The Bar For Being Human Just Got Raised Again

https://www.robotus.org/point/technological-singularityAs artificial intelligence continues to improve through both hardware and software engineering advances it’ll get to the point where it starts to overtake low functioning human beings.  Then it’ll overtake average human beings.  At some point it’ll overtake the smartest human beings on the planet.  Ray Kurzweil called this point the technological singularity.  It’s the point where we won’t know why machine intelligence is doing what it’s doing any more than an ant would understand why the humans are having a picnic.


You can read up on GPT-3, the latest step forward in A.I. here, or here, but I’m curious about it from an educational point of view.  GPT-3 is the latest iteration of OpenAI‘s research into text prediction machine intelligence.  Version three isn’t that architecturally different from GPT-2, but it’s much, much bigger, by many orders of magnitude.  This brute force approach allows it to adapt and respond much closer to a human level of response.  It’s so good it surprises people.


What does this mean in education?  GPT-3 based online systems are going to start appearing in the next year.  These systems will take a few suggestions from a human user and create text outputs that will stress a Turing test in terms of how well they are put together and what is being said.  With sufficient training and some smart engineering around focusing inputs, GPT-3 based online systems will write an accurate, original essay on any subject.  It could be used to answer any questions in any subject or formulate text responses even in abstract areas like poetry .  It’ll also translate better than anything we’ve seen so far.  It’s GPT-3’s brute-force Swiss-Army-knife effectiveness that will see it falling into student hands sooner rather than later.  Which students?  The ones it already sounds like:


“GPT-3’s ability to dazzle with prose and poetry that sounds entirely natural, even erudite or lyrical, is less surprising. It’s a parlor trick that GPT-2 already performed, though GPT-3 is juiced with more TPU-thirsty parameters to enhance its stylistic abstractions and semantic associations. As with their great-grandmother ELIZA, both benefit from our reliance on simple heuristics for speakers’ cognitive abilities, such as artful and sonorous speech rhythms. Like the bullshitter who gets past their first interview by regurgitating impressive-sounding phrases from the memoir of the CEO, GPT-3 spins some pretty good bullshit.”



Dig up some GPT-3 output online and you’ll see it uses the fact that it has figured out human speech patterns to smoothly say very little; it’s like listening to a slick salesman  This complex machine learning formula is the perfect tool for weak students answering rote, systemic school assignments, because both those students and the school system they’re responding too are so low functioning that this rudimentary A.I. can do the job better (and in less than a second).


“As AI researcher Julian Togelius put it: “GPT-3 often performs like a clever student who hasn’t done their reading, trying to bullshit their way through an exam. Some well-known facts, some half-truths, and some straight lies, strung together in what first looks like a smooth narrative.” (Though as many have pointed out: clever students who know how to bullshit go far in this world because people don’t always scrutinize what they’re saying.)”



So, the bar for human expectation has just moved again.  If you’re operating as a teacher or student at the sharp end of human achievement, this is well beneath you, but if you like to trot out the same old material year after year, don’t bother assessing process and don’t really pay much attention to student work you do mark, this’ll fool you.  For a student looking to get something for nothing, this is a dream come true.


“GPT-3 would never kill jobs skilled developers. Instead its a wake-up call for cargo coders and developers. It’ll urge them to buckle up and upskill to ensure they’re up for solving complex computer programming problems.” (cargo coders are weak programmers who copy and paste code rather than generating it themselves – they’re like many students)



The obvious answer to this is to assess process, since a student attempting to hand in work this way would have none.  Of more interest from a pedagogically standpoint is how we should integrate this evolving technology into our learning processes.  OpenAI isn’t doing this in an evil attempt to create an entire generation of illiterate children, they’re doing it to create A.I. that assists and supports human endeavour and raises it to a higher level.


The last year I was teaching English I had my 3Us try and beat Turnitin.com.  The standard usage seemed to be an ‘aha, I caught you plagiarizing!” punitive response after a minimally reviewed writing process, all done behind a curtain.  By turning that all around  and giving students transparent access to this punitive tool, I had students come to the realization that they could beat turnitin’s plagiarism check, but it took so much work to do it effectively that it was easier and more functional to just write the damned thing yourself.  Instead of depending on tech or banning it, we used it to test limitations.


