Binary Thinking

More notes from Phoenix, along with some editorializing:

Education is an analogue, non-linear, complex, biological process because we are non-linear, complex, biological organisms.  Data and the technology that produces it are none of those things.  Data might point to a vanishingly small piece of this complex puzzle, but it will never explain, justify or encompass education, no matter what vested interests might tell you.

We are such chameleons. The dominant thinking of our time actually changes how we see ourselves. When the social norm was religiously defined we saw ourselves as angels and demons. When industrialization occurred we described ourselves in terms of the machines we were creating. In the information age we define ourselves in terms of digital data. It’s important to remember that we are none of these things, but rather the creator of all of them, and therefor greater than them all.

Digital technology is turning our thinking binary.  How do you feel today? A) good B) bad By participating in this data gathering process you have reduced your complex mental state to an absurdity.  Every question is reductive, every piece of data a feathery abstraction of a deeper, more complex meaning. Every time education acts on this reductive logic it becomes less a form of human expression and more an act of compliance with digitally limited technology. There is a branch of thinking that suggests that this is simply because technology hasn’t become fast and vast enough to manage the data, but even at its best digital technology will always be limited to how it works. Even at near infinite speeds with infinite amounts of data you’re still reducing reality to ones and zeroes, which it isn’t.

If digital technology forces reductive binary thinking then any cost savings realized from it will come at the cost of our ability to express ourselves in all the ways that we can.
 
This is a transitional thought, it led to this line of thinking:
Rigour doesn’t exist in data or the statistics derived from it, rigour exists at the limits of human expression. It is never dictated by the limits of hardware or software.

What do I mean by rigour? Thorough and careful – digital data is neither. It is accurate, but only in a very specific sense. We take that fine accuracy and direct it at a far larger array of cause and effect than it could possibly represent, mainly because recognizing the limits of data doesn’t suit the people peddling it. Statistics never encompass the truths they claim to.

Mastery is the result of genuine experience. No one ever gained mastery from taking a test.

If genuine experience is what drives leaning, why do we keep inventing abstractions like testing to drive it?

The answer to that one is obvious: it’s cheaper and easier to manage if we grossly simplify learning to the point of abstraction. Of course, that kind of hypocrisy and self-serving nonsense provokes awkward questions:

If learning is for the learner, why do we do most of what we do in education for everyone else involved?  Is education motivated by politics or pedagogy?
The easiest most self-serving way for ‘educators’ to dehumanize students is by reducing them to data. This becomes more self-evident when you realize that most data collected from education is focused on the system rather than improving student learning.

Stay On Target

Stay on target… stay on target!

You want to talk about extracurriculars?  About how teachers should do them for the love of their job?  How they should sacrifice their own family lives so that they can ‘save the children!’ The politics around this are thick, and they do a great job of hiding the real problem.

Education isn’t about extracurriculars, extracurriculars are about education.  Royan Lee, the education ninja, asked the question that got right to this during TVO’s The Agenda, last week.  He then blogged about it, which might help all those people so tied up in the politics that they’ve lost the plot.

We’re not in education to enrich those students wealthy enough to enjoy extracurriculars.  I didn’t do a lot of extracurriculars in school – I had to go to work every day after school from the age of 10 onwards.  If you think you’re saving the kids by coaching basketball after school, you’re only saving the ones that can afford it.  The fact that extracurriculars usually cost money (bus costs, equipment, etc) many families can’t manage further underlines this unfairness.

Education should offer everyone equal opportunity.  It should be the most liberal of social exercises; opportunity for all, regardless of socio-economic status.  There is an inherent classism in extracurriculars, but I’m sure all those passionate teachers who are rushing to pick up ECs again don’t want to think about that, they just want to win a few games and demonstrate their ‘passion’.

The teacher as evangelist isn’t helpful in any of this. The martyr teacher only wants to emotionally show how much they care.  As a parent, this isn’t what I want from my son’s teachers.  Passion is great, but if that’s all you’ve got, then quite frankly, you’re creepy, and ineffective.  I’m looking for my son’s teachers to be professionals who are always looking to improve their practice.  If they are so thick as to believe that doing extracurriculars doesn’t impact their ability to maximize classroom learning then they have already demonstrated a lack of understanding around the use of limited resources in a time sensitive environment.  Zoe mentioned this in the Agenda show, but was quickly shot down by edu-babble around ‘best practices’.  There are no ‘best practices’.  Teaching is a constant development of a very complicated process.  When I see teachers throwing out edu-babble to simplify our work and support political motives, it strikes me as a professional failure.

