Is It Over?

 

No, it hasn’t.  Prepare to get maytagged by quadmesters for the foreseeable future


I’m staggering to the end of this absurd quadmester. When it started I wondered if less was all we could manage, and it turns out that it is.  From administration dismissing concerns about masks that don’t fit (or really matter when you can catch COVID through your eyes) and are so far beyond of Health Canada and local health unit expectations that they end up being more restrictive than needed and not at all designed for all-day use (especially while performing instruction), to a schedule that seems explicitly designed to download an abusive amount of work on classroom teachers with the highest class caps, this quadmester has been a disaster.

The lack of focus on what we’re supposed to be doing (providing effective and differentiated instruction that maximizes student learning, remember?) suggests that these things never really mattered in the first place.  Got special learning needs?  Too bad, special education support is cancelled.  Find keeping up with school difficult?  Too bad, we’re going to fire you through courses at record pace even though everyone is reeling from a pandemic.  Don’t worry though, it doesn’t really matter if you keep up or not because you’re getting credits regardless.

I’m able to provide interactive, relevant online learning opportunities for my students and even I still struggled with between 20-40% disengagement in remote learning this quadmester.  I’ve heard of other classes that just did nothing online.  If you talk to admin about it they’d rather pretend it’s happening than do anything to ensure it is with anything like quality in mind.  I had a class drop down to twenty students which means it could have become a single cohort and I could be their online instructor, but making a change for pedagogical effectiveness that would have alleviated a staff member’s medically supported issues with the provided face masks wasn’t something anyone had any time for.

https://twitter.com/tk1ng/status/1324470383496564736

I recently learned that students can opt out of remote learning entirely if they want.  This has resulted in kids who have attended less than fifty hours of instruction earning Ontario high school credits this quadmester (Ontario high school courses are supposed to be 110 hours of instruction).  Remote learning with a teacher unqualified or even knowledgeable about the subject (as was my case with both of my online support teachers) can’t be called instructional time anyway.  ‘Quadmester’ should be changed to ‘freemester’ or ‘fakemester’. 


This kind of inflation is exactly what the current government has been trying to do over the past two years by pushing massive class sizes (even during a pandemic) and devaluing complex pedagogical practice in order to cheapen public education.  They couldn’t stuff more students into classes, so they reduced expectations and lowered the efficacy of the system to the point of absurdity while handing out credits like candy, and the people making it happen are getting bonuses for devaluing our education system!  They must be very proud.  Fear not though, PC party backers are ready to step in with private for-profit options that are likely to perform worse and cost more.

***

As I wrap things up from my double cohort/teaching continuously all day/double class/teaching continuously every week quadmester one I’m struck with how this drink-from-the-firehose schedule that doesn’t remotely meet Ontario standards not only injures already traumatized students and staff but also removes the most challenging work I do in class.

We got to the culminating projects (exams are cancelled – as is all safety paperwork because why not) and I found that my grade 9s have not had the opportunity to develop a rigorous and resilient engineering process in the way that they would in any other year, though considering the class is half as long as it should be I shouldn’t be surprised.  I’ve been able to cover the basic material, though the speed at which that came at students was overwhelming even to the stronger ones.  Neurologically speaking, you need time to reflect and internalize new learning, but best pedagogical practices have long since been flushed down the toilet.

I keep hoping that we’ll make adjustments toward making Ontario education more equitable and fair to everyone as this slow burn pandemic grinds on, but the powers that be appear to believe that they are finished and are ready to fire us through quadmester after quadmester rather than responding in a best practices-continuous evolution.  I’ve suggested previously that the week-on week-off is already problematic, so why not just go back to week on week off semesters?  If we did that with a Friday fully remote review day we could also give teachers and students the headspace they need to consume new learning, but the new normal is too waterboard everyone with a pedagogically bankrupt schedule that only has the appearance of credibility.

As we lurch into quadmester two with no quadmester ending in sight I’m looking forward to not being waterboarded any more, but I’ve still been handed another technology course with two cohorts and a teacher who has no background in my speciality ‘covering’ the remote part of the course, so I can expect another poorly engineered schedule designed to hand out cheap credits.  I got handed the same thing (a course I’m not qualified to teach) to provide remote support in even while I’m still providing technical support to people across the school and beyond.  There is evidently no way to differentiate teacher schedules to give them time to provide system support either.

