Difficult Metrics: The end of Creativity & Play in Learning

CBC’s Spark had an interview with Scott Barry Kaufman this week about his theories on creativity.  His identifiers for creativity include solitude, introspection, daydreaming and having new and varied experiences.  This reads like a laundry list of things education does poorly, or not at all.

The linear and systemic nature of learning in the education system is always on my mind as summatives happen and semesters end.  As I watch the system trundle towards final assessment (which means a lot of number generation), I’m always left wondering where the learning went.

Sometimes the internet feels like a meme confluence.  In this case related ideas of creativity and play mix together, making me question education’s intent in designing learning environments that stifle both things.  From the education system’s perspective, play is what you do when you’re not learning, that’s why they call it recess, yet Kaufman and a number of other thinkers believe that play is an incredibly rich learning opportunity.

A tweet by Mathias Poulsen on the marginalization of play in society got me thinking about the role of play in learning.  Play and creativity are inexorably linked in my mind.  When I play I create.  When I create, I’m playing.  I usually learn an awful lot in such a rich environment as well.

There are two aspects of modern society that drive the control paradigm Mathias refers to in his tweet.  Both flourish under the watchful eye of neo-liberal value theory.  Data collection is one aspect of this economic/social model and it’s happily provided by digital technology which seems designed to produce this sort of data.  With everything itemized the next step is to monetize it.  With absolute oversight better profits are ensured, but only for the people who can afford the absolute oversight.

Modern economic theory touts data driven metrics as the way toward a more perfect efficiency, and education has been eager to leap on board this very rational (at least that’s how it’s marketed) approach.  By quantifying everything we’re able to better manage people and property, not that there is a distinction.  The people who manage us are obviously big fans of this data driven approach.  It lends the air of mathematical credibility while also offering an automated ease of use.  No more worrying about people as people when you’re managing them from data.

Data increasingly connects the dots and defines who you are. It used to be a more organic process but now it’s done by machine.

It seems like an air-tight trap.  You are what you do and we can produce oodles of data that show what you do.  But there are aspects of human being that still defy the data driven trajectory of our society.   Creativity and the play that causes it to bloom are a pain to try and quantify and manage, even with the latest analytically insightful digital tools.  The only way education has managed to make data from a process as complicated as learning is to grossly simplify that learning in order to produce data to feed the machine, but play and creativity defy even this heavy handed approach.  You can grossly simplify learning with standardized testing, but all the testing in the world can’t capture creativity.

The best corporate thinking suggests making a fertile space for creativity and the play that can produce it, but keep management out of it!  Education isn’t as driven by the need to innovate and tends to model its management practices after classroom management anyway.  Education, with its hierarchical thinking and conservative approach, is a much riper environment for data driven absolutism than business ever was.

As a result of this data-driven press, play and creativity are increasingly foreign to the modern classroom.  If it can’t be itemized, quantified and easily compared it isn’t really useful as an aspect of learning; it’s not part of the system.  This is backed up by serious people with data who talk about how a rigorous, intellectually meaningful curriculum can only happen through the mathematical certainty of data-collection.   Less time is given to play and creativity is re-cast as something only geniuses (or the very rich – they’re often the same) have, you can’t learn by practising it.  Students are encouraged to get in step with the ‘real world’ and produce quantifiable material by following transparent and unwavering rubrics, lesson plans and standardized tests.  The data produced in this fish-bowl of honesty allows the education system to accurately and completely (except for the bits we ignore) evaluate student ability and direct them to the most efficient career pathway.  This is handy because career pathways are the only reason schools exist any more.

One of the benefits of a liberal society is the generation of a thriving creative class.  If we can’t compete on the cheapness of human labour (because we don’t the produce quantity of people other societies do), then we can compete on creativity.  Except our data driven approach to learning (and everything else, really) means we are letting creativity atrophy in our children.  

The only people who think creativity is a natural talent you can’t teach are people too lazy to nurture their own.  Those kind of people really like data driven thinking because it means they don’t have to do much thinking themselves.

The answer is yes.  Sir Ken is a popular educational trope.
Teachers are encouraged to watch a video that criticizes
education and then they’re told to prepare students for
standardized tests and grade them with numbers.

Like any hard-won skill, creativity demands commitment to change, metacognitive clarity and growth, and it can be frustratingly non-linear.  One sure way to spark creativity is to create an empty space, the solitude Kaufman spoke of, in which your mind is encouraged to produce its own outcomes.  This can’t happen in an always-on society where your attention is constantly being sought by digital thought merchants who have monetized your attention.  The habits you develop in this brave new world are so orchestrated that your mind quickly forgets how to structure itself; it comes to depend on digitally structured environments.

Another way to spark creativity is play, but not the kind of pre-determined outcome play you find in video games.  Play in those situations is more like the training of a Pavlovian dog; small rewards for correct behaviour.  You win because you’re scripted too.  Open ended play means there isn’t a script to follow, there is no right way to do it.  It means there isn’t a specific outcome, you’re back to conditioning when you demand specific outcomes.  In play-space the outcomes are often unexpected, and can’t be described in win/lose terms (once again, a specific outcome).

Creativity has no required outcomes.  The creative process does produce outcomes, but they aren’t handed down from on high by curriculum, nor do they look alike.  In a class of thirty students (not much solitude there, but you deal with what you’re given), each creative outcome may look so unlike the others that it is nearly impossible to track them all back to the same starting point.  As a standardized test result this is a disaster.  How do you rubric that?  How do you grade creativity?  How do you determine if Billy is 3% more creative than Bob?  The system demands numbers, you better give it them.

We’re here to teach people, not have fun… and intelligence has nothing to do with it!

