We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.” 


Alanna is teaching a senior creative writing class for the first time in a long time and she is shocked by what the new normal is.  You can expect grade twelves, even academically focused ones intent on university, to have never read a book for pleasure.  In some cases they’ve never read a book at all.  Their days are spent in the bite sized, simplistic cesspool of the internet.  They don’t have the patience to let a narrative develop.  The building of suspense frustrates them.  They live in a world of fleeting introductions immediately followed by puerile climaxes designed to hold on to them for a moment before their attention wanders to the next distraction.


Many students can’t even sit through a film anymore, let alone read a book.  Watch current high school students sneaking out their phones the minute a film starts and squirming if can’t find their digital churn fix; see if I’m not wrong.

Long form reading isn’t impossibly difficult, but it isn’t a natural human skill, we have to learn it.  In doing so we enjoy a richness of shared experience impossible to get any other way.  This leads to the empathy we’re struggling to keep alive in modern society.  It also leads to a richer internal world where you have the vocabulary and shared experience to express yourself succinctly.  If you’re reduced to expressing your deepest thoughts in internet memes, what a sad and dimensionless mind you must feel trapped in.  How much curiosity can you generate if you live in a world of instant, short term satisfaction?

In our ongoing social experiment I’m curious to see how this all plays out.  We introduced digital technologies that have revolutionized science, education, finance and communications, allowing us to take huge steps forward in terms of efficiency and collaboration.  A small group of sociopaths then used this technology to create an attention economy that has actually damaged our democratic institutions and the minds of the general public itself.  We find ourselves in a place where improbable governments suddenly have power and the people who voted them there have neither the ability nor the inclination to actually learn about why this is a bad idea.  We’ve weakened our ability to empathize and connect with each other, all ironically under the name of social media.  It seems this reductive process isn’t finished yet.  With short sighted apathetic government being put into power by an increasingly illiterate, distracted and stressed populace, I’m left wondering just how low we can go.

LINKS

www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf skim reading

www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-its-time-ontario-education-got-back-to-basics/ an american with no teaching experience tells us how to teach

hechingerreport.org/piqued-the-case-for-curiosity/ curiosity

www.fordnationlive.ca/watch_doug_s_plan_to_fix_ontario_s_education_system_by_respecting_parents_and_getting_back_to_basics
discovery math – isn’t a thing, back to basics means what? what are basics?  perhaps code for an excuse to eviscerate a successful system?

twitter.com/acampbell99/status/1034627621559181312 teachers arguing pedagogy online.

www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-in-the-ongoing-math-wars-both-sides-have-a-point/?cmpid=rss&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
math wars – see below, Canada is top ten in the world in maths.

***

Just a reminder, Ontario is Canada’s largest education system and Canada is consistently near the top of the world in terms of reading, science and maths.

But don’t let those facts get in the way of your politics:
www.businessinsider.com/pisa-worldwide-ranking-of-math-science-reading-skills-2016-12
Ignore all the single-party authoritarian countries at the tops of those lists – they only put forward their top students for assessment. Western systems put their whole populations forward.

www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/07/us-education-spending-finland-south-korea
“In Ontario, which educates 40% of Canada’s students, nearly 30% of the province’s population are immigrants. According to the 2015 Pisa exam results, Ontario scored fifth in the world in reading. Children of immigrants perform compatibility with their peers with Canadian-born parents in educational achievement.”

Ontario’s education systems is one of our most successful exports, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the new government. Private schools around the world use the Ontario Curriculum that they just started dismantling. Ontario trained teachers are teaching across the planet because they are Ontario qualified. If our education system were a private enterprise it would be held up as a paragon of success. Remember that in the coming months.

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Proliferation of Fifties

Our school is the only local high school in the area.  If students want Catholic or special education, they get on a school bus for over an hour a day of commuting down to Guelph.  I’m a big fan of choice so, while I think it mad, I don’t have much to say about a student who wants to spend over 194 hours a year (that’s over 8 full days of riding 24 hours a day) on a bus to Guelph and back for specialized education, as long as it’s a choice they’ve made.

Ontario’s high school streams seem pretty straightforward,
they are anything but in practice.

Our public board think it wise to ship our essential level students down to Guelph for special education.  This isn’t a choice, it’s a system driven process.  The Guelph school for this doesn’t fill up with locals so the surrounding community schools are expected to ship their most at-need students out of their home communities every day.  This is an ongoing pressure in our community.