The Spicy Learning Blog

Royan’s blog post raises the question of what is so special about ECs.  If the list to the left are what make ECs so valuable to students, why aren’t these things happening in classrooms?  The target of education should be learning.  If ECs offer advantages, why aren’t they being integrated everywhere?

As I said in the comments of his great post, the education ship is rusty and running poorly.  It’s covered in barnacles like extracurriculars, standardized testing, reduced professional development, government and union politics, social opinion, poor teacher standards and weak administrative development.  While Royan is asking why we don’t fix the ship, the other teachers on the show instead go on at length about how important the barnacles are.

Extra curriculars shouldn’t be extra.  We shouldn’t be waiting until after school to offer this enriched learning environment to the few students who can or will take advantage of it.  We need to fix the damn boat, not get wrapped up in the union/government politics.

If that Agenda episode showed me anything, it’s that teachers are just as caught up in the politics of distraction as the media, government and public are.  Stop crying about what the rich kids are missing out on and integrate what makes extracurriculars so fantastic into a public school system everyone can benefit from.


Thank goodness Royan Skywalker got his proton torpedoes on target.

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 that 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 enforced 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 you get that high average. You only get perfect if you’re already ahead of the material. You can’t get low marks at the beginning, continually improve (and actually learn something), and end with an A+.  Those early failures that produced learning are considered failures and factored into your grades; we penalize learning in the classroom. 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. How we grade them enforces 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 grades for the learning trees 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++ in a clearly defined and logical fashion. 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 while appearing academically credible. 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.

Part 1: Magical Technologists

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke

I’m reading Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, and in the opening he compares computer programs to Harry Potter’s magical spells.  It seemed spurious when I read it, but now I’m wondering how it looks from other eyes.
I’m the go-to tech guy at school, and I dig the position.  I’ve joked before about how people need to sacrifice a chicken (or just wave a rubber one over the computer) if they want something to work, but now the metaphor is resolving a bit more.
Today our soon to retire head of guidance came in all worked up because he couldn’t take a document and put it in his powerpoint.  He was using and old, hobbled, board laptop with an ancient copy of, well, everything on it; it was state of the art in 2002 when he got it.
I copied his (wordpad!) file onto a USB key, opened it on my competent, not-board computer (it actually uses Windows 7 instead of XP – the ONLY OS of choice for our board) and MS Office instead of Wordperfect.  I opened the DOC in Office (which just works, unlike Wordperfect on the board laptop) and then screen grabbed the guidance material he wanted into two jpegs.  I then copied them onto the USB and moved them back over to his sad, old laptop.  In moments I had one of the jpegs filling a slide on his powerpoint.  After I did the first one, I got him to do the second one.  He was happy, it all worked, and he even had some idea of how to put jpegs into powerpoint too.
Looking at the order of operations above, it looks pedantic and pretty this/then/that to me, but many people reading it would get lost in the acronyms or the logical sequence of it.  It assumes an understanding of what works with what and how to bypass difficulties around software not cooperating, among other things.
From another point of view, it might look like I pulled out my own, newer, better wand (laptop), and made some arcane gestures (trackpad), spoke some gobbledigook (tech-talk) and dropped a regent into the spell (the USB key).  and made what seemed impossible possible.  Without comfort level, experience and equipment, it looks like I made something happen out of nothing.
The councilor with him said I was the secret technical mystic they turned to when things just didn’t work.

I try to be transparent with what I’m doing, and explain it to people as I’m doing it, but I see their eyes glaze over when I use the first acronym and then they just sit there with a happy smile on their face as the issue gets resolved.  I’d like for everyone to be able to cast their own spells, but I fear many would rather just applaud the magician.

Which takes me back to Harry again.  There’s a scene where Dumbledore escapes from the evil Ministry in spectacular fashion.  He could have just disappeared, but he doesn’t, he does it with a flourish.  Kingsly the auror says afterwards, “Dumbledore may be a criminal, but you’ve got to admit, he has style!”

If you’re going to be a tech-magician, and if you’re reading this you probably already are, then don’t cast your spells flat, be like Dumbledore, have some style!

Staring Into The Abyss

Originally published on Dusty World  in October, 2012:

I was just reading Doug Peterson’s Blog about how a number of edublogs are looking at the Amanda Todd story.  I can understand the urge, but I’m coming at this from a different angle than most.

