Living in an Information Rich World

The other day I had a senior high school student who has been conditioned to be helpless say, “How am I supposed to know what aperture is?  You’re supposed to teach us!”  Aside from the fact that this student has evidently won photo competitions and got an 81% in grade 11 photography, I suggested that we have this thing now called the internet that has all sorts of information on it.  I was genuinely frustrated at her unwillingness to resolve her own ignorance.

I may have been a bit curt, but this is an essential truth of our age: information is at hand.  If you think education is about imparting information you’re about to become quite redundant.  Education isn’t redundant, it’s more important than ever to prepare students for information that is no longer vetted by the forth estate for them.  Unfortunately this isn’t a focus in education where bells still signal the start of shifts, um, classes, and teachers can still be found talking the whole period long.

Digital access to information greatly emphasizes how out of touch the sage on the stage is nowadays.  The teacher who talks for an hour straight giving their students facts has failed to realize that we no longer live in an information poor world.  Instead of letting students access information pouring out of the technology that surrounds them, the sage teacher puts themselves in the middle of the class and drips information on them slowly, like water torture.

Assuming we have connectivity, something school boards aren’t very good at because they were never meant to be internet service providers (yet have taken on this task poorly), and assuming the people in the room have developed some degree of digital mastery, then information will fall to hand.  Waiting for it to drip, drip, drip out of a teacher’s mouth or out of a static, out of date textbook shows a startling lack of awareness in how the world works nowadays.

The opportunity to collaborate and support each other is continuously available and learning reverts to the self-directed and driven activity it was before we institutionalized it.  Questions of engagement quickly become irrelevant in a world where teachers aren’t vital because of facts they know.  Those sages are going to have to find other ways to pamper their egos.  If they aren’t expert learners themselves they will quickly find that they have no skill to share with students, and if you have no skills to teach you don’t serve much purpose in a world where any fact is a few keystrokes away.

There was a time when you needed a teacher to show you the way into hard to find information.  Nowadays a good high speed internet connection has that information at your fingertips, assuming you know how to use it.  Many teachers are still trying to be a font of information, even as the information revolution passes them by.  The real losers in this aren’t the teachers struggling to keep things the way they were, but the students we’re graduating who have no idea how different the world on the other side of school actually is.

The One That Got Away

I got into elearning early on, before there were Learning Management Systems or plug and play anything.  My first elearning class required that I code HTML in order for students to see the material.  I’d just come out of over a decade working in IT so I was one of the few people in the system who could engage with elearning early on.  I was deeply involved in virtual learning until I attempted to apply for an elearning management position.  After not getting it I was also suddenly also not an elearning teacher any more.  I moved in other directions and have developed a successful and competitive computer engineering program instead.  In the process I’ve won a couple of awards for integrating technology into teaching and my students have won all sorts of things, so I’m happy with where I’m at.

 
These days everyone is an elearning teacher.  Thanks to a virus dictating pedagogy we’re leveraging digital communications in education like never before.  This unique situation  has even led to strange advancements like Stephen Lecce actually improving Ontario education by demanding the use of video conferencing when all the other partners had done everything in their power to make it a career ender.  That it took a government intent on dismantling public education to move the powers that be in education forward says all sorts of things about how the system works.
 
I enjoy teaching and I’m proud of what my students and I have achieved in the past seven years.  That much of it has been despite the system rather than because of it makes what I do more difficult than it needs to be, but then something came up last week that messed with my pride and I couldn’t not do it.
 
I didn’t volunteer for remote teaching even though there is huge demand because I didn’t have a medical reason not to and I greatly value the hands-on learning we do in my computer technology classroom.  Until we were handed incorrectly fitting PPE and given a dual cohort schedule with twice the preparation, no time to do it and then simultaneous remote and face to face teaching all day every day I was looking forward to coming back to school.  Like many I’ve been crushed by this absurd schedule.  On top of that my classroom has a long history of HVAC issues and we were running into the thirties Celsius on the warmer days in early September.  To say I’m struggling with this quadmester with its absurd lesson preparation expectations, demands of being available simultaneously virtually and face to face all day every day, lack of online and in-school support for students with special needs and ill fitting PPE is an understatement.

 

As if on cue a job came up for an Information Technology Support Teacher for online learning.  I do this job now in our school (and beyond) voluntarily because I can’t sit by and watch my colleagues struggle with technology that I know my students and I can sort out for them.  The idea that I could be given the time and space to do technology support at 100% and on a board wide scale rather than in addition to this absurd quadmestered, cohorted teaching load was appealing.  I fired my resume and a cover letter at it that contained references from presidents and educational technology icons from across the province and got an interview.  This caused me great anxiety.  I’ve built a successful program out of a crack in the sidewalk and walking away from it would doom it (our school has just cancelled face to face computer science classes so viable 21st Century pathways aren’t high on the to-do list).  On top of that I wasn’t sure how I’d get along on the other side of the curtain in a board office job.

 

 

I didn’t get the job.  Based on an interview with no technical questions they went with someone else whose answers they liked more.  To be honest I think I dodged a bullet there.  The moment you step out of the classroom you aren’t working for students any more, you’re working for the system, and the system and I have never gotten along particularly well.  As their IT support teacher I would have improved access to tools in a platform agnostic way.  I would have found ways to make things work and improve our bandwidth with students instead of telling people to do less with the limited resources they’re handed.

