Debates of the Future

The data wranglers sat in a loose circle behind the cameras frantically shaping the data clouds around their candidates. The debating format hadn’t changed too much, but the show certainly had. Parties no longer threw candidates into the ring alone, a successful debate required a huge, group commitment. Candidates, party members of even the general public throwing in prioritized, well timed comments could make or break at debate in the new age.

The lights in the studio blazed on the candidates while they took great care to stay away from the dreaded O.R.L.. Out Right Lies became the killer app, as long as you had a good wrangler and a responsive party. Stating an ORL was a game killer, especially if your wrangler could get the pertinent data on the screen while your opponent was still speaking it. At best you looked ignorant, at worst manipulative and dishonest, if caught speaking a lie as the facts swirled around you to the contrary.
Rehearsals for debates now more closely resembled a football practice, with researchers, commenters and wranglers, than it did the solo focus of pre-crowd sourced debates; debates were now a team sport. What you needed in your party leader was someone who knew what they stood for, didn’t have a lot of mental space for playing a crowd and could reach out and make meaningful contact with people with their rhetoric. The idea of gaming democracy was so fifty years ago.
The real danger came from the audience. The peripheries of the camera shots in three dimensions belonged to the digital crowd. Old fashioned rules surrounding civilized conduct were still strictly enforced, but comments from credible sources carried weight, and if the crowd trended a comment high enough, it could actually impact the size of the data cloud around a candidate. Parties no longer ignored a credible analyst, they feared them. Positive comments could trend very well, but a high trending negative comment could cut like a knife. When the liar tag pushed to the very edge of a candidate in a previous debate, ultimately costing them the election, politicians realized that telling mistruths was a disaster in the making, especially if you were pinned to the lie while you were still speaking it.
Next time around they all tried to avoid saying anything specific, only to be turned on by the mob once again. When given a chance, voters are happy to call their bluff, and did. You can’t speak the nonsense of empty words, or mob mockery would quickly follow. Say what you mean, and mean something. Switching party positions just to try and win votes was likely to get you a face full of contrary video clips from your own lips from previous months. Being a consistent, values driven politician who acted on stated beliefs was your own real protection.
The debate raged on, politics laid bare. Trending thoughts, data in the form of text notes, video links, charts and other statistics appeared and peeled off into separate dialogs on secondary and tertiary feeds, sometimes trending back onto the main feed again. The audience watching the debate could follow the main feed, which looked a lot like the old television version, as it followed the speakers back and forth, or they could follow trending data, a specific candidate or manually direct themselves to any of the camera feeds available.
Data stormed around the candidates as they had to lay it all bare, nothing held back, egged on by the digital mob; gladiators in a fearsomely complicated storm of ideas that everyone participated in.

Surveillance Capitalism and Educational Technology

I’m currently finishing Matt Crawford’s third book, Why We Drive.  His first book, Shop Class As Soulcraft arrived just when I was transitioning out of years of academic classrooms into technology teaching and it helped me reframe my understanding of my manual skills that are generally seen  as less-than by the education system I work in.

Why We Drive looks at how we’re automating human agency under the veil of safety, ease of use and efficiency.  But in examining the work of the technology companies providing this technology, Crawford ends up uncovering a nasty new version of voracious surveillance capitalism at work in the background.


In an education system that can’t get into bed with the masters of surveillance capitalism quickly enough (we’re a ‘Google Board’ full of ‘Google Teachers’), this makes for particularly uncomfortable reading.  Crawford makes persuasive, well researched arguments for why we shouldn’t be leaping into Google’s brave new world.  Meanwhile I’m watching public education indoctrinate children into feeding the cult of Google.

Crawford comes at this from the point of view of driving because Google and the other attention merchants are very excited about moving us to driverless cars in the near future, and Crawford is skeptical about their motivations for doing this.  From Shop Class As Soul Craft to The World Beyond Your Head and now in Why We Drive, Crawford has always advocated for human agency over automation, especially when that automation is designed to simplify and ease life to the point where it’s obvious we’re heading for a Wall-E like future of indolent incompetence in the caring embrace of an all-powerful corporation.


Situated intelligence is a recurring theme in Crawford’s thinking and he sees it as one of the pinnacles of human achievement.  He makes strong arguments for why surveillance capitalists aren’t remotely interested in human agency and the situated intelligence it leads to, and he fears that this will ultimately damage human capacity.  Among the many examples he gives is that of London taxi drivers:

Google isn’t the only target in this book.  Tesla’s misleading manipulation of crash data in self driving cars and Uber’s manipulation of markets using its capitalization to dismantle existing industries that were providing a service within market forces are also targets.  Uber and Tesla’s goals align with feeding the Google engine more human experience (that’s where the money is), though this is often hidden behind marketing around safety, ease of use and efficiency closely tied to unarguable issues like climate change .  The quote above describes the difference between a London cabbie who has to commit to years of ‘deep cognitive accomplishment‘ in order to become a driver in the city.  Uber’s thinly veiled attack on an otherwise viable career by using untrained, underpaid and ultimately disposable drivers to break that livelihood before replacing them with automation is damning.  What ‘tech’ companies say seldom aligns with what they do.


‘Free’ means something different in surveillance
capitalism.  Note the accessibility and simplicity,
a common idea in edtech marketing, because
learning digital tools doesn’t mean understanding
them, it means learning to consume on them.

I can’t help but see parallels with educational technology.  We recently had another technology committee meeting where it was decided that once again we would buy hundreds of Google Chromebooks: simple yet powerful devices with built-in accessibility and security features to deepen classroom connections and keep user information safe”   Notice the hard sell on safety and security, like something out of Tesla and Uber’s misinformation marketing plans.  The reason your student data is safe is because Google is very protective of ‘its’ data, and make no mistake, once you’re in Google’s ecosystem, your data IS their data.


These plug in to our ‘walled garden’ of Google Education products that keep iterating to do more and more for students and staff until they’re sending emails no human wrote and generating digital media automatically, all while saving every aspect of user input.  Board IT and myself argued for a diversity of technology in order to meet more advanced digital learning needs, but advanced digital learning isn’t what we’re about, even though we’re a school.  Digital tools now mean ease of use and cost savings (though this is questionable), they are no longer a tool for learning as they increasingly do the work for us.

As Crawford suggests, the intention of these tools is ultimately to automate our actions and direct us towards a purchase.  That fact that we’re dropping millions of dollars in public funding at best familiarizing students with their future consumer relationship with technology is astonishing.  As big tech gains access to increasingly personal information, like your geographic location, patterns of movement and even how you ergonomically interact with a machine, personal data gets harder to anonymize.  The push is to get into all aspects of life in order to collect data that will serve the core business… 

Crawford offers example after example of technology companies that offer ease of use and accessibility under the unassailable blanket of safety, ease of use and efficiency.  This too has crept into education technology, where instead of taking personal responsibility for our use of technology we surrender that critical effort to the inscrutable powers that be.  One of the intentions of the new normal is to produce people that do not question authority because a remote, cloud based authority is unquestionable.


From Shop Class forward Crawford has been critical of the ‘peculiarly chancy and fluid‘ character of management thinking, which also falls easily into the safety/automation argument being provided by the richest multi-nationals in the world.  That system managers fit in well with system think shouldn’t be a surprise, but for anyone left in the education system who is still trying to focus on developing situated intelligence, it’s a completely contrary and damaging evolution.  I shouldn’t be surprised that the people running things want to cut out the complexity in favour of safety and ease of use (even if that isn’t what’s really being offered), but any teacher thus focused has lost the plot.

Google and the rest don’t ‘give’ software to education any more than they ‘give’ software to the general public.  All of their instruments ‘serve its core business of advertising‘.  Andrew Campbell has long had an eye on this, not that any critical analysis has stopped Ontario’s educational management from hoping into bed with Google and the rest as quickly as it can.