I’ve had a particularly difficult year dealing with suicide.  In September I received an email from the coroner with a PDF attached.  In many pages of astonishing detail I read the science that showed that my Mum’s death wasn’t an accident, that she took her own life.  When you’re staring into an abyss like this the rhetoric currently in the media sounds astoundingly shallow.  Suicide isn’t a rational choice, or even an emotional one, it’s an existential choice, the most profound one imaginable.

To pin an action like this on a single motivation (ie: cyber bullying so you can amp up anxiety around technology use with children) is simplistic and manipulative.  I have no doubt that cyber bullying played a part, but to base suicide on a single motivating factor is asinine and seems more in line with pushing a political agenda than recognizing a complex truth.

When I was in high school I was big into Dungeons and  Dragons.  At the height of the hobby a kid in Orangeville killed themselves and the press gleefully pinned the cause on D&D, causing panic in parents and making me, as an avid player, feel isolated and vilified.  They’d done something similar a few years earlier with Ozzy Osborne and another suicide.  This kind of simplification fills up the reports of the chattering classes, and helps idiots create fictions that let them push agendas.  That many in the public swallow it is a lasting sadness.

From an educator’s point of view, this is being treated as a management issue.  I fear suicide is being used to manipulate cyber bullying as a political tool – which under my circumstances seems particularly callous.  Rhetorical stances like ‘suicide is never an option’ and rationalizations abound in an attempt to direct this very difficult aspect of human behavior.  Control is the goal, based on a very real fear of the outcome.  But the rhetoric still comes on in response to the presses’ assertion that cyber bullying caused this death.

I’ve been staring into this abyss for a while now.  It has made work difficult, it has made life seem like the self made experience that it is, which is exceedingly heavy if you’re like most people and happy with distractions and assumption as your reason for being.  Nothing is inherently valuable, life is what we make it – literally.  In my Mum’s case she was battling mental illness and was finally on medication for it – which she overdosed on.  Did mental illness play a part in her death?  No doubt.  Was it the only cause?  Not remotely.

The suicide I’m dealing with didn’t happen in a vacuum, I suspect none of them do.  I also suspect that none of them has ever, ever happened for a single reason.  There is no doubt that Amanda was bullied, and that this was a factor in her suicide.  What I question are the responses that focus on dealing with a single social issue that has always and will always exist as though resolving it would somehow magically have prevented her death.

People are naturally social and competitive.  Bullying is a result of this basic human nature, it always has been.  The twist now is that many of the clueless digital natives are publishing what has always happened privately for everyone to see.  Instead of being seen as a window to a previously hidden behavior, the media has dubbed this a cyber bullying epidemic and called into question the very technologies that have made a problem as old as humanity obvious.

The educational response has been to try and get out in front of this invented epidemic.  As someone who has circled this abyss, I’d ask everyone involved in education to consider the situation from more than a single perspective.  Please do not simplify suicide into a misunderstanding that can be rationalized away.

We are not serving our students well if we simplify this into an administrative exercise solely to reduce suicide numbers.  Appreciate the complexities of suicide and try to see the people who end up in this darkness as whole people with many interconnected, complex issues, and not something to be convinced, coerced, manipulated or managed into doing what is more comfortable for everyone else.

Suicide is complex, terrifying and present.  It deserves our full attention, not a soundbite.

Art Therapy.

Tablets are like high heels part 2

The original: Tablets are like high heels

A while back I tried to wrap my head around tablets and why they are so popular.  I struggled using an original ipad and eventually gave up.  A bit later I had an opportunity to use a windows tablet and almost broke it across my head in frustration.  I’m a tech savvy type, so I kept at it.  If tablets are so great, what wasn’t I getting?

This past year I got my hands on an Asus Transformer – the tablet that would convince me that tablets are handy (because it also comes with a keyboard).  It only convinced me that Android has a long way to go in being a tablet OS.

I’ve got an ipad2 and the Asus Transformer floating around my department waiting for robotics to start, so I offered them out to my staff for test drives.  18 emails requesting the slower, lower memory, single tasking ipad, one saying either would be fine (he got the quad core multi tasking Asus).  Marketing works.  Perhaps that is the key to tablet success.

The sell on tablets is a hard one.  You’re getting epic style (yes, Picard has epic style) along with interweb access.  I want to be peppy, mobile and look like I come from the future!  I want a tablet, right?

