Watching The Sun Rise: Reflections on life and teaching in 2012/13

Stephen Hurley at VoicEd asked for a reflection as the year ends, so I’ll give it a whirl.  This is going to be tricky to do without spiraling into Nietzsche’s abyss.

This past school year started with the worst summer of my adult life.  I’m still recovering from my mother’s suicide and I probably shouldn’t have resumed teaching in the fall, but I did out of shear stubbornness.  Rather than trying to deal with this nightmare in a quiet year I got to do it during one of the most turbulent political periods in Ontario education.  You need only look over Dusty World in the fall to see the white water political ride education in general and my board in particular went through.

In a few short weeks, as OSSTF swung from a confrontational stance with the Liberal government that I supported by volunteering on our district executive and attending many rallies, I found myself suddenly muzzled by an organization that I realized I have very little in common with.  Rather than standing up for what is right, they would rather do what is expedient.  I’ve never been good at bending a knee to bullying, even if it does serve a political end.  It’s half a year later and our OLRB complaint against OSSTF for misrepresentation is still awaiting an outcome.  Being an idealist I find this very upsetting.  It seems any organization is politically self interested before it can stand for anything else.

It’s easy to forget that teachers are people, and the job is a deeply personal one.  This past year has had a number of strange confluences both personal and professional for me.  As my school and board tried to leverage the suicide of Amanda Todd to address bullying I couldn’t help but feel that this was manipulating misery for some kind of administrative end.  The contrite, ‘suicide is bad, don’t bully someone into it’ struck me as simplistic.  That cyber-bullying got selected by the media as the cause of her suicide (which a number of anti-technology teachers immediately trumpeted as proof that we should back off on it) was doubly frustrating.  That Amanda, like my mother, suffered from years of mental illness tends to be ignored because dealing with something as complicated as mental illness is more than most organizations, no matter how well intentioned, are willing or able to do.  That provincial and federal governments have basically bowed out of caring for the mentally ill has put a great deal of stress on already over stressed families.  If we’re going to address mental illness it better not be on a poster stuck up in a high school.  This trivializes a very complex issue.  Suicide is never a simple result of bullying, it’s the most profound, existential decision you’re ever going to make.  It deserves more than a soundbite.

Between the fractured politics in education and my own personal baggage 2012/13 has been a difficult year to manage.  As the storm subsided and we began our two years of government mandated contract, the school trundled on and extracurriculars resumed, kind of.  In a subdued second semester I began to get some closure with my Mum and tried to find ways to get back on my feet again.  The first semester was like watching a horse with a broken leg that didn’t have the sense to lay down.  At the end of second semester I’m able to stand without it hurting so much.

With some perspective on a year that felt like nastiness was crowding in all around me, I’m able to see the good that happened too.  My wonderful wife has done backflips to help me through this, all while battling the same political nonsense and working on her Masters.  My spectacular son continues to astonish me with how deep he is getting, even as the education system continues to wring its hands over how not-normal he is.  I got a new principal who knows what she’s doing and who appreciates the work I do.  I’ve been able to develop my professional interests both as a department head, teacher and online PLN presence.  My board has been developing a real 21st Century presence in educational technology and I feel like I’ve played an important part in arguing for that.  The year has been very professionally satisfying, if you ignore the Ministry, the union and the media… which is probably good advice.

Even with a nasty political infection, education in Ontario has been able to produce outstanding results, and I’ve been able to develop my professional self in satisfying and challenging ways.  No year is ever going to be without challenges, and the challenges of this year have been mighty, but that I’m able to find intense intellectual satisfaction in my profession is a great help when dealing with all the slings and arrows life can throw your way.

Sympathetic Teachers

For the past couple of weeks my yoga instructor has been away so I’ve been learning with another teacher.  I’ve been with the same instructor for about a year and I’ve gotten used to her ways.  Our fill-in instructor is actually the studio owner and a more experienced teacher, but I’m used to what I’m used to and I’m finding the change challenging.

The differences in how each teaches got me thinking about how learning and the relationship it is based on works.

My regular instructor pushes herself and her students.
It works for me.

I’m the furthest thing from a yoga expert but I enjoy the process and I’ve gotten better at it in a year of practice.  My regular instructor is very focused on form and pushing through physical barriers.  Her own practice is flawless.  Our current instructor is much more mentally focused, asking us to be mindful of what we’re doing and de-emphasizing the physical side of things (though I still find her classes very physically strenuous).  Neither is right, but they are very different in how they demonstrate their mastery and what they focus their students on.  I’ve enjoyed the change but I’ve bonded with my regular instructor and I’m looking forward to getting her back.

The personal nature of the relationship between a master and apprentice is based on choices by both.  Masters tend to select for apprentices who they can work with, and vice-versa.  Back in the day when apprentices were unable to select their masters this wasn’t the case, but nowadays you see this self-selection all the time.  When a student finds a teacher they share a wavelength with they tend to latch on.  Variety is the key to this selection process.  I probably wouldn’t have stuck it out (yoga is hard work) if I hadn’t connected to the instructor’s approach enough to overcome the difficult early months.