And how do you automate people?  Get them in the system as soon as possible and make it familiar.  Forcing children to learn corporation specific tools instead of offering them platform agnostic access to educational technology is a good starting point.


There are still questions around how student data is used by Google. Crawford highlights how location data can’t be anonymized (it’s like a finger print and very individually specific), so even if your corporate overlord isn’t putting a name on a data set, they can still tell whose data it is.  Location data is a very rich vein of personal information to tap if you’re an advertising company, which is why Google is interested in developing self-driving cars and getting everyone into convenient maps.  Unless you’re feeding their data gathering system they don’t lift a finger.

Towards the end of the book Crawford leans heavily on Shoshana Zuboff’s (Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus in case you’re questioning the validity of this research)  Surveillance Capitalism, which came out in 2019.   Zuboff makes multiple appearances in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, which explains how surveillance capitalism has developed as a cancer immune to society’s protective processes because it goes after something that has no legal protections:  our digital/cloud based data.  As an economic weapon, a US law from the late nineties that absolved social media companies from responsibility for what appears on their sites under the name of ‘internet freedom’ has done untold damage around the world.


Crawford goes so far as to describe this as a new kind of colonialism that we’re all under the yoke of, but passive analysis isn’t the end goal.  He shows experiments like Pokemon Go (created by Google) as a test in active manipulation.  The goal isn’t to create a new level of advertisement based on predictive algorithms, it’s to build an adaptive system that can sublty manipulate user responses without them even realizing it.  In doing so he also explains why so many people are feeling so disenfranchised and are making otherwise inexplicable, populist political decisions:


Google’s mapping projects are situated in colonialist intent (empires make maps in order to control remote regions).  By mapping the world and giving everyone easy access to everywhere, local knowledge becomes worthless and a remote standard of control becomes a possibility.  Smart cities are shown in this light.  The language around all ‘smart’ initiatives from edtech to smart cities all follow the same ease of use/efficiency/safety/organizational marketing language.  This language is unassailable (are you saying you don’t want efficiency, safety, ease of use and organisation?)  This thinking is so ubiquitous that even trying to think beyond it is becoming impossible.  Though tech-marketing suggests that ease/efficiency/safety is the intent, the actual point is data collection to feed emerging markets of predictive and influencer marketing; digital marketing is Big Brother.  Orwell was right, but he couldn’t imagine a greater power than centralized government in the Twentieth Century.  The Twenty-First Century produced the first world governments, but they are corporations driven by technology enabled mass data gathering that are neither by nor for the people.

There is no way out of the endless cage Google is constructing.  Self-driving cars and driving itself are the mechanism by which Crawford uncovers an unflattering and insidious form of capitalism that has already damaged our political landscape and looks set to damage human agency for decades to come under the guise of safety, efficiency, ease of use and security.

Any criticism of this is in violation of the cartel that supports and is supported by it and results in a sense of alienation that leads to anger and populist resentment.  Governments, including public education, can’t tap into this ‘free’ technology fast enough, but of course it isn’t free at all, and what we’re giving up in the pursuit of easy, efficient and safe is at odds with the freedom of action it takes from us.

I’ve long held that understanding technology allows you to author it instead of it authoring you.  In the detailed Guardian surveillance capitalism article by John Naughton, Zuboff makes a point of stating that digital communications are not inherently monopolistic in intent which is something Matt hasn’t done in Why We Drive (I get the sense that he doesn’t like digital technology in any capacity):

“While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those.”
There was a time when digital technology wasn’t being driven by advertising.  The early internet wasn’t the orderly, safe and sanitized place it is becoming, but it was a powerful change in how we worked together as a species.  I don’t know that I buy in to all of Matt’s arguments in Why We Drive, but his fundamental belief that we should be using technology to enhance human ability rather than replacing it is something I can’t help but agree with, and any teacher focused on pedagogy should feel the same way.

Why We Drive is the latest in a series of books and media that is, after years of political and psychological abuse, looking to provide society with a white blood cell response to surveillance capitalism.  Rather than taking some of the most powerful technology we’ve ever created and aiming it at making a few psychopaths rich while enfeebling everyone else, my great hope is that our understanding of this nasty process will give us the ability to take back control of digital technologies and develop them as tools to enhance human capabilities instead.  We need to do that sooner than later because the next century is going to decide the viability of the human race for the long term and we need to get past this greed and short sightedness in order to focus on the bigger problems that face us.  We could start in education by taking back responsibility for how we use and teach our children about digital technologies.


***


I’ve long been raging against the corporate invasion of educational technology:

 






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Thankless Jobs and Crooked Paths

Top to bottom in education. There’s a
workplace stream ‘beneath’ vocational,
but that isn’t worth mentioning?

The prejudice against manual skill is ongoing in Ontario education.  I was chatting with one of our auto-shop teachers the other day and we were both lamenting the abuse of our manual skills in the halls of academia.  A teacher who was musing on why students ‘waste their time’ taking tech courses the week before was begging this same auto-shop teacher to change her snow tires a week later, even though she knew he had no students available to do it.  He is a qualified automotive technician, but he isn’t paid to be one when he’s at school, he’s paid to teach, but that doesn’t stop people who only operate in the rarified realm of ideas to expect free access to the hard earned, hands-on skills he has taken years to develop.  He talked about how he was often at school hours after everyone else had left finishing automotive repair jobs for people who pay for his time and expertise with their earnest thanks and little else. He’s still expected to do the make-work extra duties that the academics have worked out for themselves.

I’m in the same boat in terms of information technology skills. I spent years of my life and my own money becoming qualified as a technician.  I can fix pretty much anything, but that’s not what I’m being paid for when I’m at school.  I’ve opened up access to in-school IT support because it gives my students an opportunity to develop genuine, experientially driven skills that widen the scope of their learning.  Last year, in spite of  my making numerous suggestions that would have kept computer science alive in the building (it’s since been cancelled on-site) as well as keeping a senior computer engineering class available in each semester to provide needed in-school IT support, one of my senior sections got cancelled.  This hasn’t stopped the expectation that I provide IT support in the school even when I’m being double doubled by an absurd schedule.  I’m able to help and the last thing I want to see is a colleague in distress because their tech isn’t working, but asking for that effort  to be recognized is a step too far.

Now that I’m out of that cruel always on in two places at once schedule I asked if my hours of extra support work (I was the only teacher in the building still doing their usual extra duties) be acknowledged and was told they wouldn’t – I get to do the same make-work as all the academics, just like our auto-teacher who is here for hours doing work for the school ‘community’ of which we are clearly not equal members.  The logic for this is that my extra duty work is equal to another teacher standing in the cafeteria watching teenagers eat lunch (what most teachers do as extra duty).  What I’m doing took years of training and numerous professional qualifications, what they’re doing requires a pulse – except they aren’t even doing that because no one is eating lunch in school at the moment, though everyone has doubled down on tech use and the support it requires.  Why is this the outcome?  Because in the minds of graduate degree educational management manual skills are treated as next to worthless.  This is a value theory decision.  Ignoring the value of expertise means you can treat it as a free expectation.

This happens to many technology teachers.  They get paid less because teacher pay is wrapped around academic/university achievement that the vast majority of the people running the system are products of.  My own experience in trying to apply my vocational experience even while already an academic teacher demonstrated this prejudice in startling clarity.  The College of Teachers can understand a degree with little effort, but show them a decade of industry qualification and experience and you can expect it to be dismissed out of hand.  Tech teachers make less but are expected give away the skills that make them qualified to do what they do in a way that other teachers simply aren’t.  We go so far as to invent meaningless make-work extra duties (like cafeteria duty) so the academics can top up their time with minimal effort (and no chance of getting their hands dirty).