Fortunately, education has found a scripted way to insert play into learning!  Gamification connects well with educational thinking because they both are directed toward predetermined, specific outcomes.  When educators get all giddy about applying gamification to learning they are harnessing the current digitally driven social trend of attention engagement for their own ends.  They might feel that using this rather nasty process for the good of learning makes it alright, but the ends don’t justify the means in learning.  How you do it matters.

Gamification isn’t play.  You don’t magically produce play by gamifying a lesson plan, though our data driven reflex will happily accept this absurd simplification if it makes us feel like we’re with the times, and producing the same thing that Google and Apple are looking for: engagement.  Teachers and multi-nationals all looking for the same thing?  That’s got to be a good sign.  Our students are trained by financially bottomless digital giants to spend hours connected online.  Education should harness that reflex, right?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, unless you can exactly measure the horse, the distance it has to travel and its circumstances and then manipulate the environment so that drinking becomes the only possible outcome.  That’s gamification in education.  Data driven thinking would suggest that with enough detail (happily provided by digital multi-nationals intent on not paying taxes while reaping record profits) we can engage a student and invisibly lead them to curriculum required (and usually very specific) learning outcomes.

Societies are societies because they’ve established patterns of thinking that the majority support.  To diverge from that pattern is to move towards the edges of social acceptance.  If you go too far you’ll have passed beyond social norms and become a pariah.  Society is very good at inventing words to describe people who aren’t conforming properly.  Creativity produces new thinking and so creatives tend to be outliers.  A liberal society accepts these creatives more than a conservative one (it is a distinct advantage of a liberal society).

If there is one social mechanism that enforces social norms it’s the public education system.  It has greater social contact with the population than the police or healthcare and focuses on the most pliable citizens (children).  This is generally done as benevolently possible, except when society itself has made some poor decisions, then public education quickly changes from an agent of personal empowerment to a means of indoctrination.  That education seems unwilling and incapable of fostering creativity through play shouldn’t come as a surprise.  That kind of nonsense isn’t conducive to a well organized, radically transparent, data-driven, modern classroom.  You’re not going to produce cooperative citizens if you ignore those societal truths.

Perhaps asking the education system to protect and nurture creativity and encourage play is beyond its capabilities.  As an agent of social conformity education tends to be the anathema of creatives, the lowest point in their creative lives, but if education doesn’t nurture and protect creativity don’t expect Twenty First Century Canadian society to do it.  Our society is becoming more stratified and rigid thanks to increasingly rigorous data driven control.  In a world where our attention is monetized and trained to expect digital frameworks, we are increasingly defined and limited by the data collected about us.  Play is a quantifiable waste of time and the creativity that arises from it is being cast aside.  

Ironically, this is going to cost our society billions.

Emotionally Charged Engagement

Pettis‘ manifesto demands the freedom needed to make things work. Educators might get excited about Maker philosophy like this, but it isn’t what they want in classrooms.

This talk of Making at ECOO had me thinking about my own process of building, repairing and creating.

My engineering process is closely related to my creative process.  Creativity came first as a toddler mainly because I found visual art intuitive to step into.  Engineering followed shortly thereafter (about 6 years old?) when I found myself dismantling bicycles and toys, sometimes for creative purposes but mainly driven an intense desire to understand how things work.  My mother was an artist, my father is an engineer; my behavior wasn’t a happy accident.

Both my processes have evolved and entwined, and both demand absolute ownership.  I find myself fully committed to my process which makes the idea of going to committee abhorrent.  If what I’m doing ends up not working it’s on me and me alone.  That focus and responsibility is what allows me to work through frustrating, stochastic, non-linear builds and repairs that would cause most people to shrug and give up.

I prefer to work alone.  If I’m going to seek help, I will initiate it.  Being forced to accommodate collaboration prevents me from doing what needs to be done to make the thing work.  Lateral thinking never works well when you’ve have to constantly explain every intuition, it breaks your flow.

How much faith do I have in my process?  I drove my wife and newborn son home in a car I rebuilt the brakes on.  I ride a motorcycle (with my son on the back) that I rebuilt from scrap.  If I did it, it’s done properly, I regularly bet my life on it.  This is what competency looks like when making something work is the priority; mechanical mastery can’t exist in any other circumstance.

intuition works best in silence

When I’m working on an engineering problem or a creative project I am radically engaged (fixated?) with what I am doing.  This isn’t the kind of directed, controlled engagement that teachers encourage in classrooms.  Being interrupted by a well-meaning teacher who wants to make my process transparent antagonizes the hell out of me.

Teacher interruptions in my process are vexing.  I don’t seek an expert to do it for me, that doesn’t teach me anything.  I’d prefer to ask another capable student who is struggling with similar issues and figure it out with them rather than ask a teacher who has done it a hundred times before.  This is what mastery learning is and why it seldom happens in a classroom.

This all comes from my first post-secondary learning experience as a millwright apprentice.  I left high school before graduation because it felt like a holding tank rather than a learning opportunity.  In that apprenticeship I didn’t have teachers assessing my learning, I had people who were invested in it because it meant less work for them.  That we were all doing the same work went a long way toward me valuing their expertise.

Collaboration isn’t the point of any engineering activity.  It shouldn’t remove the focus from a project, it should amplify it.  When teachers say things like, “we’re going to be makers, but what the kids are really learning is collaboration!” I would expect to see a group of frustrated students and a pile of newly purchased Arduinos and Raspberry Pis gathering dust in boxes.  You’ve got to respect the skill and focus needed to make things work first.

My favorite kind of teacher is the one I try to be.  I encourage skills development and provide expertise if asked (though I am reluctant).  I provide materials and offer multiple avenues into how to get it done, but then I get the hell out of the way.  What I hope to see is a student lose themselves in their process and improve as a result of this intensive engagement.  You learn more in the doing of a thing than you ever do in the theory of it.

