The Bar For Being Human Just Got Raised Again

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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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



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


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


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


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


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

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



OTHER READING


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


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

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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:


Academic Gatekeeping In a Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Accidental Engineers: Making Technology And Engineering Accessible to All

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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The Illusion of a Functioning Public Education System in a Pandemic


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neurodiversity is Useful But Not Worth Nurturing



A colleague shared this display on autism from the Canadian Museum of Nature. In it they take a positive neuro-diverse view of autism and its differing strengths.  Most people would describe autism as a form of mental retardation, such is the prejudice and demand for people all thinking in lockstep like the majority does.


I showed it to my son and asked him what he saw.  He started to say, “Hi”, but then stopped himself and said “Es and Ns.”  I suspect his indecision and then incorrect answer (answers are always based on neurotypical expectations, not on what’s actually there) would have gotten him a failing mark if this was a test question.  If it was on the literacy test, my hyperlexic son would have been considered illiterate even though he’s the furthest thing from it.  When I saw it I saw Es and Ns but knew the expected answer was ‘HI’, so that’s what I said – I’ve learned how to (mostly) tell people what they want to hear rather than what I see (and what’s actually there).



Neurodiversity, as presented by the Canadian Museum of Nature, emphasizes the benefits that the human race enjoys as a result of it.  Having people who are able to comprehend data from a variety of different perspectives has obvious advantages, but in most cases neurotypical people will go out of their way to isolate and alienate those who they find mentally different, whether it ultimately benefits them or not.  Compliance and conformity will always trump complexity and difference.

Neurotypical prejudice especially hammers ASD influenced thinkers for their lack of social nuance, but then NTs are happy to benefit from Newton and Einstein’s ASD driven detailed analysis of physics, or Alan Turing’s ASD detailed focus on computing, or Nicola Tesla’s ASD focused electrical engineering (there are many other examples).  In those cases where ASD produces exceptional results, NTs are happy to benefit from it even as they isolate and punish the people doing the work.  This approach often results in neurotypical people taking social and financial advantage of this genius for their own benefit.  NTs are happy to make use of ASD driven breakthroughs, but this often has more to do with how they can harness it and profit from it than it does having any kind of compassion for the people themselves.

When I was putting myself through university I worked as an automotive technician.  As people gained experience, many would move toward the sales desk, hoping to get out of the dirty technical work and into the cleaner sales end of things where management lived, but I was the opposite.  I went out of my way to take the technical roles and tried to avoid the sales side of things whenever I could.  I excelled at the technical work, quickly becoming the service manager, but had no interest in the slippery psychological side of the business.  Most business is of that slippery, psychological nature, as is a tragic amount of education.  For the people who work better at developing relationships and working their way up (which is to say most people), this is great, but for a guy with ASD it just feels dishonest.  We’re not there to develop relationships that benefit our career, we’re there to do the job at hand.  If I were better at the slippery psych I’d be up in management somewhere, but technical expertise isn’t what gets you ahead even when that’s the job at hand.

Education is a great example of human relationship building getting in the way of an important technical skill (learning).  Being willing to say what a teacher wants to hear rather than the truth as I see it is difficult for me.  I managed to earn degrees and diplomas in spite of my lack of tact and every grade I’ve ever been given was done so grudgingly rather than with encouragement.  What a teacher wants to hear usually isn’t what’s there and it’s usually something designed to retain that status quo power structure built around relationship building.  If you can ingratiate yourself to the system/teacher/administrator you can count on it to help you socially climb it.  I have a great deal of trouble interacting with many managers for this reason.  They seem less interested in teaching and learning and more focused on personal advantage through networking.  It takes a special kind of manager to recognize my focus and support me in it rather than attacking me for it.

If we spent less time trying to align things socially for our own benefit and spent more time on tackling the issues themselves, I’d be over the moon, but it’ll never happen, it isn’t human nature.  I’m tempted to tell my son to see all the Es and Ns he possibly can and screw the rest of it, but that won’t help him find a place in our Teflon coated social apparatus.  But spending lots of time and energy on something that doesn’t come naturally to him (the nonsense of human relationship maintenance) means he’s not developing his special understanding of the world to the best of his unique abilities.

