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The Lab That Isn’t A Lab

Originally published way back in 2012 when I had the comp-tech department land on me with 3 days notice!  https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-lab-that-isnt-lab.html

I’m teaching Computer Engineering in a school computer lab.   It’s the nicest lab in the school, and I don’t want it any more.

I recently described it to my principal as, “trying to teach auto mechanics in a new car show room where you can’t touch anything.”

Computer engineering in school underlines everything I don’t like about school computer labs (and that list is long).  I don’t think school computer labs teach students anything helpful about computers.  In fact, I think they are specifically designed to be out of date, glitchy, inaccessible and frustrating – hardly the mindset you want to put students in when you’re teaching them how to learn effective operation of an extremely powerful learning tool.

Essentially, what we try to do in school computer labs is teach students how to ride a bicycle by having a professional bike rider come in when they aren’t there, maintain and ride an old bike, then leave it there for them.  We then tell the students to get on it and ride with no hands on experience, practice, training or intent.  We then get angry with them when they fall off and damage the bike, or ride it pointlessly in circles.

Whether it’s media arts labs, or school computer labs in general, I’m not a fan.  The fact that they haven’t changed significantly in form or function since I graduated from high school in 1989 should bother people, but the real bee in my bonnet is the lack of ownership in our understanding of technology.

If you want to use technology in your classroom (and in 2012 you’d have to bury your head pretty deep in the sand to not want to), then you the teacher need to understand how it works, and you need to teach this to your students.  The willful ignorance I meet in staff is sometimes good for my ego, but never productive in developing technical literacy in our students.

With our old tech, people are familiar enough to know what they are doing:

… but not so much with our new technology.  We need to address that.  Until we’re all familiar enough with the digital tools we’re expected to be literate in that their use is second nature, we need to spend time, especially in the classroom, learning what they are, and you can’t do that in a school board IT straight jacket.

I’m not advocating for a ground up build your own computer when you want to type out an English paper (that’s what computer engineering is for), but I am advocating for an open, author-able, stable, up to date system that allows teachers and students to become familiar with the options and customization available on this equipment (something impossible in our board, locked down, forget-everything-when-you-log-off terminals).

Back to the lab that isn’t a lab.

When I was doing my AQ for computer engineering in the summer, our instructor showed us his new classroom in his new school.  It was fantastic.  Work benches filled it, fabrication tools and a few tables for the odd sit down talk.  It looked like a room where making happened.  There wasn’t a single board computer in there.

Later in the summer, when I was picking up computers from a school in Guelph (a teacher, working in the summer?  Evidently), I saw their lab and it was the same idea: workbenches and stacks and stacks of parts; a room where hands-on learning happens.

I’m not entirely sure why we feel that computer engineering should be happening in a computer lab at my school.  My seniors don’t use the school computers at all, and my juniors are only on them because they are there.  I’d much rather they be hands on with machines, except there isn’t enough room in a lab full of school computers to make another network.

What do I want?  One of the de-labbed classrooms where there are plenty of electrical drops.  I’d be willing to evacuate the much in demand lab if I could get a room that let me store my equipment and set it up as I need; a room that was truly a lab where experimentation and hands-on discovery happens.

Archive: 1999: Bloodsport, the gore of experience (points)

Piles of corpses and rivers of blood…

I’m currently swinging my way through Never Winter Nights and last night, after clearing out a room of guards, I paused for a moment. Bodies lay scattered around me and the blood was thick on the floor. In my character’s head came the thought, “I just murdered eight men.”

The bodies just fade away in NWN, it’s all very antiseptic and clean (and I imagine it makes life easier for the graphics card). Bodies don’t really fade away though do they? In a more realistic world guards and investigators would be swarming around that house shortly after the guards on shift change found their slaughtered companions. People who saw me enter and leave with heavy pockets would have been questioned, the bodies would not have disappeared, my life would have been forever changed by that action.

I think about the mountains of corpses I’ve made in this game (which I’m enjoying otherwise – it is quite beautifully rendered), and I’m only on Chapter 2! This isn’t slagging against NWN specifically, all computer based role playing games do this. I think they do it because the people who design and make the games aren’t role-players, they’re programmers and marketing types; people who think linearly and modularly. I know it’s easy for game makers to make experience = killing because it’s mechanical, and simple and it satisfies an innate human need for violence, but if graphics are getting as good as they are (almost movie quality at times), then perhaps this lazy approach to game design should finally be put aside. I don’t think it does anyone any good to control a mass murderer, especially when this usually happens for the greater good in the context of the game.