I observe, I offer help if it’s asked for, but I also allow students to fail if they refuse to take risks and engage in a meaningful engineering process.  In the best cases I’m able to look at a finished prototype that shows resiliency, creativity, and works.  That last bit is important, I’m not grading how hard they tried, or how well they get along with each other, I’m grading engineering.  The student who built a working prototype feels a genuine sense of achievement because they went through real struggle to resolve complex, non-linear (non-textbook) problems.  They seldom worry about what kind of mark they got, the value is self-evident.

Assumptions and cultural influences won’t get you far in mechanics –  you need to be stringent and respect reality because it doesn’t care about your perceptions.  This is the reason why two mechanics from opposites sides of the world with no shared language can still effectively communicate with each other.  Reality is a shared language.

A highlight of a recent unit was watching a student who found the process of building Arduino circuits very challenging.  In his presentation of a partially working prototype he angrily said, “… and it didn’t work again, until I realized, like a n00b, that I hadn’t plugged the power wire into the rail.”  He was absolutely right, he is no longer n00b, and he should be frustrated with having made such a rudimentary mistake.  His emotional engagement with his failure was telling – he is beginning to take pride in his skills.

Emotional engagement is at the root of my work with machines.  Radical engagement makes my process an emotional one  (or is it the other way around?).  The sometimes stochastic, often non-linear and usually frustrating nature of building and repairing complex machinery requires an emotional edge.  That edge is what powers my resiliency.  I refuse to let a complication derail me, sometimes not giving up even when I should.  If it continues to not work, emotion not only powers my resiliency but also my imagination, driving me to think laterally around problems.

Class bells, rubrics, teachers showing you how and assigned groups are the antithesis of my kind of radical engagement.  Schools seem designed to prevent this kind of focus and break learning up into an arm’s length, carefully managed chunks.  Learning is an organic process until you see it diced up into curriculum and fed to students who have no idea what it is they are supposed to be learning or why.  The education system might work for basic skills but mastery isn’t what its set to produce.  Education elbows its way between student curiosity and their natural tendency to learn in order to manage the process.  The ultimate purpose of the education system is not to teach but to produce grades which everyone believes are an expression of student learning but are actually entirely fictional.

Radical emotional engagement is the antithesis of the clinical, rational engagement educators look to manage, but this emotional engagement is at the root of my empathy with machines,  Education spends a lot of energy encouraging collaboration, linear consumption of curriculum and a cold kind of empathy between students, but ignores (stamps out?) human emotional engagement in order to retain control.

The difference between how I and many others learn, and the mono-cultural, rationalist’s philosophy of education is why you seldom see radical engagement in a classroom.  It’s why you see outliers, especially highly engaged ones, do poorly in school.  Education is designed to hit the medium, the comfortable middle class child who requires no emotional connection because they have it elsewhere.  Deviants, whether they are eccentrics who want radical engagement in something they are fixated on, or students who need more from a teacher than grades, aren’t a good fit with the system.

The difference between applied and academic students has
a lot more to do with family dynamics and the need for
emotional engagement than it does with intelligence.


Education’s discomfort with emotional engagement lies at the root of Ontario’s high school streaming system.  Applied students tend to come to school from less stable home lives and look for more emotional engagement with their teachers.  This freaks out the academics who teach them.  Academic students (and the teachers they turn into) prefer to treat school at arm’s reach – rationally and emotionally distancing themselves from it because information is all they require from a classroom.  To these academics school is a job, one they have figured out and are good at.  These are the students who get mad at you when you saddle them with a problem that may not have a solution.

This distance between student need and teacher approach is probably the single largest difference between academic and applied students.  Some of the smartest kids I’ve ever taught have been applied level students.  Teachers willing to support emotional engagement with learning often find these students are the ones who make the biggest leaps in high school, but they are challenging and often emotionally exhausting, especially when the rationalists who run the system think 30+ students in a classroom is manageable (and it is if you don’t treat students like people).

Ironically, all of those teacher movies that educators so love are the ones that emphasize this emotional learning connection but it just doesn’t happen that often in the real world.  At a recent Heads’ meeting a rule was put up saying that people have to be rational and unemotional when making suggestions.  They can’t be emotionally engaged in any debate.  That’s how ed-quants like it in the classroom too.  What a sure way to make something tedious, distant and uninspired.

Radical engagement is powered by emotion.  It makes for a messy, demanding learning environment, but it’s also a vital key to differentiating learning that the vast majority of educators don’t just ignore but actively seek to stamp out.  The doorway to mastery is one you have to walk through yourself, and you’ll never manage it if you’re dependent on the advice of others.  It takes resiliency, courage and a lot of work to become that kind of proficient.  Emotion is a powerful ally in getting there.

The Ebb & Flow of Pedagogy in Education

The intention of Dusty World is to work through ideas I’m having around teaching.  Since I’m a technology teacher, a lot of those ideas are tech-focused.  This week, after years of forced contracts and an unbelievably rough round of negotiation, my union has voted to accept an austerity contract that was bargained virtually at gun-point.  Since our last bargained contract we’ve been wage reduced, had benefits striped and work load increased.  By the end of this contract we’ll be looking at more than a 10% reduction in take home income when inflation is considered.

The politics of the agreement aside, what does something like this do to my work environment?  Instead of focusing on pedagogy and excellence in learning, I find myself performing damage limitation.  Knowing that my employer focuses on finances rather than pedagogy is difficult to hear, but when the school board association walks into negotiations demanding dictatorial control over teacher time, stripped benefits and wage reductions, you can’t help but come to that conclusion.

