Do Or Do Not, There Is No Try

I just got back from a morning session of department head PD looking over Damian Cooper’s ideas on assessment; it was a lot to take in and I’m trying to give some voice to the doubts while also sorting through what I liked about Cooper’s ideas.

Time management is a concern I have. It’s one thing to suggest that assessment be the result of diligent and ongoing consultation with students, but it’s another to ask that this be done when you have 90+ students in a single semester. A system that is still mired in 19th and 20th Century ideas about reportage and teachers who want to make assessment meaningful are about as far apart as two things can get. Teachers trying to do this in the current framework would be stretched mighty thin.

Our reportage is still very much time specific and causes a great deal of stress with teachers and students. We’re coming up on midterms now, we’ve been given a specific time (down to the minute) when percentage grades, specific learning skills and precise comments are required. In the next breath we’re being told to open up assessment, despecify grades into learning levels and provide constant meaningful assessment as feedback.

Perhaps the most valuable thing Cooper’s ideas can do is create a political movement for change at the Ministry level. By changing parental (and teacher) expectations around assessment, perhaps we can move towards a more flexible, meaningful reporting environment that still provides post secondary education with the yard stick they need for entrance, but also allows us to focus more on developing student learning.

Imagine a system where teachers and students create a constantly evolving assessment space that is open to parents, completely transparent. Rather than trying to hit specific timelines behind closed doors, teachers are able to develop assessment with students and constantly update how students are transitioning through the curriculum. The criteria are open and wide ranging, taking into account everything from soft skills like teamwork and self directed learning, all the way to curriculum specific hard skills. This open system would have to get rid of the edu-speak because students and teachers must be able to observe and participate in it while parents would be able to look in; a truly transparent and meaningful exercise in assessment. A less rigid grading system not dictated by mid-term specific timing, or percentage marks means that grades could evolve and develop while a student is with a teacher, allowing for latest, greatest results without math games like weighting creating even more abstract results. Grades would be end-of-course-weighted to ensure a better look at what students have actually learned in the course, rather than forcing early grades before they can demonstrate best work.

The Khan Academy concept of competence would be, perhaps, a better way to consider whether or not a student has actually attained mastery of a concept. Percentage grades are an abstract concept. I got low Cs in high school math up until grade 12, and in my 2 senior years I ended up getting 50s and failing, because I had nothing like the foundation needed to succeed. 50% is an abstract concept, it has nothing to do with whether you know the subject or not, yet we think of it as a pass. Would you want this level of grading to apply to the mechanic who just fixed your brakes? Or the pilot landing the plane? The static, percentage system has somehow become a habit that is seen to have academic validity, because it’s harsh? It seems to offer some kind of certainty? When it comes to hard skills in curriculum, a student knows it or they don’t, they can demonstrate it or they can’t. This isn’t a question of whether they are present or participating, it’s a matter of skill.

The Khan idea is that you either understand the concept and can demonstrate it consistently, or you don’t. If you don’t, you keep hacking away at it without fear of failure, until you get a handle on it. One of the big fears we face in the class is risk aversion, which is almost entirely a result of the arbitrary, static and specific grading and reporting system we use. I couldn’t get grade 12s to try things and fail, they only wanted to do it right the first time (“because I have to get high marks to get into university”). We feed that fear with midterms and percentage grades.

If we’re assessing skills, do you really want to assess it based on “they kind of know it” (is that what a 64% says?), or “they pretty much know it” (77%)? There is no validity in this, just a vague kind of petty certainty, put in place to make it easy for post secondary education to think they are accurately separating the wheat from the chaff; it doesn’t serve learning at all.

I guess I like Damian’s ideas, but simplifying grading from percentages to levels doesn’t go far enough. It really comes down to you can demonstrate what you know or you can’t. You can do this in many different and meaningful ways, but you either can or you can’t.

Do or do not, there is no try.

Do you know it or don’t you? Can you demonstrate big understandings or not? This certainly applies to literacy and numeracy, and I’d argue that any subject area that has any kind of coherent development of skills (ie: all of them).

In that brave new world of assessment, post secondary institutions would have to stop thinking that 83% describes a person’s knowledge of a complex field. To begin with, they should start basing entrance on learning skills, which could easily be expanded to target successful criteria for post secondary students (self discipline, ability to overcome learning obstacles, attendance and punctuality, timeliness, peer pressure skills, etc). If teachers could get away from agonizing over abstract percentages that have no real world meaning and simply look at whether or not a student grasps the skills they need to have, we’d finally have assessment serving learning.


FUTURE SCHOOL:  A bit of fiction about an open, individualized education system after the Singularity.

DIY Electrical Generation Should Be A Mandated Future

Everyone is wringing their hands over the disaster in Japan, questioning nuclear energy (usually while using it to power their computers to post complaints about it). I’m a fan of nuclear energy, but it does come with risks, especially when you hit well run facilities with a massive earthquake and then a ten metre wall of water. In these circumstances a disaster is immanent.

