Cutting Cookies

CBC radio was playing a phone call from parent with a child diagnosed with ADHD yesterday afternoon and I’m having a knee jerk reaction to it.  The responses were based on THIS story.

The parent described her child as “energetic, creative and wonderful” but then said, “but he was falling behind in writing and maths, so we had to medicate him”.
I’m a parent in the process of going through a psych assessment on my own child because he didn’t  get stellar grades in grade one.  He is a shy, active, thoughtful, sensitive, creative boy who loves to dance and can solve puzzle games designed for kids three grades ahead of him.  He can use a computer like a pro and loves media, especially if it has music in it.  He gets perfect on his spelling tests, but still has trouble writing and staying on-task in the classroom.  He almost failed music last year (stern parental intervention deflected the well-meaning but paralytic school system into passing him).  They seemed to confuse lack of participation by a chronically shy boy in a Christmas Concert in front of a thousand people with the subject of ‘music’.
When we went to see the psychiatrist, I was adamant about him not getting labelled.  The psychiatrist said a label, if properly applied, will help him.  I was adamant about him not getting medicated, they seemed more willing to accept that, though, of course, whole industries revolve around making these diagnoses, applying labels and following up with expensive, brand named drugs.
Oh how we love to systematize our children.  Achievement in that limited, disciplined, standardized setting is just so easy to assess and statiscize.  We can set them up in rows, itemize them and then compare them, all in a spreadsheet!  Oh, the convenience.
And that poor woman on the radio?  She, in a panic over how an incredibly myopic education system determine writing and math skills in a specific instance, is now paying a multi-national to drug her child so that it can enjoy ‘success’.
Great job everybody.

I Hope They Realize Where They Are

Having just been to my first unconference, I’m still buzzing with the energy, collaboration, disagreement and accord.  It wasn’t easy, or comfortable, but it was relevant, and it was VERY ENERGIZING.

This week I head to one of my favourite not un-conferences, ECOO.  This is the conference that got me onto twitter, got me building pln, got me blogging, got me into so many different ideas around technology in the classroom that it has changed my practice, it’s a fantastic piece of work.  It’s also the first conference I ever presented at, and I’m presenting there again this year.  ECOO works for me on so many levels, but this year I’m worried about the linchpin to the whole thing: the keynote addresses.

This year, as in other years, they’ve trotted up American presenters who, for the most part, present a consistent polemic of fear, anxiety and need for radical change.  It’s all very exciting, and radical, and urgent, and necessary, if you’re in America.  In the U.S. they’ve demonized the teaching profession (and public service jobs in general), gutted public education (and services in general) and done everything in their power to privatize what’s left.  In the process they are astonished that they’ve  become uncompetitive.

What I fear is going to happen at ECOO is that two Americans are going to stand up and quote American statistics at us (again), while urging us to throw out everything we’re doing and radically revise our failing education system.  Ah, the polemics of fear and upheaval; what happens when you let short term business interests (there are no other) run your society.

Except, of course, the Canadian education system isn’t failing, it’s fantastic.  We graduate more students, reach more with special needs and do it at a higher rate than almost any other human society on earth.  We have to keep working at it as hard as we have to keep it at the front, but throwing out everything we’ve done only works for a system that’s in tatters, like the U.S. system.

I live in hope that the keynotes will actually research what they are walking in to and not treat us like a 51st state (again).  If they don’t, expect some snippy back channel comments come Thursday morning.  I’m prepared to defend what we have done and what we are doing, it’s important.

I’ve already had to go through this once this year (at great cost to my board), I’m going to lose patience doing it again.

Note:  The speakers were fantastic, taking an audience participation approach, heavily using technology (when the hotel internet would work… I thought private business was supposed to be all masterful with this stuff), and emphasizing what we are doing right, rather than what the US is doing wrong.  Well done all.

Mosaika Sound and Light Show | Mosaika spectacle son et lumière

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Caught this by accident while walking around Parliament Hill at sunset the other day. The Ottawa natives were too cool to stick around, but we’re glad we did.

I’m an immigrant to Canada, and it took me a long time to get my citizenship, but moments like this laying on the lawn with my son and wife in front of Parliament seeing such an honest and heartfelt expression of the Canadian experience was truly moving.