Another philosophical thought from my regular instructor.
She wants you to develop quickly, find your limits and
then push through them. In that struggle is found yoga.

In my first year of university I asked my history TA how she knew what to focus on.  She laughed and said it was all about the prof, why else would she be doing her Masters in Scottish history?  That personal relationship is an important part of a student’s willingness to put up with the pain of learning a discipline.

In the education system you get the impression that this individualism is a bad thing.  Teachers are encouraged to adopt whichever educational philosophy is in vogue and be ready to move on to the next one when the next book comes out.  Most experienced teachers have learned to not get caught up in this kind of thinking (one of the key failures of professional development).  It tends to be the game of educational leadership to push a school-wide vision of teaching in order to establish some kind of standard.  Teacher assessment uses checklists and fill-in-the-blank templates based on the school system’s idea of an ideal teacher.  This implies that there is only one way to teach properly which would kill any chance of a student finding a teacher who speaks to them, unless your students are as generic as your teachers.  When the system assumes surrogacy for learning, human relationships are diminished and the ability to learn is compromised.

Ease of learning is another aspect of this problem.  I like my yoga instructor because she doesn’t make it easy, she demands hard work but she’s quick to praise both the effort and the improvement that comes from it.  Many students came and went but this only reinforced the success of the ones who stuck it out.  This is the opposite of the everyone succeeds approach in the current education system.  Learning is not easy, nor should it be, but that doesn’t mean a teacher should be cruel or dismissive, quite the opposite actually (watch Whiplash for a complex look at this idea).  If learning is a challenge (and someone is trying to sell you something if they say it isn’t) then a teacher should offer an individualized and sympathetic means of accessing a discipline rather than making an already difficult task harder.  Empathy is implicit in teaching, but especially so when it’s between a sympathetic student and teacher – their shared ideals allow them to tackle ever more complicated learning on the road to mastery.  Not only is this an emotional support while dealing with difficulties, but it’s also an aid to communication.  Much less needs to be explicitly stated when you’re working with someone you understand.  I’d actually argue that mastery learning can’t happen without this relationship.

The concept of edutainment seems to have infected all levels of the education system.  Fun, happy learning where the teacher must provide so much entertainment value that students don’t even feel like they’re learning (!) is the mantra of modern education.  Expecting students to put up with difficult lessons and experience failure isn’t the way nowadays.  The vast majority of the coddled students I deal with wouldn’t have come back after the first week in my yoga class.

Perhaps the gee-wiz, ‘learning is fun and easy’ philosophy of education is really another attempt to undermine the pivotal personal relationship between teacher and student.  When students aren’t expected to overcome any difficulties and can’t fail you also don’t need to depend on the personal bond between teacher and student to encourage a student to withstand defeat, build resilience and eventually experience the kind of confidence that isn’t systemically assumed.

That muppet knows mastery learning!  The modern education
version would be, “just show up (optional)
and we’ll get you a diploma.”

I was looking for a challenge when I started yoga.  I was feeling stiff and old and I was willing to work at fixing it.  Being dared by my instructor to push beyond the obvious discomfort I was feeling only worked because I respected her approach to the practice.  The first time I found my toes again or got heels down in downward dog I was ecstatic.  It took me months to get there.

Almost a year later I weigh 20lbs less, my flexibility is always improving and I find yoga much less painful than it once did.  It wasn’t easy and I was tempted to quit a number of times.  The day after often felt like I’d been ‘hit by the yoga truck‘.  I was able to see improvement, but it happened slowly and sometimes I regressed.  Trust and respect in my instructor is what got me through the urge to quit early.  Why would my instructor spend all this time on her students who stick it out, pushing herself to demonstrate her practice in order to benefit us?

I’ve taken many aspects of my instructor’s practice and made it my own.  Her practice is uniquely her’s, but as her student I’ve been able to closely observe and internalize various aspects of her practice as well as her overall philosophy in order to develop my own yoga.  As a teacher my approach tends to be copied in part by like minded students (the incompatible ones aren’t even aware there is an approach, they think it’s all about facts).  It’s thrilling for me to see a student tackle a difficult problem and see a bit of myself in it – it’s almost like I’m the parent of their practice.

I speak with the voices of the sympathetic teachers in my life, any good student does, but if we continue to push for a systematized version of teaching that de-emphasizes the human connections through which we develop resiliency and master challenging learning, we’ll end up with students who are unable to do anything other than exist within an ineffective education system.

We should be celebrating differences in teachers because they all speak to different students and allow a wide variety of learners to find their own way to mastery.  The standardized, generic teacher who follows the lesson plan template using the educational philosophy of the moment is no teacher at all (though you sure could pay them less!), and they would be teaching to a standard student that doesn’t exist.  Had I walked into that on my first night of yoga I would have walked out again.