Why can’t my opponents see that I can easily kill them and surrender? Why couldn’t I earn experience by taking it away from people I subdue (that even makes sense in a balance of nature sort of way). Imagine a young fighter who gains experience and loses it too when he is subdued by a powerful foe. If he ever got knocked back down to zero experience I’m sure he’d be rethinking his career choice. It would also help in a game situation where developers wouldn’t have to worry about linear design so much. With lethality as a rare occurrence, but being subdued having an immediate effect on experience, I imagine most characters would be more careful especially if this system also took away or greatly minimized the ‘save game’ crutch. I take many more risks knowing that I’m 10 seconds of hard drive access away from trying it again. Continuity would help players develop real connection to their characters instead of using them as tools to attack a linear plot.

Why does it have to be about gallons of blood and piles of corpses? … and why does violence have to be mechanical?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a hockey player, a kendo practicioner and I’ve had a go at half a dozen martial arts; violence isn’t a stranger to me, but maybe that’s why I’ve got respect for it, because I’m familiar with it.

I enjoy a good fight more than most people, but what’s happening in NWN (and every other computer RPG I’ve played) is not a good fight, it’s a dumbed down fight against dimensionless opponents. Do you know how hard it is to find an opponent who won’t cut and run at the first injury? 99% of opponents are not commited to the fight, they are commited to their own well being (as they should be). I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people that you meet will do anything to avoid a physical confrontation and the most dangerous opponents are those who willingly consider a physical confrontation but avoid it if circumstances aren’t to their liking. In a more lawless society that might mean they’ll try and get you later when you’re busy, asleep or otherwise indisposed. That would only enrich the experience more. Having repeat encounters with a character who you first think is a coward and later learn is a vendeta ridden lunatic bent on revenge at all costs might make you reconsider being a jackass in the first place. People aren’t always what they appear at first blush; it’s part of their charm.

Have you ever been in a fist fight? Can you remember the adrenaline? That was only a fist fight! Can you imagine what it would feel like with a real sword in your hand and an opponent facing you with a lethal weapon? Wouldn’t you think twice about it if the person/monster you were facing had a hungry gleam in their eye? If you submit early perhaps you can escape intact, without losing any equipment and with a minimal experience point loss. If you mouth off and get in over your head, your teacher will certainly take more of your valuables as well as skim off more experience. You’d have to gamble to rise quickly. If you’re third level and you want to face off against a fifth level character you will probably lose, but if you win by luck or skill you would take more experience suddenly and find yourself levelling up. Wouldn’t they think twice if they saw that same look in your eye?

I’d like my role-playing battles to approach the intensity (are rarity) of the real thing. It should never be mechanical, it should never be done without thought and it should almost never end in a mortal wound. Having to submit and then being sold into slavery would greatly enrich a character’s background and provide a solid source of motivation to get better with that damn sword.

There are so many ways that a role playing world can become encompassing, but the game makers don’t seem to want to take that step. If it sells as it is why tamper with it I guess. Well here’s another angle: build it and they will come. If a designer out there can come up with a role playing game that incorporates a respect for violence and concentrates on developing a stronger tie between player and character, I’ll be the first to sign up.

Just some thoughts while standing ankle deep in the blood of guards who were just doing their jobs.

Dairy of a Disenfranchised Coder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Underused Resource In Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behold! The Essay-inator!

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


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


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


The process should go something like this:

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

The point and click essay is finally here!


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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Now that’s progress!


Debates of the Future

The data wranglers sat in a loose circle behind the cameras frantically shaping the data clouds around their candidates. The debating format hadn’t changed too much, but the show certainly had. Parties no longer threw candidates into the ring alone, a successful debate required a huge, group commitment. Candidates, party members of even the general public throwing in prioritized, well timed comments could make or break at debate in the new age.

