Follow Opportunities, Not Dreams

I’m up early chasing through UK documents on their worrying lack of digital skills.  A typical UK worker falls behind many other country’s workers in basic IT skills, and I suspect the same is true of many Western countries.  When the digital economy is one of the few bright spots, Western students seem to be turning away from it (unless it’s video game design, everyone wants to be a video game designer – as long as it means playing video games and not actually learning how to code).

We can’t fill jobs in computer related fields, but less and less students are considering the pathway.

One of the prime movers in this shift away from viable employment follows an idea on bad advice I saw from a tech teacher at our school:

“Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.”


As a general rule, parents and students are guided in school to do what makes them happy.  We fill up courses playing hockey, taking photos and give out credits for things kids are doing at home anyway.  It makes for shiny, happy, low stressed students and a great graduation rate, but none of it is really preparing students for the workplace.

We are frequently updated with the number of students from our school who have been accepted to university (only university, the rest don’t matter).  We never see any stats on how many of them finish the degrees they were accepted for.  I suspect that stat isn’t very flattering.  An even less flattering stat would be an income check at the age of thirty.  I wonder what the employment prospects for those university bound students are.  What is their quality of life trying to pay off debts larger than they’ve ever been in history?  Yet that’s where all our ‘good’ students are directed.

I dropped out of high school and became a millwright because I had smart hands and the apprenticeship fell into my lap.  When I didn’t feel like that was intellectually stressful enough I tackled university and then chased the opportunities that arose from it.  I didn’t become a teacher because it was some kind of magical calling, I became a teacher because I was chasing opportunities.

Much of the advice students get in school are from life-long academics.  People who went to school, attended university, and then immediately became employed for life at school again (sometimes the same school they graduated from!)  These people with their carefully proscribed lives don’t experience the world the way the rest of us do.  When I see them telling students to ‘do what makes you happy’ and ‘follow your dreams!’, I cringe.


My son has recently been wondering about getting a job so he can manage his own money, he’s eleven.  I told him, ‘do you know why they call it work?’  He looked at me for a moment and then said, ‘because it isn’t for fun?’  Out of the mouths of babes.  I only wish school guidance would realize that basic truth.

You can derive a great deal of satisfaction out of your work without it being some kind of romantic calling.  Few people live the lives of celebrities, playing a game or making art and wallowing in the money derived from it.  Insinuating that kids could be that person is dishonest at worst and deceiving at best, but how would you know if you’ve never had to struggle for work?  We can all find satisfying and challenging work if we push ourselves and chase opportunity.  Train yourself to better chase opportunity and you’ll find your circumstances will continue to change and improve.  One day you might find yourself in a well paid, challenging profession that you’d never have predicted for yourself.

Or, you know, maybe making a living…

Quinn Norton gives the blather some context.  Hobbies are for fun, your career
is probably not your hobby, and that’s fine, it’s how the world works.


Absurdities

 I came across this article by Yuval Noah Harari called  “Are we living in a post-truth era? Yes, but that’s because we’re a post-truth species.”  It’s not often that I’m rocked by something that I read, but this did that.  He has a particular line in it that explains the dissonance I feel with the world at the moment: 

“…truth has never been high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. False stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth. “

This happens with people so often that it’s one of the main reasons I find them so taxing.  Supporting other people’s fictions isn’t something that comes naturally to me.  I understand the social advantage of forcing compliance to untruths in order to establish loyalty between people, I’m just terrible at it.

In the last post talking about how to move forward in the morass of misinformation and negativity surrounding us, I mentioned that if I wanted to give up my idealism I’d go into management.  Management is one of those jobs that demands a facility for moving in post-truth ways.

A few years ago we had a poorly planned grade 8 day happen where an unexpected influx of students from the Catholic system resulted in over fifty children in one of the groups moving around the school seeing what’s on offer.  After half a dozen groups of 25 or so students accompanied by their teacher came through our program, this horde of fifty plus unaccompanied by an adult (because the second school system in Ontario won’t acknowledge the public one) burst into my shop and proceeded to do hundreds of dollars in damage before leaving.

I was livid.  I emailed admin and guidance and said (truthfully) that this was a dangerous situation that never should have been allowed to happen.  This upset our new head of guidance who was a good friend of our new principal.  His solution was to walk up to my room (very angry that I’d made his friend cry) and demand that I apologize for saying that this dangerous situation was dangerous.  I was teaching a class at the time but he wouldn’t let me leave the hallway he’d hauled me out into until I’d apologised.  It was a brutally honest moment of human hierarchical interaction where compliance to a lie was demanded and the usual niceties that we cloak our fictions in were swept aside.

More recently, as we switched to fully remote learning again following the mid-winter break, we were told “no one saw this coming” by admin.  Other than every doctor and epidemiologist in the province?  Other than anyone who had ready a credible news story in the past week?  How big a crane do I need to suspend my disbelief?  The only people who ‘didn’t see this coming’ were the politicians who caused it, and evidently education system managers who are so focused on making the wishes of what is perhaps the most malignant minister of education in Ontario’s history a reality that they’ve lost sight of reality.

One of the reasons I like working with machines is because they are honest in a way that human beings seem to find nearly impossible.  Reality continues to exist beyond the fictions people dress themselves in and will always ultimately win.  I find aligning myself with that reality is an opportunity for enlightenment in a way that the socially lubricating, self-serving human fictions are not.