 
My vision of elearning has little to do with what we can and can’t use today.  If Minister Lecce has taught me anything it’s that the powers that be in education are more interested in maintaining the status quo and seeing how little they can do with digital technology than they are in exploring the possibilities to be found in virtual learning.  A job holding that status quo has little interest for me and I argued with myself all weekend about what I’d do if I got it.  The only part that bothered me when I asked for some clarity on why this other candidate was chosen was the sweeping statement, “all the candidates had excellent technical credentials.”
 
I’d be happy to go toe to toe with anyone in our school board, our IT professionals included, on technical qualifications.  I’ve been an industry certified IT technician and network administrator since the early naughties and had worked in various IT roles for thirteen years before I became a teacher.  Since becoming a teacher I’ve picked up two computer technology AQs and multiple Cisco networking qualifications including becoming the first high school instructor (and still maybe the only one) who is qualified to teacher Cybersecurity Operations.  My qualifications also express themselves through my students’ success; we’re Skills Ontario medalists for the past four years in IT & Networking Administration and provincial champions twice, we’re also three time national finalists in CyberTitan.  I’m not sure what made the other candidates ‘excellent’ in terms of their technical qualifications, but I’d love to see our qualifications and experience in IT all lined up side by side.  There are a number of reasons why another choice might be better than me, but falsely levelling technical expertise and experience isn’t one of them.
 

 

I’m a keen amateur mechanic.  I’ve taken motorcycles out of fields and restored them to operation multiple times.  I’ve rebuilt cars and pulled engines.  I’m capable enough that I trust my mechanical skills with my life (I do my own brakes and other maintenance on machines with very thin margins for error).  I have built up a working garage space, have the right tools and know how to use them, but I’d never tell a qualified mechanic that I’m their equal.  The difference between a professional and an amateur should be fairly obvious, yet Ontario education clings to the idea that a university degree trumps any kind of skilled trade… like information technologist.  If they want to go with a status quo middle-manager who is aiming for administration then that’s their choice, but belittling my expertise in the process was annoying, though it highlighted an ongoing prejudice in the system.  Ask tech teachers why they make less on average than everyone else in the building and you’ll see that academic privilege and skilled trades devaluation is a systemic prejudice.

 
A few years ago a colleague who is handy with computers (as everyone should be, they aren’t that complicated) casually mentioned that he should go and get his qualifications as a computer technology teacher.  He has a university degree so he’s used to doing whatever he likes in the education system; it’s made by and for people like him.  I told him that he might find it difficult to generate five years of industry experience on top of professional accreditation in order to qualify for the AQ.  Just because you’re a keen amateur doesn’t mean you have the professional expertise to teach the subject, though we’re especially bad at recognizing technical skills in computing in both staff and students in education.  It’s the main reason digital skills are a bit of a disaster in Ontario education.
 
Having highlighted that academic prejudice, Ontario’s absurd additional qualifications rules also railroad professional expertise from the skilled trades side of things as well.  I had to almost produce a blood sacrifice to OISE to be accepted into the computer technology AQ because they wouldn’t accept my industry certifications and experience without putting me through a grinder.  When I got to my AQ class most of the other people in the program had no background in computers at all.  They were teachers from other technology disciplines ranging from cooking to media arts and hair dressing who were allowed to take another technology qualification because they already had one.  OISE made it sound like I was going to be dropped into a program full of Grace Hoppers and Bill Gateses, instead I found I was one of the most technically proficient people in the room.
 
These stupid little short cuts in teacher training belittle the work people put into their professions and undermine expertise in the system, but as long as they are self serving and cheapen the costs I doubt we’ll see anything change.  It’s hard to find fault with administrators belittling the hundreds of hours of training, industry qualifications and thousands of hours of work experience I’ve achieved when the system gleefully does it automatically.
 
I got into class the next day still of two minds about not getting that job until I started teaching again and remembered that what I’m doing here is the single most important thing I could be doing.  My students love what we do, I enable them to do things they didn’t think they were capable of and I end each day feeling like I’ve done something genuinely useful and fecund.  I think I only considered leaving the classroom because I’m in such physical distress from poor PPE and this absurdly scheduled school year that I grasped at it.  Any other year I’d have let it pass by so a future administrator could pad their resume.  I am still frustrated at not being able to explore future technology assisted pedagogy on a wider level, but that’s why I blog… that’ll be the next post because even though I’m overwhelmed in the classroom, I can’t let it keep operating at this poor status quo, especially when there is all this fantastic technology around to help us circumnavigate this lousy pandemic.

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The Learning Expert & The Skilled Master

The other day a tech-handy colleague said over coffee, “I should get my tech qualifications in computers, what did you have to do to take the course?”  I replied that I had to provide five or more years of industry experience and recognized qualifications in order to qualify for the training; he seemed put off.

I understand his response, I battled the same one when I was applying to get qualified.  It was a kind of knee jerk reaction, a ‘how dare you ask for specific qualifications!  I’m an expert learner with years of educational experience!’  I dug up my references and certifications and went through the process after putting away that ego.