Turns out I don’t.  After trying and trying to tablet up, it just isn’t sticking.  It appears I’m at an impasse when it comes to tablets and how I use the internet.

When I go online it’s a full contact sport.  I like to get into many things simultaneously (that knocks the ipad out), I’m constantly taking pictures from one thing and slapping them into another.  I’m in and out of photoshop, dreamweaver and other processor heavy software, I want lightning fast responses, the ability to create media on the fly, a keyboard that rewards me for years of learning how to touch type, and a screen that offers a clear view of as many full colour pixels as I can lay my eyes on.

Keep your filthy touch screens!
I want no part of it!

I expect to be able to toss something I found online onto my twitter feed or Facebook or linkedin, or flickr or evernote, or Ning, or Edmodo or any of a million other online tools without having to wonder if it’ll copy and paste this time or not.

Touch screens drive me bonkers.  Until I’m getting Iron Man like performance from my 3d touch interface, I’m not interested in taking stabs at data to see if I can pick them up over and over again.  Watching people do this on tablet baffles me, they seem content to have to attempt the same action over and over again, resigned to it – the inefficiency drives me batty.  The fact that you look like a lost mole looking for a hole makes me snort in derision!

Then there’s the screen itself.  I’m the kind of guy who cleans the windscreen in his car often (or his glasses before he got the lasers).  If I have to look through it, I want it pristine.  Peanut butter encrusted high def screens hold no interest for me at all.  Even a plain old finger print smudge makes me wonder why you’d pay for the high-def screen in the first place.  I’m a visual person, I want my digital window to gleam.

Tablets are for people who like to watch, spectators.  If you are a passive web media consumer, I’d suggest going back to TV, but if you’re determined to lurk, tablets are a good fit for you.  You look nice, but can’t do much; we’re back to the high heels again.

If you’re an active web user, someone who produces (and by produce I mean generate media, not merely be a retweeting machine) as much as they consume, then you’re going to find that the all show

Geeky high heels.

and no go reality of tablets frustrating.

There is no single moment where I’ve wished for a tablet when I’ve had my ultrabook handy.  Light, fast and fully capable, and running on a full/real operating system instead of the dumbed down mobile OSes on tablets; that is where my proclivities lie!

If I have to have a tablet at all, it’s a phone and it fits in my pocket.  It has a good camera, can get me online in a pinch, the batteries last all day and it doesn’t run so slowly as to drive me around the bend.  I’ll live with the lame mobile OS until they get better and it’ll do everything I’d ever need a tablet for without spending hundreds of dollars on a redundancy.

At any other point, when I really want to hit the web, I’ll turn to the laptop.

Tablets might be a good fit for how you go online if you’re a freaky lurker, but otherwise stay clear!  You’ll look great using them, but you won’t actually be doing much.  If that’s your M.O., an Apple genius is waiting to take your order.

Academic Dishonesty: listening to Sunday Edition

I’m sitting here listening to CBC’s Sunday Edition doing an interview with an ethics adviser for a California university. Her description of cheating isn’t one of deceit and intent, it’s one of accidental opportunism. She argues that students often don’t even realize they are cheating.

In another section of the interview a university student says that it isn’t the student’s fault, they are victims of the ease of technology. These two ideas are closely linked; accidental cheating and technological access to information. In both cases, ethical choice is removed from the ‘victim’. This is a pretty weak ethical argument. Because something is easy and readily available, it should be done? If you see a person put an ipad on a park bench and then get distracted for a few minutes, do you walk off with it? According the this victim mentality you would have no choice. The fact that all of your friends have stolen ipads from the park only makes it more acceptable.

When I think about my own university experience, it didn’t even occur to me to cheat, because of my sheer awesomeness. My arrogance ensured that I would never even consider putting in someone else’s work for my own, but then I was there to develop my own thinking. I’d walked away from a lucrative career in order to push my limits. Most of the kids I was in university with (typically 4-5 years younger than I was, many of whom dropped out) were there because they couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. You didn’t get a clear sense of who the real learning disciples were until third or forth year.

Later in the same episode, they mention that the vast majority of students in university now are there because they want a higher standard of income, they’re there for the payoff at the end. If university is really all about the money, then perhaps their victim mentality is simply the best way to morally justify taking everything you can while doing as little as possible. University should, perhaps, follow SNL’s angle from so long ago and simply accept what it is becoming.

Media Arts Lab 2.0

Redesigning media arts to create, not consume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:


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.