A few weeks ago my IT qualifications got dismissed by another administrator who equated years of training, experience and multiple industry certifications with watching a few hours of video and writing a multiple choice test.  Academic prejudice is real and everywhere.

I fired a Statistics Canada research piece on Canada’s poor handling of women in STEM and particularly in engineering and computer science to our SHSM, guidance and administration, which prompted a good talk with our local SHSM head.  My argument was that academically focused girls are directed out of engineering and technology pathways toward more ‘gender appropropriate’ pathways (that are also usually far less lucrative) by peer pressure.  My experience at last year’s CAN-CWiC Conference repeatedly told the story of women who regretted not pursuing technology related pathways in high school and having to expensively pivot later in life.  Sexism, under the guise of peer pressure and student choice, play a big part in this, but it also reflects a lack of appreciation for alternative pathways inherent to our academically prejudiced education system.

A teacher who got straight A’s in high school, went straight to university and got straight A’s there too and then went straight into teacher’s college (straight A’s again) before being deposited into yet another classroom for the next twenty-five years of their lives are going to carry academic prejudices with them because they know of no other experience.  Any student not on that straight and narrow path of ‘excellence’ is less than.

I frequently see the system make aggressive resource grabs to ensure academic courses run.  University bound sciences will run at less than 50% capacity while workplace and applied courses are frequently bundled together or cancelled and non-academic students are just dropped into academic sections because they are all that’s available.  An example of academic protectionism are french immersion courses where academic students are protected in classes that are often a fraction of what they should load to because those students are special.  Everyone else has less to ensure system resources are focused on the academic streams even though these students are frequently the ones most capable of doing more with less.  My own school sports a higher than 50% graduation into the workplace statistic while spending the vast majority of its resources protecting university pathways.

Our SHSM head said a colleague of hers once described the route that students not on the straight and narrow academic route take as the ‘crooked path’.  I’ve walked this path, unlike the majority of teachers.  I dropped out of grade 13, worked in an apprenticeship as a millwright, attended college then dropped out and then went back into summer school and high school in my early twenties to graduate before going on to attend university.  I then worked in the world for over a decade before becoming a classroom teacher – a job I never thought I’d be doing after my own negative experiences as a student in the same system.

That crooked path is seen as less-than by academics.  Students who would benefit from my M (college/university – essential doesn’t run because it would mean reducing the number of students they can stuff into my shop) technology program are told not to ‘waste their time’ taking tech when they could take three sciences they don’t need because they are more credible when applying to university.  That’s backed up by backwards universities demanding irrelevant but ‘difficult’ courses to access their STEM program, ignoring TE even when it’s a TE program!  Academic prejudices learned in universities trickle down.

Tactile skills training has always had trouble fitting into academic education.  The extra costs and safety concerns make rows of robots, I mean students, doing ‘academic’ (white collar office) work much cheaper – it’s also cheaper to apply digital technology too as our recent school decision to buy nothing but Chromebooks even as board IT and I suggested differentiating our technology to meet specific needs (again – we’ve bought nothing but Chromebooks for years).  Whether you want to look at resource allocation, guidance direction or even just how teacher duties are assigned, the prejudice against hands-on skills is systemic.

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FITC: The Pitch

Dear Industry & post-secondary VR/AR Interested People,

I’m at the last day of my first FITC Conference.  I’m buzzing from talks on emerging technologies, inspirational stories of artists thriving in a complex and rapidly evolving time and futurists shedding light on what is coming next.  That last bit is the focus of this post.  

I have a number of current students and recent grads with a great deal of experience in VR, AR and the coming media evolution, and we’re all eager to find people to COLLABORATE with!  

If you’re in the creative industry and are interested in VR & AR but don’t have much technical experience, we’d LOVE to talk to you.  If you’re developing VR ready software or hardware and want to talk to us, we’d be over the moon.  If you’re in Ontario post-secondary and are starting up VR/AR focused technology courses, my students are your future students and we’d love to work with you.

Sincerely,
Tim King
CWDHS Computer Technology

Here is our VR CV in glorious detail:

In 2016 the computer technology department I run at our local high school was given the opportunity by our board to explore the newly released consumer virtual reality headsets.  My background is in visual art and information technology, and my interest was in getting this visually demanding tech to work.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say I also had dreams of Sword Art Online being imminent.


We purchased one of the first HTC Vives to drop in Canada and proceeded to build a PC that could run it.  Over two years ago we had working, fully interactive VR in our lab.  That summer I got put in touch with Foundry10, a Seattle based tech-in-education research group, and they helped us get into our second VR headset.  So that we could be platform agnostic we went with the Oculus Rift.

Since then we have introduced hundreds of students in our board to virtual reality.  We have done multiple grade eight technology fairs and elementary school weekend tech-days demonstrating VR to teachers, parents and students.  We’re a deft hand at remote setup and breakdown now.  It never gets old watching people get floored by their first immersive VR experience.  We don’t do it with phone based passive systems.  When we introduce VR our users have hands and full interactivity.

Starting last year we began building VR ready computers and packaging them with headsets to hand out to other schools.  We’ve built dozens of Vive based sets and this year we swapped over to cheaper but equally capable Samsung Odyssey VR based systems.  We have built mobile, laptop based VR systems and desktop PC  systems on a variety of different platforms.  We have become very adept at making VR work in a variety of circumstances.

While all that was going on we also started developing VR ready software for the hardware we’d built.  Our earlier work was built on Oculus and Vive but with the amalgamation of VR platforms on Microsoft’s Windows 10 Creator’s Update last fall, we are now able to build across multiple platforms simultaneously.  This spring our senior software engineering class is building two VR based titles.  You can check out the 3d models students are turning out on our Sketchfab site.

Meanwhile, I’ve been presenting and demonstrating VR to teachers and educational administration across the province.  I’ve attended the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario’s annual conference the past two years, demonstrating and presenting on AR and VR.  That led to an Ontario Ministry of Education grant in student led VR and AR research.  Our groundbreaking work is helping to decide how VR will be used in education in the province.

Last summer I presented at the Ontario Teacher’s Federation summer conference on Pedagogy and Technology.



We’re always looking for other ways to diversify stereoscopic 3d digital interaction.  This past year we built school-branded 3d Google Cardboard viewers using a company in Toronto. We’ve also been in contact with Lenovo’s Educational outreach over the Google Daydream platform that’s about to drop and would love to get our hands on a Hololens, but that’s a bit too rich for a public high school.  Which leads me back to the start.

We’re tech-handy, more VR experienced in both hardware and software than most VR startups, and eager to COLLABORATE!  If you’re able to reach out online, you could be anywhere, but we’d especially like to make connections with industry and post-secondary programs who are exploring this emerging medium in Ontario.  My students will become your post-secondary students and eventually the people you hire when you’re developing in a
ugmented and virtual reality in the coming years.  We’d LOVE to hear from you.  If you can help enable us, we’ll floor you with what we can do.

Here are some links:

To The Department:
CWDHS Software Engineering (VR development) page
@CWCompTech on Twitter
CW CompTech on Google+

To Tim King, the teacher:
On Google+
On Twitter
Direct to my work email
On 360 degree video capture – if that isn’t extreme enough, how about 360 on a motorcycle?

To current student work:
To Cameron: our valedictorian who is already working on his second VR game title AND a Unity based construct for embedding 360 immersive video into – he already has experience on half a dozen 360 camera rigs from basic consumer Samsung 360s to the Insta360 professional quality 8k 360 camera.
To Nick:  also working on his second VR title and the winner last year of a specialist high skills major award for introducing a new coop program where high school technical experts go back to their old elementary schools and help them improve digital fluency.