Teaching is a human activity, and I am the human face at the end of a large, faceless, increasingly politically driven bureaucracy.  I’m supposed to be teaching my students how to manage digital technology so it doesn’t manage them, but increasingly I find my time being spent trying to protect my students from a system intent on doing less for less.  When I’m cobbling together 8 year old computers just to give students a chance at hands on learning, or trying to calm agoraphobic students in overcrowded spaces, or sourcing fans to keep the classroom temperature from boiling because we have thirty two old machines huffing away in there, quality of instruction is obviously not the goal.

The education system goes through changes in focus all the time, and the effectiveness of learning waxes and wanes depending on the political climate. I began teaching in Ontario in 2004 and my early years were in a system in recovery from Mike Harris‘ “unprecedented disinvestment in public education, which destroyed a historical competitive advantage in the space of a decade.”

Ontario’s public education system, under reasonable management, saw huge steps forward in terms of effectiveness.  Before the cuts began in 2012, Ontario’s education system was top 5… in the world, and, with BC, led Canada up the charts.  You can imagine how satisfying it must have been to work in an environment like that.  I’d often find myself developing lessons or reading about teaching techniques on a Saturday night.  I didn’t take a summer off in my first eight years of teaching, taking many additional qualifications (at my own expense) and teaching online to expand my skills.  With the amount of time I spent at it, I was probably dancing with minimal hourly wage, but I didn’t care because I threw myself into my profession and my profession looked after and encouraged me.

That sort of intensity appeals to me, I enjoy the challenge and get a lot of satisfaction out of doing a difficult thing well, but it depends on support.  Anyone doing anything well does it because they have good support around them.  If you don’t believe me watch any professional sport.  When you suddenly find yourself losing common sense arguments around class sizes based on safety and access to tools, you start to wonder whether going all in is that productive, or healthy for you.

One of the best bits of advice I got at teacher’s college was,
“always be ready to go to work again tomorrow.”  I didn’t
used to get frazzled running hard, but now I do.

It was nice to start my career in a time of such positive pedagogically driven education.  I got to do that because the teachers before me suffered through a decade of cheap nastiness.  We’ve swung back to the cheap nastiness now, but rather than fight it we vote for it.  I was willing to fight for better, but the vast majority of secondary public teachers are ok with less.  How will that translate to their work in the classroom?

I’m going to have to reconsider my survival strategies.  If I throw myself all in and then get slew footed by a lack of support, I tend to get emotional about it.  Rather than do that, perhaps a little distance is the better way; a less passionate, more circumspect approach to the classroom.  How do you think that will play with students?

If I want to test myself by finding excellence in what I do, the Ontario classroom isn’t where that’s going to happen.  In 2015 it has become a political wasteland of compromise and an excuse to do things cheaply for political gain.  I’ll do what I can to protect the students I am given, but the goal isn’t excellence in learning any more, it’s do less with less.

Fortunately, I have a lot of hobbies.  I’ll find other aspects of my life to throw myself into with abandon.

Implications of a Situated Intelligence in Learning

One of the big shocks I got in philosophy was reading Bertrand Russell’s Analysis of Mind.  If you can get through it you come to the startling realization that we are barely conscious at all.  Russell does a thorough job of demystifying how our minds work.

With The Singularity looming a number of films attempt to
imagine what a super-human intelligence would look like.

If you can imagine a being with the mental capacity to be constantly self-aware and conscious you begin to see just how different from us it would be.  We have flashes of self awareness, moments of conscious consideration, but more often than not we fall back on instinct and autonomic processes.  An always on intelligence would never surrender a decision to involuntary reflex, but we do it all the time.  Basic processes aren’t the only thing at stake here.  If you’ve ever found yourself in your driveway but unable to remember the drive home, you’re performing complex mental and physical processes without conscious thought.

That always on, aware intelligence is able to consider and respond in non-reflexive ways to all physical and mental challenges.  Repetition is what we use to manage our limited ability to attend to the world around us.  With sufficient muscle memory from repetitive action we are able to do pretty amazing things with our limited attention spans, but we have to offload cognitive capacity to our muscles and the world around us to achieve it.

The idea that we are dislocated minds that exist metaphysically is one of the last remnants of pre-Enlightenment thinking.  From souls to Descartes’ ghost-in-the-machine, we’ve long cherished the idea that our selves exist beyond the mundane world in which we find ourselves.  But the very idea of a self only happens because it is situated in reality.  Context, rather than self awareness, is what gives us the continuity required to acquire a sense of self.  Your ‘youness’ isn’t a magical property that exists in the ether, it’s a consequence of your mind interacting with the world around you.  The circumstances you find yourself in are created by past action.  People around you treat you as they do because of past action.  What you think of as your mind is actually a series of circumstance that expand beyond your head and through your body into the world around you.

A skilled person recognizes this process and ‘jigs‘ their environment, using their surroundings to support their work.  You see this in everything from a scientist’s lab to a short-order cook’s kitchen, to a teacher’s classroom; they all design their work environment to allow them to do their jobs better (assuming they are good at what they do – jigging an environment to perform well is a sign of mastery).  In extremely performance focused jobs, like professional sports or acting, this jigging takes on talismanic power that look like superstitions to the uninitiated.  Our psychology can be very sensitive to how immediate surroundings support or detract from our performance.  The pre-game ritual of an athlete before a game or the actor before going on stage both reflect this.   Our intelligence leaks out into the world, forming it to our will in order to get ‘our heads on straight’.

I take the concept of jigging my work space very seriously.