I imagine education’s first response to GPT-3 driven plagiarism tools will be to try and ban them, but as usual that’s backwards.  A.I. supported human intelligence isn’t being developed for us to do less, but to enable us to do more.  From that point of view, an A.I. supported writing process should move rubric expectations for everyone upwards.  What used to meet expectations should now fail to meet expectations.  A digitally supported writer should already be leveraging tools to mitigate grammar and spelling errors, and teachers should be teaching effective use of these tools.  Where 5-10 grammar errors in a paper might have gotten you a level three/meets expectation before, there should now be none because digital supports should be integrated, proficiency in them expected and output from them meeting raised expectations.  With that technical work supported, student writers should be focusing on developing continuity of thought, voice and style.


The same goes for A.I. supported writing as we enter the Twenty-Twenties.  We should be evolving writing processes to include A.I. editorial review, A.I. supported enhanced research and maybe even A.I. driven originality of thinking.  Can you imagine a Turing test as a part of writing process that tells a student that their writing isn’t as human as a GPT-3 piece?  That’s using A.I. to raise the bar.  Can you imagine what student writing might look like if advanced word prediction A.I.s like GPT-3 were integrated into student writing processes?  We all need to be thinking about that, now.  It’s what literacy is going to look like in the next decade.


Beyond writing you’re going to see GPT-3 driven online tools rock rote, standardized (lazy) learning.  Like your worksheets?  A student will be able to scan a worksheet and receive accurate, textually correct responses instantly, to any question, in any subject.  If you’re using the same old assignments over and over, the A.I. will find that and use previous examples to produce even more complex and relevant answers.

The irony is the teachers who struggle most with this new threshold of human expectation are also the ones who will use it to mark student work.  In those teach-like-it’s-1960 classes, A.I. written papers will be handed in by students and then marked by A.I. markers – no humans will have played a part in any of that ‘learning’.



OTHER READING


https://www.wired.co.uk/article/gpt-3-openai-examples  “the world’s most impressive AI. Humans are being given limited use – for now – to make sure things don’t go wrong”


https://lambdalabs.com/blog/demystifying-gpt-3/
A technical analysis of GPT-3:  OpenAI recently published GPT-3, the largest language model ever trained. GPT-3 has 175 billion parameters and would require 355 years and $4,600,000 to train

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Snow Garage

The snow’s flying.  I like watching Waiting out the Winter for some inspiration at this time of year:



WAITING OUT WINTER from Andrew David Watson on Vimeo.

I did my own less cool and moody version of it here:



I’m beginning to see why I’m sore after doing a few hours in the garage.  I’m all over the place!  The Tiger has new oil and filter and has been cleaned and coated and is now living under a blanket until the weather comes back to us.  The battery’s in the basement on a smart charger.



In the process of cleaning up I noticed a missing rubber on the bottom of the seat.  Gotta figure out how to get that, the cracked rubbers on the mirrors and the rubber thing that covers the rear brake wiring.  






The Tiger’s going on fourteen years old.  Fourteen years in Canada means wild swings in temperature.  The rubbers need renewing.  There’s a winter project.

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Motorcycle Things: Winter ’17 Wishlist

A motorcycle wish list circa 2017:



Jon Campbell on Google+ shared updated colours on the Aerostich line of motorcycle clothing.  I’ve always loved the look of Aerostich kit.  Unfortunately, a Roadcrafter suit costs more than most of the motorcycles I’ve purchased.  


One of these days I’ll get the coin together and spring for an Aerostich one piece suit.  By all accounts it’ll be the last time I need to.  


They have lots of custom options so I should be able to find a long in the body, regular inseam that fits me properly.  With colour choices aplenty, making an original looking suit that fits is an ongoing pastime.


***


Keeping with the orange kit theme, I’m also wishing for a go with the updated Desmo RO32 transformable helmet.  Quieter, more comfortable and more spacious, it’s my go-to Desmo helmet evolved.  Short of buying one from overseas untried, I’m stuck.  If we end up in France this summer, a trip to Roof might be in the cards through.


