Procedural Learning

From Dusty World in December of 2014:

You can learn anywhere, but some places are better than others

We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I’m not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don’t consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We’ve build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren’t going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I’d initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn’t like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I’d like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I’d often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I’m not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don’t spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie’s equipment if you don’t appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.

You don’t have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.

When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you’re going to run into engagement problems.  I’ll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it’ll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I’ll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won’t do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you’re some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, “the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline.”  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn’t give a care that there isn’t a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.

I’ve tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I’m speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they’ve said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I’m amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.

Proliferation of Fifties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Re: school busing children…

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

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

Cultivating Genius & the Zen Teacher

A recent issue of WIRED has an article on student directed learning called: The Next Steve Jobs, which asks some hard questions about teaching and learning during an information revolution.

The idea of regimented learning in rows in classrooms is so obviously indicative of 19th Century factory thinking that it begs for change, but many traditional education organizations have so much invested in the status quo that they will spend all our time and money hammering people into system-serving standardized thinking.  Instead of developing the skills vital for learning in an information revolution, we cling to politics and habits.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in a poor Mexican school that wasn’t serving a genius in their mix.

You have to wonder how many of our students are marginalized and never see their own potential because we are wringing our hands about how not-average they are and how they don’t respond appropriately to being indoctrinated by an archaic education system.

The article leans on technology, brain science and student centred and directed learning to bring out real genius in a student who was otherwise disengaged.  The brain research is fairly straightforward (though ignored by most education systems):

“The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.

Neuroscience has proven this again and again, but education stubbornly holds to an information limited, rigidly programmed learning system because these traditions support the political makeup of that education system.

“If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”

Mitra’s research still assumes a teaching presence that will bump students along when they run into repetitive habitual patterns.  The key is a good leading question and then that dogged support as students find their own way to an answer.  The urge to interfere in this process in order to make learning clinical and exact is great, and many teachers do this with the best possible intentions, but what they are actually doing is taking away the student’s opportunity to internalize learning.

Learning is a messy process, at its best teaching is a subtle presence focused on producing a fecund environment for fearless experimentation and research.  An idea is only learned when it is internalized by the learner and that can only happen experientially.  Any time you see a teacher talking at students there isn’t any learning happening.

Faith in the self direction of a learner is something we’ve tried to remove from every aspect of the education system.  The system becomes the intent rather than the learner’s learning.  Words like curriculum, assessment and standardized data become watchwords for how effective the system is as a system, it all has nothing to do with learning.  

Many of the fads we embrace in education around self-directed learning are little more than smoke and mirrors – the appearance of self-direction in order to fool the student into engagement with otherwise rigid systemic need.  This is exactly why a genius in a poor Mexican school couldn’t engage enough to show her talents until her teacher threw away the paradigm.

One Day Edtech Will Amplify Pedagogy Rather Than Stealing From It

Originally published on DUSTY WORLD, February, 2014:


Pedagogy ORIGIN: late C16th: from French pédagogie, from Greek paidagōgia ,
from paidagōgos,  Sometimes etymology can be wonderfully ironic.

This one is complicated.  Trying to work out the relationship between pedagogy, technology and money is the trial of our times.

The other day Alanna was reading a passage about how little technology has affected pedagogy.  Rather than revolutionize how we teach, technology has merely become a new, more efficient medium for the same practices, it’s done nothing to advance pedagogical practice.  This got me thinking about the relationship between pedagogy and technology.  As I was pondering those two, money crept in, as it always does.

Pedagogy is a rather terrifyingly open concept, but I’ve always found its breadth to be its saving grace.  With a sweeping definition like “the method and practice of teaching“, pedagogy is applicable to the full spectrum of teaching and learning, and that range is truly staggering.  Pedagogy can be found in everything from the coach who reduces their players to mush after a hard practice to the use of a chalkboard in a math class.  It lives in the first turn of a wrench by a budding mechanic and the circling of a grammar error by an exhausted English teacher.  That pedagogy is in everything related to teaching and learning is its greatest strength, it becomes an ideal in an education system that otherwise exists as a series of compromises.