This has me thinking about the duality of my educational background.  From high school dropout I attended a year of college before dropping out.  I then apprenticed as a millwright and returned to high school to graduate.  This eventually led me to university.  After university I was once again working in the trades as a automotive technician before eventually finding my way into information technology and finally teaching.  In the trades I worked in mastery focused experiential learning situations that were intense and demanding.  Academics were also demanding, but in a different way which usually had more to do with figuring out how to feed myself.  I got paid to apprentice in a trade, you are a customer when you are working through post secondary academics.  I saw a number of people being passed through that process simply because they wouldn’t quit.  You saw less of that in the trades because if you couldn’t do it, you often got injured and/or fired.

I took English and history as my teachables because it was easier to simply toss my degree into the ring than it was to cobble together all those technology requirements.  Most teachers in a high school are academically produced, the minority get into teaching through experiential/trades learning.  Those academically produced teachers are expert students themselves, they had to be or they wouldn’t have survived the educational process.  An expert student is as much a politician as they are a learner, they’ve figured out how to survive in what is really an arbitrary social construct.

Having worked on the experiential and the academic sides of learning, I’m now trying to define the differences in the two types of learning:

Experiential versus discovery learning.  When you’re learning a stochastic (experiential, non-linear) skill, you
need an expert in that experience to guide your progress.  When you’re learning academics you need an
expert learner to show you how to self direct your learning and survive the system.

I’ll talk about fundamental learning skills in another post, but in this case I’m focusing on the secondary learner who has already developed fundamental learning skills.  That student is capable of self-directing their learning, and in an information rich world like the one appearing around us this is a vital portion of their engagement in the learning process.  Where once we expected students to sit in rows and be portioned out information, nowadays teachers should be facilitating self-directed learning.  A 21st Century teacher’s greatest ability is their own expertise in information fluency, which they provide in order to produce similarly self-directed learners.

That’s academic‘ has long meant a course of action that has no practical purpose, but academics do generally produce self-directed learners who have had to survive the vicissitudes of many education systems over the years and have become self-taught in spite of the best efforts of many of their educators.

In management and education the goals are
abstract, fabricated and ultimately political

In comparison to my academic background my experiential learning has been uncertain and demanding with no guarantee of success.  The tension between success in a fabricated situation and success in a genuine situation that allows for failure became more apparent to me as I proceeded through university.  Matt Crawford brings this up in Shop Class As Soulcraft when he refers to the magical thinking conjured up by management to justify their decisions.  Education, like business management, is a social construct and produces what Crawford describes as ‘psychedelic’ justification for its own existence.  As his quote here suggests, when you’re learning experientially in a realistic environment you don’t get to say, ‘hey! great job!’ if you’re looking at your dismembered finger laying on the floor; reality doesn’t put up with that crap.

As someone who has bounced back and forth between both sides of the education spectrum I can see the value and challenges in both.  What surprises me is how unwilling academic educators are to appreciate the advantages found in the hard-knocks school of experiential learning compared to the complex political dance of the academic classroom.

I know a lot of teachers who get angry with Shaw’s pithy little quote about a character who is upset with his writing teacher, but I know a lot of teachers who teach writing who don’t do it themselves.  I know a lot of teachers in a number of subjects that don’t practice what they teach; it’s hard not to see some truth in that statement.

Watching some teachers struggle with the surging availability of information makes me wonder what they’ll do when an algorithm is created that does everything they do (I give it ten years).  There will come a time when our learning management systems become sufficiently intuitive and make the learning expert teacher redundant (while simultaneously personalizing education in a dramatic way).

It’s a tough thing to be made irrelevant, ask many factory workers.  The teachers who will avoid being replaced by software in this inevitable future are the experiential masters who are guiding learning through doing, yet another reason why I reopened my experiential past and got tech-qualified.  It’s too bad that not everyone practices what they teach.


Digital Tribalism

Are we watching digital vandals sacking what’s left of Rome? It can begin with something as ephemeral as truth, and quickly turn into a guerrilla war. Wikileaks only speaks the truth, and the digital tribes believe it’s absolute. The words spoken and footage shown isn’t the truth, it’s too concrete, too certain, but the tribes need a focus, a common will.

The tribes are all around us, we are starting to identify ourselves more virtually than we do physically. We believe we have more in common with the people we associate with online than we do with our own countrymen. Democracy proves it with declining voter turnout and moldy, dysfunctional bureaucracies. People feel less and less relevant to where they are.
Your social networks linked to interests become more and more concrete in your mind. The people you game with are your comrades. It’s little wonder that these bands of virtual patriots rally behind the cry of truth overturning hypocrisy that Wikileaks is sounding. Bring down the government, bring down the corporations, bring down those things that try to limit our digital selves.
Perhaps it’s time to embrace the new, as our ancestors did with sail powered ships, printing presses and industrialization. The ships brought plague and genocide in the New World, the printing presses overturned a millennia old religious institution in Europe and industrialization is still slowly poisoning a very finite bio-sphere, but each of these things ushered in new eras of discovery and innovation; the digital era will be no different.
Why we ever thought that our brave new world would exist in happy harmony with the old world ideas of nationhood and economics is rather ludicrous; like expecting horse drawn carriages to run calmly next to a super highway. The digital truth we’re in the middle of inventing is going to demand some changes.
I wonder if people throughout history simply stumbled into obvious, overwhelming change without realizing it. In 500 years, students learning the early 21st Century will wonder at how people clung to ideas that were obviously outdated. Perhaps they’ll wonder why those nation states were so amazed that a apparently powerless little organization could unclothe them so easily. Perhaps they’ll wonder why no one stated the obvious.
But then again, maybe as Rome burned they really did fiddle, we are.
The best digital future books:
thedaemon.com/ fantastic new author
www.williamgibsonbooks.com/ fantastic veteran
www.randomhouse.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307357519&view=print creepy and obviously true – so go by a pickup!
100milediet.org/ the future of how we feed ourselves – doesn’t seem important until you realize what is
We Are Legion: the beginnings of the end of geographical government?  The beginnings of digital nationhood?