***

With the Tiger’s winter maintenance done, I’m hoping to return focus to the Concours ZG1000 Fury streetfighter I’ve got half finished.  


On the to-do list is getting a rear light and indicators.  I’d ordered them through Amazon but the dodgy Chinese company that makes them never evidently sent it, though they charged me for it.  The Amazon marketplace seems to be increasingly filled with overseas companies that have a very slow delivery time, assuming they ship at all.


It’d be nice to get this running smoothly by the summer for some blistering solo rides where I finally get to find out what those new Michelin tires feel like.  In a perfect world I’d enjoy the summer on it, ride it to the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride in Toronto next September where someone offers to buy it for what it cost me to make it.  I could then role that over into next winter’s project.


***

A couple of road trips this summer would be nice.  I’ve had a trip around Lake Superior in mind for a while now.  It’s about 2000kms around from Manitoulin Island and back again, and another couple of hundred kilometres and a ferry ride home.


Launching from Little Current at the north end of Manitoulin, I’d go the Ontario side first just to avoid the misery that is the border crossing into Michigan at The Sault.  After sitting at that for almost two hours last year, I’ll go backwards around Superior just to avoid it.  Doing 350km/days on average, we’d get around Superior in about six days.  If we wanted a day off, we could push for a couple of days to get a day of rest.  A day up to Manitoulin and a day back at the end means eight days on the road.


A trip down the Appalachians to see the full solar eclipse this summer is also on the short list.  Doing this one for ten days means we’d have a couple of days to explore areas on the way down and on the way back instead of making miles every day.


From just over the border in New York state all the way down to Tennessee, this is motorcycle nirvana with mile after mile of twisting mountain roads.


***

Racer5 is running their introduction to track riding again this year.  A May long weekend getting familiar with the racing dynamics of a motorcycle would be pretty wicked.  By the end of the course I’d be qualified to race.  The next step would be getting myself into the VRRA for some vintage racing.

***

I never get bored of imagining throwing a few grand down on some motorcycle racing gear.  My two pairs of Alpinestar boots have been excellent, so I’d probably base a lot of the racing gear on what they offer.  I’d read reviews of the Handroid Knox racing gloves and they sound totally next level.  An Arai helmet has always been a long term, top end motorcycle helmet wishlist item, and they have a nice Isle of Man special out this year.


***

A track-day specialist bike would also be nice to have tucked away, only to be trailered to the track for hard work.   This ’99 CBR600 F4 is well cared for and going for about three grand.   I’d strip it down to bare essentials and put a carbon single seat cowling on the back.  After wearing out the tires on it, I’d go to racing tires and continue to evolve the bike into a track specialist.


***

Guy Martin did a race in his Ford Transit van last year where he averaged well over 100mph for an extended length of time.  I wouldn’t spend much time in one the other side of 100mph, but having a van would sure be handy.  From transporting my own bikes out of the snow for a cheap ride in the winter, to taking the race bike to the track, having a bike transport system would be mega.  With taxes, a new one nicely spec-ed out is just north of fifty thousand of your finest Canadian dollars.


***


Some top shelf gear, getting race ready and having the custom Kawasaki on the road… if I came into cash in 2017, that’s what I’d be spending it on.

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Texas Meandering & a Better Idea

While the ice-storm of certain doom forms outside, I’m watching Qatar qualifying and daydreaming about making a MotoGP race this year.  The only one on my continent runs in a few weeks in Texas.  This has me reviewing my Texas Ironbutt dreams.

I’d originally gone for an Ironbutt on the way down and a shorter finish up the next day.  If I could push the limits I could condensify it even further (making it more excitingly possible!).



It’s just short of a twenty-four hour ride to Texas from here.  An early wake-up Friday and I could do the Ironbutt to late Friday night (60mph avg for 17 hours 4am-9pm would do it).  The last five hundred miles after an early wake up should get me to Austin on Saturday by about 2pm… just in time for qualifying.  A good sleep Saturday night and then I’m at the race Sunday.  It wraps up about 4pm.  A good push to 10pm should put me a third of the way back, I could finish up the rest on Monday.  In theory, only two days off work!