The lights in the studio blazed on the candidates while they took great care to stay away from the dreaded O.R.L.. Out Right Lies became the killer app, as long as you had a good wrangler and a responsive party. Stating an ORL was a game killer, especially if your wrangler could get the pertinent data on the screen while your opponent was still speaking it. At best you looked ignorant, at worst manipulative and dishonest, if caught speaking a lie as the facts swirled around you to the contrary.
Rehearsals for debates now more closely resembled a football practice, with researchers, commenters and wranglers, than it did the solo focus of pre-crowd sourced debates; debates were now a team sport. What you needed in your party leader was someone who knew what they stood for, didn’t have a lot of mental space for playing a crowd and could reach out and make meaningful contact with people with their rhetoric. The idea of gaming democracy was so fifty years ago.
The real danger came from the audience. The peripheries of the camera shots in three dimensions belonged to the digital crowd. Old fashioned rules surrounding civilized conduct were still strictly enforced, but comments from credible sources carried weight, and if the crowd trended a comment high enough, it could actually impact the size of the data cloud around a candidate. Parties no longer ignored a credible analyst, they feared them. Positive comments could trend very well, but a high trending negative comment could cut like a knife. When the liar tag pushed to the very edge of a candidate in a previous debate, ultimately costing them the election, politicians realized that telling mistruths was a disaster in the making, especially if you were pinned to the lie while you were still speaking it.
Next time around they all tried to avoid saying anything specific, only to be turned on by the mob once again. When given a chance, voters are happy to call their bluff, and did. You can’t speak the nonsense of empty words, or mob mockery would quickly follow. Say what you mean, and mean something. Switching party positions just to try and win votes was likely to get you a face full of contrary video clips from your own lips from previous months. Being a consistent, values driven politician who acted on stated beliefs was your own real protection.
The debate raged on, politics laid bare. Trending thoughts, data in the form of text notes, video links, charts and other statistics appeared and peeled off into separate dialogs on secondary and tertiary feeds, sometimes trending back onto the main feed again. The audience watching the debate could follow the main feed, which looked a lot like the old television version, as it followed the speakers back and forth, or they could follow trending data, a specific candidate or manually direct themselves to any of the camera feeds available.
Data stormed around the candidates as they had to lay it all bare, nothing held back, egged on by the digital mob; gladiators in a fearsomely complicated storm of ideas that everyone participated in.

Media Arts Lab 2.0

Redesigning media arts to create, not consume

http://prezi.com/9ow8h2urx1va/dream-media-arts-lab/

The Macs in our media arts lab are getting old and plastic.  They can’t push the high-def video coming out of our latest cameras, so it’s time for a hardware upgrade, but it’s not just about the hardware.

One of the biggest problems we face in our static, desktop centred lab with ordered rows of imacs are the bad habits students fall back into.  Because our lab is like every other lab in the school (factory like rows of desktops in Pink Floyd The Wallesque rows of conformity),  students do what they usually do in a computer lab; they zone out and become passive media consumers.  Passive TV viewing has evolved into passive computer use.

In a media arts class where they are supposed to be in a creative, active mind-space, this is an ongoing class management headache.  Battling the Facebook zombies and youtube droolers becomes an ongoing headache in the typical computer lab, especially with the weakest students who tend to be the most non-experimental and habitual in their technology use.

I’ve looked at this from a typical school IT/lab point of view, advocating for a mini-lab concept that emphasizes diversified, mobile technology, but this is the media-arts angle.

Many of the ideas are similar, but the idea of mobile, adaptable media tools also spurred the realization that students in front of an online desktop act much the way that students in front of a television do; they become passive, unquestioning media consumers.  In a media arts lab this is an ongoing crisis.

There is the culture of entertainment that most digital natives subscribe to.  Computers with internet access are toys to be used for entertainment.  Their habitual use of computers at home and throughout their school careers have only enforced these bad habits.  Unfortunately, those habits extend to most educators too.  From PD days where the presenter assumes that if you’re on a computer you’re not paying attention, to teachers booking labs to have a period off, computers aren’t considered anything other than an entertaining distraction by just about everyone.

We then get them into media arts where they are creating large amounts of digital media, and most of them are trapped in their bad habits and social expectations of technology.  The fact that school related computer lab time is often unsupervised only adds to the problem.

Trying to break them out of that rut in a room with rows of desktops isn’t working.  Time to free up the tech, and break the passivity.

What Do You Take With You?

Part 1: What do you take with you into the future?

We live in a time of radical transformative social change. One generation’s experience is markedly different from the next. How we communicate with each other dictates our social structures, and we are in the middle of a communications revolution.  In times like this many traditions and habits fall by the wayside. If you have to cling to an ideal in order to ensure it survives this sort of disruptive evolution, what ideal do you cling to? After hearing a colleague describe themselves as unionist, and experiencing my own fall from grace, union isn’t what I choose to protect at all costs.  In fact, like many other institutions founded at the dawn of industry, unions and local boards are beginning to appear less and less able to deal effectively with our times.

