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.

http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html (lies debunked about gaming)
http://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)
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.04/genX.html: an interesting summary of the gamer generation
http://www.avantgame.com/: recognizing the power of gaming

Caution, Fear & Risk Aversion in Students

The first ever post on Dusty World from way back in 2010!


Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
Bertrand Russell

… but we don’t set up schools to nurture a love of learning, we set them up like 19th Century factories.


I’m teaching a grade 12 class on computer science. If my computer science teacher knew I was doing this, he would roll over in his grave. I haven’t coded since the ’80s, I’m a technician. I got knocked off coding by that same computer science teacher who could only approach coding from a mathematical/logical direction. My hackering/tinkering/non-linear approach to generating code depended on a natural fluency with syntax and a willingness to break things in order to come up with something new. I never cared about solving for x, I was always about the why.
So here I am, in a class full of students who my old compsci teacher would have adored. Math wizes who have learned how to learn so well, they can’t do anything (else).
Lisa Simpson (during a teacher’s strike): I can’t take this anymore! Please, mom! Grade me! Grade me! Validate me!!!
That’s at the bottom of it all. These A students are so trained to the system, so inured, that they can’t possibly get unplugged from the Matrix. The idea of learning for sheer curiosity’s sake has been beaten out of them by a dozen years of positive reinforcement produced by their spectacularly successful student careers.
When I suggest we take a left turn, instead of doing more pointless actionscript programming that no one else on the planet except Ontario Elearning finds valuable, and go after C++, which none of them have any experience in, only one is even willing to try it. The rest are paralyzed by fear of failure, or even worse, not being able to demonstrate consistent mastery – because that’s how we really grade. You only get perfect if you’re already ahead of the material. You can’t get low marks at the beginning, continually improve, and end with an A+, those early failures that produced understanding are factored into your grades. We penalize learning in the class room. There has been some change in this, formative/summative and such, but the vast majority of grading still follows the broken example above. Learning is a non-linear process, experimentation, failure, reassessment, reattempt, fail in a new, more interesting way… but we train students to think it’s an inbuilt ability, which you either have, or struggle with. Grades reflect this.
Even the one student willing to self-direct his learning and take on a challenging new language (one that his university uses extensively and we’re pushing him toward with no experience whatsoever) sent me an email anguishing over his grades if he cannot demonstrate fluency in C++ in the 5 weeks we have left. I’ve approached this a number of ways. Firstly, by working with him to set attainable goals (this still freaks him out, he can’t see the mastery in setting the goals to a reasonable level, so feels his marks will suffer). Secondly, I’ve gotten him into a course of study that leads him through the beginnings of C++. The end result should be a working familiarity with a language he’s never seen before demonstrated by some basic scripts that show him coming to terms with the material. Thirdly, I told him to forget the numbers. He is putting hours in on this, not because he has to, but because he wants to. The end result is irrelevant, he is directing his own learning – a dead art in an education system designed to force conformity in order to keep costs down and appear financially responsible. He’s doing something no one else is willing or able to do. He’s also learning something that will immediately assist him in university next year. How is any of this not 100%?
I only wish I could overcome the caution and apathy born of risk aversion in the other students and set them free. We feed them a steady diet of caution, then wonder why they aren’t willing to take risks in learning.
I’m not the guardian of knowledge, I shouldn’t even get to decide how they learn, I should do everything I can to ensure that they do though.

Update:  I just ran into this student at the Grad ceremony a couple of weeks ago.  He’s in his first year at Waterloo U doing computer science (a wickedly difficult course to get into).  It was nice to hear that the C++ really payed off, in a way that the actionscript stuff never would.  He’s finding it difficult, but he’s seeing success, and his greatest advantage?  Taking a run at the programming language they use at university before he got there, errors and all.

A Single Decision Could Save Our Future

I watched the first episode of BBC’s Victorian Bakers the other day and it’s still resonating with me.  They kick it off by taking modern bakers and putting them in an early Victorian bakery.  Like one of the guys in this, I have a family history of baking.  The Kings I’m named after were bakers on Drayton high street near Norwich for generations.