Thin Ice

I came from the relative security and certainty of teaching English onto the thin ice of an optional subject area.  Now it’s an optional subject area that I think is vital to student success in the 21st Century, but it’s optional none-the-less.

Why did I spend north of four grand to get qualified in computer technology?  Because it has been a part of my life for so long and I wanted to acknowledge that by teaching it.  By recognizing my industry experience I feel like getting qualified in computer technology has honoured the work I did before I was a teacher.  It also opens up the door to students gaining real world technology experience before becoming swamped in it.  I’m passionate about teaching technology expertise to both staff and students.

Teaching a subject like this is perilous.  You’ve spent a lot of money and time to get the qualification and then you suddenly find the ground has shifted and you aren’t teaching it.  This happened to me before with visual art.  I took the AQ hoping to teach it and suddenly the door closed and someone is transferred in.  That might have been a one off, but it happened again with computers, so I’m twice bitten twice shy.

Today I staggered out of a heads’ meeting that offered three future headship structures, my job as computer head didn’t exist in any of them.  I attempted to argue my case, and a number of heads kindly spoke for me, but when administration presents your choices and what you do isn’t on any of them, you have to wonder if what you’re doing is considered valuable, or even helpful.

There was a lot of talk about what the future holds for our school and how our headship structure should support that future.  Apparently computers and a supportive technology environment don’t have a place in our school’s future.  That is only slightly less exhausting than the idea that what I’ve been doing in the school has hurt rather than helped.  It was suggested that everyone should wait months for support, even in cases where I could get things going in moments.  This is the future we’re aiming for because we don’t want a headship centred around computers?

Technology use isn’t decreasing in our school, and how we’re making use of technology isn’t nearly as monolithic as it once was; the variety of tech in our school has exploded.  Ten years ago we had a single kind of printer in our building, now we have more than thirty different kinds.  Ten years ago the board used to take care of things like network cables and lab setup, not any more.  In a proliferate, increasingly complex and less centrally supported technology environment, we balk at localized support?

The role of computer support in our school is onerous, but one of the things it does for me (sometimes, when I’m not getting bumped for a colleague from another school), is to ensure that I’ll be teaching at least some computer technology classes.  Seeing the work I’ve done as a head given no future has left me wondering if I’ve asked my family to spend thousands of dollars on qualifications that I won’t be able to exercise in the future.  That is frustrating on a lot of levels.

There are a lot of ups and downs in teaching.  The political ground on which you stand is often not what it appears to be, and while many people seem to act out of a sense of certainty, what we are asked to teach is actually very perilous and subject to the whims of others.  

It’s a cold Monday night in February and I’m finding the extra energy I’ve thrown into my profession over the past several years to be in question.  It’s not the kind of place you do your best work from.

Marketing Education / Marketing Your Subject

Advertising for publicly funded education.

The other week I was sitting in a local movie theatre before the latest round of The Hobbit when an advertisement came on for our local Catholic board.  It strikes me as odd that they allot money for advertising, but I guess that’s what you have to do in a publicly funded system that competes against itself.

The idea that we have to market our educational choices might seem mercantile to academics, but it’s not always a bad idea.

The poor appearance of our departments on our school webpage came up at a recent heads meeting which tailed into a big discussion about how we lose a number of students in grade 9 to our (marketing focused) catholic competitors.  Evidently most are back by the senior grades because spending ten hours a week on a bus for what turns out to be a better advertised, if not necessarily better education, doesn’t add up.  Our poor showing in marketing our public school for local consumption raised questions of what we should be focusing on, advertising, or, you know, education.

I might not understand the benefits of funding two redundant public systems that then pay to advertise against each other, but the need to market your subject area in a high school is vital for a successful program.   If we don’t get students signing up, we don’t get sections, so any teacher, especially one in a non-mandatory subject area, should probably spend some time ensuring that students know they are out there.


Tonight is grade 8 parent’s night.  We have a large group of excited, nervous parents and students touring the school.  Each department is expected to set up a booth and ply their wares, encouraging next year’s new grade 9s into taking what they teach.  I’ve been spending the semester beating the bushes to put computer studies in its best light.  You’d think that computer studies would be an easy sell in 2014, but not so much in rural Ontario.

I used to treat grade 8 night as just another time grab, but it’s silly to ignore marketing your subject area, especially if it can help you get sections and run a more complete program.  In the case of computer studies I’m straddling the need for school-wide fundamental computer literacy as well as offering specialized courses that will prepare students for post secondary and beyond in programming and engineering.  I’m beginning to think Ontario should split its focus on computer studies and offer general technology fluency as well as specializations.

As many of the celebs mention below, a working knowledge of computers is vital to life in the 21st Century, whether you’re looking to be a career computer nerd or not.

Grade 8 night was a successful evening.  With robots, quad-copters and other technology on hand, I put the department on the map.  With any luck we’ll get an uptick in computer studies sign ups next year and be able to run a more complete program as a result.  You’d think a healthy computer department in any high school in 2014 is addressing an important 21st Century fluency, but if students and parents aren’t aware, they won’t sign up.