If we really want to deal with our electrical dependency we need to change the way we’re using it. We only develop industrial scale electrical generation to keep prices artificially low and hide the costs of generating it. Don’t think it’s hidden? Do you have a nuclear/fossil fuel fired/wind farm generating system near you? If you do, you don’t think it’s hidden.
Eventually what you want is locally generated electricity. If this is done on small, local scales it doesn’t have to be painful. The NIMBYism that surrounds generation is because industrial scale operations are planted in people’s back yards. A personal wind collector isn’t that big a deal, dozens of three hundred foot tall towers are.
Conservation shouldn’t be a choice, it should be a standard. From the existing infrastructure a cap of 100kWh/person/month in a residence could be a starting point. We need existing infrastructure to maintain this standard for us. That means continuing to use nuclear and fossil fuel generators.  If you want to generate your own after that you’d have first dibs on using it (it would be added to your total usable amount). Whatever you don’t use in a month is refunded back to you. A family of three who generates 200KWhs a month would be able to live much as we do now (we average about 500kWh a month in a 1700 sq ft house in Canada). A dozen solar panels on the roof would exceed this if well placed and maintained. Our neighbor has just done this very thing, they are making more electricity than they use in a month now. Three houses could share the cost and maintenance of a small scale wind generator and live at current consumption levels comfortably.
This is with existing technology. Future technology in both concentrated solar and lighter than air wind turbines that hang above the boundary layer of air are much more efficient. Focused solar produces stunning amounts of energy in a short time and lighter than air wind turbines resolve many of the problems surrounding noise while at the same time making use of the more constant and efficient air streams above the turbulent air that flows over the ground.
A mandated push into self generated electricity would put an end to industrial scale mega projects (nuclear, wind farm, fossil fuel burning or otherwise). The problem we have is that we want other people to do all the work to generate electricity out of sight and out of mind. We take no responsibility in what we consume and then complain about how it’s all being done. In many cases we’re completely ignorant of how these systems work, and after reading the panicky comments on the internet this week, I’ve realized many people are happy to live in fear and ignorance of nuclear power generation as long as their bills are low. How someone can attack nuclear power generation while using it to power their house and post stupid comments on the internet is an irony of our times. It’s time we started taking responsibility for what we are using.
Decentralizing the electrical system means making a system that is less a one way delivery system from industry to consumer and more a web of interconnected users and generators. This smart grid would encourage and make use of locally developed energy generation. Even if you aren’t using your solar at a given moment you could be using your neighbor’s wind or locally developed hydro. By using local sources the losses in transmission fall dramatically. Our current industrial/remote generation model loses about 6.5% of the energy produced to transmission. The further you have to transmit, the more you lose. Those long transmission systems are the sources of failure in ice storms and what over heat when energy use is too much. Transmission is our greatest single point of failure (though generation is giving it a run for its money in the news this week).
Until we take responsibility for generating at least some of the energy we want to use, we will keep making massive, industrial scale power generators that cause local problems. Taking the money spent on new, large projects and applying to locally generated power is a first step. Not forcing industrial scale energy production just because it’s sustainable (a question in itself), but truly democratizing energy production. Existing infrastructure could be modernized and eventually downsized as the power grid becomes decentralized, more efficient and a true multi-directional conduit for us to share our power amongst ourselves.
In that future, Japan would have had fewer nuclear power plants operating when the tsunami hit, locals in Wellington county wouldn’t be upset over heavy handed provincial plans to force massive wind farms on them, and we’d pour money into the companies that are doing R&D on more efficient solar and wind systems. That future might have solar energy collecting windows in every home, focused solar collectors that rise out of the ground every morning and disappear at night, and turbines hanging in the steady winds hundreds of metres up, constantly generating in a small but sustainable way.
There is no doubt that large scale electrical production still needs to occur. Nuclear systems need to become even more efficient, and eventually lead to fusion and other more advanced energy systems. We learn a lot from generating nuclear energy (more than we do from doing what cavemen did on an industrial scale by burning fossil fuels). What we learn from those big projects might eventually lead us to orbiting energy production and other space based solutions.
Even at its best a massive population centre would have trouble keeping up with demand. Businesses are by far the largest energy hogs. Stories last summer about stores leaving their doors open and air conditioning on full blast so customers would be enticed in on a hot day are representative of how businesses don’t think about conservation. A 100kWh/1000 sq/ft/month limit unless they begin to generate their own would be a start. Having much larger roofs, these stores could easily produce much more electricity if they wished, and perhaps they’d be a bit more reticent about flushing it out the door on a hot day if they were paying properly for it.
If we could begin the process of diversification by demanding legislation that requires an energy network rather than a distribution system (this is already happening), and encourages people to take on the responsibility of at least some of their own energy generation and consumption, then at least we’d be moving in a better direction than our current one of ignorance, fear and NIMBYism.

an immanent disruption

We’re on the verge of a market change due to digital distribution, very similar to what happened in the music industry a decade ago. Just as music changed from a manufactured, industrial medium (CDs) to a digital, fluid medium (mp3s), text books (and books in general, but especially texts because of the ludicris overhead) will begin to ‘leak’ digitally.