My uncle John has a great story of heading out for bread deliveries on a horse and cart with my great grandfather Eddie.  They left before sunrise and were dropping off loaves for miles and miles before coincidently ending up doing their last drop right next to a public house around lunch time.  Eddie went in, had two pints on an empty stomach and then got back on the cart.  The horse walked the ten miles home without direction while Eddie had a nap.  My then six year old uncle just sat next to him with his mouth hanging open.

The BBC show does a good job of situating those early Victorian bakers in a time period that is very unfamiliar to modern people.  They were performing a truly sustainable industry that had been done in much the same way since before the middle ages.  For millenia local bakeries in villages and towns across the country had made bread that provided the majority of caloric intake for everyone around them using technology and processes that were passed down from generation to generation.  Every time I take out a bag of garbage or a box of recycling and wait for a diesel monster to take them away, I’m aware that what I’m doing isn’t remotely as sustainable.  It’s a lot of hard graft, but between our fixations on ease of living and short term gain, the idea that we could hand down an industry to our children without it destroying the world is foreign to us, hard work or not.

Using brewer’s yeast from local breweries and grain from local fields, the bakery, attached to a water powered mill, would feed everyone within walking or riding distance.  In the process of mimicking this time period the modern bakers made a number of surprising observations, such as how effectively the locally sourced and unmodified brewer’s yeast raised the bread.  Modern yeast has been bred to grow as rapidly as possible in order to be distributed industrially on a massive scale.  It’s not made for taste or even health, it’s made for ease of productivity.  Most of what we do in the 21st Century is designed to feed industry.  The modern bakers who are used to this GMO’d yeast were surprised at how well the traditional brewer’s yeast worked, as well as how much taste it retained; modern yeast is bland by comparison.  One of them said that he could make this bread in his current bakery and it would sell no problem – people miss the details lost in industrialization.
Another naturally rather than industrially sourced ingredient were the local, ancient grains used in this traditional bread making.  An archeologist turned farmer in the area was farming using traditional methods.  So, rather than industry driven monocultural crops that erode soil, he had a variety of grains that naturally grew in the region.  He couldn’t slot that in to modern expectations designed to maximize profit at the expense of everything else, but it did enable the TV production to make a surprisingly accurate traditional bread.  Those traditional grains changed from region to region depending on the local biome, so if you travelled more than two centuries ago, the bread and beer would have tasted different depending on where you were.  Modern grain is bred for rapid growth and tends to be monocultural (and trademarked) in order to maximize short term yields, so they lack that variety and the sustainability that ancient grains had.  Another surprise was the reduced amount of gluten in the ancient grains bread.  Modern monocultures are selected for maximum gluten in order to produce the biggest, fluffiest bread possible.  We genetically engineer grains so they are gluten overloaded then wonder why we’re having a reaction to gluten.
GMOs aren’t the issue here other than how trademarked, selective breeding also fits into the industrial farming disaster.  We’ve been selectively breeding crops and animals for thousands of years to good effect.  The issue is how industrially driven economics force agriculture into unsustainable, damaging, repetitive high-yield, mono-cultural crops that are inherently dependent on diesel powered heavy machinery and heavy chemical use.  All of this is done to produce as much cheap food or fuel as possible.  The quality of that food and the fact that we can’t keep doing it this way aren’t in the equation when farmers are forced to look at short term gain year after year.  When we mess around with agriculture in order to increase profitability at the cost of our health or the health of our environment, we’re ultimately destroying the world for the short term gain of only a few people, and leaving the wreckage for the people who come after us.