Wearing Out Willpower: edfail!

 
So, forcing people to constantly modify their behavior wears out their willpower and causes measurable deficiencies in their mental abilities. You can expect a 10-30% decrease in mental skills if you wear people out by forcing them to waste their willpower on maintaining arbitrary social norms.
 
…. how do we design schools? What do we constantly do to children all day? Then we demand that they work at their peak mental efficiency (which is impossible because we’ve worn out their mental focus on things like not talking, standing in line, doing what they are told, sitting quietly, doing what they’re told…); it’s weakening the teachers, it’s also damaging students.
 
We’ve essentially created an education system designed to produce poor mental acuity. I’ve always said that teachers dissolve their in-class credibility with students if they are used as hall monitors and cafeteria ladies (they are in my school). It turns out that having to constantly sit on every little social deviance measurably weakens our ability to perform mental tasks in both teachers and students as well.
 
If you have a moment, give it a listen (there is a pod cast on that webpage), some great insights into how modern psychology is measuring willpower and its effects on mental ability, and how we’re completely ignoring them in education.
 

Stranger in a Strange Land

We attended the POND family day a couple of weeks ago and the steady, plodding nature of drug based (forget gene therapy, it’s miles away) research around ASD and the frustration expressed by some parents got me thinking about what I’d do if they suddenly could ‘fix’ ASD.


Watching my son growing up with an ASD diagnosis that I never had sheds a lot of light on how my own mind works.  When I watch him fly into a rage and begin looping I realize that he is a piece of me.  When I watch him hyper-focus and grok something completely, that’s a piece of me too.  While I’m frequently frustrated by social interaction, I’m not sure I’d be as good at some of things I excel at if I weren’t neuro-atypical, the same goes for Max.


My undiagnosed ASD has made for a strange educational history.  I dropped out of high school before finishing, an apprenticeship before finishing and college before finishing.  I was on my way to dropping out of university when I started battling my default approach of getting everything I wanted to get out of something before walking away.  The social conventions around education, especially the graduating bit, has never held much sway over me.  I only started attending them at the behest of girlfriends who suggested that the ceremony mattered.  From my point of view once I’d learned what I needed to know I was done.


I played sports throughout my childhood but the getting of the trophies was always an anti-climax; something I tried to find ways out of.  I loved the competition but found no value in the social conventions around the awards ceremonies.


Social conventions have always been difficult for me to grasp.  The natural tribalism that neurotypical people seem to thrive on is foreign, abstract and often upsetting.  Obviously definable traits that other people cling to like religion, nationality and political affiliation seem like strange abstractions to me.  Even obvious associations like gender and orientation seem like affectations.  Would life be easier if I just fell into those assumptions and social conventions like most people do?  Probably.


I have few friends but that doesn’t make me feel lonely.  That idea of loneliness and belonging is another one of those neurotypical assumptions that I find foreign.  When I started motorcycling a number of people immediately tried to get me into group rides; I don’t get them.  The whole point of motorcycling is to feel free.  How does riding in tight formation all over the place accomplish that?  Others feel power in that social affiliation and get a real rush out of publicly expressing it.  Being out in public in a big group makes them feel noticed and important, but I just don’t get it.  This has led to ongoing difficulties, especially with groups that thrive on hierarchy and social presentation (which is to say most of them).  Because I’m not bothered with the group dynamic I’m seen as an outsider and potentially disruptive to the organization.  People who get a charge out of the drama and politics of group dynamics find it easy to alienate me from a group, and tend to do so.


I generally undervalue my influence on other people because I assume they feel the same distance I do.  I’m almost pathologically unable to remember names.  This is often described in terms of introversion or shyness, but if this is what ASD feels like then it’s more like being a stranger in a strange land all the time; I’m always a foreigner.  I used to think this was because of my emigration to Canada when I was a child, and that certainly set the tone, but I’d been odd like that even before we left.  My lack of belonging is endemic.  Every so often I meet an exceptional person who is able to see me as I am and not be frustrated by it, I never forget the names of those people.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to better define my strangeness and I’m trying to manage it more effectively.  I find that exhausting, but not having giant lists of friends or feeling an important part of an organization?  Not so much.


This is made doubly tiring because of the career I’ve wandered into.  Teaching is a social process, and while I love the intellectual complexity of pedagogy, technology and curriculum I’m constantly frustrated by the political and social pressures associated with it.  Whether it’s union, administration or parental social expectations, I’m often oblivious to what people expect of me and baffled by their responses.  I expect ethics and reason to dictate people’s actions, but those things aren’t guiding principles in many decisions.  Self interest hidden in socially normative ideas like class, religion or group politics are what drive many interactions between people.