Shakespeare has Hamlet tell Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, and that’s a good touchstone.  Reality is indeed more vast and complex than the lies we wrap each other up in.  I only wish more people would get as excited about the truth of the world as they do about the self-serving fictions we demand of each other.


In the midst of this chaos a wise colleague suggested the Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, which tells the story of a man miserably lost in the fictions we all chose to live in finding his way back to reality.  It’s a beautiful story, and one we find hard to hold onto when we’re in the churn of Ontario COVID mis-management.

Rationalism will never have the following that reductionist demagogues find because the one is hard work while the other is slight-of-hand salesmanship, though the sleazy salesmen don’t always get it their way.  Recent North American political change suggests that even the most persuasive demagogues get chased out of office when reality makes its presence felt.  Our political system isn’t perfect, but it does tend to self correct.  After years of abuse in Ontario public services and a year’s worth of fumbling the largest public health crisis in human history, that self correction sure feels a long time coming.

In the past week I’ve read articles about how doctors in Ontario & Quebec are working out protocols to decide who lives and who dies when they run out of capacity to treat pandemic patients.  On the same day an article came up talking about how flights are up to sunny destinations because many people are giving up on doing right by others and just want to satisfy themselves, consequences be damned until they need medical help and there are no beds available then they will be the ones crying loudest.  All while Ontario is experiencing a second wave of the pandemic that makes the first look like a hiccup.

So, we’re running out of hospital capacity to treat severe cases, testing has fallen away most likely as a way to make it look like the numbers are coming down.  The politicians who have mismanaged this crisis are looking for ways to spin fictions in their favour.  I drove in to school the other day and the line for testing at our local centre stretched around the hospital.  People want to get tested but the powers that be are more interested in spinning self-serving fictions.

Meanwhile, at the peak of the worst pandemic in modern history and with the emergence of a new even more transmittable variant of COVID, what are we doing in Ontario education?  We’re preparing to go back to face to face classes next Monday.  Then we too will get to play the ‘who-gets-treatment’ game with other front line workers while interacting with and giving the highest transmitting age groups a chance to drive another spike.  That’s why I’m awake at three in the morning wondering at the hypocrisy of human beings.

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Dairy of a Disenfranchised Coder

The first blog entry I ever wrote (about 18 months ago), spoke of risk aversion in students, but began with a brief ‘why I never pursued computers’.  This one opens that up a a bit and looks at how childhood interests never seem to fade away.

In the 1980s, I became interested in computers because my father wouldn’t buy me an Intellivision game console.  The Vic 20 we got instead became our gaming system, but it was much more.  I’ve carried a sense of intellectual superiority over game consoles ever since.  The Vic could plug in cartridges and play games, but where it really took off was with the datasette.  When we got our hands on that, we suddenly had the ability to save our work.  Before I knew it, I was begging my parents to drive to the only computer store in the area whenever a new COMPUTE! magazine came out so I could type out the basic programs in there.

None of this had anything to do with school.  Our junior high school had 3 Pets in the library, but it was typically a 2 week wait to get half an hour on one.  You had no chance of gaining any kind of familiarity with them.

It started all about video games, but quickly turned to coding.  Instead of buying the latest game (Cosmic Cruncher?), I was saving the paper route money for a 3k memory expander (I kept filling up the 3.5k of working RAM with code).  With more room to move, I began modifying those COMPUTE! programs, turning a road racing game into a Star Wars trench battle or the 8 key sound synthesizer into full keyboard synthesizer.

I’d shown friends what I was doing and soon Ataris and Apples began to appear in the neighborhood.  We’d dictate code while the fastest typer would hammer away at it, then we’d proof and run it.  Hours of speculation and experimentation about how changes might affect things followed.

There was no grade 9 computer course in high school, but I quickly leapt at the grade 10 one in 1985.  By then I had a Commodore 64 at home and we’d all discovered that if you had a good recording deck, you could sound record the cassettes that software came on.  There was a thriving pirating hub in high school with what looked like homemade mixed tapes.  A teacher once took one that was being passed in class and tried to listen to it, it wasn’t pretty.

That grade 10 class used a card reader.  We laboriously spent hours penciling in our lines of code, and would receive a printout off a dot matrix printer (which sounded like a machine gun tearing through silk).  I lasted about a month at this before I became determined to get a printer of my own.  No one else in the school had one, and the only place to find one was half way across the city.  Four bus transfers and a long night of travel got me back home with the printer, only to discover it was defective.  Another six hours on the bus and I was home again with the only dot matrix printer anyone had.

I coded at home, printed out my results and got to bypass the agony of the card reader.  Others begged me for access.  It became a nice sideline and paid for itself in short order.

Our grade 10 computer teacher was a young guy who got the job because he was the only one who could maintain the card reader without it jamming up all the time, he didn’t actually know much about coding (and why would he, he only had a card reader to figure it out on).  I did well in grade 10 intro to computers but was really excited to get into senior computer science.  The astronomer dream had been dashed in grade 10 physics when I discovered, to my horror, that physics was really just lots and lots of math, which I found tedious and unimaginative.  Anything that had only one way to a single solution seemed mind numbingly dull.  I was still hoping to find my niche in computer science though.