Both Nick & Cameron are part of the Cybertitan team who are in the national finals of ICTC Canada’s cyber security competition.

To Eric, one of our top 3d modelers

To recent grads:
To Zach, now at Mohawk for IT & Networking (so he’s already better than he was) – he was pretty good in high school too, winning the Ontario Skills Canada provincials for IT & Networking with one of the highest technical scores in the competition  Zach can get anything to work.

We have other grads, like Maddi, who have gone into 3d modeling and video game design.  She was producing stunning work three years ago, I can’t imagine what she’s up to now:

Speaking of which, I’ve been moving mountains to try and get more girls into our digital tech program (and uphill struggle in conservative, rural Ontario).  Our electronics expert in Skills Ontario (7th last year, aiming for a medal this) is the only girl in the competition.  Getting in contact with women in tech who are interested in mentoring the next generation would help support me in this.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us!

Tim King
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Does Applied Mean Easy?

https://twitter.com/tk1ng/status/915184236553961477
Today I was told that my grade nine classes are too difficult and I should make them less so.  I’d never heard this before and this one time it was mentioned in passing while on another topic of conversation so I was kind of stunned by the comment.  Seeing as I have a perfect pass rate in an open grade nine course, ‘too hard’ doesn’t seem very accurate.  Do I push my students to do their best work, certainly.  Is it challenging?  Absolutely.  Do I expect a lot from them?  You bet.  But too hard?  I have some thoughts on that…

My classes are hands-on and reality is pretty demanding.  I can’t tell a student they have great ideas like I used to in English when I was handed a grammar abysmal paper.  If the circuit they built doesn’t work, their work is obviously inferior.  I can’t tell a student that they’re brilliant at coding if their code doesn’t run, because it doesn’t run.  Unlike slippery academic courses where students are producing abstractions within abstractions, I’m facing reality with my students head on, so being stringent with them isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.


Reality is all about mastery, not learning expertise; it’s a boots on the ground situation, not a generals talking around a table kind of thing.  The students who often struggle with my class the most are the A+ academic types who are have figured out how to game school and get great grades; they aren’t used to this kind of non-linear struggle against such an implacable foe (reality).  The people considered the ‘middle’ of our learning continuum (‘applied’ students) are my main audience.  My top students tend to be college bound applied students, though I try to tend to the academic and essential needs as well.  These students tell me they enjoy the demands I place on them because most other teachers take applied to mean just do less (ie: make it easier?), which I’ve never done.  Maybe that’s why this passing comment stuck in my craw so much.  If the entire system assumes non-academic courses mean make it easy and fun then I think we have failed a large portion of our student population.  Education shouldn’t be easy and fun, it should be challenging and satisfying in a way that easy and fun never is.


My grade 9 classes are hands-on computer technology classes that have students race across a wide variety of curriculum because computer technology, in spite of being an emerging kind of literacy, is treated as a dumping ground for any related material.  Electrical engineering has less to do with programming or information technology than physics does with chemistry or biology, but the sciences are logically separated.  Computer technology curriculum in Ontario is like taking SCIENCE (all of it, at once), and yes, it’s a lot to do.


In the circumstance I’m in covering all sorts of not really related specialties at once, I’m still able to effectively operate an open level course that delivers me everything from grade 9s who can’t read to grade 9s who will one day become nuclear physicists, and I’m able to challenge and engage them all.  The only ones who might complain that it was too hard were also the ones that took a couple of weeks off each semester for a family holiday and then missed a pile of other days for reasons.  When they are in class they are looking for reasons not to be.  Anyone who is there regularly is engaged by the hands on and collaborative nature of the course.  I’m not going to dumb it down because it’s an applied course and I’m not going to cater to the students (and parents) who want to treat school like a sometimes daycare by demanding lower expectations.


I feel better about this already.

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Framing Mathematics

We had a numeracy PD day a few weeks ago.  This filled me with trepidation having barely survived high school mathematics.  It began with a warning about how we frame mathematics:




Fair enough.  Evidently I’m not the only one who treats mathematics with caution, but I can see the point about how negatively framing maths with students can cause problems.  If you don’t think maths are a useful tool that can help you solve real world problems then you’ve been living under a rock.  Everyone should develop basic numeracy.  I’ll try and do better with how I’m framing it, but that doesn’t mean maths gets a free pass on how it’s delivered.


We then did a maths based online escape room exercise with Edtechteam.  This was an engaging process, but it cast a bright light on what was for me one of the problems with trying to learn maths: parsing poorly written word problems.


When one of our group (a published playwright with a Masters in English) suggested that the questions were vague to the point of being misleading the math teacher in our group said, “yeah, but any language based question is going to be somewhat unclear.”  The English teacher looked at her quizzically and said, “no it isn’t.”


Therein lies the problem.  If a teacher who has never focused on developing strong language skills gets lost in creating nuanced word problems to get at complex mathematics, you can see where this might go wrong for everyone.

From the point of view of someone who doesn’t pick up maths easily, confusing language doesn’t engage me, it does the opposite.  I’d rather (and I speak as an English major) have the maths served straight up without any confusing or misleading language in the mix, but maths teachers seem determined to lean on language skills they don’t have in order to confuse the numeracy they do have.


This problem appeared again when we got out to an exercise where we (again, in groups) were supposed to find factors in an array of numbers, but rather than simply explaining the logic involved, the activity was dressed up in a tax avoidance theme that made no sense to me or the science and history teachers I was working on it with.  So far this morning both maths activities had demanded that we embrace confusing and contradictory language in order to get at the logic below.

In this activity, if you selected a number to get paid the ‘tax man’ got all the factors of that choice.  So if you picked twelve, the tax man got 1  2, 3, 4 and 6 dollars.  When I asked how I was being taxed $16 on the $12 I made I was told that the taxes don’t actually come out of the money I was making, which isn’t helpful.  When I suggested that people should pay taxes in order to support all the  benefits of society they enjoy and shouldn’t be trying to dodge paying them, I was told that I was putting too much thought into this.  At least someone is.  This has always been the way with me and mathematics, especially when it dresses itself up in confusing language in a desperate attempt to appear more interesting.


I think I’m a pretty sharp fellow.  I’ve been able to calculate binary subnets in order to build networks and I’ve never had trouble doing the maths needed to be a mechanic or a technician.  When the maths are immediate and real I’m able to get a handle on it, but the bubble gum world of high school mathematics has always alienated and confused me.  It seems arbitrary and nonsensical because it often is.


Maybe the best way we can frame mathematics is to stop trying to make it into something it isn’t.  If we treated it like the tool it can be instead of trying to turn it into some kind of spy based action adventure or libertarian tax dodging daydream, we wouldn’t have so many people feeling alienated by it.


Of course, the solution is obvious but how we solve it is prevented by how we organize education into departments.  If we collaborated on word problems with the English department, we’d remove a lot of that confusion.  If we applied our mathematics through science, business and technology we wouldn’t get lost in the confusion of maths for maths’ sake.  We could be applying mathematics in the statistics we use in social sciences or  the ratios we use in art, but we separate numeracy off in high school and let it atrophy in a maths classroom that struggles to connect to the real. 



Ironically, our PD followed these two engaging but ultimately confusing activities up with two teachers telling us about their experimental manufacturing technology-mathematics combined course which encourages applied maths students to work through manufacturing technology in solving real-world problems.  No imaginary tax schemes.  No escape rooms.  Just applying maths to real world problems in an unobstructed and meaningful way that leads to outcomes that are transparent and obvious.