Jigging of their environment is a window into student learning.  You can see how thoroughly a student understands a process by how well they manipulate their environment.  The student who can’t find the right tool for the job probably doesn’t understand the job very well.  My father always used to give me a hard time for leaving his workshop in a mess; I get it now.  If you can’t find a tool when you’re in the middle of a complex task you won’t be able to perform the task well.  Your continuity of thought is broken by poor workplace planning.  My father’s assessment of the dirty shop was actually an assessment of my understanding of the craft of the mechanic.

True mastery learning requires an advanced practitioner to
jig their working environment to produce complex work.
This isn’t that.

The stock classroom is a Cartesian throwback to the disassociated minds myth: our minds are magical buckets which we can fill with information.  Of course they aren’t, they are fractured, non-continual biological processes designed to interact with the world around them.  A human mind only blossoms in the presence of an interactive reality.  You have to shed the myth of a Cartesian mind in order to see the absurdity of the typical classroom.

If education is going to adapt to this simple truth it needs to recognize that learning isn’t confined to mental processes.  Even cognitively focused courses of study like mathematics are recognizing that tangible representation improves student learning.  If you teach students like brains in boxes you don’t get very far.

Recognizing tangibles in teaching concepts is only the first part of this incorporation of an accurate philosophy of mind in learning.  The real power comes in creating adaptable learning environments that encourage student control.  If you’re teaching anything sufficiently complicated then allowing students control of their learning environment will only improve their chances of mastery.  If they can’t control their work space (or worse, it’s handed to them complete), they are being robbed of the opportunity to own their learning.  Environmental control also allows teachers a vital insight into how well a student understands the material they are learning.  If a student designs a non-functioning work space it shows you just how far from understanding the basic concepts of what they’re trying to do they are.   It is a common occurrence for the least capable students to walk up to me days before the end of a two week engineering project and tell me they are missing key components to finish it.  This is a valuable insight for both myself and the student into just how ignorant they are.  The worst thing we can do is what we do now:   put students in institutionally designed spaces that demand conformity and tell them to do it in their heads.  A key aspect of mastery learning is recognizing how expertise is rendered in the world around us, and then using that information to assess understanding and improve learning.


Bertrand Russell, On Mind
Finishing off Descartes’ ghosts
Rene Descartes, ghost in the machine
If we can’t have souls, we can have magical, metaphysical minds!
Matt Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head
A modern dismantling of Enlightenment ideology that has run wild
I recently attended Stratford’s Possible Worlds.  
It plays on a conceit that you see in a lot of drama (Jacob’s LadderInceptionThe Matrix), that we would be incapable of realizing that the world around us isn’t real.  This conceit trivializes reality and sends us back into that superstitious state of magical minds.

I’d argue that our existence actually precedes and produces our intelligence.  We wouldn’t be what we are if we were brains in boxes being fed information; reality defines our intelligence.  I had a lot of trouble getting into Possible Worlds because it used science and tech babble to lead the audience through a fractured dreamscape, depending on our belief in magical minds to suspend our disbelief.

How We’ve Situated Ourselves

I’m wrapping up Matt Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and it’s leaving a lot of questions around education.

Throughout the book Crawford questions the hyper-individualized nature of our post-enlightenment selves.  He does it in the context of skilled manual labour, which does a lot to refute the ideal ‘generic/flexible intelligence’ we all value nowadays.  Skills situated in real-world demands are immune to academic flights of fantasy.

Below are some quotes I’m ruminating on:

“…manufactured experiences promise to save us from confrontations with a world that resists our will.”

Anyone teaching modern teens feels the strain of trying to haul them out of the digital trance they prefer.  I teach computers and this is acute, like trying to teach pyromaniacs how to be firemen.  Many of my students are incapable of seeing the machines they are supposed to be learning about as anything other than entertainment.  Computers are a digital window into a world where you can always be capable and rewards are continuous and timely.

The proliferation of fairly terrible flash games on the internet indicates that many students would rather exist in digital Pavlovian response environments than deal with the pesky real world.  The game play is so bad that I’m astonished anyone plays them, but play them they do, for hours at a time.  Crawford has a section on machine gambling that strikes startling (and terrifying) similarities with how I see students playing these digital games (most of which are thinly veiled advertisements).

Between an isolated and hyper-intensified (almost sacred) sense of self, and the nature of digital economics, people are immersed in a society that has quantified and actively seeks their attention for monetary gain.  Crawford describes this as the enlightenment ideal of a free self taken to bizarre extremes – but these extremes feed nicely into the neo-liberal/globalized digital economy we’ve created for ourselves.

Distraction is seen as a problem of technology, but it is actually one of political economy: “in a culture saturated with technologies for appropriating our attention, our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others.”

Hack the future – or be used by it. Digital technology has
evolved into the shiny gateway to an attention economy
that is as relentless as a casino in catching eyeballs..

Worries about digital-distraction have long been tied to education and technology, but Crawford does a good job of uncovering the economic foundations of that problem.  My concern has always been that poor implementation of educational technology simply feeds students into this harvester.

If we’re delivering a single branded approach to educational technology, we aren’t teaching fluency so much as dependence.  This is why technology multi-nationals are so willing to ‘work with education’.  With students already walking into class having been digitally branded on a personal level, education has jumped on the bandwagon by following student trends (kid’s love ipads!) rather than pedagogical imperative.  If we’re going to recover students’ ability to navigate (rather be navigated by) the digital economy they are immersed in, we can’t be driven by the same processes.

If the only point of education is to put more bricks in the wall, then we should just keep on doing what we’re doing.  If we want to teach students to survive in a voracious economy that sees their attention as a commodity then we need to teach them what the technology is and how it works.  Open source software and un-locked, non-brand specific hardware would be a good place to start, but you’re not going to see lots of ads for it.