Finally able to get onto the senior computer science lab (first gen IBM x86s!), I was stunned to learn that our computer science teacher wanted us to program… math. I found the assignments linear and the teacher, who already knew the mathletes in the class, didn’t have time for anyone else or anything other than mathematical certainty in coding; the opposite of my experimental, hacking approach to programming.  Five years of passionate self-driven learning dissipated in a cloud of frustration and disinterest over that semester.

My parents went to the teacher conference confused at how a kid who spent hours and hours of his free time coding could be such an epic failure in this class.  My weakness in maths was sighted as the problem.  I’d signed up for the grade 12 class in semester two, but withdrew immediately when it started.  The teacher seemed surprised that I’d signed up for consecutive semesters of comp-sci.  I was surprised that he remembered my name.  And so ended my love affair with coding computers.

Of course I maintained an interest in computers, mainly around gaming and hardware, and eventually went on to get some I.T. certifications and even worked in software implementation in a few places, but getting knocked out of the holy grail of computing, the place where you author how a machine thinks, put the idea of working fully in the field beyond reach, and created a sense of self doubt that a teen is only too willing to embrace.

I’m getting computer certified this summer as a teacher.  When I walk into that class in the fall I’m hoping that I can support as many different approaches to coding as there are students in the room.  The last thing I want to do is knock a keen, self directed learner out of a woefully underdeveloped field of study in secondary schools.

Bending People to the Data

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The idea of data driven learning has become very popular.  This isn’t surprising since data is beginning to drive everything.  It becomes problematic when data is manipulated for ulterior, usually political motives rather than being understood in its own context.

It’s a complex series of events that have led us to this point.  We’re living in an age of data where we are recording much of it for the first time.  We mistakenly describe this as ‘creating information’, but we’ve always done that.  What digitization does is allow us to save that data on a massive scale and then make connections in it we couldn’t before.

We’re not creating any more information than we used to, but we are recording it now at an unprecedented rate.

We’ve been experiencing this information forever.  If I went for a ride on my motorbike in the 1950s I would have experienced roughly the same ‘data’ that I’d experience going for a ride now.  The difference now is that the go-pro on my helmet and youtube means that data is saved and shared.  We’re not creating any more information than we did before, but we’re recording it and allowing others to experience data now on an unprecedented scale.

This mass recording and access to data is a relatively new phenomenon so we should take care to contextualize it, but we don’t.  We recognize that data driven methods yield results, but in our rush to enter this brave new world of data we happily ignore what doesn’t suit our goals and take other data out of context if it serves our cause.  When politics or self-promotion drive data selection the benefits of data driven management are in doubt.  Politics and self-promotion always influence data collection and presentation.

Since it is so much easier to record and share data we’re tempted to structure our activities around data creation rather than being present in the genuine experience.  I suspect we’ll get better at this as technology becomes less invasive and allows us to capture moments with minimal interference.  The evolution from TV to analogue video to digital video is a good example of this progress.  But in the early stages of this evolution we’re still awkwardly focusing on data collection rather than genuine experience.  Selfies at the Tour de France this year are an example.  If you watch any live event where people are focused on recording rather than experiencing the moment you’ll know this is endemic.  From the World Cup to the Olympics, the focus on data collection gets in the way of being there.  This creates some interesting changes in experiential value.  You now need to share the experience live rather than relating it after the fact.  Being there is less important than your recording of being there.  Every experience is one step removed.

Education is no different.  Rather than focusing on ways to capture genuine experience in as non-invasive a way as possible, we create artificial situations that produce data for its own sake; standardized testing is a fine example.  Rather than integrating literacy assessment into genuine experience driven learning, we create an artificial testing environment that is designed to produce data.  Students and the complexities of literacy are minor components in that process.  We then base management decisions on the corrupted data that is produced from these artificial situations.

If data collection is the point of the exercise then the data you’re producing is a reflection of the data collection process more than it is a meaningful analysis of whatever it is you think you’re assessing.

Technology needs to be pushed to produce non-invasive ways of collecting genuine data.  Not only will this allow people to bask in the moment rather than ignoring first hand experience to create second rate data, but it will also serve student learning by focusing on the learning itself instead of the data gathering processes.  

We need to stop bending the people to the data and start demanding that the data find us where we are, in genuine experience.  In the meantime it is vital that we don’t blindly believe that there are absolute truths in data that is produced for its own sake with ulterior motives.

What 2020 Taught Me

This is the fifth attempt at this post.  Sometimes, reflecting your way out of dark place professionally takes some iteration.  Previous attempts ended up heaping frustration on top of frustration until it seemed overwhelming again – not the best way to resolve a metaphysical crisis even if it is all true.  I’m not the smartest, most upwardly mobile educator in the world, but I know my craft and I’m good at getting students to express their talents.  I’m also effective under fire and can always find a way to get back on my feet again when the going gets tough.  This year has been a test of that resilience and at times it has broken me, but reflecting on a year where Ontario education has lost the plot more than once has me thinking about a Banksy piece:

I’ve been tempted to leave education a few times over the past year for pastures less politically misdirected, but I genuinely enjoy my work, recognize its social importance and don’t want to walk away while my profession has forgotten its primary purpose in a fog of political misdirection and pandemic panic.  Education matters.  It matters even more in a crisis.  That’s a simple truth 2020 has taught me.  What else has this epically crappy year taught me?