This would mean combining mathematics with other courses and then working to integrate numeracy into those subjects in a constructive and transparent way.  There could still be an academic/abstracted mathematics stream for the tiny percentage of students who would need it, but for those of us who aren’t aiming to be theoretical physicists or academic mathematicians, we need our math served up without the garnishes.  Knowing what we’re doing it and why we’re doing it would go a long way to alleviating the maths anxiety so many of us have.

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The Failure of STEM

This has been taken apart and rewritten several times now.  It started with a colleague sharing an article about how STEM grads aren’t particularly useful to STEM based industries.  I’ve long found STEM to be overly white collar focused and exclusive.  This article about how the predominantly wealthy, white, males of STEM aren’t being benefited by their elusively designed courses made me start to deconstruct my own experiences (mainly failures) in STEM, and led to this…


***

http://michiganfuture.org/01/2018/google-finds-stem-skills-arent-the-most-important-skills/
What this actually means is Google isn’t
happy with how we’re teaching STEM?

I’ve seen several articles about how we need to produce less STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) focused students.  Most recently Google noted that the soft skills it needs aren’t found in STEM focused students.  This isn’t a function of the STEM subjects being taught, it’s a function of how they are taught.  STEM has traditionally been treated as an exclusively academic discipline.  This white collar approach to STEM means that teachers focus on theory and academics to the exclusion of everything else.  If any applied activity does happen in a traditional STEM class it’s a pre-conceived experiment with a directed, single outcome.  Students in many traditional STEM classrooms aren’t given open problems to solve and generally don’t tend to solve what they are given collaboratively.  Traditionally, STEM defines itself by heavy, repetitive, knowledge focused workloads.

Not so strangely, Google and other technology companies aren’t finding these theoretically focused science-matheletes particularly good at actually building things, or working with other people.  In fact, Google has found STEM graduates lacking in all of the 4 C’s that are generally considered vital for success in the 21st Century workplace.

Critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration aren’t unique to the liberal arts, but when I was in high school one of the things that alienated me from maths and the sciences I wanted to make a part of my future was a stubborn disregard for all of those things.  My maths and science teachers made a point of grading based on theoretical knowledge and individual work, usually based on hours of daily homework that a kid working 10+ hours a week found difficult to get to.  If group activity happened at all, anything that came of it was based on solo, theoretical analysis usually shunted to after school hours when I was busy working.  There was always a proper way to do something with very strict process guidelines – my STEM teachers thought that good students all hand in logically and visually identical hours of homework.

Perhaps it is my messy, and mocked liberal arts background has enabled me to approach STEM in an applied way that many STEM teachers find less academically rigorous, but then I don’t think demanding thirty identical projects from my students to be particularly academically rigorous, I’d actually call it academically lazy.  It also doesn’t appear to be producing STEM grads that STEM industries find useful, though it is handy at making a socioeconomically homogeneous STEM culture.


Who this homework heavy, compliance based learning does benefit are the socially enabled, neuro-typical alpha academics – the kids who tend to look like the white, middle-class, neuro-typical people who populate STEM jobs.  These students are pre-selected for STEM success because homework is the only work they have to do, and they play for grades because they have a socioeconomic status that allows them to focus on school work to the exclusion of everything else.  Socially enabled, neuro-typical, wealthy, white, North American males tend to fall into STEM for these reasons.  The party line is that these are the best students.  The fact that they all tend to come from the same background is a happy accident.

As a neuro-atypical student from a lower SES, I was preordained to struggle with STEM.  Expectations of hours of homework, easily picking up the mathematics and the promise of some exclusive future in STEM industries which my family had no experience with had no currency with me and seemed designed to diminish me.  When you come from a lower income background you tend to be pragmatic.  Being an immigrant with ASD and constantly wondering why people are doing what they are doing tends to make you pretty damned pragmatic too.  I have always been proud of my hands-on skills and how they have provided for me, but now I realize that those skills are a necessity of my socio-economic status as much as anything else.


I just finished reading Guy Martin’s autobiographical When You Dead, You Dead.  Guy has always had an impact on me because he’s an ASD technician who has stumbled into celebrity.  Guy is fiercely proud of his hands-on skills and still considers being a mechanic his primary focus even though he is also a successful motorcycle racer and television personality.  Any neuro-typical person would drop the dirty work and immediately double down on the celebrity, but not Guy.  I identify with him because he too comes from a lower SES and has found success in spite of various social pressures against him.  Between this book and the research for this piece, I’m left with the belief that STEM is what it is because it has been designed to knock all but a certain class of people out of succeeding in it.  If we’re wondering why wealthy, white males constitute the bulk of our academically focused, homework heavy STEM programs, then this singular focus on socio-economically enabled, homework intensive, conformity driven learning is a clear reason.


***


A senior student build presentation to lead junior engineers
through why communication and collaboration can lead to
better creativity and problem solving.  Exactly what Google
feels is missing from STEM graduates, but mine learn it.
This semester I’m teaching another packed to capacity class of software engineering students.  As a kid who dropped out of computer science because he wasn’t good at doing everything by someone else’s exclusively particular and time consuming rules, this might seem odd.  However, my software engineering class isn’t designed to chase students out with steep academic demands.  In fact, my students range from essential to applied to academic, and they will all see success and feel that STEM is something they are capable and worthy of.

Applied engineering courses, especially in software, are thin on the ground, but they are exactly what we need to be doing to fill the gap between what we’re graduating and what companies like Google need.  Academically focused STEM teachers need to recognize that they can’t keep producing one trick ponies who are only good at being in school.  That skill-set becomes useless the moment you graduate, and while they are producing graduates people find difficult to work with, they are excluding the majority of students who should have at least a passing acquaintance with STEM as it has so much influence over our lives.

“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM,” President Obama said in March. “We want to make sure everyone is involved.”

On the left is a slide from one of my grade eleven student’s introductory presentations to the course.  Her skills are well rounded and jump all over the look-fors Google wants.  The purpose of these presentations is to get hired into student designed and built projects that run in the second half of the semester.  These feel like job interviews as everyone in the room is looking for who they can most effectively work with, they feel high stakes and important.  The last thing on anyone’s mind are hard technology skills or a lack of theoretical knowledge.  Some of the juniors worried about it in their presentations, but as one of the seniors said while teaching the seminar on Friday, “if you can listen and work with us, we can teach you the technical stuff.”  And that work will happen in class, not on your own time in the hours after school.

This course has been packed to cap with 31 students each
semester over the past 2 years while academic senior science

classes run half full – prejudice in action? Students recognize that
this course teaches them the tangible skills needed to get into
competitive post-secondary programs in the field.  Many of
our graduates can attest to that now that we’re in year four.

Most of them are applied students in college.
I’ve worked hard these past five years to develop a program that helps students from all streams into a working relationship with computer technology.  I’ve graduated a number of engineers in a variety of disciplines, which is very satisfying, but my greatest successes have been enabling applied students to find their genius in technology.  Those students, overlooked or punished for their lack of academic prowess in other STEM classes, find themselves winning provincial competitions and going on to successful careers through college programs.  As Obama suggests, STEM should be for everyone.


The engineers were always going to find their way (and unsurprisingly they have all been socially empowered middle class white males), but enabling a student who was never considered STEM and who had been labelled essential to find her genius in electronics and gain access to a competitive post-secondary college program?  That feels like the kind of magic STEM is capable of.  It’s what drives me.


Helping another into a technically challenging digital arts program with almost impossible entry requirements?  Yet another STEM refugee finding her way back to what she has a talent for.


Taking a student from struggling to show up to school to finding his genius as an IT technician, winning a provincial championship and going on to succeed in a challenging post-secondary program?  He was considered mediocre by other STEM programs.