As the means to access digital texts becomes more available, the medium will force a change in how distribution occurs. Because (like the music industry before them) the text book publishing industry has a huge industrial infrastructure they have to try and continually justify, they will not adapt to the new means of text transmission. Disruption is immanent and unavoidable.

This certainly doesn’t mean the end of the traditional textbook, but if the existing publishers follow the footsteps of other industries in trying to resist this disruption rather than adapt to it, expect plenty of angry stories about the evils of internet “piracy,” with little recognition that piracy isn’t the problem at all.”

Already open source publications have started to appear.

The text book publishing industry has fed at great expense from the public (and private) school systems almost since the beginning. The change of transmission medium poses some interesting challenges for teachers, but also many opportunities for authors and editors, especially in locally developed courses. Without having to carry massive printing and shipping costs, and all the sales and marketing infrastructure that has to force it into a high volume industry to stay financially viable, text books could easily be developed at very local levels quite affordably. Ministries could share resources across common curriculum and the results would be locally grown content that fits our specific needs. No more mass market American focused text books that we have no choice but to buy into. The elearning system has already proven the viability of this.

Academics have long peer edited, reviewed, assessed and produced their own literature. Teachers are more than capable of doing the same, and I know many who would happily take a period in a semester to build a new e-text for board or provincial distribution. In house, without the weight of paper publication attached, educational texts could become much more current and specifically designed for student needs, much as the OERB and elearning courses have been written by Ontario teachers for Ontario students. In many cases, that same material could be re purposed to an e-text format without having to reinvent the wheel. Because the material is owned communally and locally, it could easily and often be updated and maintained for continuous consumption. Following the idea of a modular text book, teachers could even assemble specific material in a specific order prior to beginning their class – a digital version of those booklets you used to buy from professors with the selected readings bound in them.

No more 15 year old texts warning of the impending release of Windows XP, no more mold, no more focuses on other countries because our choices simply didn’t offer a Canadian equivalent.

This is my kind of disruption.

To push things along, I’m presenting an ereader pilot tomorrow at our heads’ meeting. We’re hoping to see where the technology is and how etexts might work in the classroom. There’s nothing worse than being on the wrong side of the fence when everything changes. Go look up one of the modern history texts in your school this week and find the chapter on the recent collapse of the iron curtain, and you’ll see why.

Want to see a future text book? Have a look here. Whether it’s ipads, Knos, laptops, PDAs or one of a million variations on the Android tablet, we’re on the verge of making digital content easier to access than paper based content. The education system, the main source of income for this fumbling giant, will need to find a better way as it collapses, and collapse it will. No one invested in billions in infrastructure and decades of consistent market place dominance will even know how to begin to adapt, even if what they are doing is wasteful, expensive and self serving.

Peak oil is all about peak food production

You can’t feed six billion people without it. I’m reading The End Of Food right now. The level of societal change we would have to undertake to revert 80% of the population to manual food production would (will) be impossible. The fact that we don’t even see it coming is just absurd.
The whole middle east uprising isn’t about freedom or democracy at all, it’s about food. Prices skyrocketed, wheat yields in Africa collapsed starting 2 years ago, corn is unavailable so Americans can drive pickup trucks, and not even iron fisted dictators can stop a hungry mob. The amount of press afforded the “Arab Awakening” in terms of freedom, democracy or the even more crass “power of social networking” is completely out to lunch.
Middle east uprisings aren’t about democracy, or rights, but food prices and cost of living. I read an article on the ug99 crop fungus in WIRED last year. Unconnected? I suspect not.
A verilent new version of a crop disease that almost crippled the world in the 70s (saved by some gene splicing and dna magic) has figured out how to overcome the GM crops designed to resist it – it starts in Northern Africa, causing wheat to all but disappear from the market, corn has since been diverted to ethanol production, making it in short supply… chaos ensues, but we try and say, “it’s because they want to be like us!”
Who said colonialism is dead?
The future looks bleak If we want to be teaching useful education, we should be teaching them how to grow their own food, without oil, immediately. Instead we spend a fortune running a school that is, on net analysis, doing more damage to the world than good – and we’re in the business of making better people! Imagine what the net worth of a self-serving business is in a world of dwindling resources.
Instead we complain about high gas prices, irrationally saying that they should be lower because that is more convenient for us and go on buying gene-copyrighted crops (that are about to fail wholesale) from Monsanto from the lowest bidder.
Local sustainability should become an immediate local, provincial and national mandate. Globalism has collapsed, but we’ve become so dependent on a broken system that we are virtually helpless.
We’ve taught ourselves to be helpless on the eve of the greatest disaster in human history.

elearning and the teacher/student relationship

A little while back I caught a National Geographic show studying human intelligence. In studying various great ape social groups they narrowed down perhaps the most exceptional aspect of human being: our ability to teach each other. Most of the technology we develop is keyed to enhancing this aspect of human civilization.  What began as the transmission of basic skills has evolved into a world wide civilization that has peaked into the heart of matter and seen to the edge of the universe. We suddenly find ourselves holding immense power, and only seek to discover more. The ability to learn and teach are powerful skills indeed.