I could fly down and back if I was loaded, but a quick look around found a flight out of Detroit (4 hour drive away) leaving Friday at 10:30am and getting in to Austin just before 3pm.  Flying out of the local airport meant layovers and a long time waiting.

I found a KTM 390 Duke to rent for the four days from Lone Star Moto Rentals.  I think i could fit riding gear in carry on luggage, so there’d be no waiting for luggage and I could be in and out of the airports quickly enough.  With the bike rental, hotels and flights I’d be looking at about $3000.

By comparison the ride down would be $1000 in hotels, $200 in gas and I wouldn’t be herded onto a plane at any point.  Call me perverse but were I to go, I’d ride down.







Having said all that, I’d rather spend a thousand bucks on Racer5’s introductory track riding program. I could buy some quality race kit that’d do for years and still come in at less than this abbreviated weekend. It’d be nice to see the MotoGP boys doing their thing again, but short of an unlimited budget it doesn’t make much sense.

Big Digital Magic

I’m really enjoying teaching English again, especially the university bound group I’ve got.  I don’t have to worry about explaining why they are there as I do in many computer-tech classes.  The students come complete with their own resilience and competitive nature.  When you’re not reduced to hand holding all the time you can get into concepts deeply and quickly.

An opening unit from the text is “Fire of the Human Spirit”.  In it we look over Mandela’s inauguration Speech, a Susan Aglukark song and a June Callwood essay amongst other media, all of it pointing at the concept of FotHS.


After a few examples and some discussion we set up a wikispace where students each found a song that they believe described FotHS.  They each made a wikipage on which they provided a link to the song, the lyrics, and a personal analysis of why this song exemplifies FotHS.

Because this class comes ready to play I tend to approach it as though I’m a participant in a hot group; I like to bring gifts to the group.  In this case I knew that I could export the content out of the wikispace relatively easily.  Since that text consisted only of the lyrics and student written analysis I thought it might be interesting to look at what we’d created from a group vocabulary usage point of view.  What words found in the lyrics of 28 songs and accompanying student analysis point to our concept of Fire of the Human Spirit?

Exporting the wiki is a one click process.  Once I had the text I had to do some magic to combine all the HTML pages into a single document.  Wikispaces also exports to text but it takes the html coding with it, which made a mess.  Google-docs didn’t seem to have the mojo I needed to combine multiple documents into a single one, but the Phantom Foxit PDF creator I had did.  Once I had a pdf with all the text from twenty eight wikipages imported together I dumped it into the text window in Wordle and voila:



Katy Perry single-handedly got ‘oh’ in there!  Looking at verb usage is interesting.  Fire of the Human Spirit seems to demand action!  The nouns are also enlightening when creating constellations of meaning around this concept.  We’re going to use this class produced conglomeration of ideas to develop thesis around the concept next week.

As an aside, several English teachers turned their noses up at what we were doing.  Apparently it’s widely believed that you can’t learn English in a digital context.  I beg to differ.  If we’re going to turn to media to teach English, I’d much rather it be personalized, self created media like this.  The students themselves were surprised at how much depth something this simple offered.  That they created it as a class seemed to produce a sense of satisfaction.

Here is a FotHS 2.0 with some common words removed to emphasize specific vocabulary:


Riding the Dufferin Highlands & Beating Up a 360 Camera

A colleague‘s retirement party at the far end of our school board meant an excuse to ride over an hour each way to the Dufferin County Museum, scenically perched atop the highest point in Southern Ontario.  It also happens to be within ten minutes of two of my favourite semi-local rides (there is nothing closer with any twisties).


I rode over to Orangeville and then down Hockley Valley Road.  We’re getting over a flood, and the Hockley River was eating its own banks where ever I saw it.  The ride up Airport Road into the highlands was very green and equally floody.  The retirement party was unique in that more than 50% of the speeches weren’t tedious and so filled with inside jokes that only the speaker thinks them funny – with a few exceptions I wasn’t bored with the speeches, which never happens.


I didn’t take any photos on the way out, but I met my wife at the party and then we thought we might go over to the Terra Nova Public House for dinner, but they had nearly an hour wait on a Friday Night, so we aimed elsewhere.  The Mono Cliff’s Inn was both immediately welcoming and only ten minutes away over the glacial moraines of the Niagara Escarpment.