I’ll do what I can to mitigate this poor scheduling (again), but since the system has downloaded all guidance and special education expectations on me as well I’ll be stretched (once again) to the breaking point trying to protect students from a schedule designed by people who don’t seem to care for their personal circumstances and well being… while struggling through a pandemic with my own health concerns.

Even evidence that the system think types are evolving this in the right direction would be helpful, but communications are nearly non-existent and there is no sense of vision or even an acknowledgement that what we’re doing isn’t kind, let alone working.  The new normal is a cruel, undifferentiated and ultimately meaningless place.  With a complete lack of leadership from the Ministry or Minister, we’re likely to see Ontario plunge in years of darkness as a result of this overwhelming and cruel schedule.


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Game Mastery

I misspent an awful lot of my youth Dungeon Mastering. We often spent whole days, ten-twelve hour stretches in a row, playing Dungeons and Dragons in various basements. During the summer it wasn’t uncommon for us to do whole weeks of days (or nights) like that.

If you’ve never played the game before, it’s basically a combination of story telling, creative writing, map making, art and random dice rolls. You create a character with a set of statistics and you go out and adventure with them. As you gain experience, you get to improve your statistics and get better chances to survive battles and face greater challenges. The characters develop based on their experiences (and their luck). Over time people get mighty attached to them. The players control themselves, the DM is the story teller, the one who controls the world in which they find themselves. When it’s done well, it feels a lot like you’re all creating a fantastic narrative together, and none of you knows how it’s going to end.

I ended up falling into the role of the DM because I could story tell well, and I learned to roll with the dice, I didn’t try to force the story when a lucky dice roll would change my expectations. Early on I’d over-script adventures and then have trouble when the dice allowed characters to do things I didn’t expect (or shouldn’t have had a statistical chance of happening). It took a bit of practice (and developing confidence) to trust that the story would unfold before us.

In one case I planned to kill off all the characters in the first five minutes, and then have them adventure in the after-life trying to get their lives back. As I mentioned, people get mighty attached to their characters. Dying freaked them out, they fought and fought. Finally, a tiny little hobbit-thief was the last one standing, facing the Grim Reaper himself. I had to give him a chance, otherwise the dice (and game) are pointless, so I said he had to roll a natural 20 (a 20 on a 20 sided dice) to successfully attack death. He actually did it. Right then I had to throw away my plan and go in a new direction. It wasn’t as nuanced as what I had prepared, but it mattered more to the players because they were authoring it, rather than having it read to them. Giving players no authorship in the game made it empty, pointless. That game became infamous, as did the Halfling who foot swept Death.

After a while, DMing all came down to world building (those are two of dozens) for me. I didn’t worry so much about what they would be facing on a situation by situation basis, as long as I knew where we were and when we were. The more richly we’d develop the world, its politics, religion, history, geography, the easier it was to create a rich, interactive experience around my players (this was a very collaborative thing, players would bring maps, histories, heraldry, costumes and all sorts of other surprises to games).

Our first road trip at 17 years old was an adventure in a rickety Chevette from Toronto to Milwaukee for GenCon, the gaming fair put on by the makers of Dungeons and Dragons. In the ’80s, this place was the Mecca for gaming. Tens of thousands of attendees in the largest conference centre in town. We attended lectures on ethics in gaming, integrating history and geology into world creation, and we played tournaments with thousands of others. We met the artists and authors that we loved; a professional conference for geeky seventeen year olds!

We took that richness and turned it over into our game play. Our stories evolved from dungeon crawls for loot, to archetypal quests to modern day parables about the evils people do. At its leading edge one of our games could speak to our own alienation and sense of desperation, while simultaneously giving us a means to exorcise it.

All of this made me aware of how a game works on a fundamental level. If you apply certainty and destroy choice (and chance), you kill it stone dead. If you place one participant in a position of absolute power so that they become a teller, rather than a participant, you’ve killed it again. You play a game best when you play it within its own context. Any game that breaks the forth wall falls to pieces. Game coherency requires consistency, not to a person’s will, but to the circumstances of the game. The best games are flexible enough to become richer as players add their own content (experiences, objects, ideas) to the game.

I’ve seen players cry when their character dies, but not only in sadness, also with respect. A good death is a good story, it honours the player’s efforts, the character’s beliefs and the game itself. The nice thing about a game is that sometimes Valkyries can then bring that dead hero to Valhalla, and you never know what can happen from there… good games give you a chance to maximize people’s involvement in them using the full spectrum of human emotion and intellect.