LESSON 1:  The people running ‘the system’ aren’t focused on pedagogy, they’re focused on making it run (at all costs, even if it makes people sick or abuses their lack of privilege)

I’ve known this since I got thrown under the bus for handling my mother’s suicide too slowly, but 2020 has reminded me of systemic intent by shining a harsh light inside the process.  From taking multiple pay cuts to protect student learning in January while admin sat in empty schools collecting salary, to watching the system lurch back into the classroom unprepared in September, 2020 has shown that the most important thing to people running Ontario education is making a schedule and then ensuring it happens.  Pedagogy and equity might come up in the marketing material, but action around it is non-existent.  Threaten the schedule though and you’ll get an immediate reaction.

This came into focus in November when we watched Ontario Education Workers United’s live webcast on how to stop the ‘pedagogically impoverished‘ hybrid/simultaneous online and face to face learning model.  I’ve had a go at this unsustainable and problematic smoke screen of an approach on Dusty World previously.  There was a great deal of dissonance in listening to educational experts like Doctor Beyhan Farhadi talking about pedagogy when the system itself seems to have turned its back on it entirely.

Our absurd pandemic teaching approach reduces in-class instruction to less than half the normal face to face instructional time while making no changes to curriculum expectations because it’s important to retain the appearance of credibility.  Actual pedagogical credibility, let alone equity, compassion and even teacher burnout doesn’t appear to be a consideration unless it’s an email or newsletter – board newsletters have proliferated this year.  2020 has taught me that the system must run at all costs – even at the cost of the people it serves.

Our broken pandemic teaching models also demand that teachers be simultaneously teaching online and face to face to two different groups of students simultaneously all day every day while throwing about a month’s worth of material at students each week.  It’s doing this having cancelled face to face special education support which has led to even further inequity in the classroom.  It’s an approach that has hurt my son directly.  Listening to parents of students with IEPs begging for support and compassion is heart breaking.  I’m going to make a point of honouring that need even if the system appears to be deaf to these calls for help.

The paradigm shifting moment during that OEWU webcast was a Toronto teacher and union activist who approached the fight from a very pragmatic angle.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing), that the system is only interested in making sure the system works and if you want it to take notice you have to stop if from working.  Killing yourself to make a bad system run and then complaining about it isn’t an effective approach.  System administration will only pay attention to you if you stop the system from functioning.  I’m not sure where to take that truth in 2021, but it’s something to keep in mind if you see systemic abuse occurring and want to stop it.

The Ministry mandated full day of racism training we got in September prior to starting an unprecedented change in schooling feels more like a smokescreen rather than any kind of genuine attempt at addressing inequity.  Trot out a day of racism training (entirely delivered by ‘woke’ white women) and then execute a schedule designed to suit privilege while crushing students who don’t have it.

2020 has taught me to see actions, not words, as the real barometer of an institution’s intent.


LESSON 2:  “This isn’t elearning, it’s emergency remote learning”

A wise colleague said this in one of our earliest online remote meetings and it changed my mind about how to teach in a pandemic.  My reaction in a crisis is to display initiative and work to help people, but systemic paralysis was followed by a lurch into elearning with zero support and then a series of baffling changes of direction by the Ministry in terms of what technology we can use.


Ontario’s experiment in remote learning ended when Stephen Lecce came on one Friday afternoon and told students across the province that marks don’t matter in remote learning, which has established a culture of irrelevance in remote learning that continues.  We aren’t supposed to grade any learning that happens remotely and many teachers have given up on it entirely due to poor student engagement.  The system’s zero support is ongoing – we’ve been given no PD or even time to redesign the entire curriculum for remote learning on the fly.  The metaphor of building a plane in the air hasn’t changed, and we’re going back to full remote learning tomorrow.  How do you think that will fly?

2020 has taught me that curriculum is less important than student and staff welfare. It’s a pity the people in charge only pitch wellness emails at this ongoing mental health crisis, but as a classroom teacher my ever shrinking sphere of control still allows me to address it with my  particular students, and I intend to.  While other teachers are crushing students (especially the ones with IEPs) in a desperate quest for academic credibility in a system that’s only pretending to have it, I shall not.  This involves differentiating, which is another one of those pedagogical best practices we’ve burned to the ground during this crisis.

Some students, like myself, want to be engaged and kept busy lest they go mad with frustration!  For those students I will offer the variation and enrichment I’ve always pursued (yes, even in a pandemic), but for the vast majority less is their new normal.  For this group (which includes many teachers), being gentle is more important than being productive.  2020 has taught me that for the majority of people, when the going gets tough, waiting to be told what to doing as little as possible is the way forward.  It doesn’t bode well for a future bulging with ever increasing overpopulation in a limited ecosystem, but it’s the world our systemic myopia has brought us to.

2020 has taught me that pushing broken people only breaks them more, so I won’t be doing that even if the system demands it.

This is indeed emergency remote teaching.  It isn’t a ‘new normal’ and we shouldn’t all be waving flags proclaiming, ‘I got this’.  What we should be doing is looking after the children in our care, supporting their families and our colleagues and making sure that everyone is alright instead of pretending that everything is business as usual.  We can always learn what we missed on the other side of this.  Meanwhile, we’re getting strident ‘you have to provide blah blah minutes of synchronous instruction online‘ directives as we return to our second bout of emergency remote teaching.

There are too many system-people hanging on too tight that need to unclench.  I realize that this is being driven by a sabotaged Ministry, but enforcing it makes you complicit in it.  I’m going to look after my little patch (even the ones with special needs!) and push back if my student wellbeing first approach isn’t deemed appropriate by the powers that be.