The fundamental relationship at the heart of this transmission of knowledge: master/apprentice, teacher/student, mentor/mentee, exists in every human (and, it appears, any intelligent animal) society, and is generally acknowledged as one of great importance. Whether you’re a Sensei in a dojo, a master craftsman passing on the skills of your trade, or a teacher in a modern education system, the fundamental nature of your job is the same: transmission of knowledge through human contact.

Transmission of knowledge occurs very effectively through these human relationships. When I think about key teachers in my life, they ring true for me because they were people of exceptional emotional honesty, as well as knowledgeable people. They related to me on many levels. I see students cotton on to various teachers in the school because, on many levels, they vibrate at the same frequency. From an administrative point of view, this is why it’s vital that schools have many different kinds of teachers who teach in different ways. It’s also one of the fundamental problems with trying to systematize the transmission of learning.

We’ve got the elearning Ontario conference coming up and I’m just coming off a semester where I had to manage no less than 6 elearning courses. Having now taught elearning remotely and in-class, I’m trying to wrestle with the challenges of teaching through the elearning system. In-class, I found good students frustrated because they felt isolated from the teacher (because of the split focus between the online course and the physical presence of the teacher). I found weak students frustrated because of poor computer literacy. They didn’t want or seek a stronger relationship with the teacher, but couldn’t access the course information or assignments behind a digital veil; anger was often the result.

Over the years I’ve had some wonderful teachable moments with remote students. Sometimes through text (with exceptional writers and readers in 4U English), but more often through video conference (which doesn’t demand a poet’s touch for honest, direct contact). A while back, our board set up an Adobe Connect server allowing me to talk to students directly. While still not as immediate as an in-class relationship with a student, the video link does a lot to mitigate the sense of isolation. Unfortunately, the html only elearning system has no intrinsic ability to make this multi-media link possible.

As we begin to move from oil dependence, elearning is going to become a more critical means of delivering curriculum. Being physically present in the same place at the same time will become increasingly expensive. At the moment, elearning does a lot to minimize the personal nature of that teacher/student relationship. Much of this revolves around bandwidth, technology accessibility and lack of experience in both students and teachers. I’ve been sitting in school waiting 10 seconds for *every* page to load while working through elearning – and those were text pages. In addition to the technical issues, elearning also contains courses not written by the teachers delivering them. Any teacher who teaches other people’s material knows how awkward this can be. Elearning is still new, and is having on going problems in its completion rates due to these difficulties.

At home I’m an online game player. I have lists of friends, very few of whom I’ve met in person, many of whom I feel I know well. We’ve fought zombies, explored strange wildernesses and worked together through all sorts of adventures. With sufficient bandwidth and technology on site, multimedia information can flow between people in surprisingly complex and meaningful ways. It’s still not the same as being in the same place, but it can come astonishingly close. If you ever have a chance to play WoW, or another in-depth online game, you know what I’m talking about.

I’m not in elearning because it will solve all of our problems instantly, that is ridiculous. I’m in it because it is embryonic. Using technology that people couldn’t even imagine 2 generations ago, I want to try to find a way to bring the essence of that fantastically ancient learning relationship alive, not just through eyes, vocal chords and ears, but through fibre optics, interactive media and the cybernetics that have become a part of who we are.

It’s as close as I can get to sci-fi while teaching. Frustrating? Sure, but I get to “boldly go…”, and that is priceless.



This is a post from a few weeks ago on that elearning pilot program. It includes a review of the student survey statistics from the end of the course.

back from the future

Ever wondered what it would be like to teach a class where all students have their own laptop? Anyone reading this has probably spend some time wondering what it would be like to have internet access and computers for all students. No digital divide…

I’m just wrapping up a semester where I was asked to pilot the elearning version of the Career Studies, grade 10 half semester course. I was teaching all of the career studies in a school of approximately 1500 students. We have a workplace focused high school in our board, but it’s far enough away that most parents opt to keep their children in the community at our school, as a result we have a full spectrum of students, all of whom must take this mandatory class.  The students in the open career studies course ran the gamut from highly at-risk and barely literate to students already attending lectures at The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. The grade range ran from end to end (from 0 to 100%).

What follows is a review of the elearning pilot, with some supporting statistics and observations.


If I had to summarize quickly, I’d say that doing career studies in a hybrid elearning class was very useful. Students assume they know more about computers than they actually do (partly due to the fact that we keep telling them that they are digital natives). Doing elearning in a hybrid/introductory way does several things:

it shows many of them how hopelessly addicted to Facebook they are (which created some interesting self-reflexive analysis in the classroom)

Any review of network traffic showed Facebook returning page views at a rate of 50 to 1 over ALL OTHER INTERNET TRAFFIC COMBINED. They are unable to turn it off and are constantly distracted by it. Turning it off at the router caused a minor uprising where they all suddenly appear to have grown Law degrees and a working knowledge of the Constitution.

This broke the myth of the digital native for me.  When I asked them to estimate their own expertise on computers, I (like most others) expected this:

The FAKE stat.

