Dealing With The Impossible

Two decade old parts mean things don’t fit together.
Making something work in this circumstance seldom
has anything to do with following directions

The other day I was trying to install carburetors on an old motorcycle (I was a millwright before I was an IT guy). I wasn’t even sure if what I was doing was possible. I spent a couple of frustrating hours trying before I pulled it all apart and did it over a different way.

What I love about technology and engineering, especially when it involves free-form building rather than following directions, is that you have no idea if what you’re doing is possible. This never happens in digital environments – they’re all designed for you to eventually succeed. Kids think video game wins are wins, they’re not, they’re a conditioned response.

Any teacher who thinks free form building is just for fun is the kind of teacher who only wants students to perform conditioned response with a predetermined outcome (I’m guessing so they can control the situation). A lot of people (students and teachers alike) think that’s learning. I think it’s all about management and control, and it’s one of the emptiest things we can do with students.

We shy away from stochastic processes in the classroom because we believe that failure is the inability to do something rather than an opportunity to better understand complex and open ended situations.

When trying to put together those carburetors I was unsure if the process I followed would lead to a successful outcome.  That uncertainty filled me with doubt and made me question what I was doing in a way that no lesson ever would.  We desperately hope for metacognition in student learning and then stifle it with overly restrictive learning goals.  No student ever starts a math problem, writes an essay or even plays a video game wondering if what they are doing is possible, yet most of the world, when it isn’t a digital distraction or a lesson, works that way.  I suspect the cockiness I see in student attempts at engineering is grounded in the fact that most of their world (digital, educational, or worst of all: both!)  is a coddled exercise rather than a stringent test of reality.

In a classroom we like controlled circumstances with defined and plausible outcomes because they suit easy analysis of work completion, collection of assessment data and cement the teacher’s place as the all knowing master of learning, but that limited circumstance doesn’t offer much in the way of learning real world outcomes.

What would a learning environment look like if it wasn’t modelled on data collection and teacher insecurities?

Head Space

For the first time in my ten years of teaching I didn’t teach summer school or take an additional qualification this summer.  I did build a deck that you can land a helicopter on, restore a motorbike I found in a field and travelled across most of Ontario, but I’ve been far away from thinking about teaching.

What have I learned from my summer of George?  I’d be a very good retired person.  I’m seldom idle, I love learning new things and resolving engineering challenges.  I get a great deal of satisfaction in taking something broken and making it work.  Mechanical sympathy has always led me into technology, I tend toward an empathetic connection with machines.  I also enjoy working with my head and hands in concert (not just one or the other).  I spent the summer practising the engineering process, perhaps I can take a more active modelling role in the lab in order to keep that experience alive (for myself as well as for my students).

The writing didn’t slow down, it just changed focus.  Putting experience into words allows me to meditate on that experience and clarify my thinking about it.  It’s nice to know that whatever I’m doing, writing is a natural response to it.

I’m now in the process of re-engaging with teaching.  Empathy tends to lead me in this as well, though I find the irrationality and randomness of dealing with people exhausting and frustrating in comparison to the simple honesty of machines.  The education system is all about people, from the social complexities of dealing with fellow teachers and administration to the hugely varied psychology of students, it’s a complex system that is more about fecundity than resolution.

After a summer of making things work I’m most anxious about returning to a process that is often irrational, opaque and unsolvable.

Once more into the breach dear friends…

ECOO15 1: Making Frustrations

Back from ECOO15 and, as usually, my head is full.  After a rough year of politics around Ontario Education it’s nice to attend a conference made by teachers for teachers about… teaching!  Not a politician in sight, though attendance was wounded at this volunteer run conference by them.

ECOO may have been the site
of the first ever 3d photobomb!

I spent Wednesday with my robotics teacher showing people how to make 3d models using a Structure Sensor – a 3d laser scanner that is cheaper than the ipad it connects to.  It’s one of those game changing bits of engineering that suddenly opens up the complex world of 3d modelling to pretty much anyone.

