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.

The Lab That Isn’t A Lab

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

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

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

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  In fact, I think they are specifically designed to be out of date, glitchy, inaccessible and frustrating – hardly the mindset you want to put students in when you’re teaching them how to learn effective operation of an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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the lab that isn’t a lab.

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

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

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

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

More Than A Book

I’ve got a nine year old son who is a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series on Nickelodeon.  It’s a huge improvement over his Spongebob period and a very intelligently written series.  I am guilty of watching it over his shoulder from time to time.

This Splinter was once a man who grew up in a family clan of ninjas who benefited from a lifetime of rich, traditional learning.  The action movie one read a book.

In the cartoon Splinter, the turtles’ surrogate father and sensei, is the descendent of a ninja clan.  He had been trained as a martial artist his entire life.  When he was mutated into a rat, he used this deep mastery to train the turtles.  Splinter is a master who is both funny, approachable and very strict.  His relationship with the turtles is deep and nuanced.

Because of this fixation with TMNT I found myself sitting in a movie theatre with my son watching Michael Bay’s ‘live’ action movie this summer.  The Splinter in the film is actually a rat.  When he got mutated (into a bigger rat) he found a book on ninjitsu and trained the turtles.  That the kids watching this film think that this is a viable avenue into mastering martial arts points to a lot of things wrong with the world today.  A lot of that thinking is driven by the ease of access to information championed by digital technology.  But information isn’t knowledge and it certainly isn’t mastery.

***

I like the concept, it’s empowering, but even the best self
directed learning is going to pale in comparison to what
you’ll develop in a rich social context.

Computers have been a hobby for me since I was ten.  I did a lot of learning on my own out of books and magazines, but the process of taking courses and certifications to become a qualified technician pushed me well out of my comfort zone and forced me to become familiar with aspects of computers that I otherwise would have stayed away from because I find them difficult.  Working with experts also let me see how they fill in the massive spaces between information.  How we manifest knowledge is more important than the knowledge itself.

I’ve always been interested in writing and philosophy, but taking degrees that oversaw skills development and demanded ongoing demonstration of my improvement with a variety of experts created something that no number of books could.

Knowledge is the start of the process, not the end.

The idea of mastery learning implies that a master passes it on to you.  My professors and mentors did a lot more for me than simply pass on information, they also showed me how it might manifest itself.  Modelling is a mighty powerful means of passing on knowledge, and you get none of it out of text.


If someone told me that I could get the same thing my degree gave me out of a book I’d call them a fool, though many people call higher education a waste of time purely on those grounds.  Information is accessible and cheap, so teach yourself!  You’ll only be as effective as your teacher, but hey, it’s inexpensive.  This feeds modern value theory that devalues human capital in favour of machine capital, in this case championing information over experience.

Mastery learning requires something more than a book.  I’m not surprised that the team of writers for that movie didn’t get that though, looking at the quality of their script.

 

It’s a trap! But watch Nickelodeon’s TV series, it’s brilliant!

 

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

Piles of corpses and rivers of blood…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procedural Learning

From Dusty World in December of 2014:

You can learn anywhere, but some places are better than others

We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I’m not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don’t consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We’ve build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren’t going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I’d initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn’t like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I’d like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I’d often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I’m not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don’t spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie’s equipment if you don’t appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.

You don’t have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.

When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you’re going to run into engagement problems.  I’ll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it’ll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I’ll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won’t do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you’re some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, “the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline.”  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn’t give a care that there isn’t a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.


I’ve tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I’m speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they’ve said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I’m amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.