At our recent heads’ meeting there seemed to be support for the idea of our school being a comprehensive, community school that serves everyone, but we struggle to run essential sections because parents resist putting their children into it, the board doesn’t section us to run smaller essential classes and many teachers in our school would rather be teaching academic students.  It’s an uphill struggle to create a comprehensive local school that supports everyone in our community.

Because we aren’t sectioned for essential classes (those smaller sections are given to the specialist school in Guelph), we end up populating applied level classes with essential students.  It is so difficult to align parent perception, board support and student ability that we place all non-academic students into the same room.  This is where the proliferation of fifties comes in.

A teacher in our school recently said, and in retrospect I agree, that we place essential students into applied classes and lower course expectations to accommodate them.  This not only does the essential students no favours, it also dilutes applied curriculum goals.

The people running the education system tend to be successful professional educationalists; very experienced with the system having spent little time outside it.  These educators see kindred spirits in academically streamed students who are successful in school and make effective use of the system.  These teachers want to teach students like themselves.  Asking them to work with students who find school a challenging environment or aren’t on the same academic trajectory they experienced is difficult for them.

The predisposition of teachers makes academic curriculum somewhat sacred, but applied classes aren’t.  Applied students should be on apprenticeship and college skilled labour tracks that demand hands on (applied?) skills.  While less theoretical in approach, applied classes are supposed to be rigorously skills focused.  When you put students who lack basic literacy and numeracy into a grade 10 applied class you make grade appropriate learning nearly impossible.

How do teachers manage this?  If you fail a student, you get called into promotion meetings at the end of the semester where the grade you’ve given becomes the starting point for an inflationary process that floats fails up to passes.  The best way to avoid this is to simply award a 50%.  What is a fifty when it’s really a 42?  At its best, a fifty means a student has not reached minimal expectations for a class.  Would you want the mechanic working on your brakes to have gotten there with fifties?

The teacher I was talking to suggested that the number of fifties being handed out has mushroomed in the past few years.  Those statistics aren’t made available to us because they would make a travesty of curriculum expectations, but I suspect he is right.  A fifty means the government gets to say graduation rates are up.  A fifty means the ride ends at graduation because no secondary program would accept a student with a D average.  A fifty means you’re not sitting in promotion meetings watching your semester of careful assessment being swept away to support policy.

The range of student skill in my classes is astonishing.  My current grade 9 classes range from students who could comfortable complete grade 11 computer engineering curriculum next to students who appear unable to read, yet I’m supposed to address that range of skills in a 50-100% range in a single course.

Perhaps we will find a way to reintegrate Ontario’s carefully designed secondary school streaming system, but considering the various pressures on it in our area, it’s going to be an uphill struggle.


NOTE

Re: school busing children…

Time isn’t the only resource being spent.  School buses get 6-8mpg, Guelph is about 15 miles away.  A (very conservative) 30 mile round trip (it’s much higher if you want to consider all the pickups and drop-offs) is a (very conservative) 15 litres per day of diesel (probably double that for your typical start/stop run), per bus, and we have a number of buses making that trip 194 days per year.

Someone better than I can calculate the overall environmental impact (how many other vehicles are also held up burning fuel while these buses grind down to and back from Guelph every day?).  Making an economic (let alone moral) argument for shipping our essential students out of their home communities seems impossible.

wind storms and sci-fi reflections

I’m watching the new season of my current favourite sci-fi show, The Expanse.  It’s about the next couple of centuries where Terrans develop the technology to move out into the solar system, but rather than the Star Trek angle that completely ignores the nastiest aspects of human nature, The Expanse imagines a near future with technology advances but none of the social evolution of the Trek universe – it’s a politically messy, self-serving future, much like our present.  It’s something I’m starting to think we’ll never get to.

I’m also spending the day today putting our yard and house back together after a wind storm swept through here, and that got me thinking about all this technology we’re so proud off.  If it gets a bit windy, it all goes away.  After a couple of big gusts yesterday there was no internet and no power.  I was unable to deliver attendance data for my classes at the end of the day, let alone get information on what was happening.

 

We ignore data and facts.

At the height of the wind the local cell tower was down, meaning no information or electricity at all.  In the meantime (and when it works), I’m watching the news closely as the competition we’re supposed to be travelling to in a couple of weeks in Fredericton is in peril because the city is under water.  We’re ever so proud of our vaunted technology, but if it gets windy, or if waters run high, everything stops.  The real irony in this is that our fossil fuel powered society is what’s prompting all this extreme weather.  Even our supposedly green tech is manufactured using fossil fuel based manufacturing.  Our technology doesn’t allow us to control our environment, it provokes it to attack us.