If you’re in Ottawa and are hanging out downtown around sunset, do yourself a favour and go catch this show.

I’ve got a soft spot for building projection systems anyway, it’s architecture made fluid and digital. I’d love to take the cold, institutional grey building bricks of my school and digitize it like this, but the projectors are wicked expensive! When you see something like Mosaika, you begin to realize just how powerful fluid digital architecture and lighting can be.

Via Flickr:
Mosaika is the story of Canada – our story. A powerful narrative set against the spectacular backdrop of Parliament Hill, Mosaika takes the audience on an unforgettable journey of sound and light, as we explore Canada’s physical, historical and cultural landscapes.

Don’t miss this free, bilingual show. Presented nightly in Canada’s Capital Region. From July 8 through September 12, 2010.

Mosaika raconte l’histoire du Canada — notre histoire. Par la magie du son et de la lumière, ce saisissant spectacle, présenté sur la colline du Parlement, nous fait vivre un voyage inoubliable à la découverte des paysages, de l’histoire et de la culture du Canada.

Ne manquez pas ce spectacle bilingue gratuit, présenté tous les soirs, du 8 juillet au 12 septembre 2010, dans la région de la capitale du Canada.

22C Ed: Gaming School

Kyle looked at the stairs going up to the next floor, he couldn’t unlock the door to them, but he could peer through the small windows to the painted walls and carpeted floors beyond.

