Courtesies & Confused Responsibility

Responsibility & Liability

I’m going to try and not sound like a grumpy old man in talking about this.

I had a chat with a friend the other week who is teaching in a private school in the GTA.  He had an interesting observation around how students do (and mostly don’t) accept responsibility for their actions.  He argued that the libelous nature of the adult world has placed everyone in the position of not being able to own up to honest errors.  Rather than being able to apologize and move on, we must instead deny any wrong doing, even when it becomes absurd.

A clear example of this happened in class the other week.  Three students were filming, and in the process of setting up the green screen studio they found Nerf guns and began fooling around with them.  This resulted in the camera they set up on the tripod getting knocked over and broken; a $400 new camera.  The response?  “It’s not our fault, we didn’t mean to break it.”  These two ideas are tied together in a student’s mind.  You can’t be held responsible for your actions if your actions weren’t intentionally about breaking the camera.  I tried to explain that it wasn’t ill-intent that led to the camera, it was incompetence, and they are responsible for their incompetence, especially when they willfully engaged in it.

This caused a great deal of confusion.  Students don’t feel responsible for their actions unless they are willfully vindictive, and even then, they won’t admit to wrong doing because they never see adults doing it for fear of liability.  Because of this poisoned moral environment, students also don’t understand what an accident is and how they can still be complicit in it without ill intent.  Fooling around with Nerf guns is not why you were in the studio; your choice to do this led to grievous damage, for which you are responsible.

Slogging through the muddy moral world of our schools can get tiresome quickly.  Incompetence cannot be considered a factor in student performance any more.  I have a number of students with weeks of absences and we are only just at the half way mark of the semester.  Many students will finish this semester in our school with over a month of absences, and they will still be expected to earn a credit.  In many cases these absences involve family holidays during classes.  Parental competence must also never be called into question either.  When those students are in class, they tend to do nothing anyway, but once again, the pressure is on the teacher to ‘find a way’ to ignore incompetence, even if it is simply willful neglect, and pass students.  Our idea of success has become one of pass-rates rather than teaching humans how to be responsible people.

What Manners Do For You

In the past week I’ve had a series of senior students walking into the media arts lab and asking to use equipment during class – while the students in the class needed to use it.  Whenever possible I try to accommodate these requests; media arts fluency leads to greater technological fluency.

I became less willing to accommodate these requests when the students involved ignored directions, started using student computers without permission and interrupted class to demand more equipment or space.  Offering open access to expensive equipment and resources is a nice thing to do, demanding it without so much as a please or thank you won’t get you very far.

This sense of belligerence isn’t unique to this generation of digital natives, though their constant split attention between the world around them and the insinuated cyber-world they also inhabit doesn’t help.  Teens have always been known for socially awkward, often rude, behavior; it’s a fun part of their stereotype.  The ironic thing is that in my experience this is human nature, not just a teen one.  People in general tend toward rudeness, a mannered response is usually a pleasant surprise.

The post modern view of courtesy or manners is one of an anachronistic, inefficient time waster.  Just look at our modern success stories (Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates, Eminem) for an idea of how we value individualized competitiveness, intellectual superiority and financial success as mutually exclusive from polite, collaborative interaction; we love despotism and see the rudeness inherent in it as a strength.

What politeness does is make explicit what is happening between people.  When you inconvenience someone by putting your own needs first, you can say things like “excuse me” or “sorry to bother you, but…”, and everyone involved knows that you are aware of the interruption you have caused.  When you thank someone for their efforts, you’re acknowledging how they put your interests before their own.  Courtesies are focused on verbalizing the necessity of supporting each other in a collaborative manner.

Polite Responsibility

We throw all that out when we start to mix the nasty habits developed around liability law with how we interact with each other.  For fear of financial penalty, those students couldn’t simply say the truth: “we’re sorry, we should have known better than to screw around under those circumstances.”  They don’t enjoy the release of pent up guilt that comes with apologizing honestly for an unintended outcome.  They also haven’t verbalized wrong action and have missed out on the meta-cognitive reinforcement that happens when you describe what you’ve done in honest terms.  They carry all that negativity forward.