… but I got this:

The real stat.

…which looks mighty similar to the ability curve you get in the general population.

This elearning course, the first for all of these students, pointed out a number of challenges:

  • it makes students aware of how little they know about basic computer functionality (file types and organization, how to edit simple documents, basic network and computer operation, online digital tools that are available – not one of them had heard of Prezi or knew that their hotmail accounts would allow them to save documents online). Less than 1/4 had ever used googledocs.
  • it makes those students that do have technical literacy appreciate (and be appreciated for) what they know (instead of telling them that they all know it because they are teenagers, when they clearly don’t, which devalues the knowledge).  Student tech-wizes are as rare as tech-wizes in the general population, but we belittle their knowledge by assuming they all ‘know computers’.
  • it gives students a fundamental understanding of the elearning system. A few will see it as an avenue for success (which is good), but many who suddenly find they may need elearning to graduate will see far greater success because of their exposure here.

How the course went:

Doing it as an open/full spectrum course clearly shed light on what I’ve always found to be true; elearning’s self-directed element is what kills it for most at-risk students. It introduces a medium between the student and the material that gives them an excuse not to do work, usually while clearly highlighting their lack of digital skills (which causes embarrasment and some difficult classroom management situations).

I did elearning in Peel, and as far back as 2005, Peel was aiming elearning at University level students who had shown a clear aptitude for self-directed learning and strong computer skills. Without either of these skills (skills I’d argue that are developed much more significantly in academic/university level classes), elearning is likely to result in very poor success rates, specifically in non-academic streams.

Unless we’re going to focus on developing self-directed learning and digital competencies in non-academic classrooms it will continue this way.

As things developed, I had to go through the course, collect together all the summative pieces and print them out on paper for about 1/3 of the students in order for them to complete the required material. They did not have the technical skills to edit documents in a word processor and upload it to the elearning system, let alone keep their digital selves organized enough to find assignments they started (many never named files and copied over previous work with the same default file name).  There was little sense of continuity from class to class in these students, most of whom saw it as a Facebook miasma, rather than a course to pass.

A student’s ability to organize becomes much weaker when I would find the vast majority of the machines a student brought to me with a problem running Facebook in the background (it’s hard to stay organized, it’s harder to stay organized when facebook constantly interrupts you with pointless trivia).


I think the real problem is the myth of the digital native. We got shown this last year. Have you seen it? This kind of thinking drives me crazy. Computer skills are taught, they aren’t some kind of natural occurance based on your birth date. What this really is is fear. Older and/or less technically inclined people who feel overwhelmed by technology dress up kids today in this because they see them hop onto a computer without worrying about doing something wrong. Being familiar with something doesn’t indicate skill. If you actually observe what they are doing, you’ll see (as I did during this course) that weak students are digital serfs – they don’t know how to do anything, solve anything or look into new things, they only know how to do one or two things (usually Facebook and youtube: the internet for the dim).

What’s worse is that students who have developed real skill have it belittled when some Luddite says, “yeah, you guys all know this stuff, you’re digital natives.” (subtext: now I don’t have to address it or waste valuable class time trying to teach it to you)

Digital literacy should start in the junior grades, and they should be developing specific skills (data management, media creation, file management). In grade 9 there should be specific digital literacy targets in core subjects, but there aren’t (mainly due to a dirth of teachers who feel comfortable enough themselves to teach it). We expect them to know this stuff intrinsically, which is ludicrous.  21st Century skills will be much more vital to student success than 19th Century skills like sitting in factory organized rows listening to a teacher speak, but we don’t teach them.

In the meantime, boards propagate the myth of the digital native that excuses us from addressing digital literacy as a serious issue (they showed us that video above at a staff meeting).

Familiarity with computers isn’t a developed skill-set.  Self-taught digital skills are mostly just habit forming. Watching those careers students struggle with basic issues made me realize that elearning is really only designed for success for the top third of digitally literate students. The rest don’t have the vaguest idea of what they don’t know:

“Hey, I can’t edit this document!”
“You’re looking at it in WORD viewer…”
blank stares…

“I can’t find my file”
“You’ve saved all of your files in the course as the same name and over written it again and again.  That is why you have fourteen documents called document(1), document(2)…”
blank stares…

Some Other Observations:

Even though perhaps a quarter of our students come from rural/farming backgrounds, high speed internet penetration is quite good. This is probably due to two main factors: it’s now seen as a requirement for academic success (at home) and prioritized, and long range wireless (wimax, etc) has become standard in the area. 

 I suspect the real dividing line now is purely financial, which begs the question: when are we going to support students in getting over the digital divide?

When given a choice about whether they could have taken this class as elearning or in a traditional class, almost two thirds opted for the regular class. There was a real lash back against using computers for something productive – it spoiled/interfered with their only purpose (Facebook/Youtube access).  It’s hard to convince people that a toy is actually a tool.
As you can see, the same students willing to take the course over again in a hybrid classroom, are also willing to kick the training wheels off and do elearning completely remotely. If they get it, they get it.