He looked down at his student badge, under his name and next to his picture it still said, “n00b learner”. Kyle wasn’t stupid, not by a long stretch, but he was incredibly lazy and was easily influenced by his peers negatively, though that had been changing recently. He used to spend most of his time trying to needle other students or his teachers. He found this amusing, only a small group of others did, but Kyle had been stuck on the first floor with them for two years now, almost all the rest of his elementary class had gone upstairs. The big 2nd year wasn’t enjoying hanging out with the kids any more.
The bell rang on the first floor, the only floor where bells rang, and Kyle trudged off to his next class. The room was painfully white; tables, chairs, walls… the teacher walked in and put her briefcase on the teacher desk. She quickly looked at the scan log on her monitor, noticed who wasn’t in class on time and said, “alright, let’s begin.”
The door closed automatically as she spoke, and anyone still out in the hall was being herded into remedial classes that would also take up their lunches. Very few people skipped or were late; better to just be there.
The lesson today was on writing basic sentences. Kyle knew how to do this, so zoned out during the instruction. Back in grade nine he would have talked over the teacher, thrown things at classmates or otherwise assed about, but standing for the whole class kinda sucked, so he didn’t do these things any more. Damien, two seats up, was a bit of a tool, and he wasn’t thinking about consequences very well this morning. He whipped a pen at the back of the kid in the front row. His chair seat dropped away immediately, depositing in him on the floor. Bright red in the face he stood up to the class laughing.
Ms Creighton looked at him for a moment and shook her head, “forty minutes is a long time to be standing Damien.”
“He started it,” Damien mumbled, looking at his feet.
“He still has a seat,” Ms Creighton replied with a smirk, and turned back to the use of commas.
It was your typical n00b class, students kept forgetting about consequences and by halfway through half a dozen of them were shifting from one foot to another, while trying to take notes. Three others, including Damien, had decided to trade in lunch for a seat and were off in remedial, learning an awful lot more about sentence structure than they had perhaps intended.
The data being collected was more detailed than Kyle realized. His previous attempts (and improvements) in sentence building where being held up against how he performed today. His galvanic skin response (read through his desk) even gave indicators on how much attention he was paying, and even if he was likely to act up, though the system had a very low probability of that happening.
What Kyle didn’t realize is that in the last six months his tardies had fallen to zero (mainly because he didn’t want to miss lunch any more), he had no absences and his teacher had noted improvements in engagement across logic, numeracy, literacy, techniracy, kinesthetics and creativity. His scores had been slowly, but steadily improving, indicating a measurable improvement in learning facilities. Ms Creighton knew this, and she was hoping that young man who started the year so badly would ace this activity, as she knew he could; it might be the bump he needed.
With fifteen minutes left in the class Kyle’s badge suddenly chimed. It usually only did this when he was late to class or otherwise in trouble. He irritably grabbed it and stared.
“Level 1: Novice Learner”
Creighton stood up immediately with a big smile. “Well done Kyle! The system had you on the cusp, but you’ve gone over!”
Kyle stood up nervously, his face flushing red. “What do I do?” he stammered.
“They’re waiting for you upstairs! Enjoy yourself, and keep improving your learning!”
Kyle walked down the aisle as dozens of eyes followed him, some enviously, which the system made note of. The door opened as he approached and he was out alone in the hallway. Alone in the hallway never happened to n00bs and he almost felt vertigo. He walked stiffly to the doors to the second floor and they slid open as he approached.
“Welcome to the next level,” a cool, female voice chimed as he passed through.
By the end of the day, Kyle was beginning to see why almost no one ever came back downstairs. His biggest class had a dozen students in it, as opposed to the forty he’d had in English this morning. Whereas downstairs was antiseptically clean and monotone, the second floor contained rooms in varying shades. Instead of shared desk screens, everyone carried their own computer, could share their content to the white boards, and were encouraged to develop what they had studied in class independently. Instead of six hours of proscribed class, the second floor had four hours of teacher time and two hour of independent study.
From having very limited, measured choice, Kyle suddenly found he could choose to focus his learning in specific areas. The system watched his initial ascension closely, some students needed a firmer hand while they became acclimatized to their new freedoms, though the data suggested that Kyle would not, and he didn’t. As the novelty wore off, Kyle found himself wondering why it took him so long to get out of his own way, then he realized it, the system wasn’t grading him on what he knew, it was grading him on how well he learned. Until he’d been able to demonstrate some self control, self direction and curiosity, he couldn’t focus on all there was to learn; now he could. Instead of worrying about what the idiots in his class were thinking, he had, over the past half year, allowed his own natural curiosity to emerge.
Kyle quickly found Phin, a friend from the neighborhood who had ascended a few weeks earlier.
“Know what the best part is?” Phin said one day as they ate lunch in the smaller, less industrially designed cafeteria on the second floor.
“We’re not n00bs any more? The technology access? The fact they the teachers can leave you alone because you’ve shown you can learn without training wheels?”
Phin laughed and nodded, “true, but not it! The real best part is that after we ascend through intermediate to senior, we get to go to the final floor… and it’s supposed to be even better than this!”
Kyle looked across the caf at the doors to the third floor. His imagination took off.
“What could they have up there? Holographics? Hypnotics? Virtual studios?”
“You’re such a tech-head,” Phin laughed. “Bet they’ve got all that and more, but they also have the heli-pad, and I’ve seen Seniors come and go from it.”
Phin left the thought of being able to travel on the supersonic ‘copters hanging in the air. Both of them looked at each other and a new determination germinated between them. Deep in the core the system made the necessary adjustments. Kyle was improving Phin’s approach to learning and Phin was improving Kyle’s. Subtle changes were made in the scheduling to match them together and with other students at this stage of development. Teachers looking over the data called it the booster stage. Students at that stage could develop their own learning skills at a much more efficient rate, often over a surprisingly short period of time.
It wouldn’t be taking Kyle two years to get up to that next floor this time.

The Perfect Interface

Thinking about tablets recently, I’ve been trying to imagine what the perfect online interface would be. Since getting a smartphone and doing the Web2.0 thing, I’m finding I don’t go to the internet like I used to, getting online is now a micro event, not the main event. Web2.0 wants you to pop in and out in social media, produce content and grab information relevant to what you’re doing in reality, and that doesn’t fit well with a desktop.

If I’m not going to the internet as the main event, but rather as an enhancement to my reality, what would be the best way to access that? You’d want something with you all the time; the legendary wearable computer.
I’m not feeling the desktop like I used to. I still use desktop horsepower to game (which is still an event in and of itself), and to move big photoshop files, but not much else, using the internet as augmented reality doesn’t require a monster processor or graphics power. Instead I’m out and about, and wanting to catch a moment and push it online quickly and easily without interrupting what’s going on. Facebook encourages this somewhat, Twitter relies on it. What you can share online easily is what makes your digital self. You’re mute and half invisible online if you can’t interact as your virtual self.
I find the smartphone sometimes frustrating entering text on (I have the same problem with tablets), but the fact that they are easy to take everywhere is their ace in the hole. My Xperia has an awesome camera, does good video and has a big enough screen to easily share information on, it comes close to being an ideal tether between meat me and virtual me.