I was watching soccer yesterday and an obvious handball occurred inside the goalie crease.  In my perfect world the offender it happened to would go to the ref and opposing player and say, “yes, it hit my arm.  It was a sudden, hard shot and I couldn’t have gotten my arm out of the way in time anyway.”  The shooter would then be given the penalty shot and he would have kicked it wide on purpose.  Instead, the player stood there stony faced, and said nothing as he knew the rules of the game had been broken, but could not afford the liability of admitting truth.

We do this in our games, our businesses are founded on this concept of non-admittance of wrong doing, and our governments don’t know how to operate any other way.  It’s no wonder that we should do it in our schools if we’re going to get our students ready for the adult world waiting for them.

The moral order of operations we need to train our students in to prepare for adulthood:

  • It’s best to say nothing than admit wrong doing or incompetence. 
  • It’s best to lie than to admit wrong doing or incompetence.  
  • It’s best to accept punishment but still admit to no wrong doing, or incompetence.
  • Ignore courtesies, they are a sign of dependence and weakness.

Bikers

The other week I posted a discussion on the Concours Owners Group asking how to pass a large group of bikers on the road.  That discussion sparked an angry rebuttal condemning me for mocking the happy pirate look that a large portion of the (especially) North American motorcycle community identifies with.  Personally, I’d say people can dress however they want and ride whatever they want, but I get the sense that the pirate types don’t feel that way.

On COG I was trying to be funny, but with an edge.  On the Georgian Bay circumnavigation I ran into some corporately attired Harley riders who wanted to point out how much unlike them I looked.  It felt like hazing with the intent of getting me to look like a proper biker.  Nothing will get my back up faster than someone telling me I have conform to their standard.  The irony wasn’t lost on me that these rebels without a clue whose look is predicated on nonconformity were uncomfortable with a motorcyclist not in proper uniform.

One of the reasons I make a point of reading British biking magazines is because they are free of (and willing to make fun of) this dominant North American biking culture.  They don’t worship Harley Davidson as the one and only motor company, and they try to look at the breadth of motorbiking rather than forcing a single version of it down everyone’s throats.  Had I the boat load of money that they cost I would happily buy an HD V-Rod (not considered a ‘real’ Harley by purists because it’s liquid cooled).  It’s a fine machine and I’d get one for that reason, but I don’t think I’d ever buy a motorcycle because of the manufacturer alone, I’m not that politically driven.

When I first started riding I was shiny and new about it and told one of my colleagues who rode that I was just starting out.  He asked me what I got and when I told him a Ninja he put his nose in the air and said, “hmm, isn’t that like riding tupperware?”  Just recently I told him I was thinking about getting a dual sport.  He said, “why would you want that?  It’d be like riding a toolbox!”  In the biker ethos there is only one kind of bike with a single aesthetic.  If you don’t conform, expect criticism.

In talking to other motorcyclists the non-mainstream/biker crowd sometimes find biker types to be holier-than-thou, not returning a wave or giving you the gears at a stop for not conforming to the dress code.

Motorcyclists tend to be iconoclasts, they have to be or they’d be doing what everyone else does riding around in the biggest cage they could afford.  Yet the act of riding isn’t enough for some, there are also social expectations that these rebellious non-conformists expect all riders to conform to.

At the end of the day I’m a fan of two wheeling.  I’d call myself a motorcyclist.  I get as excited about looking at historical Harleys as I do at racing tupperware or riding toolboxes.  I only wish more bikers would be less critical of anything other than their singular view of the sport.

I refuse to conform to their nonconformity.

What is Professionalism?

A long, contemplative ride
on the road less travelled to
self directed PD.

I attended Edcamp Hamilton this past weekend.  On a Saturday morning what did almost one hundred teachers and administrators do on the eve of a strike?  They spent their own time and money to travel to Ancaster to direct their own professional development.

Discussions ranged from technology integration to how to most effectively assess student learning (along with dozens of other topics).  What is magical about the edcamp experience is that teachers direct their own research and reflection.  There is no top down directive or education consultant being paid to sell an idea.  No one is paid to be there, no one is expected to be there, yet the room was full at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.


