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

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.

Wanted Word: DIGERACY

www.ncte.org/governance/literacies

@banana29 just came back from the OLA super conference (where she presented this).  Thousands of librarians from all across Ontario (and Canada) came together for a huddle.  They are pretty keen technologists and aren’t remotely Luddite, but one of their issues was using the word LITERACY to describe a lack of familiarity when using technology.  Literacy is not the right word, we need something a with better etymological roots.

A lot of other words are trying to describe the gap we are beginning to see between people who use technology effectively and those who are used by it.  21st Century Fluencies is a big one, but it’s a mouthful.

Literacy, numeracy; we need a *acy word to link to technological skills in the same way that literature was linked to *acy in our last big media evolution in order to describe the important new skill set needed around reading and writing.

Digeracy might work.  It implies a wider connection to digital fluencies and doesn’t point to a single platform or skill set.  Cyberacy doesn’t have enough consonants in it for me, and technoracy doesn’t work because it points to too broad a concept (this isn’t about technology as a whole but rather the digital evolution of information).

Digeracy points to a person’s fluency in digital environments.  Their ability to understand the flow of information and how to interact with it efficiently.  While familiarity with hardware and software might help in specific instances, digeracy refers to a wider comfort level with digital information.

A person with high levels of digeracy is able to pick up new equipment and quickly work through its strengths and weaknesses in order to optimize their use of it.  They are able to access information in a variety of software environments and quickly understand the capabilities of the digital tools they are given.

Someone with digeracy might specialize in various bits of software and hardware, but they have developed sufficient breadth of skill that they are able to pick up any digital device and make it sing.  Their comfort level is sometimes seen as magical by others.  This extends beyond individual devices and platforms to knowledge of how to make best use of networks as well.

Like a fluent reader and writer with literacy, or a mathelete with numeracy, the technologist with digeracy is comfortable enough to swim in the digital ocean, to experiment with what they haven’t seen before and quickly come to terms with it.

Game Mastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes that didn’t make the cut:

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

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

Any of this sound familiar from a teaching perspective?

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

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

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

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

Bad Habits: these tools are not toys

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

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

Raging: how empowered learners respond to being outside the Zone

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

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

Teabaggging is one of many tactics designed to belittle an opponent

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

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

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

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

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


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