I didn’t become a teacher to support unions, I became a teacher to support educational excellence and hone my profession.  Protecting education means protecting educational workers, but protecting educational workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. I was initially hesitant to become active in my union because of their blanket coverage of all members, regardless of competence. The occupy movement and the radicalization of economics in the past few years pushed me into action; at least unions offered protection from this short sighted narcissism. So many people are happy to give away their rights in order to dream of being rich while being made serfs. My union offered me a political mechanism to fight that idiocy.

I don’t join things easily, I tend to skepticism, but OSSTF claimed moral high ground on so many issues that I couldn’t help but become a believer. What’s not to like about an organization that claims democracy and is founded on the idea that wealth should be fairly divided and members should consider the common good before their own?

When times were good accounts were managed well.  Grievances were dealt with, expectations of the membership were minimal, people focused on the important work at hand. In the past year we’ve come face to face with a government that appears to have no moral centre whatsoever, and a public that is more than willing to be lied to in order to become incensed with us.  The resultant mess has me asking some hard questions about the antiquated organizations involved in our education system.

There is a lot of history tangled up in how we manage education in Ontario, and I don’t think it’s creating a transparent, representative system. We’ve got local boards that don’t actual bargain with their employees anymore, we’ve got local unions that don’t actually bargain for their members anymore, we’ve got a College of Teachers who got chucked into the mix the last time a psychotic government decided to play fast and loose with education, we’ve got a Minister of Education who has more in common with Mussolini than John A. MacDonald, and carnage across the province with strike days, almost strike days, crippled extracurriculars and frustrated citizens on all sides. If you think this has been well managed by any of the combatants involved, you must be crazy. I argue that this is the result of a tangled, historical organizational mess, and it’s time to move Ontario’s education system out of a Victorian mindset.

In what follows I’m considering alternatives that actually protect education workers (what we have now obviously does not), and puts the focus on our profession rather than the antiquated political structures around it.

Part 2: Behind The Times

The stumbling approach to this last round of bargaining suggests that unions are having real trouble dealing with twenty first century realities. From social media causing a surprise grassroots movement that bypassed provincial executive plans to a stubborn refusal to change their ancient communications habits, unions in general and mine in particular have looked like confused Victorian gentlemen at a rave.


Local boards, like union locals are in even more trouble.  They have been made redundant, looking on as the provincial ministry directly bargains with provincial union organizations. There is no local bargaining in Ontario any more. With so many vestigial political interests around the table it’s no wonder that Ontario’s education bargaining has been a mess this year. Perhaps it’s time for a historical cleanup.

I’m now wondering what Ontario education would look like without local political interests like boards and unions, assuming that we can find other ways to protect this vital resource in a centrally bargained environment. The old players certainly aren’t protecting quality of education, in this past round of bargaining they haven’t done anything at all except watch as provincial heavy weights speak over their heads.

This questioning began when @banana29 shared this article that questions the value of unions in Ontario education.  If you can get past Wente’s heavy handed right wing propaganda in the first few paragraphs, the piece asks some hard questions about the role of unions in maintaining status quo in an education system that struggles to keep up with our times. Her intent is to dismantle public education and infect it with market interests (it is the Globe & Mail), my intentions are quite different.

Part 3: Wente Article Response:

Technology In Education and institutional drag

Wente makes some  pretty simplistic arguments for technology in education. If you think Khan Academy is the future of education then you’re about as pedagogically sophisticated as a donkey. Having said that, technological implementation in education has been slowed at every turn by boards and unions, both of whom have frantically told teachers not to use new communications mediums to communicate with and teach students.  Running at the speed of the slowest adopters of technology is no way to run a relevant education system.

Technology being used in classrooms lags years behind what students experience everywhere else, and doesn’t begin to prepare students for the rapidly changing world they are graduating into.  Teachers struggle to engage students on antiquated software and hardware, and no one wants to consider what a teaching job beyond concrete walls looks like. It behooves the unions and boards to keep school in the classroom where the have a lock on how to manage education as a production line. Ask any teacher who has done elearning how their non-standard work hours become a real problem to both boards and unions.

Not only does this luddite thinking infect the classroom, but also the management of both unions and boards.  Communication with members remains firmly stuck in the last century. Video meetings? Shared online resources? Social media? These things are adopted hesitantly or actively discouraged by parochial thinking. Teachers using them then bypass local roadblocks because that is what modern communications are capable of. From unions trying to control a message to boards trying to limit student access to communications – information is flowing around these road blocks on smartphones and social media, yet they don’t realize how irrelevant their control mechanisms have become.