I recently backed out of headship and tried to refocus on the parts of teaching I’m good at rather than trying to herd the cats.  Even when refocusing on teaching I find that I’m having a lot of trouble with social expectations.  In 2017 a student’s attendance is optional, their willingness to learn is optional and any failure seems to be entirely because I can’t teach.  Parents can pull their child out of classes for weeks at a time in the middle of a semester and I shouldn’t wreck their holiday by assuming they will keep up with class work while they’re gone.  At some point teaching has turned into daycare, which means the things I enjoy (curriculum and pedagogy) don’t matter so much any more.  For someone who doesn’t intuitively understand socially motivated change, this lack of clarity around the evolving expectations of an education system that is evolving into a social support construct is very challenging; it has been a bewildering and upsetting couple of weeks at work.


So here I am, feeling quite out of place, but that’s nothing new.  If I was suddenly told that they could cure ASD with a drug would I do it?  Would I be less stressed falling into the same political and social conventions neurotypical people seem to thrive on?  Would I be better off thinking like the majority?  Probably.  I can only speak to my own experience, but if it meant losing my ability to focus, which happens because I’m not predisposed toward social or political gamesmanship, on creative and technical expression then no, I don’t think I’d volunteer to become less of what I am.  


I’d let Max decide for himself after researching the science, but I’d hope he values his independence and uniqueness of thought as well, even if it generally annoys other people and isn’t the easiest way forward.

The only reason other people want you to think like them is so that they can manipulate you.  Why play to that?

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Bare Minimums

I’ve had a go at professionalism a number of times on Dusty World.  You might even call it a recurring theme.  Here I go again…

“Wha’dyou care?  You get paid whether we learn anything or not.”

In one simple sentence a kid in my son’s grade 10 applied math class might have just summed up everything that’s wrong with Ontario and much of the Western world these days.  For the vast majority of people work is hourly wage labour, even when they’re salaried.  They aim to do the bare minimum – as little as possible – and only what they’re explicitly told to do in order to make as much money as they possibly can.  It’s only in a world predominantly driven by this kind of thinking that a failed businessman can convince people to let him run a province like a business.


The conversations that kid hears around his home must be brutal and simplistic; take all that you can and give as little back as possible.  Capit
alism likes to play the Darwin card where it describes itself as the engine of competition that develops excellence by rewarding strength and destroying the weak.  You’re poor because you’re lazy or stupid.  You’re rich because you’re driven and smart, but that isn’t the way of things…


Teaching is a profoundly challenging profession that demands
a lot from you because you’re dealing with complex people.
If you don’t like people, you’ll struggle to do the job.

Where does professionalism stand in all of this?  When I told people about that comment at the recent ECOO Conference, the teachers there rolled their eyes.  There may be a tiny percentage of teachers who mail it in, but I can only think of one or two in my school, the rest consistently go above and beyond in order to try and reach their students in as many ways as possible.  Teaching is the kind of job that you make too difficult for yourself if you’re not dedicated to doing it as well as you can.  The most miserable teachers I know are the ones with that minimalist approach who aren’t very good at it as a result.


Learning isn’t a linear production line where you can find economic efficiencies by grossly simplifying things.  It’s a complex interaction between many people at once.  A good teacher is always going to be looking for ways to reach as many of their students as they can, partly because doing the job any other way makes it nearly impossible and partly because doing it well feels fantastic.  It’s one of the reasons that class sizes really do matter; there is only so far you can stretch before you break when you’re trying to differentiate and reach dozens of students at once.  An profession has this level of complexity, but many of them are being managed by accountants with little or no understanding of that complexity.


A recent article by the Washington Post chases down much of the success enjoyed by certain education systems (our’s included) in the world…


“We have learned a lot about why some education systems — such as Alberta, Ontario, Japan and Finland — perform better year after year than others in terms of quality and equity of student outcomes.


Among these important lessons are:

  • Education systems and schools shouldn’t be managed like business corporations… successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • The teaching profession shouldn’t be perceived as a technical, temporary craft that anyone with a little guidance can do. Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training.”



Collegial responsibility, trust, collaboration and rational direction in management seems foreign (and probably a bit frightening) to that majority of money minimalists in the world.  Work is work, you do as little of it as possible to make as much as you can.  If you’re managing, you rip apart complexity and simplify the job at hand into something so abstract and simple that it doesn’t actually work, but you’ve maximized profit.  If you’re in business (or modern politics) you put on the blinkers and aim at the next quarter; this myopia is called called efficiency.  If you’re in a classroom this kind of management is a disaster because you leave most of the class behind.  You save a little money now to spend much more later.  Mr ‘what-d’you-care’ in my son’s math class is going to be costing us all a lot of money for years to come thanks to the values he has internalized.


The concept of professionalism can seem nebulous to the money focused minimalist majority.  It’s important to recognize that this money fixation isn’t necessarily a rich/poor distinction but an addiction shared by both extremes of the socio-economic spectrum.  The people who most idolize the wealthy are the poor and uneducated.  Even with that adoration, the gulf between rich and poor continues to expand as people struggling with money fantasize about joining their heroes in the one percent (the same people who are causing them to struggle).


How do you get wealthy?  By focusing on money beyond all else – as much as you can get while giving as little as you can, but what really matters is if you’re already minted.  That’s when you get into politics to protect your economic advantage.  Amazingly, it takes very little to convince people struggling in the system who idolize your wealth to then vote you into power.