An interesting discrepancy between technical skill and willingness to self-direct learning. The whole student centered thing is still pretty new, but getting students to direct their own learning is like pulling teeth. This goes beyond juniors in an open careers class. My university grade 12 computer science students were just as unwilling initially. In their case it was risk aversion. They were so afraid of not getting the numbers they need to go to university that they had no interest in doing open research that wouldn’t lead to a perfect result. 

Whether it’s how we’ve taught them to be dependent or how we’ve taught them to be terrified of errors, we aren’t producing self-directed learners, which is a tragedy.

The last one is hardware specific. The netbooks were coveted at the beginning of the course, but their limitations quickly became apparent. I posted the most common complaints (too slow, though this had more to do with the school network than the netbooks, but the digital natives didn’t comprehend that), and the tiny screen. Elearning is set up in long, texty pages. Students who aren’t strong readers go bonkers trying to read it on a 600 pixels tall netbook screen. Stronger readers can deal with it (and remember what they’re looking at), but for the weak readers, every scroll or paging action is another excuse to click on that Facebook tab and get hit by lots of disconnected, pointless information (the way they like it). 

The course would have been better served by a device that rotates for reading longways, then rotates back for data entry (or a big square screen, I guess).

The raw data from the student survey is below. This pilot was a very useful program that shed light on all sorts of issues. I was happy to do it and would like to see it continue, but I fear that it uncovers so many holes that it will quietly disappear back into the ether. Here’s hoping it doesn’t.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. The data was collected from 52 students in November, 2010, and 46 students in the second week of January, 2011.

The raw data can be found here (Excel format):

Consumerist Learning

I tried carrots, sticks and begging. I offered repeated hands-on opportunities with thousands of dollars of equipment (that I maintain just for their use), access to the latest industry standard training methods and information, flexible deadlines, and just about everything else imaginable. We’re at semester’s end and I’m exhausted trying to get students to take an active role in their learning.

As consumerist thinking gets more deeply embedded in our culture more and more students think I’m some kind of educational store clerk who isn’t doing a good job of serving them. The only relationship they can understand me having with them in the classroom is that of an employee. This isn’t only a student perception. Many of the powers that be would love to see a de-professionalization of the teaching profession (it’s cheaper!). This is a current social trend.

Disaffected students looking to control how I assess them fall into two camps: the risk averse academic and an exciting new kind of student: the five-oh (a term coined by seniors at my school for a student who is aiming for a grade in the forties because they know it’ll be rounded up to a pass). You don’t have to do an awful lot to get a mark in the forties. You can miss weeks of class, not hand in major assignments and fail tests but still pull off a forty. You also tend to do a wonderful job of poisoning a classroom when this is your approach.

What drove me around the bend this week was several of these poisonous five-oh’s approaching me to complain about their term grade. One seventeen year old who had missed three weeks of class and failed to hand in multiple unit summatives, all while playing games on the class PC and ignoring instruction even when he was there, approached me to demand an explanation for his terrible grade. It was somehow my fault that he categorically refused to do anything useful. I suggested we look at his participation in the current group-study project for the final exam. He hadn’t even signed up for it – he is nothing if not consistent. I told him something that’s as much a survival mechanism for me as it should be a consolation for him:

“look, you don’t care. You seem to be OK with that, and I can live with it too, but not if you’re going to come up here whining about grades you haven’t earned. The grade you have is charity, but you come up here demanding more. If you’d have put in any kind of effort at all I’d be doing back-flips trying to help you, but you didn’t, and you still aren’t. Your grade is reflection of your terrible work ethic. I don’t know what you know, but what I’ve seen suggests it isn’t much. That’s also a result of your work ethic. Are we done here?”

It turns out we were done there.

Less bothersome because they don’t actively work to dismantle the entire learning apparatus of education is the risk-averse academic. I’ve run into ‘you don’t teach properly‘ frustrated student thinking before. This is inevitably spouted by a relatively successful student who has been taught to be a passive consumer of learning in an overly structured and systemic classroom. These students tend to be academic kids who have figured out the game, and like the five-oh, they are looking to exploit it while doing as little as possible themselves. You give me pointless, linear, obvious information, I consume it then regurgitate it for you. You think I’m very smart and give me an ‘A’.

Marking exams the other day I came across just such a ‘you didn’t teach us anything’, they got this in the response section:
“I didn’t really teach you?  I have provided you with gigs and gigs of material and thousands of dollars of hands on equipment in an environment designed to support everyone from experienced to brand new learners. If you think learning is someone putting ideas in your head you’ve misunderstood learning (telling people what to think is indoctrination). You learn when you internalize information, and that happens best when you are the one discovering it.  You can’t own knowledge you haven’t earned.  Learning isn’t a handout, you’re not a passive consumer of learning, it’s an active endeavour on the part of the student.  If you’re waiting for someone else to tell you what to think, you aren’t learning anything at all.”
This is a relatively successful student who refused to make mistakes and sat there passively, waiting for clarity. Clarity means getting concise, linear directions that make clear a pointless exercise (so you can follow the pattern and get an ‘A’). Guess what his parents do for a living? Yep, they’re teachers. Fortunately for him (if not for learning itself), he’ll find many teachers more than happy to play the game with him. I encourage and reward failure and admire brave attempts at understanding stochastic processes that defy easy description. I guess I’m a nightmare of a teacher.
Between the insidious five-ohs and the ever-so-smart risk-aversers, I’m exhausted.  I’d day dream (as other high school teachers do) about teaching in post secondary, but this consumerist thinking has infected it too, with helicopter parents demanding to know what they’re paying for when their university child (in their twenties) gets a low grade.  I’d prefer to teach high school anyway, you get to help a student find their way from the ground up.  When it works it’s very rewarding.
Thank goodness ‘tech millionaires’ (the same people who have monetized your attention) have a solution to one of the last non-economic human relationships left in Western culture (I bet it involves monetizing the teacher-student relationship somehow!)