The economic system that drives our industrial economy goes well beyond a lack of sustainability.  It demands sacrifices to our health and safety in order to drive short term profit.    Thanks to this myopia we have turned a staple food that we’ve eaten for thousands of years into something unsustainable and unhealthy in order to make more of it for less.  The following episode of Victorian Bakers showed how industrialization and the profit driven wealth that comes from it not only made a traditional, sustainable industry nearly impossible, but also produced products that were happy to trade health for profit.  The bakers in the show were never as unhappy as they were in the early industrial bakery.  The next time someone tells you that we need to deregulate industry, show them this:


The red countries are already upside down. The green coutries are all trending toward red. We aren’t remotely aimed toward a viable end.

This series has me thinking about larger questions around sustainability.  Pretty much everything we do on an industrial scale is driving us toward extinction or at least a drastic correction.  We’re too selfish to make these changes ourselves, but it doesn’t matter because nature will eventually make them for us.  We think we’re forced into making these decisions because of our population, but our population is also a choice.

Current estimates have us at three times the sustainable number of people the Earth can manage.  We could resolve overpopulation in only a few generations, but it would mean radically altering an economic system designed to ignore sustainability in favour of selfishness and short term gain, as well as acting in a way that we as animals aren’t evolved to do.  Procreation is an instinctive force that most people are unwilling or unable to consider modifying.  Asking humans to voluntarily consider modifying the number of children they have raises all sorts of superstition and involuntary anger.  The vast majority of us are not able to worry about how our great grandchildren will survive no matter what horrible things we’re doing to them.


Pledge to look after your great grandchildren by signing here

If, over the next four generations, we volunteered to follow a one child per family policy, we’d have corrected human overpopulation by 2100.  By 2200 we could stabilize the human population under that two billion mark while still being able to develop our science and technology towards less invasive and more sustainable goals.  What we wouldn’t be able to do is continue our short sighted economic system that really only works to convert future misery into today’s profits for a decreasing number of people.  Our economic system is only considered successful if it’s always growing.  The only other thing in nature that works that way is cancer, and a cancer is exactly what free-market driven human beings who think they can procreate at will and ignore the natural consequences are.

It’s possible for us to resolve the mess we’re in.  There is a way forward, but I fear it’ll never happen voluntarily.  I’ll never meet my son’s grandchildren, but I hope he can leave them a world where they don’t find humanity to be a selfish, ignorant, overpowering cancer on the biosphere.  It would be a world where human beings take responsibility for the science and technology that have allowed them to medicine themselves past many of the natural mechanisms that would have otherwise limited their growth.  If we’re going to spend billions ensuring children aren’t dying of disease, then we need to produce less children, or forgo the benefits of that medical science.  The choice is one made by a technologically mature species, but that’s not us.

There could be a future where the reduced human population load on Earth would allow us to continue to develop our science and technology and eventually move our heavy industry out of the only habitable ecosystem we have.  The solar system would be able to provide raw materials for our off-world heavy industry while our home world would became a carefully managed, bio-diverse and sustainable home.  It won’t be groaning under the weight of unsustainable agricultural monocultures we developed to feed an overpopulated planet.  Our biodiverse world would contain self sustaining settlements.  Cities would evaporate and small towns and villages would proliferate, though they would all be able to communicate with each other.  We would benefit from that biodiversity both in terms of sustainability and research.  We can’t make ground breaking discoveries from the massive variety of life around us if we reduce that variety to monocultures designed to feed as many humans as we can stuff onto the planet.


Power generation would be regional, small scale and renewable and consumption would be efficient and light.  Settlement size would be dictated by the biome it was located in and how much food and energy could be produced to look after the people in it.  Cellular regional governments would make decisions for their local needs and larger decisions would be made by combined groups on whatever scale was required, right up to world wide decisions on world wide consequences.  High power production for heavy industry would still happen, off world.  The people who wanted to work in heavy industry would work in space and come back to a green and blue home when they wished.  Imagine a world like that pre-Victorian bakery where the benefits of local life are emphasized and enhanced, but with the efficiencies of advanced communications and micro-manufacturing available to improve health, wellness and quality of life.