In our real world of compromise pedagogy often makes uncomfortable demands.  This is where money sneaks in.  When we consider sound pedagogy, we consider best teaching practices to maximize learning.  But we don’t go searching for best practices in an ideal environment, instead we attempt as much effective pedagogy as the money allows.  Good pedagogical practice costs money.  Educational technology costs (a lot of) money.  Both are reaching for the same finite, decreasing pot of funding; this can’t end well.

Does this mean more money always equals better pedagogy?  Not at all, but pedagogy is one of the first things you see diminish in money challenged situations.  Poor schools tend to lack the student to teacher ratio or basic equipment to provide strong pedagogy.  Rich schools can offer smaller class sizes and better trained teachers, both of which support sound pedagogy.  That these pedagogically proven concepts have to compete with the same funding that feeds ed-tech is where the equation gets more complicated.

Digital technology, an expensive new medium of communication, offers unprecedented access to information and democratizes publication.  There is no doubt that it is important as both a skill to learn and a tool with which to learn other things (though education seldom recognizes that distinction and just assumes digital natives magically know how to make technology an effective tool).

Outside education, digital communication has revolutionized everything from manufacturing to broadcasting.  Inside education it has let students type the same essay assignment they would have done on pen and paper twenty years ago, though it has made plagiarism easier.  Instead of making a poster for a presentation, students can now make digital presentations.  All technology has done in education is to offer a faddish means of producing the same old work we’ve always done.  That faddishness appears to take care of the dreaded engagement problem, which excites many boring people.

Digital technology hardly seems revolutionary in the school context.  If all we’re using it for is as a replacement for paper then it’s just a new, more expensive, less environmentally friendly way of doing what we’ve always done.  If technology doesn’t have an additive relationship with pedagogy it’s a lost cause, and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t.  It does however take a lot of limited funding away from other, proven pedagogical strategies.

The money creep goes further than stagnant pedagogical practice.  It turns out you can make a lot of money convincing educational systems to buy in to technology.  Even if your teachers aren’t considering digital pedagogy, someone still gets rich pushing it.  There is no doubt that money and technology go hand in hand, and with limited funding, as edtech eats more everything else gets diminished by necessity.

When ed-tech eats a big piece of the education pie the assumption arises that the technology itself provides the pedagogy, so you don’t need to (that appearance of engagement pushes this thinking).  Giving students already overdosing on habitual, uninspired technology use technology in the classroom is a recipe for pedagogical disaster.  The relationship between technology and the actual process of learning is tenuous at best.  It only gets worse if we assume the use of technology will magically produce engaged, productive learners.  Engaged maybe, productive?  Not so much.  This peaks when the teacher then throws the same assignment they’ve been doing for fifteen years on a Google-doc and calls it 21st Century learning.  What we end up with is a poor learning environment ripe with distractions that encourages the same habitual use students are already mired in.

The engagement we’re so excited about in educational technology is a smoke-screen.  It is little more than us giving addicts access to more of what they already have too much of and don’t know how to effectively leverage.


What is digital pedagogy?  What does digital educational technology allow us to do better in terms of the actual learning process?  Until we answer this question edtech is nothing more than an expensive environmental disaster that has us producing digital dummies.
The Third Industrial Revolution

To appreciate what technology could do for education it might help to see what it’s doing for everything else.  Manufacturing, once a large scale, capital driven process, is becoming accessible to smaller and smaller concerns.  Where once you had to buy million dollar milling machines and the experts to maintain and run them, you can now manufacture complex parts in a small machine shop using digital tools.  Not only  does this free us from a production line mentality, it also frees us from production line products.  We’re moving further and further away from Henry Ford’s idea of product customization.  Digitization is allowing for smaller runs of customized parts in more niche workshops.  As the Economist says in the link above, this really is the birth of a third industrial revolution, the re-democratization of craftsmanship and personalization in production.

Broadcasting has been staggered by digitization.  From a music industry that was forced to change decades of old habits to television that has had to diversify offerings just to remain relevant in a world that can suddenly tell its own stories, digital media and the internet have fundamentally changed how we see ourselves in media.


1920s office, look familiar?