This has been percolating since I met another former DnDer (@liamodonnell) at OTF21C a few weeks ago and said, “everything I know about teaching, I learned from DMing.” It’s the truth.

I wanted to turn this into a rant on gamification in education, but in looking back on this, I realize that these ideas are very important to me. I’ve always had a great deal of trouble believing, but my years spent as an acolyte of gaming have made me just that, a believer.

I’m going to leave the other bits below, but feel free to stop reading here. I’m happy with clarifying a good idea rather than attacking a bad one.

 

Notes that didn’t make the cut:

Games aren’t ephemeral, if you want them to work, you have to nurture coherency within the game context

Not knowing what was going to happen also, ultimately, made it easier for me as a game master. I got to share in the story instead of telling it. I wasn’t a transmitter, I was part of a cast, bringing a story to life.

Any of this sound familiar from a teaching perspective?

If you deliver your teaching with cardboard certainty and inflexible perfection, your students have no authorship in that experience, it means nothing to them. If you teach as a participant, the interaction has life, and everyone involved is authoring it. It might not be as efficient or technically perfect as you’d like, but then I think perfection is entirely overrated.

The real danger is when those cardboard teachers try to use games as if they were a sugar coating you can apply to make something edible. Gamification tries to use game play as a way of getting people to do things, but that is a disaster.

Gold stars aren’t a new idea, but they sound like one if you throw fancy terms like gamification on them.

A good game needs to work within its own limits, but those limits should be deeply embedded within the game dynamics, and they should be designed to be adjustable, games should evolve meaningfully as their players do.

DGR: Social Connections Challenge: Remember The Ride

I took a swing at the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride Social Connections Challenge with MOTR Garage in the last post, but that idea might not tick the “innovative and disruptive” box – motorcycle coops already exist, though not in the format I’m suggesting.  My angle was to leverage retired teachers to connect men inter-generationally, but otherwise it’s an existing concept and not particularly disruptive, though it is scalable anywhere public education exists.

I just heard back from Motorcycle-Diaries and learned that I did not win their 2020 Dream Ride Contest, though being a top 5 finalist worldwide was pretty good by itself.  The winning trip by Theo De Paepe on riding to the northern lights is a moving piece worthy of the win.  Participating in this contest and reading all of these moving dream rides got me thinking about how digital connectivity might be used to reach out to younger potential riders lost in the digital wastes of 2020.


My own piece for that contest was on riding my granddad Bill’s path though France as a part of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939 and 1940 before the Blitzkrieg swept them out of continental Europe.  William Morris’s war record was another one of those family secrets that wasn’t talked about, but his military service during World War 2 is the stuff of film.  One of only a handful of his RAF squadron that escaped occupied France, Bill recovered downed planes during the Battle of Britain and then experienced three harrowing years in Northern Africa fighting Rommel as a driver in the RAF armoured car division.  He finished his tour in the white helmets motorcycle stunt team, doing drill and stunts on motorbikes!


Discovering my Granddad’s history was a great way to reconnect with a man I was close with as a child, but lost connection with when we emigrated to Canada.  As I was working through that family history I uncovered another mystery the family had been very quiet about, the death of my great aunt Faye.  My mum’s middle name was Faye, but I hadn’t realized she was named after her aunt.  I also didn’t know that Faye had died in a motorcycling accident in Norfolk in the mid-sixties when she was hit by an army lorry.  My mother had always stridently opposed me riding, and now that all suddenly made sense.  That my great aunt’s death ended my granddad’s life long love of riding and also prevented me from getting on a motorcycle when I first started driving is a lasting source of frustration.


Motorcycling isn’t easy, but it speaks to your very being, and it tends to self-select a certain kind of person.  It tends to run in families because families are literally all certain kinds of people.  Trying to bury my motorcycling family history only worked on me because I was an immigrant child separated from his extended family.  While I had uncles and cousins riding in the UK, I was oblivious in another country.


Finding my way back to my motorcycling gene played a big part in me eventually getting my license, though I’m frustrated at the lost decades I could have been riding.  It got me thinking about how many people are separated from family and live in a cultural void where they feel like they come from no one and from nowhere.  But we all have history, and many of us will have ancestors who rode.  Motorcycles used to be transportation before they became recreation.  Any rider can tell you how often an old timer will come up and start chatting about a bike they once owned – it happens to me on the Tiger all the time (Triumph is an old brand with a long history and a lot of old-timers have owned one).