LESSON 3:  Most people just want to be told what to do, even in a crisis…

My first instinct in a crisis is to show initiative and try to act in a way that helps, but the system thinkers don’t want you doing that, they want you to fall in line and do what you’re told.  This is problematic for me as my raison d’être in teaching is my agency as a teacher.  When the best I can hope from the system is benign neglect I can get a lot done in my immediate space, but when the system is in crisis it insinuates itself into my classroom and this is infuriating.  If I wanted to give up my idealism I’d go into management.


I’m able to do what I do in the classroom because I have agency.  One of the reasons I enjoy classroom teaching is because I have the latitude to make decisions that aim at the highest ideals and see them through without having to water them down.  In a crisis it seems that systems clamp down on individual agency and demand compliance.  My issue with that is that I’ve never done the bare minimum, always do excessively more and my students benefit from that in many ways.  I refuse do my job in an online lockstep of systemic expectations, especially if they’re designed for marketing a fiction of a full school experience during a pandemic that is preventing exactly that.  I have no interest in misleading people, most especially my students.


Not all teachers are above-and-beyonders, but I gotta tell ya, the vast majority are.  You’d be hard pressed to find a single teacher in my school that doesn’t do extracurriculars and work on the weekend.  Given some latitude they’ll do more than the minimum simply because they are professionals.  2020 has taught me that I don’t necessarily want to leave the classroom, but I would like to work for a system that recognizes my professionalism and honours it instead of treating me like an errant child.

Many people want to be told what to do and wait for that direction.  You’d think that would change in a crisis but it seems to intensify.  I’ve occasionally had leaders who recognize my need for action and honour it, but they are a minority.  I suspect this is a control issue for most.  Many people find invasive and systemic control a comfort, but for some it feels like strangulation.

Reading Matt Crawford’s latest book, Why We Drive, this fall while I was getting waterboarded at work taught me how to differentiate to students in a crisis by recognizing the need for human agency in an increasingly automated world.  Some people need clear direction and eased expectations while others want to exercise their agency and do something to help.  I only hope that the people running things recognize that.  We could get a lot more done if the doers weren’t being strangled by system lockstep thinking; we need to do much more than we are.

***

We’re about to step back into emergency remote learning after the mid-winter break, which hasn’t been much of a break at all.  Everyone looks grey, stressed out and exhausted.  We are probably not even half way through this pandemic marathon but I’m not about to let it diminish my professional scope.  My classroom will recognize that my students might be providing daycare for their siblings or working to support parents who have lost their jobs.  Others may live in rural locations with spotty internet or might be trying to do remote learning on ancient or poorly working technology that they only have occasional access to.  The school system likes to ignore these issues while sternly demanding full days of remote synchronous instruction.  I’m not going to demand that because I have no interest in maintaining a vicious government’s fiction of business as usual in the classroom.  What I am going to do is help where I can, give each student what they need to feel like they’re achieving something (anything) in this crisis, and make sure the ones who want to do more have the tools and material to create the agency they crave at a time of forced helplessness.  If everyone wakes up the next day feeling recognized and enabled then that’s a sound pedagogical goal.

Personally?  2020 taught me not to throw myself into the massive gap between the system’s failure to do what it should and what my students need, because it’s unsustainable.  I’m not helping anyone if I hurt myself trying to make up for the lack of vision demonstrated by the thousands of people ‘above’ me on the org chart.  I’ll read my Tao Te Ching and follow Lao Tsu’s advice and withdraw when my work is done.  2020 has taught me that the system will happily let me burn myself out attempting to resolve its shortcomings.

To hold and fill a cup to overflowing Is not as good as to stop in time.
Sharpen a sword edge to its very sharpest, And the (edge) will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall, You will not be able to keep them.
To be proud with honour and wealth Is to cause one’s own downfall.
withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven’s Way.


2020 also taught me that the education system’s academic focus is a fiction we all tell ourselves to justify its existence, but it’s actually much more foundational than that.  The deeper truth is that the system should be less about curriculum and more about equity and inclusion.  Public education is one of our best tools for socially enabling everyone to become their best selves.  If we approached this pandemic by differentiating our expectations and working from a place of compassion and inclusion instead of fake academic integrity we’d do more good and teach students about things that genuinely matter, like kindness.  Ultimately, education should be about recognizing individual needs and enabling students to express their best selves, the rest is paperwork.

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The Most Underused Resource In Education

*** in Ontario teachers have to undergo an in-class review every five years by one of the school administration ***

The other day our six month pregnant one contract/LTO teacher was running around in a panic trying to get dodgey board laptops to work with dodgey board projectors on the dodgey board network.  Her panic was the result of a VP coming into her class for her review.  I’ve seen this happen with many teachers, young and old; the panic over admin coming in to review their teaching practices.

The stress of poor board technology practices aside, this review of teaching practices by admins bothers me on a couple of levels.

Back in the day, when I was in millwright training, my old Jamaican mentor told me the story of our department boss.  He had a mechanical background, but he was incredibly lazy.  His fame came from being able to slide under a truck and fall asleep on night shift for hours at a time.  He was so bad at the work that the company had no choice but to promote him into management.  I’ve since come to realize that this was a pretty pessimistic view of how managers become managers, but as an impressionable nineteen year old listening to a man who never told me a lie, it seemed the truth.  I’ve always been cautious about management as a result, never assuming that they are somehow superior because of their title.