Unsurprisingly, a number of ASD and other neuro-atypical students find their way to me because I give them a space to express their love of technology and the science that supports it without the arrogance and exclusivity.  All of these disenfranchised people are who STEM should have been helping in the first place.  Computer technology programs like mine run in less than 30% of Ontario high schools.  For the vast majority of Ontario students, you better be well off and able to spend hours a night on homework to prove yourself STEMworthy.  If you live in a conservative area like I do, you also better be male, because those science and technology jobs are for boys.


All Ontario graduates, regardless of gender, race, SES or neuro-atypicality need flexible and inclusive access to STEM programs, and those STEM programs need to be about so much more than theoretically intensive, homework heavy courses designed to chase economically disadvantaged and/or neuro-atypical kids out of the STEM classroom.  My son is heading to high school next year and it is through his ASD that I’ve come to better recognize my own.  I fear most for him in STEM classrooms.  I remember how it felt to be told I was incapable in science and math.  Getting the STEM dreams beaten out of me in high school took years to unravel and repair, and I’ll carry the bruises my entire life.


Every graduate we produce should have some grasp of STEM as it’s a vital 21st Century need.  STEM needs to be accessible to everyone regardless of their circumstantial ability to deal with expectations founded on abusive, compliance driven workloads.  This would not only prevent the pre-selection of circumstantially advantaged students making STEM programs more diverse, it would also make STEM programs more functionally useful to the industries that need these graduates.


We’ve designed a system that creates a stunted skillset that only does a few things well.  In doing so we’ve done a disservice to dimensionless STEM graduates who industry finds impossible to work with.  While that is going on, the majority of students are chased out of STEM because of a mythology of academic stringency that is really based on socioeconomic circumstance.  Our STEM education appears to not be working for anyone.


If there was ever a time to re-vamp how we teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics, this is that moment.  In the 21st Century we need everyone to have a working knowledge of STEM as it touches all our lives all the time.  We also need to diversify the pool of STEM experts in order to create a resilient and creative industry that reflects the people it serves.  Then there are all the applied STEM jobs we aren’t able to fill because academically focused STEM programs ignore them.  The obvious place to start is in public high schools where we need to stop pre-selecting for a dangerously homogeneous STEM population that is increasingly unable to understand, let alone represent the interests of us all.




Some Research on how we’ve handled STEM:


eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1144312   “…low-SES students are disadvantaged in the pursuit of STEM majors. Higher family SES compensates for negative predictors of STEM enrollment, such as gender and race, and strengthens the effect of positive predictor, such as math preparation. The gender and racial gaps in STEM enrollment narrows for students from higher SES families, and the positive correlation between math preparation and STEM enrollment strengthens with the increase of family SES”


How Socioeconomic Inequality Affects STEM Education“schools give “unequal access to rigorous mathematics content” between low- and high-income students” – the correlation between SES (socioeconomic status) and Ontario’s streaming system in high school is well established.  We save the rigorous mathematics for the socially empowered kids, so they get the nice STEM jobs.  Except evidently we’re not even doing them any favours.


STEM Education: “…gender disparities continue to be a defining characteristic of STEM education.”


The STEM Workforce: An Occupational Overview:
“In STEM, there is under-representation of women and minorities; where minorities and women are employed they are often concentrated in lower-paying technical occupations.”
“Black and Hispanic or Latino STEM professionals still earned thousands of dollars less than White and Asian STEM professionals in 2014.”

Understanding the STEM Path through High School and into University Programs: “…key determinants of the decision to stay on the ‘STEM preparation path’ are the students’ previous grades in science and math, especially at the point when the subject becomes optional.”   … and especially in the sciences.  


I’ll take a swing at this one.  The “gatekeepers of university” I met as science teachers in grade 10 and 11 failed me despite my obvious interest in the subject.  The main reason I didn’t get the grades I needed in STEM courses was because working 20+ hours a week (I was helping pay for my family’s mortgage) meant my homework was never as shiny as the wealthier kids whose job was homework.  Having ASD, I also had problems understanding and meeting the very specific communications conventions that others seemed to grasp intuitively.  Those gatekeepers are still alive and well in high school math and science classes all over the province now.  Want to know why lower SES students aren’t in STEM?  It’s reserved for the neuro-typical rich.  A lower SES kid touched by ASD never had a chance.


That fake sense of ‘academic credibility’ tied to an inflexible schedule that caters to wealthier students’ ability to concentrate on studying to due dates means the kids who don’t have to work or worry about food or a safe place to spend the night get to be successful.  The digital divide has only exacerbated this since my time in school  The neuro-atypical kids who need extra time to grok the material?  They too are excluded.  U
ltimately, if you want to be in something intellectually demanding like STEM, you need to be advantaged That is why STEM is predominantly an upper class, white, male field.


Science minister, Trudeau encourage young girls to pursue STEM studies at U of T conference:
“We are committed to strengthening science in Canada by improving the representation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines,”
“We try to shake the stigma attached to studying math that many young women experience in high school,”
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan


Equality And Diversity Toolkit: socio-economic background“Those facing the greatest inequality are more likely to be young people who are disabled, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, refugees, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers, Gypsies and Travellers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and young mothers.”

THE INEXCUSABLE LACK OF DIVERSITY IN GENETIC STUDIES:
“Whites of European ancestry still make up the vast majority of subjects in large genetic studies — over 80 percent.”


Business is now dominated by white, privately educated ‘tech bros’ – and that’s bad news for the rest of us





These are just a few of the articles and research I found on a lack of diversity in STEM.  If you don’t like these links, there are thousands of others.

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Media Arts Lab 2.0

Redesigning media arts to create, not consume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Underused Resource In Education

*** in Ontario teachers have to undergo an in-class review every five years by one of the school administration ***

The other day our six month pregnant one contract/LTO teacher was running around in a panic trying to get dodgey board laptops to work with dodgey board projectors on the dodgey board network.  Her panic was the result of a VP coming into her class for her review.  I’ve seen this happen with many teachers, young and old; the panic over admin coming in to review their teaching practices.

The stress of poor board technology practices aside, this review of teaching practices by admins bothers me on a couple of levels.

Back in the day, when I was in millwright training, my old Jamaican mentor told me the story of our department boss.  He had a mechanical background, but he was incredibly lazy.  His fame came from being able to slide under a truck and fall asleep on night shift for hours at a time.  He was so bad at the work that the company had no choice but to promote him into management.  I’ve since come to realize that this was a pretty pessimistic view of how managers become managers, but as an impressionable nineteen year old listening to a man who never told me a lie, it seemed the truth.  I’ve always been cautious about management as a result, never assuming that they are somehow superior because of their title.

There is no doubt that leadership in education is a vital component, and we all hope that the people playing those administrative parts do it for all the right reasons (and not because they were such a disaster in the classroom that it was better for them to manage).  What I don’t understand is why admin are mandated to come into a teacher’s class and somehow assess their ability to teach.  What makes an administrator qualified to meaningfully review classroom teaching?  Whether an administrator opted out of the classroom because they found it tedious, difficult or simply wanted a change, the simple truth is that they aren’t teaching, and in many cases didn’t for very long before they stepped into a management role. Asking them to review something they dropped after a short period of time seems… odd.  Administrators are generally not master teachers.

I have no trouble with sharing my practice and would encourage teachers to experience each other’s classrooms at every possible opportunity, this isn’t about advocating for a closed classroom, and I’m not advocating for the removal of teacher in-class review, just who is doing it.

In most cases vice principals and principals take on these roles not because they were expert teachers, but because their interests lie elsewhere.  This would suggest that teaching was never their strong suit.  Taking on school leadership roles is a very heavy load, and I can appreciate the fact that some teachers want to put the classroom behind them and take that on; it’s important work and a great challenge.  What I can’t understand is why those same people are now mandated to sit in on a teacher’s classes and review their teaching skills.