My future ideal device has a stylish pair of glasses, shoes and clothes that recharge from bodily motion, or solar power like the awesome Casio I recently got. Having a device that is self powered is where all mobile tech should head. Having a watch/compass/weather station on my wrist that is essentially self-sufficient makes you aware of all the umbillicalage that connects us to our digital selves.
The perfect device only asserts itself as much as it has to in order to complete online interactions. Photos are a quick motion away, interfaces respond to bodily motions (eye blinks, hand gestures, etc). Typing by following eye motion? Typing by looking at any surface with a keyboard imposed on it through the glasses? Speech to text, direct speech and let’s drop the textiness?
I guess, somewhere into this, you could be playing an interactive real world/virtually enhanced game with people in which how accurately you create spell gestures dictates how well the spell will work. You’d see people playing in the park, pointing fingers at each other and seeing virtual paint balls. Gym classes would take on a whole new historical context. You could run 100m against Donovan Bailey and actually see him on the course (way) ahead of you.
William Gibson has a fantastic scene in Spook Country, where the main character is looking (through glasses with a digital screen) at the body of a virtual dead River Phoenix lying on the sidewalk where he actually died. Past and present colliding virtually… imagine that field trip to Quebec City, where you’re walking across the Plains of Abraham and seeing the battle unfold around you… or you can spend a day at the reconstructed Globe Theatre watching the King’s Men preparing to stage Romeo & Juliet for the first time (complete with cast from Shakespeare in Love).
Virtual Reality doesn’t offer nearly the nuance and ease of use that augmented reality does. Here’s hoping Moore’s Law gets us there sooner than later. I want to actually work up a sweat next time I’m doing a dungeon crawl with my party of adventurers.

Spotty Internet & Spoiling The Argument

I’m feeling bad about bad mouthing the board internet now. The last few events I’ve been to seem to point to continuous and crappy wifi execution at the enterprise level. Does good high usage wifi exist anywhere?

This week at the Mississauga Better Living Centre the wifi was so slow as to be useless. Signal strength was fine, the throughput was nonexistent. When it takes more than 10 seconds to load Google, something isn’t right.
The Sheraton Parkway North in Richmond Hill I’ve been to twice this year. Better than Mississauga’s attempt, but still boggy and slow at times, and again, this is regardless of signal strength.
One of the sure-fire killers of tech use in class rooms is boggy internet. Teachers are on tender hooks every time they try something online. If it fails to load, they are stressed and tend to face a lot of blow back from students looking for an out. If you’re going to pitch the cloud, online collaborative tools and an alternate to the desktop, you’re not going to do it with patchy internet.
Our school wifi system is a monster. It cost a fortune, and, in theory, works very well… until all our traffic gets funneled into the queue we share with 88 other schools for a single internet connection through the board office, then, not so good. I constantly hear students railing against the ‘crap computers in this school’. It’s not the computers, you’d think the digital natives would know that.
Back in the day when I was learning networking (the computer kind, not the people kind), we were told again and again to design out any SPoFs. Single Points of Failure will kill a network stone dead. They’ll kill the use of technology in the class room for any but the most hard core digital evangelists as well. Nobody needs the time wasted, stress and headache of setting up a lesson only to have it fail because the internet wasn’t there for you when you needed it.
People always get hyped about technology, I do too. Things like chalk boards and chalk? I’ve never had that technology fail on me of its own accord. Can you imagine if 20% of the time you went to write on the board and nothing came out? It’s certainty is what makes it good technology. Same thing can be said for paper and pen…
I hope that we are not just looking for faster network speeds, but also resiliency in our networks. I’d love to see my next gen wifi receiver using whichever band is offering the best throughput (N, G, B, I don’t care; they never get near their theoretical bandwidth limits anyway). I’d love to see a school network that never reaches bandwidth limits because it shapes and prioritizes traffic to ensure smooth operation (Facebook packages low priority please), and I’d love to see wifi networks intelligently and resiliently dealing with traffic crush, traffic sharing and shaping to push data not necessarily as quickly, but as efficiently as they can.
I fear in the headlong rush for faster transfer speeds, we are forgetting to build any kind of resiliency into our networks, which will make things like Chromebooks look little more than curiosities. No one is interested in a computer that won’t work as often as the poor wifi I’ve seen implemented.