Over the course of the Twentieth Century education has been influenced by industrial methods of production even more than business itself.  The classroom, the school bell, the rows of desks, it all points to a Taylorist love of systematization.  It seeks to quantify and sort people in the most cost effective manner possible.  In order to do that it clings to ideas of standardization because it believes this leads to credibility.  It happily ignores sound pedagogy in a blind charge toward clinical efficiency, it’s the most perfect example of a production line ever developed.

What if, as in broadcasting or manufacturing, education were to consider how digital technology could re-individualize education?  Instead of producing modernist widget-students we could use digitization to embrace radical customization.  The systemic methods we use in education – the marking, the timed classrooms, the report cards – are there to process as many students as possible as efficiently as possible.  We reduce them to numbers because we don’t have the resources to treat them like people.  What if educational technology solved that problem instead of replacing paper?

A sufficiently complex Learning Management System would assist in assessment and maintain a current and complex analysis of student achievement.  We see this in a very rudimentary way in online systems like Code Academy, where students are able to review their learning and get acknowledged for their achievements but can only proceed when they have demonstrated sufficient understanding.  The immediate benefit is that each student can move at their own pace.  LMSs should be driving toward this level of complexity, instead they are used as replacements for handouts.

Digitization offers us an opportunity to individualize learning once again.  After a couple of centuries mimicking industrial practices education has a chance to reinvent itself as a digitally empowered, personally focused system of learning, like pre-industrial apprenticeships but on a massive scale.

What does a post-industrial, digitally enhanced, individualized education system look like?  In that relationship, technology enhances pedagogy, it doesn’t eclipse it.  In that relationship there may be monetary efficiencies, but they are a byproduct rather than the point of technology implementation.  In no instance would pedagogy be financially victimized by educational technology.

If you’re still ‘teaching’ information, you’ll quickly find yourself irrelevant in a post industrial education.  In a world where information is abundant, the ability to access it is more important than the ability to afford a teacher to say it to you.  Skills development will still be a vital piece of the education puzzle, and skills based teachers who develop understanding through experience will always have a role, but information delivery is a dying art, assuming we begin teaching effective technology use.

The LMS used in future school is a constantly evolving construct that can access all facets of a student’s learning.  This virtual assessment tool doesn’t just review a student’s ability to retrieve information, but instead looks at them holistically.  In assessing their skills and knowledge, a future LMS would consider learning habits and then suggest individualized tactics for producing best results.  A teacher would be able to see a student’s zone of proximal development before trying to assist them (I have a live graphic playing in my head of what this would look like).  Your progress as a learner includes everything from demonstrated writing ability to the most complex numeracy you’re shown.  It considers your patterns of absence, when you produce your best work and who you do it with.  That future LMS is actually an learning management system, not a glorified webpage.  It can reach across other systems to see examples of student progress in a variety of ways.  When a student activates their LMS it supports their learning and aids a teacher in both teaching and assessment.  Perhaps the modern, virtual equivalent of a paidagōgos.

Instead of being an onerous task done poorly by time harrowed teachers through a computer system that merely mimics the paper based reporting system before it, post-industrial student assessment is detailed, accurate, holistic and personalized.  The machine assists the teacher in customizing the education of each student instead of just producing neater, printed reports of letters, numbers and generic comment banks.

Wouldn’t that be something, if digital technology were to amplify sound pedagogy and revolutionize our industrialized education system into something personally meaningful?  Until we break the mould and begin leveraging digital technology for what it is capable of, we’re just diverting money from the task at hand: effective pedagogical practice.

You’re Supposed To Tell Me The Answer

“You’re supposed to tell me the answer, you’re the teacher, it’s your job!”

Isn’t that a sad expectation from a senior high school student?  After twelve years in education this is what they think the process is about.  I wonder how many teachers it took to embed this thinking in these students.

My considered response to this was, “it’s not my job to give you the answer.  If I give you an answer it isn’t yours.  It’s my job to ask you the right questions and give you the tools you need to answer them yourself.”  This isn’t a handing off of the responsibilities of teaching, and it isn’t easier than giving students answers by talking at them each period; this isn’t a case of a teacher becoming a facilitator.