You’d think that teaching an optional subject like computer technology would get you out of the five-oh infection, but thanks to guidance dropping kids into a class they have no background in just to fill up their time tables, and the five-ohs themselves seeking out courses that they think will be easy (computer engineering?  that’s video games, right?), I’ve had a rough semester.  The next one doesn’t  look much better since I’ve already found half a dozen students parachuted into senior computer engineering classes without the required requisite (computer engineering?  that’s playing video games, right?).


I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of my own time getting comp-tech certified as a teacher and building a department up. This year is the first time I’m teaching a full schedule of computer-technology courses, but half way through it I find myself wishing I’d never left teaching English. I thought that teaching computer technology (a passion I’ve had since I was a child) would be thrilling, a chance to help other kids like I was develop into capable engineers and technicians, but between risk averse passivity and the rising tide of learning poisonous five-ohs, I’m left gasping for air.

Difficult Metrics: The end of Creativity & Play in Learning

CBC’s Spark had an interview with Scott Barry Kaufman this week about his theories on creativity.  His identifiers for creativity include solitude, introspection, daydreaming and having new and varied experiences.  This reads like a laundry list of things education does poorly, or not at all.

The linear and systemic nature of learning in the education system is always on my mind as summatives happen and semesters end.  As I watch the system trundle towards final assessment (which means a lot of number generation), I’m always left wondering where the learning went.

Sometimes the internet feels like a meme confluence.  In this case related ideas of creativity and play mix together, making me question education’s intent in designing learning environments that stifle both things.  From the education system’s perspective, play is what you do when you’re not learning, that’s why they call it recess, yet Kaufman and a number of other thinkers believe that play is an incredibly rich learning opportunity.

A tweet by Mathias Poulsen on the marginalization of play in society got me thinking about the role of play in learning.  Play and creativity are inexorably linked in my mind.  When I play I create.  When I create, I’m playing.  I usually learn an awful lot in such a rich environment as well.

There are two aspects of modern society that drive the control paradigm Mathias refers to in his tweet.  Both flourish under the watchful eye of neo-liberal value theory.  Data collection is one aspect of this economic/social model and it’s happily provided by digital technology which seems designed to produce this sort of data.  With everything itemized the next step is to monetize it.  With absolute oversight better profits are ensured, but only for the people who can afford the absolute oversight.

Modern economic theory touts data driven metrics as the way toward a more perfect efficiency, and education has been eager to leap on board this very rational (at least that’s how it’s marketed) approach.  By quantifying everything we’re able to better manage people and property, not that there is a distinction.  The people who manage us are obviously big fans of this data driven approach.  It lends the air of mathematical credibility while also offering an automated ease of use.  No more worrying about people as people when you’re managing them from data.

Data increasingly connects the dots and defines who you are. It used to be a more organic process but now it’s done by machine.

It seems like an air-tight trap.  You are what you do and we can produce oodles of data that show what you do.  But there are aspects of human being that still defy the data driven trajectory of our society.   Creativity and the play that causes it to bloom are a pain to try and quantify and manage, even with the latest analytically insightful digital tools.  The only way education has managed to make data from a process as complicated as learning is to grossly simplify that learning in order to produce data to feed the machine, but play and creativity defy even this heavy handed approach.  You can grossly simplify learning with standardized testing, but all the testing in the world can’t capture creativity.

The best corporate thinking suggests making a fertile space for creativity and the play that can produce it, but keep management out of it!  Education isn’t as driven by the need to innovate and tends to model its management practices after classroom management anyway.  Education, with its hierarchical thinking and conservative approach, is a much riper environment for data driven absolutism than business ever was.

As a result of this data-driven press, play and creativity are increasingly foreign to the modern classroom.  If it can’t be itemized, quantified and easily compared it isn’t really useful as an aspect of learning; it’s not part of the system.  This is backed up by serious people with data who talk about how a rigorous, intellectually meaningful curriculum can only happen through the mathematical certainty of data-collection.   Less time is given to play and creativity is re-cast as something only geniuses (or the very rich – they’re often the same) have, you can’t learn by practising it.  Students are encouraged to get in step with the ‘real world’ and produce quantifiable material by following transparent and unwavering rubrics, lesson plans and standardized tests.  The data produced in this fish-bowl of honesty allows the education system to accurately and completely (except for the bits we ignore) evaluate student ability and direct them to the most efficient career pathway.  This is handy because career pathways are the only reason schools exist any more.