Here are some of the pieces I put together (thanks to for the quotes):

Taken from the quotes & Will.I.Am’s webpage
Everyone should know the basics of a technology if they are going to live submersed in it every day.
Just one of the smartest guys in the world, feel free to ignore the opinion.

I did a number of posters for the department.

Extra-curriculars are a good way to support student interest in your subject.
Even if you’re not headed for a career in computers, they are
becoming a vital soft skill. If you work anywhere and can
provide your own tech-support, or can problem solve even
basic coding, you have made yourself vital to the 21st Century
workplace.  Computer studies: not just for nerds any more!

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.

Assessment NOT for learning

Exams are in the bag and I’m wondering what the point was.  Knowledgeable, capable students did well, incompetent students didn’t, but neither have the opportunity to learn from their exams.  It begs the question: what is the point of an exam?

By high school most students think that education is something being done to them.  The write-an-exam-get-a-mark approach only confirms this in their minds.  If assessment isn’t for learning, what is it for?  Beaurocracy?  To maintain the teacher as the final arbiter in the classroom?  Neither paperwork, nor maintaining hierarchical classroom structures hold much interest for me.
We’re currently being told that if we don’t make formal exams for all classes we’ll lose formal exam days.  Good riddance I say!  The end of a semester should include a debrief and a chance to review your summatives and assess the state of your own knowledge in terms of course expectations.  This would provide a valuable pedagogical bridge between courses and empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.
From a teaching perspective, the debrief would mean that all the heavy, end of course summative assessment actually serves a purpose.  It isn’t supposed to be punitive, and your grade in a class shouldn’t be a mystery to you.  Assessment should be transparent and functional.  Most importantly assessment should provide you with an opportunity to improve your learning; formal exams are none of those things, they are the black hole that learning falls into at the end of a course.
At the end of this course I’m going to get you to write a high stakes, stressful exam that is the same for all of you regardless  of your learning styles.  It’s going to assume you all have the same writing abilities.  I’m then going to surprise you with the results!
I would love to ask the student who left half his exam blank, why did you do that?  I’d like to understand where in his thought process he thought doing nothing was the way forward.  I’d love to question the student who ignored obvious clues in a text and completely misunderstood its intent.  I’m curious to see if, with a nudge, they are capable of seeing what was in front of them the whole time.  I’d like to congratulate and confirm for the student who wrote a fantastic final that, yes, you really know this stuff.

There is a time and place in learning to ask the hard question: do you know what you’re doing?  The end of course summative could be this reflexive learning opportunity, but not when it’s cloaked in formal exam tradition.
Instead of considering transparent, reflexive course summatives that provide assessment as learning, we’re clinging to formal exam models from the early 1900s designed to produce secretive, teacher dominated results that serve no learning purpose.  If the organizational structure of a school schedule isn’t serving learning, what is it serving?

Learning Goals & Success Criteria

Learning Goals & Success Criteria

This past week we had a department heads visioning day.  One of the focuses (from the Ministry through the Board) was a concerted focus on clearly articulating learning goals and success criteria.  This goal/criteria approach has a lot of traction in current educational thinking.  Clearly stating the point of a lesson allows for greater focus for the teacher and greater fairness in instruction for the student.  In the ideal classroom clearly articulated learning goals along with specific criteria that demonstrate success allow everyone to work to a commonly understood end.

Learning goals and success criteria offer a trendy sense of student centered equality and transparency with no chance of nasty teachers changing up goals to suit their own megalomania.  In the process of establishing these learning goals and success criteria, teaching becomes a linear, reductive process that anyone with the right flowchart could follow.

There has been an ongoing attempt to simplify teaching in order to more efficiently (read: cheaply) manage it.  This is often hidden in business terminology like data driven analysis or goal orientated production.  The urge to simplify teaching offers some real financial payoffs.  If teaching is something that can be reduced to piece work we can drastically reduce professional expectations (and what we pay for them).  This cynicism is what I approached this latest PD with.  Do the powers that be want me to do this for the good of my students or for the good of the system?  The two things are often not mutually compatible.

Like many other previous educational fads LG/SC seems to have come from elementary classrooms.  In a grade two class where you need to provide structure around early student learning in order to show them the way this might have a credible place.  With sixteen year olds on the verge of moving beyond the classroom, clearly articulated goals and criteria could as easily obstruct the purpose of the lesson as it does help students.  In complex learning environments the teacher can often use the process of self-directed discovery to empower student learning.  If we are working in a lab on an experiment, clearly articulating the goal and success criteria to get you there reduces the complex process of scientific experimentation to a series of if/then statements.  In a room where experienced students are working with advanced ideas, learning goals seem like a simplistic step backwards.

In the working world you don’t often find yourself with clearly articulated goals and criteria.  Workplaces and even post secondary education are complex environments in which self directed learning, organization and initiative are valued more than your ability to follow clearly articulated goals, assuming you’re given any goals at all.  Asking high school teachers to focus on this means of ‘student success’ is like asking capable bicycle riders to put training wheels on in order to not fall over so much.  The intent might be to offer them a greater sense of safety and focus, but the result is a capable rider not being able to test their limits on the bike.