Part of setting up the right question is carefully considering the student’s knowledge and where it can go next.  The right question is a tricky proposition.  Your classroom relationship with students has to contain a lot of two way communication and observation if you’re going to get a handle on where they are in their learning, you’re never doing that when you’re talking at students giving them all the answers.  You can’t frame questions that are in a student’s zone of proximal development without a lot of feedback and observation.  Teachers who talk at students and hand out answers and information like candy have little idea of where student understanding begins or ends. 

The other side of this equation is providing tools for learning.  This is a bit more complicated in an engineering class as I have to bring in a lot of equipment for student use.  That equipment needs to be open and accessible so that students are the ones setting it up and making it functional.  I was amazed this year when the vast majority of my senior computer engineering students had never partitioned a hard drive and installed an operating system.  That kind of nuts and bolts work when building a functional learning environment is vital if students are going to begin to take responsibility for their learning.

Responsibility is at the bottom of this.  Learning isn’t something that you do to someone, though many of our students believe this to be the case.  Learning never happens unless the student doing the learning is active in the process, no one ever learned something from being told.

We’re back at it again tomorrow, and I’m still working to convince my senior engineers that they are the ones creating their learning, not me, I do a lot to curation though.

Risk And Danger In Play? In Learning?

Should play always be safe?  Does risky/dangerous play offer opportunities that our helicopter-parent/granny society play doesn’t?

Mathias Poulsen got me thinking about this on Twitter.  The related educational question is: does safe learning lead to limited chances to improve your knowledge and skill?  Are there advantages to risky and dangerous learning?

In most circumstances learning is a risky proposition.  A friend of ours, Heather Durnin, said how her farmer husband was a sink or swim kind of teacher when he said he wasn’t a teacher at all.  He expected your attention and then threw you into the work directly, expecting you to get a handle on it.  Most jobs I’ve had are the same way.  For that matter teaching itself is pretty much a sink or swim proposition.  Most of the world makes hard demands on learners.  Ironically, it’s only in education that learner engagement is so tenuous, dare I say optional?

I was struck a couple of years ago with how rigorous and unapologetic my introduction to motorcycle training was.  Students who could not manage the physical, mental or emotional requirements were failed, students who slept in on Sunday morning were cut.  It seemed a stark contrast to the fifty-is-a-pass/attendance optional approach that drives learning in school classrooms.  You can’t have stringent, risky experiential learning when you’re more focused on anything other than that learning.

The implication of risk is failure.  If we remove failure from learning we end up with what we have in Ontario education today: students lacking in resiliency with a poor metacognitive idea of what they are capable of.  The grades they earn reflect the political will of the current government rather than what the student is capable of.

Risk taking shows us where the edges of our skills are.  We risk failure when we overreach, but this isn’t a bad thing.  Fear of failure creates a false sense of our limitations which is why overly coddled students have no idea of what they are capable of.  Students who never have the opportunity to take real risks turn into self-oblivious narcissists who think they know everything but can do nothing.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching tech is because my subject matter doesn’t coddle students.  If it doesn’t work you need to buck up and figure it out; opinions matter little to reality.

The only time in life you’ll find the padded learning/guaranteed success formula is in today’s classroom.  The rest of the world isn’t geared to make you feel good about whether you feel like trying or not.  Fortunately, for those of us who want to learn in a more realistic way, the world is full of risk and danger, and reward.


A Possible Computer Technology Project?

It’s basically a how-to guide for online hacking

At the moment Anonymous is counter trolling some of the biggest trolls on the internet.  This feels like an opportunity for students to exercise their skills and take action based on real world issues.  But I’ve always had doubts about directing student political action, it feels a bit too much like indoctrination when someone in a position of institutionalized power tells the people beholden to them what they should believe and do about it.

Internet activism aside, the Noob Guide offers insight into the various tools needed to hack online.  From a purely technical point of view this offers students a chance to comprehend the nature of online communication by looking at the frailties of its architecture.

It’s happening right now in the real world.  It’s potentially risky.  Sounds like a real world learning opportunity.