There is no doubt that leadership in education is a vital component, and we all hope that the people playing those administrative parts do it for all the right reasons (and not because they were such a disaster in the classroom that it was better for them to manage).  What I don’t understand is why admin are mandated to come into a teacher’s class and somehow assess their ability to teach.  What makes an administrator qualified to meaningfully review classroom teaching?  Whether an administrator opted out of the classroom because they found it tedious, difficult or simply wanted a change, the simple truth is that they aren’t teaching, and in many cases didn’t for very long before they stepped into a management role. Asking them to review something they dropped after a short period of time seems… odd.  Administrators are generally not master teachers.

I have no trouble with sharing my practice and would encourage teachers to experience each other’s classrooms at every possible opportunity, this isn’t about advocating for a closed classroom, and I’m not advocating for the removal of teacher in-class review, just who is doing it.

In most cases vice principals and principals take on these roles not because they were expert teachers, but because their interests lie elsewhere.  This would suggest that teaching was never their strong suit.  Taking on school leadership roles is a very heavy load, and I can appreciate the fact that some teachers want to put the classroom behind them and take that on; it’s important work and a great challenge.  What I can’t understand is why those same people are now mandated to sit in on a teacher’s classes and review their teaching skills.

In the case of a new teacher, it seems like it might help and offer them a bit of mentorship in the process, but what about the case of the twenty five year veteran of the classroom?  The master teacher who has not only survived but thrived in the role of teacher?  How does a VP with five years in-class experience assess that?  Do they even know what they’re looking at?

Those same veteran teachers are the most underused resource in education.  Department headships, like VP and principal positions, are administrative, they offer little in the way of teaching focused career enhancement.  Telling a senior teacher that this should be their focus isn’t honouring the expertise they have developed from years working with students actually teaching.

It might seem like a rather simple idea, but why don’t those senior teachers take on this role of in-class review and mentorship?  Having a senior teacher from my own department drop in for a lesson and a talk would be instructive for me, demonstrate respect for their skills and allow expert teachers to express their mastery.  It would also create a continuous sense of valid professional development within departments.  Instead of a fairly pointless and closely monitored five year review by people who don’t even want to work in a classroom any more, how about an ongoing senior teacher review (20+ years in the classroom in order to take on that role).

The administrative arm of things does important work, but to say they have the experience and skill to determine what a front line teacher is doing right or wrong in a classroom is ridiculous.  Instead of driving our senior teachers into administration as if that is the only opportunity for ‘advancement’, why not recognize mastery in a very challenging environment, and encourage those with that expertise to share what they know?

A Bits & Bytes Reboot

 Hello TVO,

I’m active on Teach Ontario and my wife has been a regional councillor with you; we’re both big supporters of TVO.

A long time ago as a 10 year old new immigrant to Canada in the early 1980s I came across Bits & Bytes as I was teaching myself how computers worked.  This became a career in IT that has since morphed into a career in education where I’ve coached students in my small town to national championships in Skills Canada and ICTC’s CyberTitan Student Cybersecurity Competition.

I frequently write about the dearth of computer skills in the education system and society at large.  This one from 2017 is a good exampleThe article that kicked off that blog post offers a staggeringly dark view of digital fluency not just in Canada but around the world.  We have all become increasingly dependent on computer technology while simultaneously wallowing in ignorance around how it all works.

I think back to how Bits & Bytes influenced a whole generation of Ontarians to take on this emerging technology and think it’s time for a reboot.  If we’re going to plug our children into networks for their learning and live our lives in digital spaces then we all need to have a basic understanding of how these digital technologies work or we’re inviting abuse and manipulation.  ICT (information and communications technology) is now considered a critical infrastructure by the government of Canada, yet most Canadians are essentially illiterate in it even as they come to depend on it more and more.

If you ever decide to put together a B&B reboot and are looking for people to work on it I’m all in.  TVO’s mandate is to transform learning through digital technology, but if we don’t understand that technology then we’re nothing more than easily manipulated consumers of it.  Addressing this illiteracy would also raise Ontario’s place on an increasingly interconnected world stage.  Bring back Bits & Bytes 21st Century Edition and help educate Ontarians on the technology we’re all living our lives through!

Sincerely,

Tim King

Elora, ON

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Academic Integrity And Other Lies We Tell About Pandemic Teaching

My son works hard at school and just got his grade 10 honour roll in the mail.  At the same time we got his first quadmester of pandemic learning report card and we were all shocked to see a precipitous drop in grades that means he won’t be on next year’s honour roll.  Unlike previous years where the school made a point of acknowledging his individual education plan and supported him by ‘encouraging’ teachers to follow the medical recommendations on it, this year any support provided had to be snuck in because all support has been officially cancelled due to COVID19.  Classroom teachers can have double cohorts of 20 students coming off busses with 35+ students on them every day, but all supports are cancelled because we don’t want to spread the virus.  Keeping up with the demands of SAFETY when they are so arbitrary and ineffective is exhausting and frustrating.

As a parent of a child with an IEP I’m concerned that our double digit drop in grades is a system wide situation affecting hundreds of thousands of students with special learning needs across the province.  Talking to parents of students with special needs, this seems to be what is happening everywhere.  Kid’s with special needs are getting ground down by this rushed and cruel schedule.