Your place in this socio-economic spectrum largely depends on your circumstances, not on your plucky attitude.  The rich retain more and more wealth even as it moves further away from the rest of us because the system is designed to make money out of money more than it is to make money out of work.  Professionalism can act as a cure to this disease, but so few people are able to access it in a 21st Century where automation and overpopulation conspire to minimize human value that the idea of doing a job as well as you can without money as the primary goal seems antiquated.


What’s left?  Do as little as you can for as much as you can.  A 50 in grade 10 applied maths is a fantastic return on investment if you have to do almost nothing to get it.  You’ve learned your parents’ value theory well kid, they’ll define you for the rest of your life.

Watch the middle class and professionalism melt away before your eyes.  Your arms are indeed getting shorter as your pockets get deeper – unless you’re one of the ultra-rich who have gamed the system for your own benefit, and then gamed politics to convince that burgeoning majority of undereducated poor people to support your obscene wealth.

Professionalism still lurks out there in the corners, and you better hope it survives.  The professional doing the brakes on your car is (you’d better hope) doing the job to the best of her ability, not as fast as she can in order to maximize a pay cheque.  The professional nursing you in hospital is (you really hope) doing the best job he can in ensuring your care, not the cheapest one possible.  The teacher in your child’s class (you sincerely hope) is doing the very best they possibly can to reach your alienated, confused and profoundly ignorant child so that they don’t have a future dictated to them by your money myopia.


Professionalism is a way of looking past the blinkered and culturally emaciated world of money for work that the very rich and the very poor on both sides of a vanishing middle class are fixated on.  When you’re a professional you do the very best job you can and society recognizes that value by looking after you because you give back much more than you take.  In any professional practice you’re going to spend your own time and money improving your craft, that’s what makes it professional.  To the ‘training is what happens to me when I’m at work’ crowd, that grade 10 math student’s comment echoes their own experience.


The most frustrating thing is that anyone in pretty much any job could be a professional.  When I worked in an oil change shop in university, I quickly found my way into the role of service manager because I took the technical work very seriously and was always looking for ways to improve.  I read technical manuals on my own time and did more advanced work after hours in and out of the shop in order to improve my skills, and as a result had a perfect technical record.  When I was in IT it was the same thing – spending my own time and money to improve my craft.  I’ve always had trouble separating work from who I am because if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing as well as I can.  For too many Ontarians that sounds like a sucker’s game, and that thinking has turned us all into suckers.


For the vast majority of teachers in Ontario there is no start and finish time, there are no weekends or holidays.  You’ll find teachers spending their holidays and weekends at conferences and training, and you’ll often find them working on a Sunday morning or Thursday night, marking or prepping lessons, not because they’re on the clock, but because what they’re doing matters much more than that.


I’ve gotten on planes and seen flight attendants who obviously take their jobs professionally and as a result I’ve had a wonderful flight that would have been misery otherwise.  I’ve seen mechanics who take the time to do a job right, even as their employers and customers whine about every penny they just spent to be safe in their vehicles.  I’ve seen professional drivers who take pride in their efficiency and effectiveness who you’d never see texting behind the wheel.  Professionalism should be something we’re all able to access in order to find our best selves, but to make that happen we have to get off this insane money train we’re on before it burns the world down.


Wouldn’t it be something if everyone were a professional in whatever they did, and they were respected financially for that effort by society instead of being driven to do less for less to make a tiny percentage of us pointlessly wealthy?

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A Modest Ontario Education Proposal

The politics of teaching are on my mind lately.  Ontario has financial issues, and cutbacks seem certain.  I’ve previously talked about how good Ontario’s education system is, the frustration of being an active educator in this political climate, and, most recently, the simplicity of the salary grid.  I’ve asked hard questions about Ontario’s historical assumptions, and I think I haven’t been entirely one sided in the process.

Being active in my union, I fear that I don’t tow the line as much as I should.  Being a department head, I fear that I don’t tow my employer’s line as much as I should.  The sidey-ness of this whole thing frustrates me.  Why this is an adversarial process in which one side tries to take as much as possible from the other, to the point of hurting them if possible, in order to score political points.  It all seems very inefficient to me.  Along with the inefficiency there is the hypocrisy.  How we can expect, even demand, that students be rational, collaborative and unselfish when adults seem so intent on doing the opposite?

I’d like to make a modest proposal.  Now, this modest proposal won’t win you political points in media that cares more about emotional confrontation than truth, and it won’t inflame issues by fabricating lies; this proposal is all about fixing problems, and working collaboratively to do it.  If you want to look revolutionary, this won’t do it for you.  If you just want to hate on something ideologically then this will not suit your style.

This modest proposal is for mature, collegial people who begin with the premise that everyone involved in developing an economically sustainable education system with the highest standards of excellence isn’t going to throw these noble goals away for their own benefit at first opportunity.

This modest proposal won’t play to invented deadlines and the fictional drama that ensues.  It asks for an honest, transparent assessment of what is financially available for sustainable education in Ontario, and then it asks the parties involved to look at how they can maintain the levels of excellence currently achieved while meeting those transparent and accurate financial goals.  People playing games about the value of education need not apply.  If you think quality education isn’t important to the prosperity of Ontario, then you’re an idiot; it’s important that we do this well.