There is this thing called the Kardashev Scale.  If you’re ever thinking how smart the bi-pedal apes are on the third rock from the sun, this scale will give you some perspective.  A level one society is one that harnesses the resources of an entire planet.  We’re not even close to that.  Carl Sagan suggested human society is at about a 0.7 on the way to being able to harness planetary power, but I think that’s wildly optimistic.  Our technology isn’t on its way to managing planetary processes, in many cases it’s prompting the planetary environment to violence – it’s the opposite of control.  There are some cases of sustainable (ie: non-aggravating) human technology, but since we base most of what we produce on fossil fuels and unsustainable manufacturing, it’s hard to say much of any of our technology is actually on its way to sustainable global resource management.  Our stubborn unwillingness to orientate ourselves in that direction is the problem, not our intelligence or technical capability.

When you get up into level 2 your society can manage the energy of an entire solar system.  We’re millennia away from that even assuming we pivoted today and actually worked toward sustainable global management that would allow us to thrive as a civilization long enough to develop it.  The way we’re currently going, we’ll probably cause global environmental upheaval before we’re likely to even establish a foothold in space (by that I mean permanent human habitation off-world, we haven’t even done that yet).  The environmental problems we cause now will eventually produce resource depletion that will result in war.  We love a good war to cap off our own bad habits.  Level 3 (effective galactic resource management and level 4 (universal/pan dimensional resource management) are so far beyond our short sighted, barely evolved minds that they beggar belief.

Meanwhile, here I am about to nail unsustainably manufactured aluminum siding back on to my wood framed house that was built with unsustainable lumber.  We have more in common with squirrels building nests than we do with even a level one civilization, except what the squirrels build isn’t burning a hole in the world.  They’re closer to a level one civilization than we are.


All the other unsustainably built, fossil fuel powered houses in my neighborhood are also missing bits and pieces.  Shortly crews of people will arrive in gas powered trucks to fix these problems.  That very process will further heat up the only world we’re capable of living on at the moment, making future weather violence even more inevitable.  We’ll be lucky to get out into the expanse at all.

Wind storm freak you out?  Don’t worry, it’ll be back to business as usual on Monday…

 

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Cookie Cutter ‘Formal’ Exams

We were recently told that our board is moving to a formal exam for every course model. We’re told that this needs to happen because if we don’t use formal exam days for formal exams, we’ll lose the days.  Perhaps we should lose the days.  Formal exams are an echo from the past.  Desperately trying to ‘keep’ them by forcing them on everyone isn’t the best approach to learning, it never was.  Clinging to status quo thinking seldom produces outstanding results in anything.

This conundrum once again has me feeling the friction between academic and technology classrooms.  To the majority of subjects in our school, an exam for every class simply means setting up more desks and running off more photocopies.

One of our auto-shop teachers tried running a ‘formal’ exam this semester.  He had tinkered with a car and then had students diagnose it.  Since he doesn’t have a 24 bay garage, he has to have students approach the car one at a time in order to diagnose it.  Because he is expected to have all students in the room at the same time (exams are blocked into two hour scheduled time periods, one per day), he had students come up one at a time to diagnose and resolve the problems while the rest wrote written tests that  did not reflect how students had learned in his class during the semester.

Cookie cutter exam schedules for cookie cutter learners.

The formal exam structure didn’t work at all in the shop.  The first kid up shouted out, “do you want me to change out this fuse?” and suddenly everyone in the room knew an answer.  It then kept happening.  When you’ve been teaching students to collaborate on diagnostics all semester, why would you suddenly have a summative that demands they don’t?  Even if that’s what a ‘formal’ exam is?

All that effort to create a genuine assessment within a standardized exam structure was wasted, but that doesn’t stop us from being expected to bring meaningful assessment to all our technology students in this cookie cutter final exam format.  How meaningful can this two hour window be when our courses are tactile, stochastic and experiential?  In a class where there is a linear progression from question to answer, and were the skills are assessed on paper this works a treat, but not in tech.

Coop avoids the exam problem by creating individual summatives (each student has an interview).  Of course this means that each teacher is handling 25+ hours of assessment for each class they teach.  I’m surprised that they can stuff all that meaningful assessment into a single exam week.  While this resolves the problem of trying to fit individualized exams into cookie cutter academic schedules, it doesn’t address the complexity of creating an entire class set of experiential problems of equal complexity (you couldn’t have the same problem because the first student out would happily tell the rest what they are about to face).  Creating individualized, immersive simulation for each student might be the ultimate in summatives, but a factory styled school system isn’t remotely designed to produce that kind of individualized learning opportunity.