Space based energy production could be microwaved to the surface when needed.  Heavy equipment built on the Moon from mines throughout the inner solar system would mean access to raw materials without having to upset the Earth’s biosphere.  Saturn is a near infinite source of Helium3 energy.  Once we build the processes to mine the helium there, we have an energy rich, sustainable civilization for the indefinite future.  Advances in nano-technology, gene editing, chemistry and micro-manufacturing would make our current technology look as inefficient and awkward as steam trains do to us.

From that energy rich space based industry we could eventually drop space ladders down to the surface, making the transfer of people and materials to and from space even more ecologically viable and efficient.  There would come a time where there are more people scattered through the solar system than there are on Earth, but it would always be there ready to welcome us home.  Maybe at some point we would build generational ships and head to the stars, looking for other homes.

A future where we are able to hand down our way of life to our descendents without it killing them is only a single personal choice away.  It’s a shame the vast majority of humanity don’t have it in them to do it.  What my son will be telling his grandchildren is that he’s sorry it has all gone so wrong.  As vital resources like water become scarce under the crushing weight of billions we’ll do what we’ve always done when resources get scarce and go to war with each other.  At that point our science and technology will actually be put to the task of reducing human populations radically quickly.  Perhaps in the aftermath of that we’ll find a way forward, but we’re too stupid and self-righteous to make a decision that will avoid that misery now.

I’m a big fan of artificial intelligence.  As I get older I’m starting to think it’s one of the only places I’m seeing any kind of intelligence.  We seem to be regressing politically and culturally.  Given an opportunity to light up a SkyNet that would manage us better than we’re willing to manage ourselves, I wouldn’t hesitate to flip the switch.  It might be the only way we have a future.




Research Links:

The other thing that got me thinking in this direction was Starfarers by Poul AndersonThe characters in the novel are travelling between stars at relativistic rates, so when they return to Earth over ten thousand years have passed.  Anderson uses that as an opportunity to look at how human society could become a long term, sustainable process.




“If we allow overpopulation and overconsumption to continue, the evidence is mounting that billions will suffer and that we will leave future generations a much harder, bleaker life.”
“Taking these non-renewable resources into account suggests 2 billion people living at a European standard of living may be the upper limit of a sustainable global population”





The rapid decline of the natural world.

360 Winter Photos from the Saddle

These are some video screen grabs from the long way home commute from work last week.  Windy and cool, but still up near ten degrees Celsius with bright, winter sunshine.  The roads were relatively sand and salt free thanks to days of rain and floods.

The Ricoh Theta 360 camera is wrapped around the mirror with a Gorilla Pod.  A 360 video clip starts it off followed by some Adobe Lightroom heavily tweaked screen grabs aimed at creating a more abstract feel.


All the screen grabs with various modifications can be found in this album.

If you’re looking for a motorcycle friendly camera, the Theta 360 has push button controls that are easy to use (most others have finicky wireless connections through a smartphone).  You don’t have to aim it or focus it, it just grabs everything in an instant.  The screen grabs on here are from the 1080 video the Theta made while attached to the rear view mirror.

My last ride was November 28th.  I used the same 360 camera then, but didn’t have the Gorilla Pod at that point so those ones are all hand held.

from Blogger http://ift.tt/2oO3qZf

Exercising the OnePlus5 Smartphone camera

Following that adage I looked for a phone with a good camera this time around.  The OnePlus5 has an excellent camera as far as hardware goes, but the software still has some catching up to do.  Fortunately OnePlus seem committed to regular updates.

Walking home on Dec 23rd, one of the darkest days of the year, I took a post-sunset shot of the Grand River thinking it wouldn’t come out at all.  Not too bad for a very low light shot.  Similarly the multi-shot night time hockey gif taken on winter solstice in full darkness.

The photo of my lovely wife and her colleagues singing was also taken in a dark room.  It was post processed in Paper Artist, my favourite on-phone photo editing app.

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Digital Tribalism

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

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

Wearing Out Willpower: edfail!

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