Schools already do a great job of atrophying initiative, creativity, self-direction and differentiation of learning in students.  That a new system hopes to close that off even more is worrying.  Where is there space for initiative, self directed learning or differentiation in classroom focused on listed goals and criteria?  Clearly articulated goals might help those who have no idea why they are in school, but they limit everyone else, especially at a secondary level, and even more so in non-deterministic learning situations.

I teach computer engineering and like many technology classes the students are asked to work in a stochastic, non-deterministic learning process.  As we push learners into more advanced learning situations clear goals become a detriment to their learning, much like any other expectation.  Rather than being able to discover direction through research and experimentation, the goal orientated classroom is barren and linear.  Perhaps it works for academic subjects but it never has in my experience, and the academic teachers it does work for aren’t teachers anyone brags about.  If education is about discovery and engagement then ideas like goals and success criteria need to be handled very lightly, not suggested as a school wide success strategy by class room reviewers.

Many of the heads at our meeting weren’t interested in picking up another one year fad from the Board, though they didn’t articulate why other than simply being tired of them.  For me this latest educational focus raises some fundamental questions about education.  Are we teaching students to learn or are we teaching them curriculum material?  Since those two things often conflict with teach other, it would be good to hear what our overall goal is.  I’m all for learning to learn, and to do that you can’t be trying to reduce learning to a flowchart of actions.  Learning is a fantastic and fantastically complicated process, and teaching someone how to do it goes back to the old adage about teaching a person to fish as opposed to giving them a fish.

Learning goals and success criteria fit nicely into the data driven educational management paradigm.  I have a number of concerns about driving education by the numbers.  Data (statistics) might offer some insight, but to drive education policy based upon them seems a cart before the horse approach.  I’d much rather follow a vision than my own tail (the stats from last year).  Following the numbers smacks of the kind of self-justifying business think I and others have railed against.

Teacher Intent


Teacher intent: pure evil? If so,
learning goals can save you from

Teacher intent is probably the most important piece of this puzzle.  A teacher who doesn’t know what they are doing or is doing it maliciously is the kind of teacher that needs learning goals and success criteria in order to be fair to their students; goals and clearly stated criteria stop that kind of teacher from doing damage.  Anyone teaching from a place that needs learning goals and success criteria in order to be fair to their students shouldn’t be teaching.  A powerful learning environment is safe enough that students can be humble without feeling inferior and a teacher can let compassion rather than megalomania direct their ego when they are trusted with that most fragile of vessels, an ignorant human being.

In Ontario we’ve done everything possible in the past year to damage teacher intent.  From governments to media to political parties to ministry to boards and unions; teacher intent has taken a beating from pretty much everyone.  Into this low place we’re delivered the latest silver bullet in education that seems designed to replace teacher intent entirely with data driven, linear, flow chart orientated goal setting.

Is teaching an art or a flowchart?  Is it a complex human endeavor or a business process?  I know many education managers and their financial overlords would like to turn what we do into (data driven) piece work, but that will result in an Americanization of our education system that will cause a plunge in quality much like they have experienced south of the border.  Simplifying education hurts everyone.

Teacher intent is the elephant in every room whenever I hear anyone talk about teaching and learning. Politicians love to take it out and abuse it for their own shabby ends, the general public only remembers their worst experiences in school and belittle teachers for it, and unions refuse to even consider teacher intent because it would call into question the competence of their own members.  Meanwhile, many teachers question it in themselves and in their colleagues.

If your teachers are caring, careful, professionals who approach each lesson with the intention of maximizing their student’s potential,  you’re going to have a positive learning environment.  Making teachers write that intent on the board won’t stop bad teachers from being unfair, and good teachers will find it limiting.  How often have you started a lesson only to have to make an abrupt change because student understanding or mood isn’t where you need it?  If you’ve already written up what you’re doing it makes what should be a graceful, responsive changes into an awkward situation in which you’ve emphasized student ignorance.

The mindset a teacher enters a classroom is pivotal to successful learning in that classroom.  A teacher who is resilient, mentally agile, even handed and humble before their own power is the most powerful thing a student could hope for in learning.  That teacher happily bounces out that door to do extracurriculars, works with colleagues beyond their own classroom and encourages personal growth rather than data collection in their students.  They aren’t trapped in myopic data collection, they don’t see people as data, they see them as people.  A happy, capable teacher is a wonder.

Rather than frankly examining, understanding and improving teacher intent we get professionally developed toward systematic, process orientated teaching practices that feed data into the education machine.

Students aren’t the only bricks in the wall.

Literacy, Engagement and Marketing

The latest WIRED has an editorial by Clive Thompson about Minecraft and literacy.  In the article it is suggested that Minecraft (and other video games) have engaged reluctant readers to the point where they are able to overcome their reading problems and devour challenging texts with near perfect accuracy.