“You Never Teach Us Anything”

Originally published on Dusty World in May of 2014:


I had an interesting chat with a student yesterday.  He’s yellow, I’m green:

“You never teach us anything.”
“By teaching do you mean do it for you?”
“Um, yes?”
“I don’t do everything for you because unless you figure it out for yourself, you haven’t figured out anything at all.”
“… but you never help.”
“I don’t think that’s true, I offer suggestions, and give you a framework to develop ideas in, I’ve provided you with thousands of dollars of free equipment and access to professional level learning resources.  Have I never helped?”

“Ok, so you’ve helped, but you don’t teach.”
“What do you think teaching is?”
“When someone tells you what you should know…”

“Do you think that’s what a lesson is?  When someone gives you information?”
“Yeah, isn’t it?”

Good question that, isn’t a lesson when you tell people what they should know?  Isn’t teaching when you do everything for the student so they can be passive receptacles?

That a strong student who has ‘figured out’ the education system has such a poor view of our profession is worrying.  I wonder how many lessons it took before he came to see pedagogy as little more than a fill in the blank exercise.

I wonder what it will take now to have him take possession of his own learning.  I don’t imagine that will happen before post secondary, and when it does it will be a shock.

Learning Curves

Following up on the ‘just tell me the answer‘ post last week, I’ve been trying to find ways to articulate what I’m attempting to do with students so that they don’t become frustrated.  It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt, but what I’m hoping is that familiarity breeds confidence and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of student knowledge.  

The germination of self-directed learning should be the goal of instruction in any teaching.  A student who is forever dependent upon a teacher is a poor student indeed.  With that goal in mind I’m working out the process of developing self directed learning in students using Prezi to map out how familiarity breeds confidence and self direction.


Some brilliant Google+ sharing by Liz Krane &
Carmelyne Thompson via Josh Kaufman

Explaining this to my senior computer engineers I tried to stress that this process is what I’m looking at, not necessarily what you know.  Even though the seniors are supposed to have previous experience many don’t so the course needs to be flexible in how it approaches a wide range of abilities.  If I see steady growth in familiarity through guided instruction the inevitable result should be the formation of self-directed learning demonstrated through experimentation, collaboration and troubleshooting.  Looking for what a student knows is much less important than looking for where a student is in this learning process towards mastery.  Mastery itself is really just another word for a person who knows enough to error correct and self direct their learning – expertise never came at a teacher’s hand, mastery is always self taught.

Josh Kaufman’s TEDtalk on how 20 hours takes you through the initial steep climb (humbling and intensely rewarding) when picking up a new skills is telling:

We fail to do a lot of these things in school.  Distractions in the form of bells, announcements, lousy chairs and tables, large classes, and dozens of other interferences break focus.  I like to say, “stop learning now, you have to leave” to students when the bell goes and students who were lost in what they were doing are jarred back into the present.

Kaufman’s learning curve,
seems perfectly sensible…

On top of school itself we now have digital technology which is most effective at monetizing us if we ‘surf’ rather than focus.  The habits we develop while being consumers online plague educational technology as students who are used to being digitally shallow out of school bring the same lack of focus to their learning.  That we ignore digital habits and corporate influence in educational technology will probably be the reason it never does what it promises it might do.

Beyond industrialized settings and digital distractions education systems fail to recognize the basic process of learning and in doing so spend a lot of time and money producing under-performing students.  When 50% is a pass even a perfect pass rate isn’t saying much.  If our learning happens on a curve as Kaufman suggests, then we are doing this wrong in just about every possible way.

About a year ago I took a weekend course in order to begin riding a motorcycle.  Difficult and uncompromising it demanded my full attention both in the classroom and for hours in the saddle.  Not paying attention resulted in possible injury (and several people were).  That weekend course might seem too short but it just happens to be about twenty hours long (what Kaufman suggests you need to get over the steepest part of the learning curve).  With the right kind of support (small class size with a 1:4 instructor/student ratio and everything we needed to learn the skill including bikes, space, etc) and an expectation of focused learning, that twenty hours got me over the hump and able to continue developing expertise in a complex skill set that I had no previous experience in.  I’d have to say, anecdotally, that Kaufman’s 20 hours seems right on the money.