This time I kept the Ricoh Theta handy and took photos as we went into the setting sun:







After a great appetizer smorgasbord in the unique atmosphere of the bar downstairs at the MCI we headed home in the twilight.  I wasn’t expecting much out of the Theta camera in the dying light, but as it has before, it exceeded my expectations:









By this point the light is all but gone and I’m beating up on the Theta.  A fixed lens fully automatic camera, 360° or not, struggles to manage low light, so this isn’t where the Theta was designed to work, but it still does a credible job.  It’s all but dark out when I take the last photo while travelling under the power lines.  I had to beat it up in photoshop a bit to restore some sharpness, but sometimes going with the blur gives you a painted feel to a photo which can give it an abstract feel.  Photography doesn’t have to be all about focus.


You can do quite a lot with the desktop software that comes with the Theta,but there are some special formatting options in the online version that are cool.  The Tiny Planet view in the online viewer is probably my favourite.  The embedded image at the bottom lets you see the whole photo in the raw.

The original

Some Photoshop on the original
Alternative photoshop a bit closer to the natural light

This is the original image in the online software.  If you click on the mirror ball icon and then tiny planet you’ll see where I got the still images above.

Post from RICOH THETA. – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

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Sympathetic Teachers

For the past couple of weeks my yoga instructor has been away so I’ve been learning with another teacher.  I’ve been with the same instructor for about a year and I’ve gotten used to her ways.  Our fill-in instructor is actually the studio owner and a more experienced teacher, but I’m used to what I’m used to and I’m finding the change challenging.

The differences in how each teaches got me thinking about how learning and the relationship it is based on works.

My regular instructor pushes herself and her students.
It works for me.

I’m the furthest thing from a yoga expert but I enjoy the process and I’ve gotten better at it in a year of practice.  My regular instructor is very focused on form and pushing through physical barriers.  Her own practice is flawless.  Our current instructor is much more mentally focused, asking us to be mindful of what we’re doing and de-emphasizing the physical side of things (though I still find her classes very physically strenuous).  Neither is right, but they are very different in how they demonstrate their mastery and what they focus their students on.  I’ve enjoyed the change but I’ve bonded with my regular instructor and I’m looking forward to getting her back.

The personal nature of the relationship between a master and apprentice is based on choices by both.  Masters tend to select for apprentices who they can work with, and vice-versa.  Back in the day when apprentices were unable to select their masters this wasn’t the case, but nowadays you see this self-selection all the time.  When a student finds a teacher they share a wavelength with they tend to latch on.  Variety is the key to this selection process.  I probably wouldn’t have stuck it out (yoga is hard work) if I hadn’t connected to the instructor’s approach enough to overcome the difficult early months.

Another philosophical thought from my regular instructor.
She wants you to develop quickly, find your limits and
then push through them. In that struggle is found yoga.

In my first year of university I asked my history TA how she knew what to focus on.  She laughed and said it was all about the prof, why else would she be doing her Masters in Scottish history?  That personal relationship is an important part of a student’s willingness to put up with the pain of learning a discipline.

In the education system you get the impression that this individualism is a bad thing.  Teachers are encouraged to adopt whichever educational philosophy is in vogue and be ready to move on to the next one when the next book comes out.  Most experienced teachers have learned to not get caught up in this kind of thinking (one of the key failures of professional development).  It tends to be the game of educational leadership to push a school-wide vision of teaching in order to establish some kind of standard.  Teacher assessment uses checklists and fill-in-the-blank templates based on the school system’s idea of an ideal teacher.  This implies that there is only one way to teach properly which would kill any chance of a student finding a teacher who speaks to them, unless your students are as generic as your teachers.  When the system assumes surrogacy for learning, human relationships are diminished and the ability to learn is compromised.