In this proposal, unions don’t protect older teachers at all costs into the largest possible retirement they can get, we consider everyone involved in the system fairly.  We have to consider that no education system is sacred and the end result is focused on fairness and excellence.  This proposal will consider what has worked world wide in terms of meaningful teacher assessment (because OCT sure isn’t it), and all parties will create a better way forward with it.

The first part of this proposal is a voluntary freeze for the next school year while the ministry, boards and unions sit down in a collaborative manner, agree on the finances, and then move to meet them.  If the union wants to offer early buyouts for expensive, senior teachers in order to free up positions for lower paid, new teachers, at great savings to the province, then this should be considered.  Putting money into the hands of people across Ontario isn’t a crime, especially if it helps them retire more independently.  If the ministry wants to restructure the grid in order to encourage excellence in teaching rather than stubbornly holding to a seniority only focus, then the union should join them in creating a grid that recognizes the many ways that teachers contribute to and improve their profession – just showing up to work shouldn’t get you within 5% of maximum salary on any reasonable grid.  If, in the process, senior teachers who do nothing other than show up and go home suddenly find themselves making $15,000 a year less, I’m ok with that, and any sane thinking person should be too.

The historical assumptions around public and semi-private religious schools that receive public funding should be removed, this isn’t 1850.  If we are really worried about the bottom line, trying to run 4 public systems is a needless waste of money.  If people want specialized schooling, private schools eagerly await their cash.  Religious expression has been welcomed in every school I’ve worked at, this isn’t a removal of religious impetus from schooling, it’s an inclusive embracing of it.  If the province is in dire straits, nothing should be sacred other than ensuring the most inclusive, best possible education we can provide.

A clear eyed, honest assessment would allow us to restructure education in Ontario in a rational, economically appropriate manner with a clear focus on excellence.  Old habits die hard, but if we can shed them, there is no reason why unions can’t do their job of protecting members without having to compulsively over protect to the point where the incompetent take advantage of the situation.  There is no reason why the ministry can’t focus on producing the best education possible instead of being a political puppet to whichever government has the reigns.  There is no reason why boards can’t facilitate the collaborative relationship between these two educational poles instead of being used as a scapegoat between them.

Step one?  Remove the panic of an artificial deadline.  All sides agree to meaningful and progressive dialogue on what needs to happen.  Strikes aren’t threatened, legislation isn’t threatened, this isn’t a threatening environment, it’s a collaborative one.  If students are expected to be collaborative and honest, why on Earth are adults acting this way?  It’s not very flattering to anyone, and it reeks of hypocrisy when administration and teachers demand it in school next year, from children.

How Low Can We Go?

Just bumped into another Dad from my street who no longer comes out to get his kids on the other school bus in the morning. He told me a sad story.

Our local school bus companies were bought up by an American company who promptly fired everyone and rehired them at minimum wage. That didn’t bump up the investor returns enough so they also cut staff and combined bus routes. Their 8:30 pickup was becoming more like an 8:55 or 9:10 pickup. This happened for weeks on end. He finally went to the company and they reorganized their buses (again) to try and stabilize pickups. This is the 3rd time this has happened this year. This is why I don’t see them in the morning any more.
I wonder if the school board gets back money on this with cheaper rates. I wonder if all of those people who now can’t afford their mortgages, car payments or household costs (forget luxuries like having their kids play sports) are happy that the board gets such good rates. I wonder if the publicly funded school boards did anything whatsoever to try and resolve this without people who do a vital job being treated like refugees.
This reminds me of Michael Moore’s bit on airline pilots in the States in his last film.
What we appear to have here are publicly funded and operated school systems that seem intent on lowering the standard of living of thousands of people to improve bottom lines Am I the only one this seems absurd to?
I then told him about where our school custodians are. That same school board is intent on cutting back their responsibilities until it can replace them with minimum wage paid contracted cleaning services. Everything I’ve heard from board politics around who has been hired to perform this, to the ground level response of our own custodians, has supported this explanation. Once again, a publicly funded school board seems intent on lowering the standard of living of hundreds of people in its area in order to lower its bottom line. The fact that minimum wage paid people with no particular on-going interest in their work will be responsible for numerous health and safety issues in schools doesn’t seem to be at issue.
As a younger man I was never a fan of unions, until I saw the epic mess that “business” makes of even simple situations. Whereas a union might protect the odd jerk while protecting many honest employees from abuse and exploitation, private business seems to screw virtually everyone in order to pay off a select few of the richest, usually while dismantling a working system in the process. Given a choice, I’d rather see as few honest people get screwed as possible, so union it is.
Private ownership of what should be publicly owned utilities never works out. The businesses squeeze it for as much as they can with no eye for sustainability. They reduce the effectiveness of a service to just below the bare minimum accepted by the public, then try and hold it there for as long as they can, hiring off shore call centres to field the calls at minimum cost. It’s been a long time since big business has done even it’s own R&D work, let alone truly add anything of value to human civilization.
So here I am, listening to yet another story of Globalization in a world that has proven again and again that it simply doesn’t work. Simplifying ownership into multinationals injures regional interests and only benefits a few of the very rich, making everyone else poorer in the process. The big lie is that we’re all told that we could be that rich minority if we: try hard enough – are smart enough – know the right people – whatever, but that simply isn’t the case.
In the meantime, I’m paying taxes (and working) for a public organization that promotes the povertization of entire sectors of employees that depend on it. Thousands poorer to so a select few can move into a higher income bracket.