Simulation In Education: DM as teacher

Simulation in education is going under many names nowadays. Gamification is a gross simplification of the application of game play to learning. You can’t gamify lessons and expect the students to have a genuine experience, yet gamification has been the catch-word educators have picked up on in trying to access gaming culture.

You can’t throw badges on completion tasks and call it a game. Game play requires a coherent internal system of interaction that rewards contextual, interactive play. Even meta-game play (hacking, working the system, etc) should be integrated by the game creator. The more complete the contextualization of a game, the more effective it is as a game and the more immersive (and genuine) it is as a learning experience.

Simplifying game play/in-class simulation as an add on to existing, simplistic lessons is certain to fail. You might have success the first time you do it based student response to a new, novel approach to learning, but repeating a simplistic gaming pattern will quickly cause students to drop out of the simulation. The game has to have enough complexity and contextual development or it will be too easy for students to step out of the game, it needs to be encompassing.

Some thoughts on sims in education:

Teacher as referee rather than resource, puts focus on student to figure out material. Sports do this well, creating an apparently certain context (it’s all made up, buy you couldn’t convince a hockey player of the arbitrary nature of the rules they are playing in)

The point of economic policy in a game isn’t to simulate reality; it’s to make the synthetic scarcity so entertaining that the truly scarce good (the players’ time) goes toward solving problems in the game, not in the outer world.” Geekonomics. Simulation should be designed around maximizing player’s experience within the game context.

Immersion is a powerful thing! Rewarding a student’s immersion in a game by rewarding their efforts within the simulation is key.

What is better? Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation (intrinsic is, extrinsic is transient)

Must develop an intrinsic motivation! It’s better to have a ‘good in itself’, summum bonum,or some fecundity (both much more motivating) or else players are just jumping through hoops, the teacher won’t get their best work, students don’t get best learning.

Is curriculum motivating in itself? No, just a set of arbitrary government rules. At best it offers a Foursquare like badging system (grades), or a sudden, harsh result (post secondary options). Grade leveling is eased all the way until they hit the wall of trying to access post secondary (something that seems far away in the teenage mind). Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could gamify the student experience? “You’re a level 11 writer and a level 6 hockey player? Cool.”

What makes a motivated student? Relevance of material? Control of the situation? Social interaction? Non-confrontational relationship with teacher? Strong interpersonal relationship with teacher? Sense of self-direction? Self confidence?

Immersive simulation adapts to each student experience, (must) offers contextual, supporting material, develops confidence because the student’s experience prompts the learning, develops a supportive, non confrontational relationship with the teacher.

Simulation development has to go well beyond the Khan Academy approach, it has to offer an immersive, meaningful, personalized experience, and you can’t do that by adapting lessons, you need to begin with big ideas and work the lessons into that coherent whole.

Types of Genius

I just re-read a fantastic article in WIRED about types of genius.

After examining art history, an economics professor noticed two distinct expressions of genius. There is the Conceptualist, who usually goes right after her goals with a preconceived notion of how to get there. Conceptualists usually peak early and loudly, they are the ‘typical’ kind of child genius people think of, like Mozart. The less well known creative genius is the Experimentalist. They slowly develop across their lives and their greatest work usually comes later in life.

Someone like Jackson Pollack didn’t really start producing until his thirties and didn’t really hit his stride until well into his forties. His early work is terrible. He developed his style through years of trial and error, hence, an experimentalist.

Picasso’s greatest works came early and created an incredible shock wave. He had a preconceived notion of what he wanted to do and did it. As a conceptualist his work presented a radical change in how things were done. While he produced many great works across his long life, it is generally understood that his early work presents his strongest.

I’ve always liked Robert Frost, and now that I know his history, I see he’s an experimentalist, just like me. It’s nice to be in such good company. As a late bloomer myself, I remember the painful efforts of my teachers to educate me when I simply wasn’t ready for it. I was always a good reader and writer, but even my English teachers (I now have an honours degree in English) couldn’t reach me (“a disruptive influence in class”). I finally had the sense to drop out (something kids aren’t allowed to do any more) and work for a few years before I went back and graduated at the age of 22.