“the advent of hyperpalatable mental stimuli… raises the question of whether the ascetic spirit required for education has a chance.  The content of our education forms us, through the application of cultivated powers of concentration to studies that aren’t immediately gratifying.  We therefore had to wonder whether the diversity of human possibilities was being collapsed into a mental monoculture – one that can more easily be harvested by mechanized means.”

Student directed learning: the kind of thinking
being embraced by Ontario’s education leaders
at this summer’s conference.  This kind of nonsense
ignores how education has worked for millennia.

The “ascetic spirit” of education is long dead.  If it isn’t fun and engaging, it isn’t a correct lesson plan according to modern educational thinking.  Students treat marks as a score, demanding them immediately and ignoring feed-back.  There is no delayed gratification in modern education.  Teachers have to justify (up front) any teaching – it can never lead toward a goal that is out of sight.  Where ever possible we are asked to be as transparent and immediately gratifying as possible.  The more forward-thinking, extreme view is that teachers are no longer needed at all.  In an information rich world (conveniently delivered on closed platforms by multi-nationals), students can learn on their own with no direction.  All you need is an I.T. guy to keep everyone connected.

If we’re producing generic-intelligence graduates that are able to work anywhere for minimum wage with no real expertise other than a can-do attitude, then we’re doing a great job.  Crawford’s focus on skilled labour neatly sidesteps the ideal of the liberally educated university student who can’t do anything but is ready for everything (as long as it doesn’t involve reality).  Reality makes demands on skilled trades that most academics find beneath them.

The danger in digital technology exists in its ability to latch onto and modify our very plastic thinking processes.  A skilled-trades approach to understanding digital technology can elevate us from being users to being architects.  Nick Carr does a good job of criticizing this in The Shallows.  Crawford goes further by explaining that technology isn’t the issue, it’s the cannibalistic economics that drive it that we should be protecting students from.

By pulling back the curtain and revealing the machinery that feeds this relentless economy we enable students to dictate the terms of their digital experience.  What happens instead is that we present digital technology as if it’s just another educational tool, which allows the underlying economy to seep into education unseen, feeding students into a mechanism that wants to commodify their very thoughts.

A Thin & Fragile Pretense

I’m still mulling my way through The World Beyond Your Head, by Matt Crawford.  It’s a slow go because I’m re-reading and thinking over what I’m looking at, often paragraph by paragraph.

On page 153-4 Crawford is talking about the way in which we depend on established values when transacting with each other.  He is talking about how he bills his motorcycle repairs, but I found a surprising correlation between this and my current views on grading:

P.153-54 The World Beyond Your Head by Matt Crawford


This could easily be re-written to describe my own battle with grading:
Consider the case of a teacher. In handing a final grade to a student, I make a claim for the value of what they know about what I have taught them, and put it to them in the most direct way possible (a grade). I have to steel myself for this moment; it feels like a confrontation.  (I hate grading, I feel it actively discourages learning by implying there is a definitive end)
 The point of having posted criteria, rubrics, due dates, class rules,  and the use of complex grading systems with byzantine weights and balances, is to create the impression of calculation, and to appeal to the authority of an institution with established rules. But this is a thin and fragile pretense observed by me and my student – in fact the grade I present is never a straightforward account of the skill of a student. It always involves a reflection in which I try to put myself in the shoes of the other and imagine what he might find reasonable.  (Freeing myself from the tyranny of grading programs is both professionally satisfying and existentially terrifying – what are we all doing here if not making numbers?!?)
This lack of straightforwardness in valuing learning is due to the fact that learning is subject to chance and mishap, as well as many diagnostic obscurities. Like medicine, teaching and learning are what Aristotle calls “stochastic” arts. Especially when working on complex skills at the high school level, in trying to teach one discipline (learning how to code), I may unearth problems in another (the student has little grasp of basic logic). How should I grade for work done to solve a problem beyond the realm of what I’m supposed to be teaching? Should I hand off this new problem to spec-ed, or simply blame previous grades and move on? (I do neither, I consider a student who is able to overcome previous failings to catch up to his peers to be superior to a student who is simply going through the motions because this is easy repetition for them)  This question has to be answered when I formulate a grade, and in doing so I find that I compose little justificatory narratives.


When a student receives a grade, I usually go over the reasons with them in detail, and I often find myself delaying the presentation of the grade, because I fear that my valuation isn’t justified (I can never have all the facts needed to be completely accurate). But all my fretting about the grade has to get condensed into a simplistic number for the sake of systemic learning on an established schedule (our education system is predicated on the receiving of numbers that are so abstract as to be virtually meaningless). Whatever conversation may ensue, in the end the grade achieves a valuation that is determinate: a certain amount of educational value exchanges hands. As the student leaves the class for the last time, I want to feel that they feel they have gotten a square deal in terms of me not using grades as either a gift or a punishment; I want to come away feeling justified in the claim I made for what I think they know and can do.   (but many teachers don’t – empathy and grading can be safely made mutually exclusive thanks to the absolute truth of mathematicsthe more complex the calculation, the truer the grade it produces must be)

Neurology: Is it the car, or the car and driver?

We had board PD today (a 3 hour lecture).  It was a presentation on neurology in learning and layered curriculum by Kathie Nunley.  I’m generally a fan of a nuanced scientific approach to human activity (as opposed to a simplistic approach to things that usually support buying something).  Dr. Nunley’s neurological approach to education offered a number of insights to what we’re doing wrong.  If we don’t consider biological imperatives in learning we will never be as efficient as we might be.

There was a moment where I came to the end of neurological approach and the ‘ol philosophy degree kicked in.  Nunley had a slide stressing the importance of the appearance of choice in learning.  She stressed how engaging it is for students when they feel like they can choose their learning.