Is this what an exam for every course looks like?  Kinda like
the floor of a very serious factory, or a university…

Would I like to create a ‘formal’ exam that offers my computer students real-world, immersive, experiential computer technology problem solving?  You bet, but expecting me to do that in a two hour window for dozens of students at a time suggests that the actual goal here isn’t meaningful and genuine so much as generic and formulaic, like most ‘formal’ exams.

‘Formal’ exam is code for a university-styled, written, academic assessment.  It typically involves lots of photocopying and students sitting in rows writing answers to the same questions.  The teacher then spends a lot of time trying to assign value to this dimensionless form of assessment.  Like many other aspects of high school, formal exams are high school teachers imitating the university professors they wished they could be.

For hundreds of thousands of dollars with corporate sponsorship
and post-secondary support, Skills Ontario championships
create meaningful, experiential tech-assessment.

If you’re looking for an example of an immersive, complex, skills based assessment, we have a fantastic home-grown example.  Skills Canada does a great job of creating experiential assessment of technology knowledge and tactile abilities, but with million dollar budgets and support from all levels of government, private business and post secondary education, they exist in a different world from my classroom.  They’re also catering to the top 1% of 1% of technology students.  I have to cater to the other 99.9% with nothing like that kind of budget.

I’ve been mulling over how I’m supposed to create meaningful assessment for my technology students in that two hour time slot and I’m stumped.  No budget is forthcoming to purchase equipment and tools so that I can have every student doing the same thing at the same time – I don’t even have enough screwdrivers for all students to be building computers at the same time, let alone the computer parts needed to build them.  Those would be computer parts that some students would not ground themselves properly when installing.  Funding wouldn’t just need to be there for tools, it would also have to be there to replace breakage due to incompetence.

Technology teachers already struggle trying to explain technology costs to academics with only a vague understanding and little experience in apprenticeship and the trades.  When students are heavy handed or absent minded it costs us money to replace what they break, yet we struggle to get funded on par with academic courses that do most of their work on paper.

Now we face the prospect of being forced to reduce our tactile, experiential, immersive learning into cookie cutter summatives that jive with the pre-existing academic scheduling.  Just when you think we might be evolving beyond the 20th Century factory model of education it rears its ugly head and demands reductionist assessment for all.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we were looking to diversify summatives instead of cramming them all into the same schedule that existed fifty years ago?

Vanmageddon: It must be February

It’s getting to be that time of year again – months of snow bound Ragnarok motorbike hibernation are making me twitchy.  I like winter generally, it offers a very different and sometimes beautiful view of the world, but when motorcycling has become your go-to stress reliever, being out of the saddle for months is a source of pressure.  If you look at the seasonal leanings of this blog, you’ll see winter generally leads to yearning.

This time around the fixation is on the Mercedes Metris Van.  I’ve previously looked at Ford Transits from a Guy Martin point of view, and other small van options for moving bikes to where I can use them.  The Metris has the benefit of being as efficient as the little vans but can swallow the Tiger with room to spare.  The other little vans would required a tight squeeze if it’d fit at all.



Another benefit of the Metris is that you can customize it to your needs and it’ll still go everywhere a normal vehicle will.  It’s also surprisingly competitive in price to the Ford and Dodge/Fiat options.  So, what would I do with the only Mercedes I’ve ever been interested in buying?

Last year at pretty much this exact same time I was mapping out waterfalls in Virginia.  The drive down to Roanoke is about 11 hours.  With the Tiger in the back I’d have left right after work and been in Roanoke by midnight.  After a good sleep and breakfast and I’d be out all weekend making use of those lovely temperatures while chasing spring powered waterfalls across the Appalachians.  After a good ride Sunday I’d have a big dinner then head back into the frozen wastelands of the north getting in after mid-night, but I’d have the Monday of the long weekend to get back on it again.


All told that’d be about 2000kms in the van and another six hundred or so miles riding in the spring blooming mountains.  If I could convince the family to come along, they could crash in the hotel or jump on the back and come along.

I’ve been reading Guy Martin’s autobiography and his van powered wandering to motorcycling events all over the UK and Europe seem entirely doable, if you only have that van.  He seems to be able to fit an improbably amount into a very limited amount of time simple by getting himself there and then getting himself home again.


It’s a good read that trips right along.  I enjoyed the narrative flow of the follow up book When You Dead You Dead more (I read it first), but you quickly fall into Guy-speak and feel like you’re sitting in a pub with him hearing the tale.  If you like motorcycles and racing it’s brilliant.  If you just like a good story well told, it’ll do that too.

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