It makes you wonder just what a FAILURE in a course really means. I had my fair share of them, and they weren’t exactly great for my slow-motion approach to development.

The recent round of ‘your son is not up to STANDARDS’ from his elementary teachers had me very worried, but when I dug up this article again, I feel a bit better. Even geniuses can arrive last, being off-average in school is by no means an indicator of your actual abilities, it’s simply a system based on averages. Exceptionality lives outside of those averages, I’d rather be there than in the NORMAL range.

Archive: 2007: Artist Training With Historical Context

Summary of:

Art education has evolved to meet the needs of the human society in which it exists. In a less complex, earlier society, the apprenticeship system offered a mirror of the human family structure that allowed practitioners to work in an intensive, personalized environment. As the population grew, this one on one instruction was no longer possible. Educational expectations made it financially impossible for a teacher to only have handful of students over the course of their careers. Apprenticeships became guild affiliated and finally the training of visual arts became the purview of specialized institutions of higher education. During this advancement, the personal/mentoring aspect of the apprenticeship system has been lost.

The modern view of visual arts is complex. Once a straightforward trade based entirely on quantifiable and observable skills development surrounding the recreation of natural forms, the visual artist has become something of a hybrid, straddling the lines between the experiential, materials handling, hand-eye skills associated with a skilled trade and the mental disciplines associated with aesthetics, philosophy, art history and the development of a personalized and unique artistic sensibility. The requirement of both of these rigorous mental and physical aspects within the field of visual arts is quite unique. Few other disciplines require the mental athleticism and hand eye skills that a mastery in visual arts demands. Teaching to this requirement is an ongoing struggle.

The benefits of this research in terms of presenting art history are fairly straightforward. What is perhaps more valuable to me is an awareness of just how difficult it is to balance the widely differing needs of visual arts in one course of study. My own background suggested that high school visual arts attempts to focus too much on the mental aspects of the discipline and leaves the challenging (and often repetitive) hand-eye skills development to college. My initial drive in reviewing the history of art and art training was to resurrect an interest in improving the technical proficiency of the high school visual arts student by recreating something of the intensity I experienced while apprenticing.

In retrospect, I think this will not work. As an apprentice, I was financially and professionally obliged to work through some very difficult material. Dropping out would have cost me a great deal of money, not to mention lost me my job. High school students do not have this motivation, especially in visual arts which is not even a mandatory course. In order to serve as wide a public audience as possible, it makes sense to design visual arts curriculum around Socrates’ view of visual arts, as a course designed to create an interest in the visual arts as part of a liberal arts education. This would, of course, require students to become aware of the means of production of visual arts (so studio work is still an important portion of the curriculum), but it would not require the students themselves to be artists with the associated intensity of expression. I find this very similar to the current atmosphere in English, where literacy is stressed, but the teacher isn’t looking to cater to student writers. It is assumed that these students will display competence in the basic skills and find ways to express their writing skills in specialized courses or outside of the curriculum.

I find it unfortunate that curriculum can not cater to mastery focused students in this way. Visual artists in high school would simply, for them, an empty survey of the subject matter while they wait for an opportunity to really exercise their creativity in a post-secondary situation more suited to their need for specialization. This situation makes me wish for a means of bypassing years of unproductive basics, especially if a student wants to specialize intensively in a particular subject. An early graduation for these students might be a suggestion to move them into more effective learning. If an exceptional fine arts student demonstrated sufficient technical ability and the wish to more aggressively pursue their discipline, the opportunity to apply to post-secondary institutions at the age of 16 or 17 might make public education more than simply waiting to turn eighteen.

Note: Interestingly, the high skills arts major became an option only two years after this was written.

Note: Interesting tie in with the Mastery Blog entry from last week.

Information – Skills – Mastery

I was chatting with @banana29 about that learning thing on the weekend. She’d been wrestling with the idea of skills based learning, ultimately finding it too limiting in describing what we’re actually aiming for in education.