I usually enjoy Thompson’s reach, he tends to push back assumptions, but in this case it feels hyperbolic.  Minecraft is the hot new videogame among teachers and parents”.  It was three years ago, but then it hasn’t just been sold to Microsoft for billions (with a “B”) of dollars.  Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s hyperbole or marketing.

Thompson goes on to state: “Minecraft is surrounded by a culture of literacy.” So is any hobby, video games are not magical because of this.  Motor vehicles are surrounded by a ‘culture of literacy’ – look in any magazine rack.  Back in the day Dungeons and Dragons was surrounded by a ‘culture of literacy’ with books and magazines galore.  Movies are surrounded by a ‘culture of literacy’ (IMDB, Entertainment Weekly etc), so is technology in general (WIRED).  That we read and write about the things that interest us is hardly a shock.  Why should video games be any different?  Many reluctant readers are willing to read material about a subject that interests them.  That this is newsworthy is a bit baffling, what is more surprising are the assumptions further on in the article.

Interest and engagement are key elements in developing basic literacy skills, no doubt, but the article goes on to imply that engagement through video games can somehow overcome illiteracy.  This is going from hyperbole to gross over-simplification.  I’ve already got my doubts about gamification, but championing gaming engagement as the solution to illiteracy isn’t respecting the complexity of the skill, though it does sync well with valuations in gaming companies.

Back in 1973 when I was a three year old learning to read my grandmother would read me a bit of The Magic Faraway Tree and then say she was tired and put it down, usually at a critical part of the story.  I’d struggle through the text using the light from the doorway, desperately trying to find out what happened after she left me to go to sleep.  I have no doubt that she knew what I was doing.

I suppose WIRED might have written an article about that, but Enid Blyton doesn’t have the market reach of Minecraft or the magic we desperately want to believe inhabits our brave new and oh-so-very-valuable media.

I’m a strong reader.  I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read.  For me it meant independence and the ability to satisfy my own curiosity.  There is no doubt that my determination created intense engagement at a time when reading wasn’t easy for me, but it was just the first step on the long road of literacy.  I wasn’t displaying illiteracy one day and then suddenly became a fluent reader the next because I was “really, really motivated”.

Thompson quotes Constance Steinkuehler (of whom I’m a fan) on the effects of video game focused literacy.  Middle and high school struggling readers were asked:

“…to choose a game topic they were interested in, and then she picked texts from game sites for them to read—some as difficult as first-year-college language. The kids devoured them with no help and nearly perfect accuracy.”

How could they do this? “Because they’re really, really motivated,” Steinkuehler tells me. It wasn’t just that the students knew the domain well; there were plenty of unfamiliar words. But they persisted more because they cared about the task. “It’s situated knowledge. They see a piece of language, a turn of phrase, and they figure it out.”

Situated knowledge plays a key role in literacy.  Scaffolded understanding and context awareness are inherent to good reading.  On a micro level it assists vocabulary and parsing written conventions like punctuation and grammar.  As we build our understanding of written language we’re able to comprehend more complex texts using previous experience; literacy builds on itself in this way.  

Contextualization also assists a reader at the level of themes and ideas.  Being conversant in a video game allows you to make assumptions about words and concepts you would otherwise have no link to through the text.  No doubt many of those struggling readers were able to accurately guess vocabulary and concepts from their own experience, the text becomes a secondary resource, literacy a secondary skill.  Large scale contextualization can help a strong reader parse a complex, unfamiliar text, but if it is being used to parse familiar concepts and materials I’d argue that it isn’t assessing literacy that effectively.

Literacy isn’t merely the repetition of familiar ideas, at its best it is the ability to deeply comprehend new ideas through a written medium.  Video games might offer a hook that helps reluctant readers engage, but to suggest that Minecraft or any other game could act as a solution to illiteracy is more than misleading, it’s dishonest.  It’s also why complex, long term skills development like literacy is best left to education, where quarterly earnings and attention grabbing don’t attempt to outsell learning.

Cheaper Teachers for a Cheaper World

I’m reading The World Beyond Your Head, the latest from Shopclass As Soulcraft writer Matt Crawford.  In this chapter he’s been working out how experts manipulate their environment in order to expedite their mastery.

How an expert arranges the space around them in order to perform allows non-experts a window into skills that might otherwise be beyond them; you can comprehend mastery indirectly by observing how an expert arranges the space around them.  The difference between an amateur and professional chef becomes obvious from this assessment.

This is an interesting observation that goes to the core of much of the friction in teaching nowadays.  Most of the lay public has no idea how teaching works yet they feel capable of criticizing the profession.  ‘I was once in school, so I know how to teach’ makes as much sense as, ‘I once had surgery so now I’m a surgeon’.  By looking at how teachers ‘jig‘ learning spaces someone who has never taught might get a glimpse into the complexity of the craft.