We put the scanner into hundreds of hands and Katy was on there to show them how our 3d printers took those models and made them tangible.  For many who have heard of the maker movement, 3d modelling and printing but had never seen it in action, it was a seminal moment.  I’m hoping it also means people start considering how we can move toward a maker mentality, because it’s about as far removed from what we do in formal education as you can get.

Buddha Tim by tking on Sketchfab – @banana29‘s first 3d model, nicely done!

The next day, the opening keynote by Silvia Martinez was an overview of makerspaces and how they create a genuine learning environment.  Unfortunately, and like so many other educational books capitalizing on a trend, the keynote sold the concept of Making based on the fantastic contraptions shown at world class Maker Faires.  This is akin to saying everyone should play soccer like this, and then showing them the World Cup.

Education teaches students to expect success if they do what
they’re told.  Engineering demands mastery, creativity and
resilience; reality is a demanding teacher.

As I said in the conference, making involves frustration and failure.  More often than not it results in a prototype that doesn’t work.  I find that the grade nine students I am introducing this process to are greatly aggravated by the inflexible demands of reality.  They are quick to blame and even quicker to give up.  The most common comment is, “just tell me how to do it.”  The sub-text is, ‘I’ve learned to do what I’m told in order to show I’m learning.  Why aren’t you doing that?’

Students are used to the education system jigging things to ensure success.  The process of invention doesn’t do this and reality has no interest in modifying how it works so that students can feel good about their effort.  I don’t teach ‘I tried real hard’ or ‘guaranteed success’.  What I do teach is how computers and electronics work, and I expect students to develop skills sufficient to be able to work this these inflexible devices.  Once the mastery is managed, play can begin.  Shakespeare wasn’t writing plays while he was still learning to write.

This was posted by Bre Pettis way back in 2009.
This kind of radical engagement isn’t the managed

and directed engagement teachers are looking for.

If you want to build with electronics and digital technology (which are what are empowering much of the maker movement), you need to have something more than boundless enthusiasm.  Using digital technology isn’t effortless despite the marketing.  There is mastery learning required before you are cranking out 3d prints of gears and building your own robot out of garbage.  Many of the people creating the things you see at a maker faire are trained engineers.  I’ll bet that the kids shown at these Maker Faires are relying on some engineering expertise at home as well.  It’s nice to see their creativity, but it isn’t the only thing, or even the main thing, that is enabling these builds.  It’s like watching the child of a scientist presenting a surprisingly fantastic science fair project.

My concern is that Ontario Education will rush into this exciting and trendy fad, buying stacks of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and 3d printers which will then gather dust when teachers realize that this equipment isn’t Lego, it doesn’t build itself with enthusiasm.  Your code has to be flawless and your wiring exact for even basic things to happen, and even when you’ve done everything right it might not work anyway because the LED you used happens to be defective.  You can’t simply lower expectations and then see results.  These are complex systems being created.

I struggle each year to get high school students to develop resiliency and master skills in electronics and digital technology so I would ABSOLUTELY LOVE to see the maker movement and its attendant philosophies infect Ontario’s classrooms.  The kids are more than capable of developing this resiliency and expertise, but I suspect that the vast majority of educators (many of which I help to plug in their desktops each day) aren’t.

The maker movement pushes back against vapid consumerism.  I’m a big fan of intimately knowing the machines I use.  The motorcycle I ride I restored after finding it in a field, the computers I use I build from scratch, but it took me years to build my mechanical and digital skills to this level.  Most people aren’t that patient, or curious.  Most people want immediate satisfaction, which is why they drive their cookie cutter SUVs to shopping malls.

Most teachers are no different.  If it isn’t their curriculum, it’s of no interest. Trying to push maker tools into that kind of classroom is a disaster waiting to happen.  If you’ve never used Linux, let alone installed an OS onto an SD card, what makes you think you will make magical use of Raspberry Pis?

Smoke & Mirrors

I’ve been watching Tough Rides: China by Colin & Ryan Pile.  It’s the long way around China and a great introduction to a little known country, but it sometimes comes off as another thinly veiled BMW ad for adventure motorcycling.