Instead of encouraging teachers to experiment with new technology, local interests tend to parrot panicky, unfounded broadcast media ideas about them. We are ruled by ignorance and paranoia when it comes to technology in education. The question is, how do we create an education system that can experiment and advance at a reasonable rate without being slowed by the insular thinking of its slowest adopters?

Can you protect education without a union?

In spite of its shortcomings Wente’s article did make me wonder, what would education look like in a future without a union/board system?  I speculate on this not as a means to dismantle, demean or weaken the profession. I am under no illusions, teaching needs to be protected from short sighted business-think, but after watching McGuinty’s Liberals gut years of collective bargaining I wonder if unions are the right social mechanism to protect us anymore. Could education prosper and even improve without union/board paradigms?

Centralizing control is happening already. Modern communications will continue to force this change whether unions or boards like it or not.  If we’re going to evolve from a parochial, historically restrained system to something adaptive and forward thinking, we need to think of a new way to organize and manage the vital social service that is education in Ontario.

Part 4: Education: an essential service

Vital is exactly what education is. A first rate education system means that all the other essential services (police, medical, fire) have less to do because the populace isn’t feral and desperate. A properly run education system means the vast majority of the population comes closer to expressing their potential. It means that socioeconomic status isn’t the prime breeder of crime and poor health; failure is less an excuse of circumstance. Good education means less people in jails, greater economic output and interested, active citizens powering our democracy. In this context, how could anyone not see education as an essential service?

Education should be declared an essential service. This automatically guarantees third party arbitrated contracts, which would mean that bargaining isn’t the wild west that it is now, and governments couldn’t simply bypass it with cynical, undemocratic laws like Bill 115. It would also mean that militant unions aren’t necessary because the system in place would be implicitly fairly bargained. 

Arbitrated bargaining would also take the unionized target off teachers’ backs and let them adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye. Education workers would still be protected, but the system itself would be the protection. Depending on militant unions hard bargaining with local boards didn’t work and has evolved into unrepresentative (OECTA) or misrepresentative (OSSTF) provincial bargaining. Our process of bargaining is a broken, divisive, old fashioned habit that antagonizes the general public, vilifies our profession and makes hay for cynical governments.

Part 5: Freeing ourselves from history

local vs. provincial bargaining

When union locals used to bargain individually with their school boards each area’s special interests were baked into contracts. This made sense because of Ontario’s vast size and the unique and isolated nature of its many settlements. If you travel around Ontario now you’ll see the same Justin Bieber haircut everywhere. Clinging to isolationist thinking in an information revolution is asinine. Communities are no longer isolated, they no longer need individual contracts.  If you don’t believe me, believe union provincial executives who (foolishly I think) agreed to align all contracts in the province resulting in this past round of failed provincial negotiations.

The fictional professional association for education professionals
in Ontario (except it shouldn’t be fictional and we shouldn’t be
 running education on socialist ideals, it’s a profession!)


If we can bargain provincially (and it appears we do), why not have an Ontario Educational Association (modeled on the Doctor’s OMA) bring in elected representatives from across the province every four years to iron out a contract with the government while a neutral, third party arbitrator ensures the process is fair. This is a far less dramatic, adversarial process, but I think everyone in education (except the ones who profit from the fighting) would like to see less hurtful public drama and more focus on the profession itself.  

Unions themselves have made their locals irrelevant by focusing their own membership through isolated, politicized provincial leadership. The result has been confusion and a failure to represent member’s interests. OECTA agrees to contracts without even asking its members, OSSTF has the rug pulled out from under it by a grassroots social media movement.  Unions have centralized power and are then astonished when their remote members aren’t thrilled.

It’s time to give up the idea of locally defined educational organizations, both boards and unions, and begin a process of creating a democratic, less politically tangled system of educational representation. This isn’t so much a matter of amalgamating existing districts as it is a rethinking of how best to represent educational interests in the province. A system based on current cultural divisions (rural-natural, rural-agricultural, small town, suburban, urban) would certainly allow us to continue to address regional differences without carrying the weight of a redundant, regionally defined historical system.

how many public school systems do we need?

If we’re trying to free ourselves from history, it wouldn’t hurt to stop funding semi-private, religious schools that are only willing to serve a specific population. 

Once again, this made sense in Ontario a long time ago when Catholics and Protestants had to agree to live together, but Muslim, Hindu, atheist and every other stripe of religious belief must all wonder what this is all about when they first arrive in Ontario.  These people constitute the vast majority of new Ontarians, it’s time to recognize that in a representative, equal for all public education system.