One of the benefits of a liberal society is the generation of a thriving creative class.  If we can’t compete on the cheapness of human labour (because we don’t the produce quantity of people other societies do), then we can compete on creativity.  Except our data driven approach to learning (and everything else, really) means we are letting creativity atrophy in our children.  

The only people who think creativity is a natural talent you can’t teach are people too lazy to nurture their own.  Those kind of people really like data driven thinking because it means they don’t have to do much thinking themselves.

The answer is yes.  Sir Ken is a popular educational trope.
Teachers are encouraged to watch a video that criticizes
education and then they’re told to prepare students for
standardized tests and grade them with numbers.

Like any hard-won skill, creativity demands commitment to change, metacognitive clarity and growth, and it can be frustratingly non-linear.  One sure way to spark creativity is to create an empty space, the solitude Kaufman spoke of, in which your mind is encouraged to produce its own outcomes.  This can’t happen in an always-on society where your attention is constantly being sought by digital thought merchants who have monetized your attention.  The habits you develop in this brave new world are so orchestrated that your mind quickly forgets how to structure itself; it comes to depend on digitally structured environments.

Another way to spark creativity is play, but not the kind of pre-determined outcome play you find in video games.  Play in those situations is more like the training of a Pavlovian dog; small rewards for correct behaviour.  You win because you’re scripted too.  Open ended play means there isn’t a script to follow, there is no right way to do it.  It means there isn’t a specific outcome, you’re back to conditioning when you demand specific outcomes.  In play-space the outcomes are often unexpected, and can’t be described in win/lose terms (once again, a specific outcome).

Creativity has no required outcomes.  The creative process does produce outcomes, but they aren’t handed down from on high by curriculum, nor do they look alike.  In a class of thirty students (not much solitude there, but you deal with what you’re given), each creative outcome may look so unlike the others that it is nearly impossible to track them all back to the same starting point.  As a standardized test result this is a disaster.  How do you rubric that?  How do you grade creativity?  How do you determine if Billy is 3% more creative than Bob?  The system demands numbers, you better give it them.

We’re here to teach people, not have fun… and intelligence has nothing to do with it!

Fortunately, education has found a scripted way to insert play into learning!  Gamification connects well with educational thinking because they both are directed toward predetermined, specific outcomes.  When educators get all giddy about applying gamification to learning they are harnessing the current digitally driven social trend of attention engagement for their own ends.  They might feel that using this rather nasty process for the good of learning makes it alright, but the ends don’t justify the means in learning.  How you do it matters.

Gamification isn’t play.  You don’t magically produce play by gamifying a lesson plan, though our data driven reflex will happily accept this absurd simplification if it makes us feel like we’re with the times, and producing the same thing that Google and Apple are looking for: engagement.  Teachers and multi-nationals all looking for the same thing?  That’s got to be a good sign.  Our students are trained by financially bottomless digital giants to spend hours connected online.  Education should harness that reflex, right?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, unless you can exactly measure the horse, the distance it has to travel and its circumstances and then manipulate the environment so that drinking becomes the only possible outcome.  That’s gamification in education.  Data driven thinking would suggest that with enough detail (happily provided by digital multi-nationals intent on not paying taxes while reaping record profits) we can engage a student and invisibly lead them to curriculum required (and usually very specific) learning outcomes.

Societies are societies because they’ve established patterns of thinking that the majority support.  To diverge from that pattern is to move towards the edges of social acceptance.  If you go too far you’ll have passed beyond social norms and become a pariah.  Society is very good at inventing words to describe people who aren’t conforming properly.  Creativity produces new thinking and so creatives tend to be outliers.  A liberal society accepts these creatives more than a conservative one (it is a distinct advantage of a liberal society).

If there is one social mechanism that enforces social norms it’s the public education system.  It has greater social contact with the population than the police or healthcare and focuses on the most pliable citizens (children).  This is generally done as benevolently possible, except when society itself has made some poor decisions, then public education quickly changes from an agent of personal empowerment to a means of indoctrination.  That education seems unwilling and incapable of fostering creativity through play shouldn’t come as a surprise.  That kind of nonsense isn’t conducive to a well organized, radically transparent, data-driven, modern classroom.  You’re not going to produce cooperative citizens if you ignore those societal truths.

Perhaps asking the education system to protect and nurture creativity and encourage play is beyond its capabilities.  As an agent of social conformity education tends to be the anathema of creatives, the lowest point in their creative lives, but if education doesn’t nurture and protect creativity don’t expect Twenty First Century Canadian society to do it.  Our society is becoming more stratified and rigid thanks to increasingly rigorous data driven control.  In a world where our attention is monetized and trained to expect digital frameworks, we are increasingly defined and limited by the data collected about us.  Play is a quantifiable waste of time and the creativity that arises from it is being cast aside.  

Ironically, this is going to cost our society billions.