A Psychological/Metaphysical One-Two Punch

I’m still working my way through The Science of Well Being, an online psychology course done by Doctor Laurie Santos out of Yale.  This week she got into some neuroscience around how our minds work.  I originally experienced this during my philosophy degree thirty years ago when I was introduced to Bertand Russell’s Analysis of the Mind, which laid bare the mythology we erect around our thinking.  By the end of Russell’s book I no longer believed in a consistent sense of self because such a thing is a social construct; we don’t inhabit our own being in anything like a consistent, always-on way.  Most of our lives are run out of habitual reflex with little conscious direction.  We only experience moments of conscious direction before falling back into habit, some more than others.

Santos describes this in neuro-scientific terms in The Science of Well Being as a kind of default neurological network that lights up in our brains when we’re not consciously doing something.  The parts of the mind that activate during these non-conscious moments are the same parts that light up when we’re thinking about the past and/or future.  Amazingly, we typically spend almost half our time in this state of reverie, out of touch with the world around us.

She goes on to describe this evolutionary process that appears to be unique to our species as a cognitive achievement, but one that comes at a great emotional cost.  Research into this process has demonstrated again and again that living out of the moment makes us sad; a uniquely human melancholy that we all pay for if we want to be able to think beyond cause and effect, which has obvious benefits, though we still seem exceptionally bad at it.

Santos then explains how mediation and mindfulness can decrease the impact of that default reverie thinking process that makes us so unhappy while also providing all sorts of benefits like improved academic performance and mood.  Mindfulness brain exercises proved more effective than nutrition or even sleep in improving cognitive performance, which raises some interesting questions around how we’ve arranged school to be almost intentionally non-meditative.

People who haven’t had a lot of experience with mindfulness and meditation often fall into the belief that mediation is just wallowing in that default thinking reverie, but it isn’t that at all.  This was emphasized for me in a strange media-mix-up last week.  My son Max and I have been working our way through The Midnight Gospel on Netflix, a surrealistically animated series of podcast interviews by animator Pendleton Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell.

If you’re willing to do the mental gymnastics necessary, The Midnight Gospel will introduce you to a truly meta piece of 21st Century media.  The main character, voiced by Trussell, is a “space caster” who uses a universe simulator (he sticks his head into a giant vagina to activate it) to pop in to various realities where he interviews people.  The interviews are the podcasts re-jigged to fit this new format.

We’ve watched episodes on everything from Buddhism and karmic rebirth to Aleister Crowley style occultism to an explanation of the bizarre nature of North American death rituals in the 20th Century, so other than a complex subject being unpacked by smart people, you don’t really know what’s coming at you next.  This all happens while Yellow Submarine level psychedelic animation sometimes describes and sometimes does everything it can to distract you from what’s being said.  We got to the season finale of The Midnight Gospel not knowing what’s coming (because it makes it clear that you can’t), but looking forward to it.

The Silver Mouse is a breathtakingly personal finale where the animation suddenly clicks into gear with the story telling in the interview and amplifies it to such a degree that it left us speechless.

Duncan made this interview with his mother, Deneen Fendig, just before she passed of terminal cancer in 2013, and it describes her coming to peace with her mortality through meditation.  Duncan had always struggled with the idea of mediation, and Deneen’s honest, unpretentious guided meditation practice not only worked for him in the interview, but it also resonated with me on many levels.

https://strawd0gs.blogspot.com/2017/11/suicide-how-to-steer-past-staring-into.html

The animation begins with Duncan as a young man and his mother as an older woman, but through the course of the episode she grows old and dies, only be reborn by Duncan himself so they can continue their conversation.  As she grows up, Duncan grows into an old man and dies himself; it’s a beautiful representation of the circle of life, carefully crafted and delivered.  For a man who lost his mother in difficult circumstances at around the same time Duncan lost his mum, it rocked me.  I’m in tears now as I write this.  I wish I could have had this conversation with my mum before she passed, but mental illness took her away from me long before she died.

Deneen’s wisdom in finding her way to a meditative awareness of not only her own being, but also to a sense of how it hangs in the firmament of the universe was told humbly, honestly and without pretense.  That she found a tangible way of escaping the non-present ruminating mind wandering we all tend to fall back into was also inspiring.  She doesn’t hang a lot of superstitious nonsense around the radical sense of self awareness that she uncovers in herself.  Many people seem to cling to belief when facing the end that comes for us all, but not Deneen.  Her bravery is inspiring and underscored for me the fact that we don’t have to believe in miracles and other historical fictions to realize our place in the universe and find peace in the face of death.

Between the psychology and science of The Science of Well Being course and the magical realism and stark emotional honesty of The Midnight Gospel, it has been a rich week of media empowered reflection that puts everything else that’s going on in perspective.  To top it all off, Max and I got to watch a spectacular, once in a lifetime lightning storm blow over us the other day.  My life feels unexpectedly rich at the moment.

photos.app.goo.gl/smqSdUzvn8E2ePc49

Notes:

Science of Well Being, Mind Control:  www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being/lecture/58VUO/mind-control

The Midnight Gospels:  Mouse of Silver:
original podcast:  www.duncantrussell.com/episodes/2016/7/18/my-mom-part-2
Netflix animated series:  www.netflix.com/title/80987903


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