DGR’s Social Connections Challenge wants to focus on disruptive, on-the-ground projects that help socially disaffected men who are more prone to suicide.  As a group, immigrant children are more socially disaffected than most, growing up in a strange country where they have no extended family.  The UN’s latest report has over two-hundred and seventy million people living as immigrants in countries they weren’t born.  On top of that there are many more people living without connection to their family history for various reasons.  Having grown up in a place where I had deep roots and moving to North America, I often meet people who have no idea where their families came from or even who anyone was before their grand parents.  In the early 20th Century motorcycles were transport, not a recreational activity, so many people have family history on two wheels they know nothing about.  I speak from personal experience when I say that making that connection is a powerful thing.


With that in mind, here’s another pitch to DGR’s Social Connections Challenge:

Granddad Bill on his bike in rural Norfolk well before I was born.

Inspiration:  As an immigrant child I’ve been separated from my extended family for most of my adult life and missed out on motorcycling through family as a result.  After my grandmother’s death I returned home to England for the first time in three decades and discovered secret family motorcycling history which prompted me to get my license.  Family connections have allowed me to bypass the postmodern amnesia many people face; that feeling that we are no one from nowhere. Ride To Remember would be an online resource that connects riders and would be riders to their family motorcycling history.  Realizing that riding is a part of your personal history is powerful.  Not only would this encourage new riders to ride by normalizing what is now considered a high risk activity in our sedentary, safety-first societies, but it would also reconnect us to a sense of continuity and belonging through our own family history.  Motorcycling is an acknowledgement of an inclination that often has roots going back generations.


Target Group:  disassociated men who feel that they don’t have a culture or family history related to riding.  The UN reports over 270 million people have immigrated internationally, and many others are separated from family through circumstances such as adoption.


Proposed Solution:  An interactive website/online community that collects and shares family history related to motorcycling: an ancestry.com for motorcyclists.  By connecting disenfranchised men to their family history, I hope to offer them the same sense of belonging and cultural connection that I have discovered.  By leveraging online connectivity and modern data management, Ride To Remember collates historical motorcycle related media in an easy to access database surrounded by a engaged community that encourages disassociated men to rediscover their moto-roots.


Project vision:  the pilot period involves setting up a .org site that creates an online relational database of motorcycling history using existing online documents tagged with details that allow users to search for material based on time, geographic location, names and other details.  A.I. image recognition software would be used to web-crawl and archive historical motorcycle related online images and online sources.  Long standing manufacturers, museums and vintage motorcycling organizations already have online presences that would provide regional structures in this growing information cloud.   With a growing data structure in place, analytics would allow users to quickly find connections.  They would also be encouraged to add information to the database, further enriching it.  We are at a pivotal time where a lot of analogue material will get lost in digital translation, this project would also encourage digitization of photos and documents for future motorcyclists.  The final stage would be an interactive database that connects people to their motorcycling past and reminds us that none of us comes from no one, nowhere.


Project leads:  writers, photographers and family historians who ride (like myself), anyone with family history in riding (motorbikes used to be family transport!) would be encouraged to share their ancestral motorcyclists.


Project title:  Ride To Remember

***

LINKS

The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride Social Connections:
https://www.gentlemansride.com/blog/dgr-scc


Over 270 million immigrants in the world today:
https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/international-migrant-stock-2019.html


My granddad’s war history and my great aunt’s death while riding was hidden family history that, once exposed, allowed me to embrace riding in a deep and personal way:
https://tkmotorcyclediaries.blogspot.com/2018/03/walking-in-bills-footsteps-1940-france.html
https://tkmotorcyclediaries.blogspot.com/2013/09/biking-family-history-part-2.html

The Motorcyclist, by George Elliot Clarke – an ode to George’s father, who rode at a time when Canada made it difficult for black men to do anything:
https://quillandquire.com/review/the-motorcyclist/


We live in a broken world where families are torn apart while chasing (or being stolen) by globalism.  There is a power in riding that self selects a certain kind of person.  Remember The Ride will reconnect lost people to family two-wheel roots that run deep.


https://pier21.ca/home
Pier 21 in Halifax is the location of the Canadian Immigration Museum.  As a nation of immigrants, Canada is particularly prone to family amnesia.

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Victoria and Vancouver Island on Two Wheels


The loop!

Everything is set!  A BMW F800ST for the day on Friday from CycleBC Victoria.  My son and I will head west and up the coast before crossing the mountains and coming back down the east coast back into Victoria.  It’ll be a long awesome day in the saddle.