I’ve long thought that self-direction is the key element in professional development.  I’d actually argue that PD isn’t PD unless it is self directed.  When you’re sat in a room being indoctrinated by a talking head it isn’t professional or development, it would be better described as mediocre training.  Lecturing a group of people implies that they lack knowledge and need to be informed.  It implies that they aren’t professionals but unskilled employees who need direction.


I’ve got PD coming up this week.  PD often involves a paid consultant earnestly exhorting you to differentiate your teaching practice, but they do it in a completely undifferentiated, university style lecture.  If student centred differentiation is what you’re selling, selling it in a lecture is either incredibly lazy or ignorant.  In any case it suggests a lack of integrity.


I’m trying to work out what professionalism
is in a Prezi mindmap

The professional is, at their core, self directed.  You don’t become an expert in something without being able to self assess and improve your own practice.  Integrity should drive this self directed improvement by demanding competence.  That competence naturally creates a sense of responsibility that a professional is more than happy to be accountable for.  Self direction and the integrity that drives it creates a professionally responsible environment that accepts stringent accountability.

In order to develop professional standards, professionals need only be left to their own devices, and perhaps given the time and space by management to focus on excellence.  Edcamps encourage this kind of professional development, in fact they can’t happen without it.  PLCs also facilitate professional development by leaving the professional to develop their own means of improvement.  I’ve been involved in learning fairs, unconferences and other teacher centred/teacher presented learning opportunities that have been invaluable as well as empowering.

The difference between a talented amateur and a professional is that the professional is committed to improvement and is thus willing to be accountable to their profession.  The professional abides by the practices and standards of their profession and actively works to raise them.  In this way a professional has a social responsibility to their profession that a dilettante doesn’t, no matter how talented they might be.  The professional isn’t a one trick pony who acts solely on talent, but a talented individual who begins with natural inclination and then works to develop it into a much wider skill-set that acknowledges the full complexity of their discipline.  Some secondary teachers fall into thinking that they are a subject expert before they are a teacher.  Being a subject expert isn’t what they are being paid (professionally) to do, it’s teaching.  Teaching is the professional practice we (especially at the secondary level) sometimes forget.


Accountability is where professional development with teachers seems to fall apart.  Management fears that if left to their own devices some teachers will not actively work to improve their professional standards.  In some cases this may in fact be true.  It would be a fairly simple task to itemize the professional development opportunities teachers pursue and account for who is attempting to improve their professional practice and who isn’t, but we don’t do that in teaching.

The teachers who go out of their way to attend (or speak!) at conferences, who expand their professional qualifications, who attend edcamps, or work in their subject councils, or participate in online communities, these teachers have made quantifiable efforts to improve their profession.  The teacher who rolls his eyes at another board run PD which he is only attending because he is being paid to be there is simply not professional in the same sense.  They are the ones who ‘professional development’ is aimed at.

Instead of only looking at years in the classroom it would be nice if we accepted that some teachers take on a more professional approach to teaching.  It would be easy enough to quantify that approach.  How many subject areas have they become qualified in?  Do they demonstrate continuous improvement?  How many self directed PD opportunities do they take?  Do they take on positions of extra responsibility? What do they do to support their subject area?  The profession of teaching in general?  Until we accept that not all teachers are created equal, we ignore both integrity and responsibility and are unable to accurately apply accountability to our profession.


Is teaching a job that requires management to take attendance and force simplistic PD down people’s throats?  Evidently, in which case it isn’t really a professional activity.  Is teaching a profession that demands self directed development through stringent accountability?  If it was it would be driven by teachers’ professionalism rather than by attendance rolls and tell-me-don’t-show-me lectures.


At the core of professional practice is the self directed development of your expertise.  I’ve got a PD day (the only one this semester) next Friday.  It will be interesting to see how this board run day will compare to the dynamic and responsive urgency of the edcamp I just attended.  I imagine I’ll see differences in the first few moments when teachers I never see doing self-directed PD are whining about why they have to be there (because they’re being paid to do it).  Then they will take attendance and the differences will only get more obvious.