After we ruminated for a few minutes, we came up with the idea of Mastery. We don’t teach students information, or even skills, but what we look for ultimately is mastery (something more encompassing and complex than knowledge or simple skills development).
This bounced me back to a conversation I’d had the other week at a heads PD on assessment. The teacher I was chatting with had been heavily involved with the Hockey Canada coaching program. While in it, they were told that in order for a player to have gained a mastery of the game, they need to have put ten thousand hours into to it. While talking to him, we brought up Wayne Gretzky. I saw an interview with his Dad, Walter, back in the day. The interviewer was saying how Wayne was a natural and Walter just shook his head and laughed. He then told the story of Wayne’s childhood. He’d get up, and go play hockey before school, he’d play hockey on recess and at lunch, he’d come home and… play hockey. In the winter he averaged 4-6 hours a day on the backyard rink; in the summer he played ball hockey. Wayne Gretzky wasn’t a natural, he was a master, who’d put the hours in and learned (and earned) his mastery.
Back to the skills talk: the idea of skills is inherently limited. A skill is defined by its limitations; it’s one of the ways we’re able to focus on them and perfect them. To take the hockey metaphor again, skating is a skill, stick handling is a skill, shooting is a skill. These and many others work in complex ways to develop something that relies on them and many other indirect and seemingly esoteric skills and knowledge to create an encompassing and complete mastery.
Perhaps this is that missing piece everyone seems to be looking for in education. We focus on knowledge and information, we focus on skills development, but we never look for mastery, or encourage it in all its esoteric forms. Mastery training can get awfully abtruse too, bizarre even. I once saw the Detroit Red Wings playing hackey sack before a playoff game; masters getting Zen while warming up their hand/foot/eye coordination, teamwork and focus? or guys screwing around?
Mastery assumes a level of professionalism and focus that isn’t in question. We have trouble doing that in PD, let alone with students. If we can’t trust teachers to apply themselves to their professional development in a self directed, meaningful way (something a master will do no matter what), the idea of students doing it approaches absurdity. Perhaps mastery is more than we can expect from the education system.
Another problem in elementary and secondary education (it happens in post secondary) is being able to focus on a specific field in order to develop mastery. In Ontario, this is changing now with High Skills Specialists and other focuses beyond the bland, traditional subject haze that students have been dragged through.
The problems don’t end there. In a system that prides itself on segmentation and order, mastery becomes a slippery concept that doesn’t fit well into curriculum documents, class bells, mid term reports and percentage grades. Mastery leaves all of that nonsense behind, the master becomes an embodiment of their discipline.
That ‘nonsense’ is vital to an apprentice though. Without structure, and planned practice that develops the knowledge and skills needed, someone working toward mastery will take much longer to embody their expertise. Perhaps the fact that mastery isn’t mentioned, or even understood to be the point of the educational process, is where we run into trouble. Structure is vital to learning, but it seems empty and pointless if there isn’t an ultimate goal beyond the skills and knowledge happening right in front of you. The student being drilled on grammar or working to develop their sentence structure has no sense of what it is they are pursuing: the mastery of a writer. If they aren’t pursuing mastery, they are spending all of their time getting drilled in stick handling, passing and shooting and never getting to play a hockey game.
The problem there might be that the masters teaching aren’t really masters themselves, but rather experts in running drills and practicing. It’s not always easy to convince a master to teach their discipline to the unwashed masses, they tend to want to pick and choose their apprentices, looking for people who demonstrate the kind of personalities and inherent abilities that will improve chances of success. Spending time and energy on an unworthy apprentice is exhausting and wasteful.
Ultimately, mastery, or even the striving for it, ends up seeming exclusionary, but training with no purpose creates skills and knowledge without context, which is very hard to explain or justify.
Last year I had a student who earned a 46% in grade eleven college level English. He thanked me profusely for ‘giving’ him a 50% and a pass. I told him it was no favour, moving him to grade 12 was going to be very difficult for him. His response was, “it’s ok, I just didn’t try this year, I’ll try next year and get the B average I need for college.”
He didn’t get that 70%, in fact, he dropped the course on his first go around and is now at a loss on what to do. His problem wasn’t effort, his problem was that he couldn’t spell, his grammar was atrocious, I’d seen grade 9s with better vocabulary and he had virtually no understanding of sentence or paragraph structure. He could try as hard as he wanted, but his complete lack of a workable foundation in English is where the real problem lay.
In a system that feels to many students like random, fractured, pointless skills development with wads of knowledge dumped on top, the idea that they need to be developing toward something other than their next summative assessment is foreign. It’s foreign for many of their teachers too.