The ride itself is indeed tough with the boys working their way through deserts, traffic and mudslides all the way to the base of Everest, but their bike troubles left me thinking about BIKE’s ride from the UK to Japan on a Suzuki V-Strom.  In that case the (relatively budget) Suzuki V-Strom managed to cross Europe and Asia (including the Pamir Highway and Mongolia) in fine fettle.  Bike’s 13,768 mile (22,160km) ride highlights just how tough Suzuki’s less famous adventure bike is.

In comparison to Bike’s bullet proof V-Strom, the new BMWs making the 18,000km circuit of China quickly develop character.  I just finished the episode where one of the bikes (after not starting in a previous episode), now needs a whole new clutch.  This got me thinking about another statistic.

The Consumer Reports reliability Rankings are pretty damning.  From a purely statistical point of view you’d be crazy not to buy a Japanese bike, adventure or otherwise.  If you want something American, get a Victory!  Want something European?  For goodness sakes, get a Triumph!  Ducati is more dependable than BMW yet the propeller heads from Bavaria still seem to be the darlings of the TV adventure motorcycling set.

I get the sense that this is a triumph of marketing over engineering, which is a real shame.  If every other motorcycle manufacturer took the same risks supporting epic rides we wouldn’t all be subject to this style before substance adventure-bike TV.

A while back I was reading a Cycle World article comparing the big BMW adventure bike to KTM’s Super Adventure.  The article ended with a litany of breakdowns on both machines.  It turns out taking 550+ pound, tech-heavy giant trailies off-road doesn’t end well unless you’re a magazine reporter riding a demo bike.  I guess they’re great bikes as long as you’re not pouring money into repairs yourself.

I got into Nick Sander’s Incredible Ride a while back.  Nick road the length of the Americas three times, two of them in just 46 days, on a Yamaha Super Ténéré.

That’s 50,000 miles (~85,000kms) through the bad gas of Central America, jungle, deserts, mountains all from north of the Arctic Circle almost to the Antarctic Circle.  The BigTen worked flawlessly and when they stripped the engine down after the fact the technicians were frankly astonished by how little wear there was.  Needless to say, it didn’t need the clutch replaced during that massive trip.

Honda is bragging on their new Africa Twin, a ‘true’ adventure bike.  At 500lbs it’s a bit lighter than the super-stylish yet very breakable BMWs & KTMs listed above, and if anyone could build a bike that wouldn’t break it would be Honda.  Yet even in this case I’m left wondering just how resilient any off-road capable bike north of five hundred pounds is going to be.

You’d think it would be impossible to build a big bike capable of managing this abuse – it’s a question of physics (mass vs. the violence of off-road riding), but Sanders’ Yamaha suggests it is possible, though you won’t see it on adventure bike TV.  Maybe bikes that work all the time make for bad TV.

There is a reason why you guys are having to figure out how to
install clutch plates in the middle of a trip….

An antidote to all of this is Austin Vince‘s various Mondos.  He seems to spend about the same amount of time repairing his ailing, ancient dual sport bikes but he isn’t wearing designer riding gear and he didn’t pay anything like the $15,000 that the two Canadian boys did for their new F800GS Adventures.  Vince probably spends less than that on a whole trip, including the cost of his bike.

Ultimately, much of the adventure bike genre is more concerned with style.  Like SUV drivers, most ADV riders seldom if ever venture off pavement so perhaps this post is suggesting something that doesn’t really matter.

COST x FAILURE RATE presents a pretty obvious conclusion.

But if you can buy a better built Japanese adventure bike for less (they all cost substantially less than the nearly $22k a BMW 1200GS Adventure costs), then why on earth wouldn’t you?

If you’re buying that GS to feel like Ewan & Charley then I suppose it’s all good if you enjoy the feeling you get from it, but if you’re actually interested in going off the beaten path and don’t have a sponsorship deal and a support crew, considering reliability before marketing seems like a no-brainer.