You’d normally be worried about the weather heading out to the wet coast, but not this weekend!




Can’t wait!

To make things even more interesting, we’re going to scooter over to Bouchart Gardens on Thursday.  I can’t believe my wife suggested it… a family outing on two wheels, awesome!

Architectural Responses to Virtual Mindspaces

I’ve been watching home reno shows over Alanna’s shoulder and noticed that in almost all cases everyone is knocking out walls and creating ‘open concept’ living spaces.  I can’t help but think this is a side effect of personalized media.

Once you had a ‘TV room’ but it’s no longer needed.  We still share media, but we don’t sit in a room staring at a cathode ray tube in groups.  Without the need for shared broadcast media viewing spaces we open up our living spaces.  Any time we want some privacy, we simply dive into a screen.

One of the unique features of digital technology is that it creates a self-directed, private virtual space for your interests.  If you want to drop out of your surroundings you can do it in a moment on a smartphone or tablet.  You can see people doing this in public spaces all the time, but it also works at home.  We used to do this with watching TV, but the broadcast nature of that media meant not everyone watching wanted to.  Even the ones who chose the show were passive consumers.  In a world where some people wanted to watch TV and others wanted to read, we built up walls as the two aren’t mutually conducive.  With personal devices and media you can have ten people all doing exactly what they want in media rich ways, all in the same space.

Digital media is much stickier and attention grabbing than broadcast media because it’s self directed and participatory instead of passive and consumptive.  Digital immersion can happen in much busier places because we are active participants.  It can also thrive in those places because digital media offers a richer variety of media.  It effectively amalgamates all previous forms of media as well as spawning new ones.
  

Architecture reflects our communication habits: this space
is designed for the telling of information.  Self directed
information gathering and collaboration are not what
this room is about.

Architecture adapts to changes in how we communicate.  Classrooms in school are an architectural response to a model of teaching based on the verbal transmission of information.  You couldn’t have twenty teachers all talking to their students in an open concept space, it wouldn’t work, so walls went up.  Now that we’re evolving into personalized virtual spaces that offer access to information, communication and collaboration on a level unimaginable twenty years ago, what will physical classrooms evolve into?  If you don’t have to wait for someone to verbally communicate information, what will schools look like?

We lament digital distraction as a scourge on society, but it is also an information rich immersive experience that offers us a new dimension of mental privacy.  We are increasingly able to collaborate and communicate in complex, geographically irrelevant ways.  Watching how architecture responds to this change in behaviour is one of the surest ways to see how influential this digital revolution has become.

Motorbike Aesthetics

 

I can remember being about six or seven and playing in my grandparent’s yard in Sheringham.  Suddenly there was a rough, mechanical roar coming from the road.  I walked over to the fence, climbed up and watched in amazement as a stream of vintage vehicles rolled by, everything from Bentleys, Jaguars and old MGs to motorbikes with side cars.  When it’s 1976 in the UK, the vintage vehicles you’re seeing are all war-time or earlier – MG, Triumph and all those ‘old’ British manufacturers who have disappeared were still building cars when I was standing on that fence waving to the drivers in their goggles.

In the 1980s I got into Japanese animation. From Akira to Robotech to many other anime, motorbikes have taken the samurai’s horse into the modern era.  Anime definitely plays into my idea of what makes a cool bike – if it can transform into a robot then so much the better.

The ’80s anime also informed a lot of ’80s TV shows and movies, like Battlestar Galactica and Tron.

 

 

The idea of motorbiking has media romance all the way from Lawrence of Arabia to The Great Escape.

Between the sci-fi fixation I had as a kid and the romantic notion of motorcycles in media, I think it safe to say a classic/futuristic vibe drives my motorbike aesthetic.

If anyone ever invented a steam punk motorbike, I’d be all over it.

In the meantime I’m all about bikes that call back to a mechanical simplicity, or look like they come from another planet.

Royal Enfield
Honda

Some of my favorites gleaned from wandering about the interwebs:

Triumph and Suzuki to Royal Enfield and Honda; ranging from classic, naked bikes to modern naked bikes and sport/touring/adventure bikes.  I’ve got no interest in cruisers, choppers; they sacrifice way to much in the way of physics for looks.

Triumph

A naked bike is a throwback to those classic bikes I grew up with, but they incorporate the latest technology: the best of the old and new!