Ease of learning is another aspect of this problem.  I like my yoga instructor because she doesn’t make it easy, she demands hard work but she’s quick to praise both the effort and the improvement that comes from it.  Many students came and went but this only reinforced the success of the ones who stuck it out.  This is the opposite of the everyone succeeds approach in the current education system.  Learning is not easy, nor should it be, but that doesn’t mean a teacher should be cruel or dismissive, quite the opposite actually (watch Whiplash for a complex look at this idea).  If learning is a challenge (and someone is trying to sell you something if they say it isn’t) then a teacher should offer an individualized and sympathetic means of accessing a discipline rather than making an already difficult task harder.  Empathy is implicit in teaching, but especially so when it’s between a sympathetic student and teacher – their shared ideals allow them to tackle ever more complicated learning on the road to mastery.  Not only is this an emotional support while dealing with difficulties, but it’s also an aid to communication.  Much less needs to be explicitly stated when you’re working with someone you understand.  I’d actually argue that mastery learning can’t happen without this relationship.

The concept of edutainment seems to have infected all levels of the education system.  Fun, happy learning where the teacher must provide so much entertainment value that students don’t even feel like they’re learning (!) is the mantra of modern education.  Expecting students to put up with difficult lessons and experience failure isn’t the way nowadays.  The vast majority of the coddled students I deal with wouldn’t have come back after the first week in my yoga class.

Perhaps the gee-wiz, ‘learning is fun and easy’ philosophy of education is really another attempt to undermine the pivotal personal relationship between teacher and student.  When students aren’t expected to overcome any difficulties and can’t fail you also don’t need to depend on the personal bond between teacher and student to encourage a student to withstand defeat, build resilience and eventually experience the kind of confidence that isn’t systemically assumed.

That muppet knows mastery learning!  The modern education
version would be, “just show up (optional)
and we’ll get you a diploma.”

I was looking for a challenge when I started yoga.  I was feeling stiff and old and I was willing to work at fixing it.  Being dared by my instructor to push beyond the obvious discomfort I was feeling only worked because I respected her approach to the practice.  The first time I found my toes again or got heels down in downward dog I was ecstatic.  It took me months to get there.

Almost a year later I weigh 20lbs less, my flexibility is always improving and I find yoga much less painful than it once did.  It wasn’t easy and I was tempted to quit a number of times.  The day after often felt like I’d been ‘hit by the yoga truck‘.  I was able to see improvement, but it happened slowly and sometimes I regressed.  Trust and respect in my instructor is what got me through the urge to quit early.  Why would my instructor spend all this time on her students who stick it out, pushing herself to demonstrate her practice in order to benefit us?

I’ve taken many aspects of my instructor’s practice and made it my own.  Her practice is uniquely her’s, but as her student I’ve been able to closely observe and internalize various aspects of her practice as well as her overall philosophy in order to develop my own yoga.  As a teacher my approach tends to be copied in part by like minded students (the incompatible ones aren’t even aware there is an approach, they think it’s all about facts).  It’s thrilling for me to see a student tackle a difficult problem and see a bit of myself in it – it’s almost like I’m the parent of their practice.

I speak with the voices of the sympathetic teachers in my life, any good student does, but if we continue to push for a systematized version of teaching that de-emphasizes the human connections through which we develop resiliency and master challenging learning, we’ll end up with students who are unable to do anything other than exist within an ineffective education system.

We should be celebrating differences in teachers because they all speak to different students and allow a wide variety of learners to find their own way to mastery.  The standardized, generic teacher who follows the lesson plan template using the educational philosophy of the moment is no teacher at all (though you sure could pay them less!), and they would be teaching to a standard student that doesn’t exist.  Had I walked into that on my first night of yoga I would have walked out again.

Academic Gatekeeping In a Pandemic

What’s our job as teachers?  Curriculum police?  Guardians of the ivory towers of academia?  Throughout the pandemic I’ve had students telling me tales of woe around their core subjects (English, maths & science), all three of which are seem to be chasing curriculum at all costs with radically reduced resources, most especially time.  They seem intent on making up for these shortcomings by burying students in work at a time when many of them are frazzled to the point of ineffectiveness.