The pandemic schedule slapped together by school boards is different all over the province as the Minister and Ministry of Education failed to demonstrate any leadership in planning a centralized response to this emergency.  The result is a cobbled together mess that makes a mockery of educational expectations in (what was once) one of the highest ranked public education systems in the world.

I’ve worked in Ontario’s public education system for sixteen years and while the system has been far from perfect it has always made attempts to follow data driven, responsible pedagogy.  The other night I attended an online meeting of Ontario Education Workers United who are trying to stop stacked simultaneous face to face and online classes.  It was jarring to hear them talk about pedagogical best practices because it has been so long since I’ve seen any.  I’ve always been led to believe that we follow the research in order to produce the best possible educational outcomes for the widest variety of students.  Those days focused on best practices are far behind us.  I’m still trying to work out how we were on strike last year trying to protect student learning, but this year a virus gives us an excuse to throw it all in the toilet.  I really don’t know what any of the players in public education (unions, school board, ministries, colleges of teachers, etc) that I pay for actually stand for as 2020 closes.  It certainly isn’t equity and support for students with special needs.

What I do see in public education, especially in the past two years, is a government intent on dismantling it for private, for-profit interests.  Meanwhile, as the funding dries up, educational management (which you can only join with a raft of post-graduate degrees) operates on their usual bias of protecting the students most like themselves.  This is upsetting both as a parent and a teacher.  When money is thin those special needs are just an expensive and expendable bother.  This is starting to feel like an unwinnable battle as the parents of special needs kids have to stand up against a biased system and a political party that seems determined to hurt them.

COVID has only intensified this inequitable situation.  This slapped together, high-speed schedule that fakes an appropriate amount of instructional time (we’re at 52.5 hours of face to face instruction down from 110 hours) has no room for students with special needs.  I’d love to see the live data we’ve already got for quadmester one but no one will want to show it because it won’t be flattering.  We only follow the data when it suits us these days.  The credit completion rates of fully remote elearning will pile on top of the grade drops and failures with face to face students to paint a damning picture of this ‘new normal’, but no one wants to work from that kind of data.

I sympathize with teachers struggling to retain some form of academic integrity when the system itself has made a mockery of it.  Ontario curriculums are designed to be 110 hours long.  Teachers are desperately trying to meet those requirements while being given a fraction of the time needed.  We’re doing 52.5 hours of in-class instruction in multiple cohorts so students are in either face to face in the morning or the afternoon.  This is done to keep group sizes under 20, which is wise during a pandemic, though when they stream off buses with up to 40 students on them (while f2f spec-ed support is cancelled) you have to wonder where the random lines are being drawn, and why.

 


More confusing are the instructions around the online half of the school day students are ‘supposed’ to be doing at home.  That remote work is where we’re supposed to make up the other half of lost course time, but we’ve been told we can’t assess anything done remotely and students and/or parents can opt out of it entirely while still earning a credit.  Most teachers seem to have responded to this by marking in a way that is specifically damaging to students with special learning needs, all in the name of academic integrity.

An argument might be made that if the same qualified teacher is running their own remote cohorts then a degree of online instructional effectiveness might be achieved, but I’ve yet to have a teacher qualified to teach my subject as remote support and I’m currently remote supporting a class I’m not qualified or experienced in.  My make-work job there is reduced to helping students find links and make things work online, if they bother to show up, which a third of the class (the third with IEPs) aren’t doing anyway.  We could have limited class sizes to single cohorts for classes with only one qualified teacher in the building, or even connected remote teachers between schools for specialized classes, but none of that happened because qualified teachers and even instructional time doesn’t matter anymore.

You can find this right on the Ministry webpage, but it isn’t true in a pandemic.  The only thing your child with special needs can expect at the moment is to get run over by speeding quadmesters.  Do try and keep them engaged and upbeat during a marathon health emergency though because you can’t expect their schools to be doing it.


Many IEPs will state that a student needs extra time in order to see success in their class, and board administration is expected to adhere to supports for these special needs.  Our own experience getting run over by a rushed quadmester with little or no communication and sudden drops in marks without explanation, support or even an option for extra time is the result of teachers clinging to academic integrity when no one else is, from the Minister on down.  It’s a war parents of kids with special needs can’t win because it seems as if the entire education system has come out in favour of punishing students with IEPs.

Special education is a human rights issue, but you can bet the lawyers are all over the health & safety not withstanding piece in there right now, though they’re strangely quiet about 40 kids on a bus.  Discarding spec-ed supports is a top down decision done by a government with a history of special-needs abuse

At a time when everyone is under exceptional stress and trying to deal with a seemingly never ending health crisis you’d think the education system would focus on equity and support for those students most in need, but the opposite has happened.  Service providers have an obligation to accomodate a person’s needs but this pandemic has unfortunately shown the true colours of both this government, the ministry it has infected and school boards who were more focused on rushing out a solution instead of looking after our most vulnerable students.  Now that the new system is in place you can expect it to continue running over students with special needs which now includes an increasing number of non-IEPed students who are facing anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic.

Expecting reason and compassion from the minister is a lost cause.  I can only hope people in leadership positions elsewhere in the system take their responsibilities more seriously and start acting to support students and redirect teachers away from playing a part in this latest round of systemic inequity.  We need to stop the myth that these cobbled together pandemic quadmesters have any kind of academic integrity, equity or kindness.  Only then can we fix it, and fix it we must.