The idea that experts manipulate the space around them is something that many people might intuitively understand without thinking through the why.  With few exceptions a master will create an organized system around them that allows them to efficiently operate; the space around them becomes an extension of their mind used to organize and expedite their activity.  The process of learning how to jig your environment to support your expertise is one of the most obvious indicators of mastery.  Disorganization, clutter and lost tools are an apprentice’s battle.  This sheds some light on my mechanic father’s constant frustration at the state in which I left his work bench.  

The generic workspace is even worse.  This space is designed for you by the thinking class and you are reduced to a simplistic component with limited expectations.  You don’t need professionalism or mastery in an environment like that.  This is the world most teacher critics inhabit. Their limited education has made them ideal simplistic components.

What a jig is and how it’s vital to the expert.  Do you jig your
classroom, or do you rock the assembly line?  Via Google Books.

You can often see expertise in teaching through how a teacher arranges their classroom.  The learning environment that is jigged by the teacher to enable them to educate more effectively also reflects a deeper understanding of the art of instruction.  This teacher’s classroom contains nothing extraneous.  The teacher knows where everything in there is and how to use it.  There are no dusty, unused text books on shelves or out of date posters on the wall.  You can see intent in how the classroom is designed.

Not only is the equipment at hand, but how its arranged can also facilitate how a lesson is presented; structured meaning is hidden in everything from floor plans to decorations to seating arrangements.  By contrast the classroom that looks like an assembly line indicates a teacher of the McDonalds variety.  It’s hard to argue for professional dignity in teaching when so many teachers are more than happy to follow fast food methods.  Take a walk around any school.  Do all the rooms look the same?  Are they expected to?

A great example of how an expert creates and uses their own jigs to
enable them to produce results well beyond the layman.

The idea that a job can be done more efficiently (read: more cheaply) using a tightly controlled, top down system is the way of things in our increasingly computerized world.  We have machines making life and death decisions for us now instead of demanding human expertise.  Machines are only going to get better at making these decisions as humans only become more atrophied at them

The comparison between the McDonald’s assembly line with its rigid, dictated jig and the cook who controls her own space is stark.  Both environments are designed to aid the person inhabiting them create a better product, but one is authored by the person themselves while the other is instituted (and enforced) by unseen management.  One is designed for cogs, the other demands expertise.  One demands respect for the worker’s mind, the other makes them disposable hands.

We’re offloading the value of skilled labour onto organizational structures.  The initial idea is that this saves money, but I suspect the long term implications are lowered expectations, workers made powerless and ultimately a less democratic division of knowledge.  If mastery is dying thanks to a neoliberal drive to lowest cost production (experts are more expensive and difficult to manage than easily exchangeable and cheaper unskilled labour, especially when we can oversee them with continually improving surveillance technology), we can expect some of the last bastions of professionalism to eventually dry up and take on the minionized labour processes that have infected private business.

Cheap men need expensive jigs; expensive men need only their tools” rings true in the direction many people seem to want education to go.  A centrally controlled system with ‘facilitators’ instead of ‘teachers’ that lean on the burgeoning might of educational technology not only satisfies the possibility of selling technology to education systems (perhaps even monopolizing them!), but it also scratches the itch of the moneyed class to centralize both profits and knowledge.  We can expect less from facilitators in pre-jigged classrooms with assembly line learning couched in centralized cloud based computing with ready made lessons aimed at standardized tests.  You need only show up, start the video and let Khan at ’em on their clearly branded corporate learning devices.  You could probably hire three facilitators in that environment for the price of one teacher:  cost savings!

It’s much cheaper to watch sanitized  media and sit in rows preparing
for standardized tests than it is to actually do things.  Fortunately, people
who actually do things aren’t really needed in our efficiently designed future.

Since going mainstream digital technology is intent on market share rather than serving the user. Getting machines into as many hands as possible is the mandate now and that mandate is served by simplistic, closed ecosystems designed to create consumers.  I’m not sure if neoliberalism has incorporated digital technology or it’s the other way around, but no matter how you look at it the two social influences work hand in glove.

The expectation of mere competence, let alone mastery, is dying.  You can observe this by watching how fewer and fewer employees are expected to jig their own environments to serve their process (the process isn’t theirs any more).  Workplaces are now assembly lines of the mind with dictated jigs.  Employees are assessed on their willingness to adjust to these systems, the less free thought the better.

We are centralizing expertise on a massive scale (just follow the money) and creating a future where everything will look similar and pre-decided, but ever so efficient. The classroom is one of the last bastions of professionalism where an expert can apply their own jig but the days of reasonable class sizes and hands on learning that allow for this kind of jigging are drawing to a close.  Teachers should enjoy the final days of self determination in their workplace, the future is designed for cheap, disposable people.  Fortunately the world is full of them.

Once in the top five, Canada is beginning to follow the US down the education rankings as de-professionalization reduces teachers (and the students they teach) into low paid, disposable labour.