In a normal semester you take 75 minutes of instruction a day, have another hour of possible enrichment at lunch or before/after school, and then have time after school for homework that reviews small, 75 minute segments of new learning.  Even in those good times that homework expectation gets my back up.  Teachers who dump an hour of homework on a student each night are part of a cabal that believes that students should spend five hours a day taking in-school instruction and then another four hours a night doing homework (students take four subjects per day).  These nine hour days aren’t sit-in-an-office-and-stare-out-the-window situations, they’re paying focused attention while developing new knowledge and skills hours, which makes them very tiring.  Even at the best of times that homework load isn’t humane, nor is it equitable.

Public education serves everyone and doing so
doesn’t make it anti-excellence. A system that
selects the top students based on their socio-
economic status isn’t equitable, nor is it doing
what public education is supposed to be doing.

Got a job?  Got other family commitments? The homework cabal doesn’t care.  Their job is to shake the tree of dead fruit and only send the most privileged specimens on to the glorified halls of post-secondary academia.  This is in direct conflict with what I believe the function of public education to be:  to maximize the potential of every student and point them towards a more fulfilling life that makes best use of their abilities.  The fact that the socio-economic privilege that supports the homework cabal usually falls to white, hetero-normative, cis gendered, neuro-typical, male students isn’t their problem; academic credibility must be maintained at all costs!

I was once one of those dead fruits.  I have no doubt that I struggled in high school with maths and science because I was also working full-time hours in order to help my parents pay their mortgage through senior high school.  Being undiagnosed as neuro-atypical didn’t help either but calling a student lazy and unfocused is much easier than identifying their neuro-diversity.

I can recall my core subject report cards commenting on my lack of focus, but then I was working until mid-night every day before coming in to school the next morning, though that didn’t stop teachers from bracketing me as a weak student and directing me out of university bound pathways (I’ve since earned 2 degrees).

During the pandemic our typical six month semesters have been crammed into 10 week quad-mesters, each week being a drink-from-the-firehose two and a half hour marathon in-class session followed by another two and a half hour marathon remote learning session, whether you’ve got the tech and circumstances at home to do it or not.  What was once a classist, inequitable system has doubled down on that approach during COVID19.  Now that we’re fully remote again for the third time those inequities are further amplified.

Mountains have been moved to try and address the digital divide, but sending a Chromebook home isn’t going to resolve generational socio-economic dysfunction and systemic-repression, and digital literacy has much more to it than whether or not you have access to a computer.  Our unwillingness to make digital fluency a foundational skill in our classrooms has put us in a situation where we are expecting  students to complete over half of their instruction in a course in an environment where the vast majority (teachers included) barely have a working knowledge, let alone fluency.  While fully remote it also makes wild assumptions about student and teacher home lives and what they are able to achieve through the bottle-necked, undersupported and overburdened medium of elearning.

We’re currently in another wave of COVID19 prompted by a dysfunctional Ontario government and I’m coaching students in a series of virtual Skills Ontario competitions while instruction is fully remote..  Extracurriculars are nearly impossible this year with the viscous schedule and unapologetic work loads that teachers desperate to meet curriculum requirements are unloading on students.  One of my competitors just dropped out because his calculus class (in addition to virtual instruction all day) is expecting late night homework marathons every night.

If you usually give an hour of homework for a seventy-five minute class spread over six months in a normal semester, you’re handing out over four hours of homework per day every day in our cramped quadmestered schedule where every day is the equivalent of 4.2 days of normal instruction.  Core subject teachers with their mandatorily loaded classes seem particularly determined to drive students through their full curriculum by depending almost entirely on overloading students with an avalanche of work.  When your subject is guaranteed to run regardless of how you approach it, that academic credibility seems to become an excuse for inequity.

This academic gate-keeping seems particularly acute in the core subjects where rigorously dictated curriculums have teachers worried about students in future classes if they don’t have the fundamentals down.  This year I’ve had students from grades 9 to 12 tell me that they can’t do my course work on the week I’m teaching them because their English/maths/science teacher left them homework for their off-week.  So much for us all being in this together.

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Accidental Engineers: Making Technology And Engineering Accessible to All

In one of those strange coincidences that seem to be happening a lot lately, I read an article in Wired Magazine about the secret development of the F14 Tomcat fighter plane, which had a complex micro-processor controlling many aspects of this incredible plane years before Intel invented the ‘first microprocessor‘.  I love hidden histories like this that show how technology actually evolved rather than depending on corporate revisionist history.