I’m not completely anti-fairing, but it’s nice to see the mechanicals working, it speaks to a simple aesthetic that I find appealing in a motorbike.

Some other bike aesthetics that have caught my attention:

Sidecars

Old Vintage Cranks

 

Anime/Sport

Anime motorbikes
Robotech Cyclone

Adventure

Kawasaki KLR

Long Way Round: gets me wishing for an epic trip with weeks on the road… like, say, A Pan American Motorbike Diary!

The KLR has been of interest, but my first bike ends up being a Ninja…  The go anywhere nature of the KLR makes it ideal for my Pan American trip, and lets me dream of following Ewan and Charlie on an epic, life changing adventure.

Once I’ve spent more time in the saddle, I’ll have a better idea of what a bike can do for me and what I look for in a bike, but in the meantime, my entirely academic aesthetic interest in motobiking is what I’ve been going on.

My first bike ends up being a Ninja… very anime it is!  It won’t be my last!

Fireblade Fountains

I finally got the carbs sorted on the Fireblade project (sense of achievement!) and when I fired it up they felt very responsive… but then a giant geyser of oily water spewed out of the valve cover exhaust pipe and hit the ceiling (!).  Never seen that before.

Rather than repeat the fountain, I put a pipe on it, ran it into a container and videoed the weirdness…

(it’s a 360 video, you can move the mouse to look around – like at the oily water dripping off the ceiling)

So the fountain happened both times I ran it, and the stuff that came out looked like watery oil rather than oil with some water in it.  Next step:  drain the oil…

… which looks like water.  That’s not good, and it’s something I’ve never seen before.  Why on earth would anyone ever put water or coolant in an engine like that?



I’ve done head gaskets on cars before and I’m pretty familiar with the consequences of oil mixing with coolant.  It usually goes both ways (oil gets in the coolant, coolant gets in the oil, but the coolant looks brand new and the level is good.  When running there is no bubbling in the coolant overflow (usually a running engine will force gas and oil back into the coolant reservoir if there is a blown head gasket).  As amazing as this sounds, I think the idiot who owned this before me filled the engine with coolant instead of oil, but I really can’t understand why.  It’s either gross incompetence or he sold me a bike with a known blown engine, which is a pretty shitty thing to do.  Incompetent or nasty, not a great set of choices there.

Next up is actually putting oil in the engine and running it again.  I’ve got some used stuff out of the Tiger which is the right weight.  If it works, then the guy who owned this thing before me might be the dumbest human in history.  Once I’ve run the old synthetic out of the Tiger and confirmed everything works, I’ll drain it and put some new stuff in.


My first sports bike has been a bit more baffling than the XS1100 (air cooled, nothing weird there other than the ownership) and the Concours sports tourer which had been through hell, but was owned by a guy who knew what he was doing.


The muppet who owned this bike before me will have me going top to bottom on it before I get it out on the road – I can’t trust anything that was done to it.

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Bad Habits: these tools are not toys

The other week we had a PD on differentiated instruction. Before this long, undifferentiated lecture, I tried to get netbooks into as many interested teacher’s hands as possible. We set up a Google doc, opened up Twitter and began back channeling. It went well, most of the teachers trying it had never back channeled before. In a one way lecture with virtually no two way communication between the audience and the lecturer, we had ourselves a bracing and critical discussion about the material being covered.