My knee jerk response was that this was manipulation, which led me down a metaphysical rabbit hole.

Neuroscience, because it’s looking at the brain, comes dangerously close to itemizing our sentience.  It also tends to reduce multi-dimensional complexity into simplistic linearity.  This idea that the appearance of choice would prompt more efficient learning would encourage any right minded teacher to manipulate their students into thinking they have learning choice in order to harness better retention.  No right minded teacher should be manipulating anyone into anything.

An analogy immediately came to mind.  Is neuroscience the car or the car and driver?  On a neuroscientific level our minds are very complex mechanical devices.  Our actions are driven by a brain developed from millennia of evolution.  There is no free-will, only complex autonomous reaction.  If that is what we are, you should have no trouble manipulating these processes to get a desired result, especially if it’s a good end.  School systems should treat the people in them like cogs in a machine, because that’s all they are.

If neurology is the study of the car then we can make immediate and scientifically informed choices that will improve its maintenance and operation.  As Nunley suggested in her presentation, dietary and developmental principles can be applied to maximize the functionality of our brains.  If neurology is the study of the car and driver then there is nothing else to consider.  In addition to the spiritual considerations that a number of people would find difficult to swallow, concepts like ethics or metaphysical ideals beyond the immediately knowable world of science (like honesty) may be ignored.  Neurology is the rational tool that justifies treating people like machines because that is all they are.

One of the reasons I like teaching technology is because students don’t get to work in imaginary value structures.  Those would be places where the science of neurology reigns supreme, where the teacher should manipulate students to lead them to success.  It’s where a 60% means you’ve done enough.  In the world of hands-on experience 60% is as useful as a zero.  If you don’t believe me have 60% of your next brake job done and see how that goes.

Teaching technology means I get to take students inured to reality after years of ‘learning’ in a school system and put them in close proximity to what is rather than what we wish.  Their discomfort is obvious.  They respond with comments like, “it didn’t work, but I tried real hard.  Do I get an A?”  No, you don’t, and reality is unimpressed with your intellectual resilience and general work ethic.  Thank goodness human value structures don’t decide everything. 

Fortunately, and despite our best efforts, we don’t live in a reality based on human value structures.  The large, unknowable universe that surrounds us makes itself felt constantly.   The tiny portion of reality we feel like we have a grip on because of science is only a gross approximation; mathematics and human ideas that roughly simulate reality enough to make crude use of it.  Science thinks in terms or breakthroughs and mastery, but neither actually happens.  Neuroscience offers us some useful insight into how brains function, but it is still far from understanding our minds; the driver is still safely out of their hands.

I tend toward moral absolutism.  One of the reasons I find science so agreeable is because it attempts to tell no lies, but in the case of neuroscience it seems to make some assumptions on how much it thinks it knows about being human.  Brains aren’t all we are, even though we use them as a lens to make sense of the world.

I’m going to take many of the suggestions around how to best maintain and maximize brain efficiency from this PD, but I’m not surrendering morality in the process.  If I’m going to give a student a choice it’s going to be a genuine choice because I believe those are superior to the appearance of choice.  In ways not immediately measurable I know that treating students and the subject I teach honestly creates the kind of fecundity that science is still having trouble quantifying.

Arduinos, Galileos & Edisons

Students create astonishing work with Arduino.
Instead of electronics being something that is
done to them, Arduino lets them author their
relationship with electronics.

I’m a big fan of the Arduino microcontroller.  This tiny, inexpensive board plugs into your computer via a usb cable and lets you create circuits for lights, sounds, sensors or pretty much anything else you can think of.  You then write (or paste) some simple code into a window on your computer and send it to the board to have the lights flash, or music play, or have sensors sense.

As an introduction to how circuits work it doesn’t get much better.  Because the coding you’re doing has immediate physical results, it also makes for a tangible, tactile introduction to programming too.  You can find arduino boards for about ten bucks a pop.  With another five bucks in LEDs, wiring and other bits and pieces, you’ve got a basic electronics and coding lab that suits both tactile and non-tactile learners.  You could put together a comprehensive class set for the price of a single iMac.  If your school is chucking any electronics, suddenly you find yourself recycling lasers out of cdroms and wiring out of computers to expand your collection.

Since Arduino is open source, a variety of support programs have popped up around it.  Fritzing helps students create professional looking wiring plans, and 123d Circuits lets you create virtual Arduino projects before you plug in a single wire.  If you’re wondering how tricky Arduino might be for younger students, 123d Circuits would be a great way to test feasibility for free.

My favorite part of Arduino comes after the introduction (we use Oomlout’s fantastic ARDX introduction projects.  Students work through these and get familiar with how the Arduino works and the many components it can work with.  The real magic comes when they see how easy it is to try things on Arduino.  The summative for the unit is a self directed project where students are encouraged to experiment, fail and document what they’re doing.  It’s a great introduction to the engineering process and, for many students, the first time they are rewarded for failure at school (just know why it didn’t work and find a way forward – the engineering process is intellectual resilience codified).

We’ve recently expanded our electronics ecosystem by getting a couple of super-Arduinos.  Intel has thrown its might behind the open source movement and created a couple of very interesting Arduino related products.

The unboxing of our Galileo created a big stir
amongst the senior computer technology students.

The Intel Galileo is an Arduino board on steroids.  With 
Microsoft also throwing itself behind this, you can actually have a version of Windows running on the Galileo!  We’ve already done so much with the Arduino, I can’t wait to see what we can put together with the Galileo.

The size of an SD card, the Edison is tiny & powerful

The Intel Edison is the other experimental piece of kit we just got in yesterday.  It’s the size of an SD card, but is a multi-core computer with built in wifi and bluetooth.  This tiny Edison is at the heart of the Nixie drone – an astonishing wearable/flyable drone camera that looks like magic.