We don’t think about learning curves in school.  We don’t consider how students feel when they are picking up a new skill and feel inadequate; feelings aren’t in the curriculum.  Worse, we consider learning to be a twelve year long marathon in school rather than a series of short sprints.  Student goals aren’t always clear or consistent, failure isn’t considered an option and learning itself is less a focus than are irrelevant personal details like your age.  We’d rather bunch students by age than where they are in their learning process.  We lose sight of the possibilities and challenges inherent in the first twenty hours of new learning in favour of decade long statistical growth.

Can you imagine a school guided by Kaufman’s logic?  Students are given focused learning to get them into a self correcting phase and then are expected to self-direct their learning. There would be classrooms with very high student:teacher ratios where the focus is on early learning.  There may be other times and spaces where students are entirely independent and producing their own directed learning.  Instead of a blanket approach our classrooms and schedules would reflect our variable learning curves; our schools would be responsive to how we learn instead of the other way round.

Digital technology would lend itself to this kind of learning by offering information, collaboration and communication to students on a profoundly personalized level.  If we don’t begin taking the training of digital tools seriously the consumerist habits developed by everybody (students and staff) outside of school won’t allow us to de-industrialize education and adapt it to how we learn.

Do As I Say

Reading Shopclass as Soulcraft a second time has me thinking about the similarities between Crawford’s and my work histories.  I walked out of high school before I finished.  I wasn’t failing anything, I was just sick of the officious and arbitrary nature of the place.  I wanted to learn how to do *things*, but I was being taught how to sit in rows and do what I was told.  I’m not very good at that.

“Teaching takes a back seat to the more socially salient task of sorting, and grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses.” p 146 Shopclass as Soulcraft

From there I bounced around your typical low income jobs (night time security, Canadian Tire) before finding myself an apprenticeship.  This I did for a couple of years before finishing up high school and going to university.  It only took me until second year to get into trouble at university, brashly questioning the veracity of my professors.  The younger profs tended to want to change your life.  I have a great deal of trouble buying in to systems, especially when the people advocating them put themselves in the centre of this marvelous new way of thinking.  I’ve always felt that these Rasputiny types aren’t in it for mastery, they are in it to be masters.  My skepticism in this has been born out in politics as well.

“The master has no need for the psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate. He does the same work as the apprentice, only better… for the apprentice there is a progressive revelation of the reasonableness of the master’s actions.” p. 159

When I worked as a Millwright, I had a number of senior mechanics who taught me the ropes.  They taught me by doing the job, showing me the job, letting me do the job while they berated me for doing it badly, letting me do it on my own and if it worked, it worked.  It was messy, but at no point did any of the senior guys have to tell me they were the experts and I should do what they say, they let the work demonstrate their expertise.  I seldom saw that kind of do as I do, not as I say demonstration of expertise in formal education.

Students are always looking for credible teachers.

Many teachers I know don’t practice what they teach.  Many business teachers teach business, they’ve never run one.  Many art teachers teach art, but don’t make any themselves.  Many English teachers teach writing, but don’t write themselves.  You might make the argument that they teach, and that is what they are good at.  I’d argue that this is an abstraction of an abstraction, and whatever it is they are teaching, credibility is in question; student engagement necessarily follows (they subconsciously pick up on a teacher’s own doubts).  If you’ve ever shown students your own work, they look like meerkats; they long for credible learning, and showing mastery does that.

Last summer I took my additional qualification for computer studies.  I worked in I.T. after university, mainly because objective skill sets pay a lot better than abstract ones.  Ask anyone with a Masters Degree in the arts or humanities how the job search is going for proof of that.  While in university I worked as an auto mechanic because it paid way better than the knowledge economy job my arts degree was preparing me for.  I’ve always migrated back to those objective skill sets because it feels like credible work.  You don’t have arbitrary managers downsizing you based on abstraction, personal dynamics or their own towering sense of self importance.

I love seeing those MBA types on the side of the road, their BMW SUV’s tire flat, waiting for someone who can *do* something to come and move them back into the clouds they live in.