Part 6: Removing politically inflicted value in our education system

I’ve always had trouble with how unions favor (and reward) seniority over any other contribution to the profession; at best this is simplistic, at worst it encourages disengaged senior teachers to interact less as their careers mature (check out who is doing extra-curriculars in any school for confirmation of this).  We are one of the few professions that, as one colleague once put it, “have all the colonel level people sitting out of leadership positions, we’re led by lieutenants.”  This is entirely the result of union value theory, and it harms the profession.

The basic job of teaching, if grossly simplified, becomes a person doing minimal hours of work, with nothing value added, using the same lessons year in and year out. Ultimately this hurts the learning environment for everyone. Unions and boards protect the (small minority) of teachers who approach the profession in this appalling manner more than they do teachers who push boundaries and attempt positive change.  Status quo thinking defines most educational leadership.

We need to recognize all the ways that education workers add to the learning process. This usually falls short when management attempts to grossly simplify the work in order to quantify it. If we’re in the job of marking students in creative, individualized ways, we have to do that for educators too, but too often teacher assessment is simplistic or made meaningless in order to simplify book keeping or to protect union members at all costs.

Leadership positions in teaching also need to be made meaningfully. Forty bucks a week doesn’t cut it (yes, that’s what many department heads get for management work in teaching).  I’d also want to recognize teachers who do extracurriculars, if not financially, then at least through minimizing their required duties. The teachers who do little else could do oncalls and caf duties, those that are knocking themselves out to make their schools a learning community shouldn’t be ignored for it.

The desired result in all this would be competition for headships and extracurriculars (and administration positions) with top candidates selected.  You seldom see more than a single sacrificial person dropped into any of these jobs – not exactly the way to get the best candidates.  Lineups for leadership, coaching and non-classroom school activities would be a powerful way to move us forward.  It’s sad year in year out hearing the teachers trying to run these things begging for people. 

There is a climate of apathetic mediocrity in our unionized system. Members tend to be indifferent to their union and uniformed as to their work situations. They are encouraged to do as much or as little as they please, knowing that the money will always increase; hardly an environment that fosters engagement and improvement. If we want to continue to focus on improvements in education, we should be considering what is needed to put education first, not what is needed to keep the status quo.

Conclusion

Protecting education means protecting education workers, but protecting education workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. It is vital that Ontario’s public school system continue to improve its high standards and fight for relevancy in a rapidly changing world, but the old paradigm of this happening only on the back of unions and boards is dying; their failure is indicated by their inability to protect and support their members. 

A mandated, transparent, less politically charged, non-localized organizational structure would result in less drama and better representation for everyone involved. Advances in communication mean that we no longer need to think locally in geographic terms.  It would also remove the stigma of unionization from teachers and allow them to adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye.

Walmarting the profession to U.S. standards will result in U.S. standards. You’ll end up with business wanting to intervene with Charter schools, which aren’t really public at all.  Equality of access to education is vital to any democracy, Ontario citizens must not lose access to a fair, open, world class public education system.  Never suspect that a system with a for-profit middle-man will outperform a public system founded on excellence. You’d have to be an economic idiot (or con artist) to suggest that this is possible. 

It’s vital that public education be protected from the short-term gain crowd. Unions have performed this function for many years, but in recent times, and like so many other institutions founded before our age of communication, they are being  bypassed by their own member’s new-found ability to communicate directly with each other. 

We keep slipping into an inevitable future, and we’re often only able to bring what we hold most dear to us across the threshold.  Many assumptions and traditions are slipping by the wayside as society and technology continue dancing at an increasing tempo.  If I have to cling to a belief and have it survive this transformative time, it isn’t unionism, localized education or even a political belief, it’s an axiomatic declaration about the power of public education:

Equally accessible, professionally driven and maximized public education is vital to our future success. It allows everyone to realize their potential regardless of their socio-economic circumstances and creates a population that is capable of responsible democracy, meaningful economic output and reasoned problem solving; without it we are lost. The society that protects and enhances public education is the society that produces active citizens whose eyes are wide open, and who are capable of dealing with the challenges technological, social and personal, that we will all be facing in the difficult decades ahead.

I would protect that belief before I worried about keeping the politics of tradition. I would have my profession managed and led on the basis of excellence and engagement rather than nineteenth century, socialist, union ideals. By protecting and encouraging excellence, we could rejuvenate Ontario’s tattered education system under a reasoned, unpoliticized, professional ideal.