Wireds’ article on the engineer that almost wasn’t who helped
to develop the world’s first micro-processor speaks to the
academic prejudice that still fuels our schools.

The article highlighted Ray Holt, an ‘accidental’ engineer who played a pivotal role in physically creating this ground-breaking piece of technology.  Ray was discounted in high school and deflected out of STEM pathways in much the same way I was.  It’s a ‘do it our way or forget about it’ approach in most high school STEM classes.  That experience is why I teach technology in the way that I do.

The article describes how Ray, this groundbreaking engineer, found his way into education.  His approach in teaching it is very similar to my own:


“We are trying to find out what the kids are really interested in, Some like to build, some like to program, some like electricity.”  

I’ve developed this to the point where my senior students can weigh their marks in each area of the course (computer technology curriculum is absurdly wide-ranging from electronics engineering to coding to information technology to robotics – each of which would be its own program in post-secondary), so that they can focus on their specialty without being swamped by a vague and capricious curriculum.  I could get all academically rigorous about it and hold their feet in the fire through all aspects of the curriculum, but that isn’t realistic, nor is it humane.

I’m also all about the underdogs, to the point where my program logo is a junkyard dog.  Helping socio-economically disadvantaged or neuro-atypical or non-gender-normative students find their way into technology is one of the things that drives me.  I love that we come out of nowhere at national events from a composite, rural, community school representing students that wouldn’t even be admitted to the schools who we often compete against… and beat.


One of the ways I make sure that my optional, open level, pathways driven program is accessible and equitable is to not tie it up in time and engagement expectations so absurd that only the privileged can access them.  I only wish core subject teachers would take a moment to consider the inequitable nature of their academic rigour and rejig things so that more people can explore opportunities in these fields without feeling like they’re too poor to access them.  It’s not like my approach isn’t producing academic excellence, and it’s done without systemically removing students who can’t supplement their public education with their privilege.


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The Illusion of a Functioning Public Education System in a Pandemic


I was talking to one of the smartest people I know last week and she described the education system as being built of popsicle sticks and tape.  This past year has thrown that into a stark light.  The amount of hours we instruct don’t matter.  Having a qualified teacher teaching doesn’t matter.  The quality of instruction is irrelevant and even ensuring that students have the circumstances needed to learn doesn’t matter.


We’re now fully remote again for the third time with no time to prepare and, a year into the pandemic I’m still seeing students who, due to circumstances at home, don’t have the time, space or tech to do remote learning, but that isn’t what the illusionists who keep up the fiction of a credible education system want to talk about.  The fix is to pile on on inequitable and wildly unfair expectations just to keep up the fiction of a credible school system.  It’ll pay off for the privileged students, so I guess it’s really just business as usual.

Whenever we have a moment we seem to be talking about equity in PD sessions in school this year but it always just seems to be talk.  Every day we practice wildly inequitable actions in education without a second thought.  IEPed students who are supposed to be given extra time aren’t because of the quadmestered schedule and students without a functional learning environment at home are simply out of luck – but the grades keep rolling over them; grading for privilege isn’t new but it’s amplified in COVID.

During face to face instruction in this pandemic these inequities are exacerbated by a schedule that’s half remote and relentlessly unsustainable as it attempts to cover 4.2 days of regular class every day, only half of it face to face and even that half isn’t really face to face.

When we go fully remote we push even further in the direction of inequity, all just to keep the fiction of an academically credible public education system alive.  There is so much more to public education than this cruel metric based on students attempting to chase education illusions from home.

That a it took a pandemic to highlight this house of cards is telling.  Even when it’s over you can’t expect equity, just slightly less inequity.  Meanwhile the toxic positivists are loudly declaring that some students thrive in this brave new world.  If they are then they’re rich and secure and able to operate without IEP needs.  I’m not sure that those students need to be put on a pedestal, society will do that for them for their entire lives.

We’re into the final quad-mester of the worst year of teaching I’ve ever experienced.  I’m no longer interested in academic rigour.  I’m interested in making sure all my students are able to make it to the end of this cruel and inequitable social experiment without feeling like they are being run into the ground by circumstances beyond their control.

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