Crawford makes a compelling argument for respecting those skills that we tend to diminish.  Objective, experientially gained mastery is often looked down upon by the academic class which itself rules education with a university-clad fist.  Objective mastery isn’t up for debate, or the charismatic manipulation of office politics by experts in “human management”.  If you know what you’re doing, reality responds, and no amount of talking is going to change that.  I miss that kind of traction in education.

The Ebb & Flow of Pedagogy in Education

The intention of Dusty World is to work through ideas I’m having around teaching.  Since I’m a technology teacher, a lot of those ideas are tech-focused.  This week, after years of forced contracts and an unbelievably rough round of negotiation, my union has voted to accept an austerity contract that was bargained virtually at gun-point.  Since our last bargained contract we’ve been wage reduced, had benefits striped and work load increased.  By the end of this contract we’ll be looking at more than a 10% reduction in take home income when inflation is considered.

The politics of the agreement aside, what does something like this do to my work environment?  Instead of focusing on pedagogy and excellence in learning, I find myself performing damage limitation.  Knowing that my employer focuses on finances rather than pedagogy is difficult to hear, but when the school board association walks into negotiations demanding dictatorial control over teacher time, stripped benefits and wage reductions, you can’t help but come to that conclusion.

Teaching is a human activity, and I am the human face at the end of a large, faceless, increasingly politically driven bureaucracy.  I’m supposed to be teaching my students how to manage digital technology so it doesn’t manage them, but increasingly I find my time being spent trying to protect my students from a system intent on doing less for less.  When I’m cobbling together 8 year old computers just to give students a chance at hands on learning, or trying to calm agoraphobic students in overcrowded spaces, or sourcing fans to keep the classroom temperature from boiling because we have thirty two old machines huffing away in there, quality of instruction is obviously not the goal.

The education system goes through changes in focus all the time, and the effectiveness of learning waxes and wanes depending on the political climate. I began teaching in Ontario in 2004 and my early years were in a system in recovery from Mike Harris‘ “unprecedented disinvestment in public education, which destroyed a historical competitive advantage in the space of a decade.”

Ontario’s public education system, under reasonable management, saw huge steps forward in terms of effectiveness.  Before the cuts began in 2012, Ontario’s education system was top 5… in the world, and, with BC, led Canada up the charts.  You can imagine how satisfying it must have been to work in an environment like that.  I’d often find myself developing lessons or reading about teaching techniques on a Saturday night.  I didn’t take a summer off in my first eight years of teaching, taking many additional qualifications (at my own expense) and teaching online to expand my skills.  With the amount of time I spent at it, I was probably dancing with minimal hourly wage, but I didn’t care because I threw myself into my profession and my profession looked after and encouraged me.

That sort of intensity appeals to me, I enjoy the challenge and get a lot of satisfaction out of doing a difficult thing well, but it depends on support.  Anyone doing anything well does it because they have good support around them.  If you don’t believe me watch any professional sport.  When you suddenly find yourself losing common sense arguments around class sizes based on safety and access to tools, you start to wonder whether going all in is that productive, or healthy for you.

One of the best bits of advice I got at teacher’s college was,
“always be ready to go to work again tomorrow.”  I didn’t
used to get frazzled running hard, but now I do.

It was nice to start my career in a time of such positive pedagogically driven education.  I got to do that because the teachers before me suffered through a decade of cheap nastiness.  We’ve swung back to the cheap nastiness now, but rather than fight it we vote for it.  I was willing to fight for better, but the vast majority of secondary public teachers are ok with less.  How will that translate to their work in the classroom?

I’m going to have to reconsider my survival strategies.  If I throw myself all in and then get slew footed by a lack of support, I tend to get emotional about it.  Rather than do that, perhaps a little distance is the better way; a less passionate, more circumspect approach to the classroom.  How do you think that will play with students?

If I want to test myself by finding excellence in what I do, the Ontario classroom isn’t where that’s going to happen.  In 2015 it has become a political wasteland of compromise and an excuse to do things cheaply for political gain.  I’ll do what I can to protect the students I am given, but the goal isn’t excellence in learning any more, it’s do less with less.

Fortunately, I have a lot of hobbies.  I’ll find other aspects of my life to throw myself into with abandon.