No Heroes & Distractions

Originally published on Dusty World in June of 2014

I suspect the general public thinks that teaching is easy.  I’m not talking about classroom management, that everyone agrees is difficult, but teaching, the process of enabling learning, is generally seen as easy.  Anyone can tell someone else what to think, right?  Pretty much everyone has been through school, so they all know what it is and how it works.

I’ve talked about the terrifyingly vast concept of pedagogy before, but most lay-people have never heard the term and so don’t know or care about its complexities.  Strangely, few teachers or administrators seem to want to talk about it either, but that’s for another post.  The process of creating a rich learning environment is subtle, ever changing and very difficult; reflection is a good teacher’s best defence against this challenge.  By constantly reflecting on our teaching, we hope to cull bad habits and maximize the learning environment around us.  Honest reflection isn’t something that seems to come up much in PD either.

Normally pedagogy would be my focus, one of the joys of my job is how intellectually challenging it is.  I use this blog mainly to try and tackle the challenges of pedagogy in a rapidly changing technological situation, but for the past month I and many teachers I know in Ontario have been distracted by politics.  We have to be because the circus that is modern politics oversees our profession, and we are one of their favourite whipping boys.

Unlike heroic police officers, firefighters and doctors, teachers don’t get a halo.  If the internet doesn’t convince you of the banality of teaching turn on the TV.  How many heroic teacher shows do you see on there?  Emergency services are protected by their halo, and since we’re all public servants it’s pretty obvious who is going to get thrown under the austerity bus.  Whenever the political class decides to vilify public servants to collect some vapid public support we know it’ll be us, hence the distraction.

The public perception is that teachers are overpaid, under-worked and largely clerical in what we do.  Unlike those men (and women, but let’s face it, the hero professions have a male face to them) of action, teachers are presented publicly as female, supportive and administrative rather than as action heroes.  Any time a government wants to take a swipe at public servants teachers make an easy target, like last year when teachers across the province had their wages and benefits illegally stripped even as the OPP enjoyed big year on year raises; it’s a financial emergency, but not for everybody.

In a climate like this our unions urged us to carefully consider our votes in strategic terms because the Ontario Progressive (sic) Conservative party had adopted tea-party American ideologies and was prepared to cut Ontario to pieces while following Michigan and the rust belt down the rabbit hole.  That urge to strategically vote worked very well encouraging many public servants to participate in this election, it also unified and focused non-conservative votes.  The result deposited the morally bankrupt Liberal party into a four year majority.  This was the same party that stripped contracts and forced work conditions through illegal legislation.  It’s also the same party that will do what Hudak and the PCs promised, they just won’t do it on an election year.

It begs the question, is it better to be stabbed in the front or in the back?

Teachers seem to be relieved by the Liberal win, but our profession with its poor public perception will be the first (again) to be thrown under the bus by Wynne and the Liberals.  It’s ironic that the meritocratic Liberals are going to throw a world-class education system under the bus because of optics.  If we do our difficult job well it won’t matter because ignorant people think we’re lazy and poll chasing politicians can use that.  The social and political environment we’ve been draped in for the past two years makes basic positivity difficult, let alone cultivating an attitude of improvement, and improvement is where we have to be if we want to maintain our excellence and keep up with the technological revolution happening all around us.

There are a lot of ways we could make education more efficient in Ontario rather than just cutting people’s wages and benefits and worsening their work environment.  When I first started teaching there was a guy who ran the Simpsons in his class and then sat in the English office eating his lunch at 10am.  He later got suspended for over a year while they reviewed claims that he’d slept with a grade 11 student.  They are a small minority in the system, but there are teachers who are incompetent or simply unsuited for the profession, and the system as it stands makes it almost impossible to remove them.  As a Liberal (that’s a large L Liberal who believes in the values of liberalism rather than blindly voting for a political party) I’d be all for making the removal of incompetent teachers easier, though not if it’s done by administrators who haven’t been teaching for years or pencil pushers who have never taught a class in their lives.  Peer review by a group of experienced, working teachers would be a fair way of doing this, but if it ever does happen it’ll be forced on us, probably by illegal legislation that punishes us for political advantage.  It would be nice to work in a system focused on excellence instead of political gain.

Then there is the whole weird duality of the Ontario public school system, but no one will touch that… the optics are bad, and you’ll never pry a publicly funded private religious system out of the hands of a majority, even if the UN does object.  It’s hard to consider hack and slash politics like Bill 115 fair when the system protects incompetent teachers and encourages very one sided religious favouritism.

There is a storm ahead for educators in Ontario and it’s going to be hard to focus on the complexities of pedagogy, the challenges of technological change and all that social work that we do as people with little or no understanding of education make decisions based on optics rather than reason or fact. 

Doctors and nurses won’t be expected to justify their profession, police officers and firefighters will continue to produce heroic television, and I’ll be painted as a lazy clerical worker doing a job that anyone could do.  While all that’s going on I’ll do everything I can to prepare my students to hack a technocratic neo-liberal future that makes it harder and harder for young people to find good work and become independent.  The same thing stepping on our profession is stepping on our students.