Both the Galileo and the Edison are about $100 (about 10x the cost of a basic Arduino board), so we’re going to see if they are ten times as awesome.  I suspect they will both tax senior computer tech students as they try and understand what these new boards can do.

There hasn’t been an easier time to get into basic electronics.  With the open source movement creating lush ecosystems of compatible components, you’ll find it easier than ever to put tangible electronics experiences in front of students.  In a world where electronics are something being done to society, wouldn’t it be nice to teach students how to author that influence?

Notifications Off

While away in the States recently I turned off notifications in the various apps on my phone to save on data, and then turned off notifications entirely when I got home, I found I was enjoying the silence.

In that silence I started thinking about operant conditioning and just how wired to our personal devices we’ve become.  Digital distraction is a cultural phenomenon with people wringing their hands over rising vehicle accident rates and people falling into open manhole covers.  We tend to forget that looking at a screen when we should be doing something else is a choice.  We’d rather play the victim than accept that kind of responsibility.

The dreaded notification is at the core of this idea of being victimized by digital distraction.  There is a simple fix though: turn them off.  Your social media is all still waiting there for you, the only thing you’re missing is immediacy, but that urge to respond quickly points to a deluded sense of self importance; despite what you think, most people aren’t pouring over their social media waiting for you to post something.

I didn’t get data while I was away, I figured I’d get by with wifi when I could find it.  This quieted the noise even more, making me wonder why I’d want a device constantly demanding my attention in the first place.  

The lack of data made me very conscious of the urge to post as events are happening.  You see this all the time at sports events.  A game winning goal gets scored and instead of cheering people are taking bad photos and spending time putting them online.  It happens in concerts too.  People spend bucket loads of money and time getting to these events only to view them through a smartphone screen, or ignore it entirely while they create social media posts.

You get this urge when you’re in the middle of something fantastic to want to share it immediately like a live news broadcast, but your social media audience isn’t watching a show, they come and go.  Audiences on social media aren’t like audiences on broadcast media, they are never all in the same place at the same time.  That sense of urgency is you misunderstanding how social media is different from broadcast media.  Sure, take a picture, but if you don’t post it in the next 30 seconds your ratings aren’t going to drop.  Your production team isn’t going to be out of a job.

Social media is inherently addictive.  It is designed to provide an
unconditioned stimulus response.  It doesn’t take long to tie the
notification to that initial, unconditioned response.

Our approach to smartphone use needs to evolve.  Having a general purpose, networked computer in your pocket shouldn’t mean you’re on the social media hook 24/7.  A good first step is to try and view your social media use from a more accurate perspective, don’t get sucked into a false sense of immediacy with it.  Enjoy being where you are, maybe snap a picture to share later when you’ve got a quiet moment.  Whatever you do don’t miss what you’re doing because you’re viewing it through a smartphone screen, or ignoring it while you’re making social media updates about it.  In spite of what you might think, you’re not a media personality, even if you do have 1000 friends on Facebook.

A good first step is to turn off notifications.  It’ll all still be there waiting for you, but you won’t be a Pavlovian experiment in distraction when you interact with it.  This will probably upset mobile service providers who are making a mint from over-priced travel packages designed to keep you ‘connected’.  You’ll probably also find your interactions take on a more nuanced and thoughtful appearance; something else it would be nice to see more of on social media.

Metacognition Missteps

What Mr. Cleese is so eloquently describing above is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, something that didn’t receive a moment of notice in the metacognitive PD we recently received.  Metacognition is often seen as a way to encourage student directed learning, and I’m generally a fan of the idea, but this bias deserves some consideration, especially if we’re trying to improve student learning.
In trying to break this down I came up with the Venn diagram to the right in hopes of understanding what should be a process toward enlightenment rather than a barrier to it.

There is a degree of stupidity so intense that it is self-consuming.  People trapped in that tend to reinforce their own ignorance and simply can’t hear alternative points of view, even if they are self evident.  These people tend to wallow in limited, habitual action.  If you want to see it happening watch most digital natives on a computer.  In that kind of stupidity you’re going to be hard pressed to learn anything, let alone expect any kind of accurate self assessment.

Ignorance is bliss, you’re going to be happy if you think you know everything.  Anyone who lives in an Earth centred universe and thinks their species the darling of creation is that kind of certain-happy.  People like this make a point of surrounding themselves with like minded people.

If you can begin to take in evidence from around you, certain self-evident truths will begin to make you question your beliefs.  That would get you out of the stupid vortex and into ignorance.  The more you realize you don’t know, the more rapidly you’re able to move toward knowledge.  Humility is a vital component in this process, and where metacognition could begin to help.

In the realm of knowledge you may know many things but your experience with them is limited, so while you know theory you are unable to successfully interact with it in reality – this is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching tech so much (reality doesn’t coddle you in your learning).  You’ve read about riding a bicycle but you’ve never done the deed.  The final step is to do as well as know, only then do you graduate from talking head to doer.

Metacognition is a valuable tool in creating the kind of self-aware humility that can move you from ignorance to knowledge, but applying it too early will push you in the wrong direction.  At the early stages of learning you are incapable of knowing what you don’t know, so you’ll think you’re better at something than you are.  This appears especially true in mind based, academic work because your math equation doesn’t burst into flames when you do it wrong.

At no point did our metacognitive training suggest that there was a threshold where you should (carefully) begin to implement self-analysis of learning, rather, it was suggested that we do this continually and throughout, which appears to be just what you shouldn’t do if you want to get somewhere with it.

I like the DIY motive here, but getting to “learning to self correct” is a tricky step
that can push you the wrong way if you do it too soon.