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Wired Thinking on Neurodiversity

Wired at 20 years old

My favorite magazine is WIRED, and I’m a magazine guy.  No other magazine dares me to think as widely and as daringly about the times we live in (if you’ve never picked up a copy, give it a go!).  Wired will go after interests of mine (internet culture, technology, etc) but it will also introduce me to the leading edge of fields I have only a passing experience in, and make me care about them.

This month they turn 20 years old.  They’ve been daringly guessing what will happen next for two decades now, and while they don’t always get it right, they always make you realize what changes are upon us.

As  I read a new edition I usually want to link and share the ideas they stir up.  This edition is full of them as Wired goes over an alphabet of ideas considered in the last two decades.

Neurodiversity is a topic that hits close to home.  With a son diagnosed, I’ve come to recognize how I’ve dealt with ASD myself.  One of the reasons I love reading Douglas Coupland or William Gibson is because many of their characters are neuro-atypical, and it’s nice to read about people like yourself; I find much of mainstream media quite alienating.

I’ve struggled with my inability to care about social distinction forever, and I feel for my son while he does.  I also think that difference is wonderful.  When we heard the diagnosis I said, “excellent! Who would want to be normal!?”  I guess the normal people do.

WIRED’s take on all this? Neurodiversity is like biological diversity; it develops resiliency.  The neurodiverse might not all be geniuses, but the ones that are (and geniuses by definition are neurodiverse) may very well save the human race.  Diversity allows a species to survive in extreme conditions, conditions that we’re making for ourselves.  As long as we’re hammering round pegs into square holes, we’re not allowing human beings to be as neurally diverse as we naturally are… and we’re hurting ourselves in the process.  Normal people really need to get off their high horses.

I wish I could convince the school system of this as it focuses exclusively on short comings in hopes of making the exceptional ceptional..  If they could improve my son’s image pattern recognition (which is astonishing), his special skills would be enhanced, instead they rush to make him fit a mould.  The system presses him to be as widely and flatly skilled as ‘normal’ people in hopes of making him what, normal?  Upcoming standardized tests won’t examine his superhuman abilities, they will focus on what ‘normal’ people are expected to do (they have charts).  When he fails a literacy test because he’s unable to verbalize what he knows in a manner that suits the testers, we’re left with the pieces.

Some might suggest that alternative school systems might offer a response to this, but I doubt it.  Adding money to remove expectations isn’t what is needed here.

Like eating factory produced meat, driving SUVs or buying sweatshop made products, how we treat the neurodiverse is going to be one of the things that points to our backward (hypocritical) thinking in the early twenty first century.  Like the eighteenth century person who thought slavery was perfectly acceptable, this social ignorance makes us look like fools to history.

Fortunately, I don’t really care what most people think about it.

Behold! The Essay-inator!

In this corner, weighing in as the inevitable future, I give you: the writing algorithm!
… and in this corner, weighing in as a lazy, nineteenth century habit that no one can shake: tedious, overly structured High School English writing!


The trick is going to be creating an algorithm that plagiarism checkers won’t catch.  That shouldn’t be too hard as they tend to look for matching text, and any good algorithm would put the pieces together in varying ways depending on the variables given.


With a proscribed structure similar to sports stories or financial reports, it should be fairly easy to get Narrative Science to modify their writing engine to accept key points and put together a five paragraph essay that perfectly follows the tediously exact, point-proof-explanation requirements of high school essay writing.


The process should go something like this:

  • student logs in to the website and enters brainstorming ideas based on a cursory reading on the subject matter (Macbeth should be covered in 20 minutes, tops)
  • thesis (an arguable statement) is generated based on ideas given (or offered, depending on how much you want to put into this)
  • supporting points are suggested.  The algorithm places them in order of importance based on the number of hits and positive previous reviews, student picks the ones that grab them
  • the algorithm finds quotes from the play and lit crit that relate to each supporting point
  • body paragraphs are constructed following point/proof/explanation around chosen quotes
  • introduction and conclusion are generated based on body paragraphs
  • student reviews the paper for vocabulary or wording that doesn’t suit their style
  • if too complicated a word is used, the student can right click and get a list of synonyms
  • the completed paper, using variable data, is unique, and presented in the vicinity of the student’s knowledge of the subject matter, working vocabulary and writing style
Behold my essay-inator!

The point and click essay is finally here!


The efficiencies here should be obvious.  A typical paper requires hours of reading, then re-reading looking for quotes, then formulation of ideas, then organization… hours and hours!  This process could have a student sit down with a Shakespearean play they’ve never seen before, and have a finished essay completed in under an hour, on their smartphone!

They are still the authors, we’ve just taken the tedium and soulless nature of high school writing and given it to a machine, which only seems fair.

***

This is written facetiously, but it does raise a couple of interesting questions.  If high school writing requires such heavy duty plagiarism checking and tends to be about the same subjects using the same formats, and marked with the same rubrics year after year, what is the point?

If these guys have come up with an algorithm that can write data driven, structurally sound pieces this well, how long will it be before someone has put together a five paragraph essay-inator?  The only thing more soulless and formulaic than financial writing or sports reporting is high school English writing.  Time to let the computers do what they do best and take this repetitive, tedious work and do it more efficiently!

Up next, mechanized marking of essays: time to take the tedium out of being an English teacher!

If this works out well, we’ll be able to have students ‘write’ essays, and have them ‘marked’ in a matter of seconds!

Now that’s progress!