In the case of a new teacher, it seems like it might help and offer them a bit of mentorship in the process, but what about the case of the twenty five year veteran of the classroom?  The master teacher who has not only survived but thrived in the role of teacher?  How does a VP with five years in-class experience assess that?  Do they even know what they’re looking at?

Those same veteran teachers are the most underused resource in education.  Department headships, like VP and principal positions, are administrative, they offer little in the way of teaching focused career enhancement.  Telling a senior teacher that this should be their focus isn’t honouring the expertise they have developed from years working with students actually teaching.

It might seem like a rather simple idea, but why don’t those senior teachers take on this role of in-class review and mentorship?  Having a senior teacher from my own department drop in for a lesson and a talk would be instructive for me, demonstrate respect for their skills and allow expert teachers to express their mastery.  It would also create a continuous sense of valid professional development within departments.  Instead of a fairly pointless and closely monitored five year review by people who don’t even want to work in a classroom any more, how about an ongoing senior teacher review (20+ years in the classroom in order to take on that role).

The administrative arm of things does important work, but to say they have the experience and skill to determine what a front line teacher is doing right or wrong in a classroom is ridiculous.  Instead of driving our senior teachers into administration as if that is the only opportunity for ‘advancement’, why not recognize mastery in a very challenging environment, and encourage those with that expertise to share what they know?

What Do You Take With You?

Part 1: What do you take with you into the future?

We live in a time of radical transformative social change. One generation’s experience is markedly different from the next. How we communicate with each other dictates our social structures, and we are in the middle of a communications revolution.  In times like this many traditions and habits fall by the wayside. If you have to cling to an ideal in order to ensure it survives this sort of disruptive evolution, what ideal do you cling to? After hearing a colleague describe themselves as unionist, and experiencing my own fall from grace, union isn’t what I choose to protect at all costs.  In fact, like many other institutions founded at the dawn of industry, unions and local boards are beginning to appear less and less able to deal effectively with our times.

I didn’t become a teacher to support unions, I became a teacher to support educational excellence and hone my profession.  Protecting education means protecting educational workers, but protecting educational workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. I was initially hesitant to become active in my union because of their blanket coverage of all members, regardless of competence. The occupy movement and the radicalization of economics in the past few years pushed me into action; at least unions offered protection from this short sighted narcissism. So many people are happy to give away their rights in order to dream of being rich while being made serfs. My union offered me a political mechanism to fight that idiocy.

I don’t join things easily, I tend to skepticism, but OSSTF claimed moral high ground on so many issues that I couldn’t help but become a believer. What’s not to like about an organization that claims democracy and is founded on the idea that wealth should be fairly divided and members should consider the common good before their own?

When times were good accounts were managed well.  Grievances were dealt with, expectations of the membership were minimal, people focused on the important work at hand. In the past year we’ve come face to face with a government that appears to have no moral centre whatsoever, and a public that is more than willing to be lied to in order to become incensed with us.  The resultant mess has me asking some hard questions about the antiquated organizations involved in our education system.

There is a lot of history tangled up in how we manage education in Ontario, and I don’t think it’s creating a transparent, representative system. We’ve got local boards that don’t actual bargain with their employees anymore, we’ve got local unions that don’t actually bargain for their members anymore, we’ve got a College of Teachers who got chucked into the mix the last time a psychotic government decided to play fast and loose with education, we’ve got a Minister of Education who has more in common with Mussolini than John A. MacDonald, and carnage across the province with strike days, almost strike days, crippled extracurriculars and frustrated citizens on all sides. If you think this has been well managed by any of the combatants involved, you must be crazy. I argue that this is the result of a tangled, historical organizational mess, and it’s time to move Ontario’s education system out of a Victorian mindset.

In what follows I’m considering alternatives that actually protect education workers (what we have now obviously does not), and puts the focus on our profession rather than the antiquated political structures around it.

Part 2: Behind The Times

The stumbling approach to this last round of bargaining suggests that unions are having real trouble dealing with twenty first century realities. From social media causing a surprise grassroots movement that bypassed provincial executive plans to a stubborn refusal to change their ancient communications habits, unions in general and mine in particular have looked like confused Victorian gentlemen at a rave.


Local boards, like union locals are in even more trouble.  They have been made redundant, looking on as the provincial ministry directly bargains with provincial union organizations. There is no local bargaining in Ontario any more. With so many vestigial political interests around the table it’s no wonder that Ontario’s education bargaining has been a mess this year. Perhaps it’s time for a historical cleanup.

I’m now wondering what Ontario education would look like without local political interests like boards and unions, assuming that we can find other ways to protect this vital resource in a centrally bargained environment. The old players certainly aren’t protecting quality of education, in this past round of bargaining they haven’t done anything at all except watch as provincial heavy weights speak over their heads.

This questioning began when @banana29 shared this article that questions the value of unions in Ontario education.  If you can get past Wente’s heavy handed right wing propaganda in the first few paragraphs, the piece asks some hard questions about the role of unions in maintaining status quo in an education system that struggles to keep up with our times. Her intent is to dismantle public education and infect it with market interests (it is the Globe & Mail), my intentions are quite different.

Part 3: Wente Article Response:

Technology In Education and institutional drag

Wente makes some  pretty simplistic arguments for technology in education. If you think Khan Academy is the future of education then you’re about as pedagogically sophisticated as a donkey. Having said that, technological implementation in education has been slowed at every turn by boards and unions, both of whom have frantically told teachers not to use new communications mediums to communicate with and teach students.  Running at the speed of the slowest adopters of technology is no way to run a relevant education system.

Technology being used in classrooms lags years behind what students experience everywhere else, and doesn’t begin to prepare students for the rapidly changing world they are graduating into.  Teachers struggle to engage students on antiquated software and hardware, and no one wants to consider what a teaching job beyond concrete walls looks like. It behooves the unions and boards to keep school in the classroom where the have a lock on how to manage education as a production line. Ask any teacher who has done elearning how their non-standard work hours become a real problem to both boards and unions.

Not only does this luddite thinking infect the classroom, but also the management of both unions and boards.  Communication with members remains firmly stuck in the last century. Video meetings? Shared online resources? Social media? These things are adopted hesitantly or actively discouraged by parochial thinking. Teachers using them then bypass local roadblocks because that is what modern communications are capable of. From unions trying to control a message to boards trying to limit student access to communications – information is flowing around these road blocks on smartphones and social media, yet they don’t realize how irrelevant their control mechanisms have become.

Instead of encouraging teachers to experiment with new technology, local interests tend to parrot panicky, unfounded broadcast media ideas about them. We are ruled by ignorance and paranoia when it comes to technology in education. The question is, how do we create an education system that can experiment and advance at a reasonable rate without being slowed by the insular thinking of its slowest adopters?

Can you protect education without a union?

In spite of its shortcomings Wente’s article did make me wonder, what would education look like in a future without a union/board system?  I speculate on this not as a means to dismantle, demean or weaken the profession. I am under no illusions, teaching needs to be protected from short sighted business-think, but after watching McGuinty’s Liberals gut years of collective bargaining I wonder if unions are the right social mechanism to protect us anymore. Could education prosper and even improve without union/board paradigms?

Centralizing control is happening already. Modern communications will continue to force this change whether unions or boards like it or not.  If we’re going to evolve from a parochial, historically restrained system to something adaptive and forward thinking, we need to think of a new way to organize and manage the vital social service that is education in Ontario.