Professionalism Resources:


http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/professionalism.htm


http://www.med.uottawa.ca/students/md/professionalism/eng/about.html

 

#edcampham discussion suggestion

http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/100047/chapters/Professionalism,_Teacher_Efficacy,_and_Standards-Based_Education.aspx

http://education.und.edu/field-placement/files/docs/professionalism.pdf

http://www.slideshare.net/jazzmichelepasaribu/professionalism-in-education


http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042810025498





Conformity is happiness

Having a son a lot like myself, I’m watching in dismay as the school system does to him what it tried to do to me. A quiet, shy boy who likes to do his own thing, my son gets very anxious in group situations and tends to shut down, go off into his own head. I suspect that when this happens his teachers think that nothing is happening, that he’s just standing there blank, but I know this isn’t the case, because I do the same thing.

When people are too much with me (which happens in large groups or very loud situations), I daydream to give my mind some place to play. Standing in a large, noisy group of grade ones repetitively voicing lyrics for the Christmas concert would have lost me quickly, as they did my son. Somehow, his music teacher believes this means he is a failure in music. I’m not sure how group choral singing and dancing is the sum total means of assessing musical skill, but I suppose in some people’s minds it is.
Ultimately, it seems that, to an elementary teacher, an unresponsive child is somehow blank. I teach myself, so I recognize the challenges of trying to get an accurate assessment of skills in a classroom full of students, but a lot of this can be mitigated by differentiating instruction and differentiating evaluation. Many opportunities to demonstrate a skill in different contexts is, again, a challenge, but if we’re not there to try and create circumstances in which a student can show their best selves, why are we there?
Last year I was at a PD in which the instructor said that he was astonished to see so many secondary teachers out, because usually they don’t care anything for PD, differentiating instruction, collaborative assessment or technology in education. My department head and I looked at each other and asked the obvious question, “why would you want to antagonize your audience in the first five minutes?”
He went on to (admiringly) describe elementary teachers as paragons of modern educational philosophy, masters of DI, experts in assessment, the very flowers of the education system. He was then frustrated that his room full of secondary teachers appeared unwilling to interact and ask questions during his presentation.
So here I am, looking at the system as a parent for the first time. In my view, the elementary system is designed around standardized testing. The curriculum is so tightly prescribed and detailed that teachers have little latitude in how they can present it and how long they have to assess it. As a result, they are approaching the education of younger students in a very mechanical, statistical manner. This is something that somehow proves to those in charge that elementary teachers are superior – working within a coherent system that produces students who all think similarly and demonstrate the same skills at the same skill level. Administrators must love this; what a great opportunity to produce STATISTICS.
I have no doubt that there are secondary teachers who love this kind of order (most become administrators). A wonderful world of easily organizable human beings who all do the same things, the same way at the same level. It’s the stuff curriculums are made of. But in my experience, especially in the humanities and the arts (and increasingly in science and even math), secondary teachers are actually more interested in trying to arrange conditions for success with their students, rather than comparing them to an artificial and arbitrary set of standards being designed by a MINISTRY somewhere.
One way this happens is by recognizing that teaching and learning are a biological process, and that they happen for students at different times in different ways. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be expectations of what a human being is capable of, the last thing I’d advocate for is a lowest common denominator approach to human being, but an education system that is overly prescribed is probably serving its own bureaucracy rather than its students.
The board keeps showing us Sir Ken’s mighty speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U You’ve probably seen it. Watching it at this last PD through the lens of a frustrated parent of a grade one boy born in October, I was most struck by his comments on our infatuation with date of manufacture. We have built one of the largest public institutions around this idea, mainly for the convenience of the bureaucracy that runs it. (I live in hope that peak oil will break this tyranny: https://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0AZ3Xb3MP_t-cZGRnM2o2bXBfMjZkaGZndmNoaA&hl=en&authkey=CLqOsqIN )
In the meantime, I’ve been talking to colleagues who have atypical children and their only advice is cry long, cry loud and never let them become complacent. It makes me feel sorry for all those kids whose parents are too intimidated, or uncaring, or too busy to advocate as loudly.
There has to be a better way, for everyone involved.