That’s not how the vast majority of our colleagues saw it though. The cut-eye from people began the moment I opened my netbook; the assumption is that if you’re on a computer you’re wasting time, not paying attention, screwing around. Admittedly, the vast majority of the angry (embarrassed even) stares came from older teachers, but not exclusively. The passive, talked at audience thought we’d found a way out of the lecture using technology, rather than a way to make it engaging. The highlight came when the lecturer began standing next to one of the back channelers in an attempt to use proximity to get her back on task; even the instructor assumed technology use was time wasting.
One of the most powerful aspects of back channelling, even in the most non participatory lectures, is that it can create a responsive, audience involved activity that allows viewers to engage in learning actively. That many people in the room didn’t recognize what active learning looks like in a world of Twitter and shared documents tells you something about where they see their classes from.
The assumption I’m most interested in is that technology allows the user to screw around, not do what they are supposed to be doing. This makes me wonder what these teachers think their students are doing when they book them into a computer lab, is it a free period in their minds? Or does this have more to do with how people pay attention to a lesson or lecture? If that’s the case, do they assume students aren’t listening when they are taking notes? or not staring at the speaker?
There are some interesting questions around multi-tasking here, but I’ll leave them for another time. What I suspect is that this all comes back to a fear of technology in learning; it’s still assumed by many that internet access is a complete waste of time. They think that the web is Youtube, Farmville, Facebook and meaningless, puerile and unproductive navel gazing. For many students (and teachers I guess) it is, but then, isn’t it up to us as teachers to show students how to make productive use of what may be one of the pinnacles of human engineering?
As old fashioned as this sounds, this may all boil down to what we think about note taking, a skill that is all but ignored in education. Learning how to take notes is vital, and back channelling, shared documents and a plethora of online services (Google docs, Prezi, Twitter, Adobe Connect and other video sharing tools, wall wisher, Todaysmeet, Backnoise, and many others; this is constantly evolving) have created new opportunities for note taking and interactivity with learning interaction and recording that didn’t exist previously. These new skills need to be integrated into basic note taking. We need to stop ignoring technology competency in the learning process.
However you care to illustrate the process of learning, recording your learning in some way is a vital part of the process. It allows you to clarify ideas, isolate material, review it at a later date and summarize your knowledge. Note taking works as a fluid process that integrates the learner into what can be an alienating, passive situation, making them an active participant. I don’t think anyone would suggest that students shouldn’t take notes, but passive lectures (unless you’re at PD) have become a thing of the past. Differentiated instruction and student centered learning have tended to de-emphasize note taking (often replaced with handouts). This seems to cause students new to university a great deal of difficulty.
Perhaps the best thing technology can bring to this are new ways to collaborate, participate and communicate a learner’s response to new material, but not if we’re assuming that the tools used are really just toys.

Raging: how empowered learners respond to being outside the Zone

Getting a student into the zone of proximal development is a tricky business. If students don’t have sufficient background knowledge and skill in what they’re learning, they tend to switch off.  This often shows as distraction, disengagement and disinterest.  In extreme cases students become disruptive, knocking others who might be on the cusp of their ZPD out of a learning opportunity.  This seems to be happening more often in classrooms, I have an idea why…

That disruptive approach is common in online gaming.  It might be useful to look at how raging, trolling and ‘Umad‘ online interaction points to a foreign set of values that many students are familiar and comfortable with.  The vast majority of educators have no experience or knowledge of gaming culture.  When a student in the class room acts on values they’ve learned while gaming, shock ensues.

Teabaggging is one of many tactics designed to belittle an opponent

In a player versus player game, game balance and the opportunity for everyone to participate in a maximal way (in their ZPD) depends on the players all having sufficient skill to make a game of it.  In a randomly generated game, it’s common for a team of n00bs to get pwned by a more skilled team.  This is often accompanied by flaming with the intent to anger your opponents to such a degree that they quit (ideally vocally angry, allowing you to throw in a umad? before they storm off).  In gaming, ‘schooling‘ your opponents is a vital part of the learning process.  It’s the clearest way to state your superiority in skill over an opponent.  The goal is to make it so clear to a weaker player that they are out of their league (way outside their ZPD) that they give up in anger.  This is going to sound very foreign to the overly compassionate, no-bullying, we’re all to be treated as equals approach found in education, but this is where many students spend hours of their time when not in the manufactured environment of their school.

A gamer who is forced out of a game in this fashion is very angry in the moment, and quits the game, usually to pick up another game immediately.  In this game, if they are within their ZPD in terms of their gaming skills (which involves knowledge of the game environment, hand eye coordination, strategy and cooperative play, among others), they are immediately re-engaged.  Their recent failure does not hurt them or follow them in any way, and the adrenaline burst of anger has prompted them to intensively refocus on the game.  I suspect the stats for a player in a post-rage situation improve due to the residual anger and energy released.  They increase their skill with this hyper focus and rage less often.

When you meet a master player, they tend to shy away from the trash talk and simply demonstrate their skill, rather than yapping about it.  This kind of mastery is every player’s goal.  When they get there, they often adopt the degree of awesomeness Jane McGonigal talks about in her TEDtalk.  As nice as it is to see someone recognizing gaming awesomeness, it’s also important to recognize that gaming intensity requires accessing a full range of emotional response in players.  These responses can often seem cruel or unusual to non-gamers.

Gaming’s all-in philosophy is completely counter to the risk-averse, failure-follows you approach of education.  Rather than being allow to epically fail, suffer and re-engage, education does everything it can to ensure that epic failures (or failures of any kind) never occur.  Failure is increasingly impossible to achieve in the class room, and the result moves students further and further away from the culture of one of their richest learning environments.