Part 4: Education: an essential service

Vital is exactly what education is. A first rate education system means that all the other essential services (police, medical, fire) have less to do because the populace isn’t feral and desperate. A properly run education system means the vast majority of the population comes closer to expressing their potential. It means that socioeconomic status isn’t the prime breeder of crime and poor health; failure is less an excuse of circumstance. Good education means less people in jails, greater economic output and interested, active citizens powering our democracy. In this context, how could anyone not see education as an essential service?

Education should be declared an essential service. This automatically guarantees third party arbitrated contracts, which would mean that bargaining isn’t the wild west that it is now, and governments couldn’t simply bypass it with cynical, undemocratic laws like Bill 115. It would also mean that militant unions aren’t necessary because the system in place would be implicitly fairly bargained. 

Arbitrated bargaining would also take the unionized target off teachers’ backs and let them adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye. Education workers would still be protected, but the system itself would be the protection. Depending on militant unions hard bargaining with local boards didn’t work and has evolved into unrepresentative (OECTA) or misrepresentative (OSSTF) provincial bargaining. Our process of bargaining is a broken, divisive, old fashioned habit that antagonizes the general public, vilifies our profession and makes hay for cynical governments.

Part 5: Freeing ourselves from history

local vs. provincial bargaining

When union locals used to bargain individually with their school boards each area’s special interests were baked into contracts. This made sense because of Ontario’s vast size and the unique and isolated nature of its many settlements. If you travel around Ontario now you’ll see the same Justin Bieber haircut everywhere. Clinging to isolationist thinking in an information revolution is asinine. Communities are no longer isolated, they no longer need individual contracts.  If you don’t believe me, believe union provincial executives who (foolishly I think) agreed to align all contracts in the province resulting in this past round of failed provincial negotiations.

The fictional professional association for education professionals
in Ontario (except it shouldn’t be fictional and we shouldn’t be
 running education on socialist ideals, it’s a profession!)


If we can bargain provincially (and it appears we do), why not have an Ontario Educational Association (modeled on the Doctor’s OMA) bring in elected representatives from across the province every four years to iron out a contract with the government while a neutral, third party arbitrator ensures the process is fair. This is a far less dramatic, adversarial process, but I think everyone in education (except the ones who profit from the fighting) would like to see less hurtful public drama and more focus on the profession itself.  

Unions themselves have made their locals irrelevant by focusing their own membership through isolated, politicized provincial leadership. The result has been confusion and a failure to represent member’s interests. OECTA agrees to contracts without even asking its members, OSSTF has the rug pulled out from under it by a grassroots social media movement.  Unions have centralized power and are then astonished when their remote members aren’t thrilled.

It’s time to give up the idea of locally defined educational organizations, both boards and unions, and begin a process of creating a democratic, less politically tangled system of educational representation. This isn’t so much a matter of amalgamating existing districts as it is a rethinking of how best to represent educational interests in the province. A system based on current cultural divisions (rural-natural, rural-agricultural, small town, suburban, urban) would certainly allow us to continue to address regional differences without carrying the weight of a redundant, regionally defined historical system.

how many public school systems do we need?

If we’re trying to free ourselves from history, it wouldn’t hurt to stop funding semi-private, religious schools that are only willing to serve a specific population. 

Once again, this made sense in Ontario a long time ago when Catholics and Protestants had to agree to live together, but Muslim, Hindu, atheist and every other stripe of religious belief must all wonder what this is all about when they first arrive in Ontario.  These people constitute the vast majority of new Ontarians, it’s time to recognize that in a representative, equal for all public education system.

Part 6: Removing politically inflicted value in our education system

I’ve always had trouble with how unions favor (and reward) seniority over any other contribution to the profession; at best this is simplistic, at worst it encourages disengaged senior teachers to interact less as their careers mature (check out who is doing extra-curriculars in any school for confirmation of this).  We are one of the few professions that, as one colleague once put it, “have all the colonel level people sitting out of leadership positions, we’re led by lieutenants.”  This is entirely the result of union value theory, and it harms the profession.

The basic job of teaching, if grossly simplified, becomes a person doing minimal hours of work, with nothing value added, using the same lessons year in and year out. Ultimately this hurts the learning environment for everyone. Unions and boards protect the (small minority) of teachers who approach the profession in this appalling manner more than they do teachers who push boundaries and attempt positive change.  Status quo thinking defines most educational leadership.

We need to recognize all the ways that education workers add to the learning process. This usually falls short when management attempts to grossly simplify the work in order to quantify it. If we’re in the job of marking students in creative, individualized ways, we have to do that for educators too, but too often teacher assessment is simplistic or made meaningless in order to simplify book keeping or to protect union members at all costs.

Leadership positions in teaching also need to be made meaningfully. Forty bucks a week doesn’t cut it (yes, that’s what many department heads get for management work in teaching).  I’d also want to recognize teachers who do extracurriculars, if not financially, then at least through minimizing their required duties. The teachers who do little else could do oncalls and caf duties, those that are knocking themselves out to make their schools a learning community shouldn’t be ignored for it.

The desired result in all this would be competition for headships and extracurriculars (and administration positions) with top candidates selected.  You seldom see more than a single sacrificial person dropped into any of these jobs – not exactly the way to get the best candidates.  Lineups for leadership, coaching and non-classroom school activities would be a powerful way to move us forward.  It’s sad year in year out hearing the teachers trying to run these things begging for people. 

There is a climate of apathetic mediocrity in our unionized system. Members tend to be indifferent to their union and uniformed as to their work situations. They are encouraged to do as much or as little as they please, knowing that the money will always increase; hardly an environment that fosters engagement and improvement. If we want to continue to focus on improvements in education, we should be considering what is needed to put education first, not what is needed to keep the status quo.

Conclusion

Protecting education means protecting education workers, but protecting education workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. It is vital that Ontario’s public school system continue to improve its high standards and fight for relevancy in a rapidly changing world, but the old paradigm of this happening only on the back of unions and boards is dying; their failure is indicated by their inability to protect and support their members. 

A mandated, transparent, less politically charged, non-localized organizational structure would result in less drama and better representation for everyone involved. Advances in communication mean that we no longer need to think locally in geographic terms.  It would also remove the stigma of unionization from teachers and allow them to adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye.

Walmarting the profession to U.S. standards will result in U.S. standards. You’ll end up with business wanting to intervene with Charter schools, which aren’t really public at all.  Equality of access to education is vital to any democracy, Ontario citizens must not lose access to a fair, open, world class public education system.  Never suspect that a system with a for-profit middle-man will outperform a public system founded on excellence. You’d have to be an economic idiot (or con artist) to suggest that this is possible. 

It’s vital that public education be protected from the short-term gain crowd. Unions have performed this function for many years, but in recent times, and like so many other institutions founded before our age of communication, they are being  bypassed by their own member’s new-found ability to communicate directly with each other. 

We keep slipping into an inevitable future, and we’re often only able to bring what we hold most dear to us across the threshold.  Many assumptions and traditions are slipping by the wayside as society and technology continue dancing at an increasing tempo.  If I have to cling to a belief and have it survive this transformative time, it isn’t unionism, localized education or even a political belief, it’s an axiomatic declaration about the power of public education:

Equally accessible, professionally driven and maximized public education is vital to our future success. It allows everyone to realize their potential regardless of their socio-economic circumstances and creates a population that is capable of responsible democracy, meaningful economic output and reasoned problem solving; without it we are lost. The society that protects and enhances public education is the society that produces active citizens whose eyes are wide open, and who are capable of dealing with the challenges technological, social and personal, that we will all be facing in the difficult decades ahead.

I would protect that belief before I worried about keeping the politics of tradition. I would have my profession managed and led on the basis of excellence and engagement rather than nineteenth century, socialist, union ideals. By protecting and encouraging excellence, we could rejuvenate Ontario’s tattered education system under a reasoned, unpoliticized, professional ideal.