If you want intense engagement then you need to offer access to a full spectrum of emotion, and a real and meaningful opportunity for failure, but you can’t be an ass about it and hang that failure around a learner’s neck forever.  Until we grasp this simple truth found in the forge of intense gaming, we’re going to appear increasingly foreign to our students, and they are going to keep learning more from World of Warcraft than they ever will from a teacher.


http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html (lies debunked about gaming)
http://janemcgonigal.com/: a great look at the positive power gaming can produce (I’m arguing here about how it’s negative aspects still offer useful truths too)
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.04/genX.html: an interesting summary of the gamer generation
http://www.avantgame.com/: recognizing the power of gaming

Caution, Fear & Risk Aversion in Students

The first ever post on Dusty World from way back in 2010!

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Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
Bertrand Russell

… but we don’t set up schools to nurture a love of learning, we set them up like 19th Century factories.

 

I’m teaching a grade 12 class on computer science. If my computer science teacher knew I was doing this, he would roll over in his grave. I haven’t coded since the ’80s, I’m a technician. I got knocked off coding by that same computer science teacher who could only approach coding from a mathematical/logical direction. My hackering/tinkering/non-linear approach to generating code depended on a natural fluency with syntax and a willingness to break things in order to come up with something new. I never cared about solving for x, I was always about the why.
 
So here I am, in a class full of students who my old compsci teacher would have adored. Math wizes who have learned how to learn so well, they can’t do anything (else).
 
Lisa Simpson (during a teacher’s strike): I can’t take this anymore! Please, mom! Grade me! Grade me! Validate me!!!
 
That’s at the bottom of it all. These A students are so trained to the system, so inured, that they can’t possibly get unplugged from the Matrix. The idea of learning for sheer curiosity’s sake has been beaten out of them by a dozen years of positive reinforcement produced by their spectacularly successful student careers.
 
When I suggest we take a left turn, instead of doing more pointless actionscript programming that no one else on the planet except Ontario Elearning finds valuable, and go after C++, which none of them have any experience in, only one is even willing to try it. The rest are paralyzed by fear of failure, or even worse, not being able to demonstrate consistent mastery – because that’s how we really grade. You only get perfect if you’re already ahead of the material. You can’t get low marks at the beginning, continually improve, and end with an A+, those early failures that produced understanding are factored into your grades. We penalize learning in the class room. There has been some change in this, formative/summative and such, but the vast majority of grading still follows the broken example above. Learning is a non-linear process, experimentation, failure, reassessment, reattempt, fail in a new, more interesting way… but we train students to think it’s an inbuilt ability, which you either have, or struggle with. Grades reflect this.
 
Even the one student willing to self-direct his learning and take on a challenging new language (one that his university uses extensively and we’re pushing him toward with no experience whatsoever) sent me an email anguishing over his grades if he cannot demonstrate fluency in C++ in the 5 weeks we have left. I’ve approached this a number of ways. Firstly, by working with him to set attainable goals (this still freaks him out, he can’t see the mastery in setting the goals to a reasonable level, so feels his marks will suffer). Secondly, I’ve gotten him into a course of study that leads him through the beginnings of C++. The end result should be a working familiarity with a language he’s never seen before demonstrated by some basic scripts that show him coming to terms with the material. Thirdly, I told him to forget the numbers. He is putting hours in on this, not because he has to, but because he wants to. The end result is irrelevant, he is directing his own learning – a dead art in an education system designed to force conformity in order to keep costs down and appear financially responsible. He’s doing something no one else is willing or able to do. He’s also learning something that will immediately assist him in university next year. How is any of this not 100%?
 
I only wish I could overcome the caution and apathy born of risk aversion in the other students and set them free. We feed them a steady diet of caution, then wonder why they aren’t willing to take risks in learning.
 
I’m not the guardian of knowledge, I shouldn’t even get to decide how they learn, I should do everything I can to ensure that they do though.


Update:  I just ran into this student at the Grad ceremony a couple of weeks ago.  He’s in his first year at Waterloo U doing computer science (a wickedly difficult course to get into).  It was nice to hear that the C++ really payed off, in a way that the actionscript stuff never would.  He’s finding it difficult, but he’s seeing success, and his greatest advantage?  Taking a run at the programming language they use at university before he got there, errors and all.