Can you imagine if we had a school system that encouraged neurodiversity and enhanced it rather than trying to find ways to accommodate it by mitigating it into the same socially driven expectations box everyone else is content to be thinking in?  Can you then imagine a world where those enhanced, neurodiverse kids could go out into the world empowered by their differences instead of being socially embarrassed, belittled and beleaguered by them?



Previous Posts on ASD:

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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.

Just Hang On…

It has been another rough week of double cohort double class teaching.  Evidently I’m one of only 5 people in our school who have been waterboarded like this.  Everyone else has been teaching up to half the synchronous face to face instructional time that I have.  My employer is nowhere in sight and neither is my union in terms of providing qualified teachers to support my classes, so on I trudge alone.

While that is happening we’re dealing with serious on-going health issues in my family and I managed to pull my back out so badly this week that I had trouble breathing.  I have no doubt that this is stress related, but no one will care or do anything until I’m broken, and then it will be the blame game.

On Monday we had a half day of PD that I was unaware of.  I couldn’t find any details about it in email and when it rolled out over the Monday afternoon I sat there wondering what was going on.  The system has been wildly out of balance all year and PD has been desperately needed though none was forthcoming, then suddenly this.  Frankly, an afternoon not having to wear PPE three sizes too small all day again made this feel like a win.  It was nice not going home with rope burns on my face.

In a rushed one hour session a man in Alberta cut open the wounded emotional body of our staff and then left.  He was desperate to establish rapport and attempt psychic surgery on us through a one way sixty minute video chat.  He lost me when he attempted to use my lack of reproductive effectiveness as a joke (why aren’t you people in Ontario pumping out more children?).  At that point I angrily started cleaning up my classroom, which is in tatters because I have been given no time to maintain it in the past year, and that’s how I pulled my back out.

I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the half day invasive PD, though when you see that many superintendents and other senior admin in a meeting you have to wonder what the intent is.  Many people seemed to find it helpful, but many people aren’t teaching all day every day all year like I am.

Tuesday and Wednesday I was in rough shape but continued to plan and oversee my class from home because you can’t expect anyone covering to do it consistently when none of them are qualified to teach the subject, not that this matters in 2021.  I’ve not been given any qualified support for coverage or remote support (which is fully half of the reduced instructional time students are expected to spend in ‘class’ this year).  While my union throws a fit about elearning classes that would at least be taught by qualified teachers, they’ve been bragging about how unqualified teachers are the solution in schools all year.  It’s this kind of political game playing and the inconsistencies that it produces that leave me wondering what the hell I’m a part of.

I would if I could sleep…

With my class split into morning and afternoon cohorts, one of my cohorts didn’t see me on Monday.  Remote expectations have been vague and are only getting vaguer as you’d expect from a system that, if it does elearning at all, does it as poorly as it can.  At this point the remote work being done mustn’t include new material, assessment or any kind of, um, teaching.  This puts even more pressure on those marathon 2.5 hour x 2 per day face to face learning sessions  The afternoon cohort ignored the instructions I left them online when our class was cancelled and I’ve spent the rest of the week trying to get most of them back on track; just what I needed this week.

Driving home Friday I was in tears.  Students are exhausted and even the strongest ones are just shrugging and walking away, and I don’t have the energy or resources to stand against the education system while trying to make what we do appear credible.

Next week I’m supposed to culminate an entire course in four days while having ignored a key component of the course (the engineering design process) because there has simply been no time to address it in our drink-from-the-firehose quadmesters where I barely have time to cover basic concepts and skills.  I’m then doing that again the week after with the other class which is also a split section senior group so I need to arrange grade 11 and grade 12 face to face work along with simultaneous grade 11 and grade 12 remote/elearning work, and monitor it all while doing 2 things at once.  I keep telling myself I just have to get to the end of this quadmester alive.

I’m looking forward to next quadmester (where I’m teaching my sixth consecutive double cohort class) when I’m told I have to provide remote support for someone else’s class that I’m not qualified to teach because that’s a ‘fair’ distribution of work.  Fair doesn’t mean anything any more.

I just have to make it to the end of my second double double (this time with an added double stacked class) quadmester… two more weeks.

Not yet…


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Full Commitment

The opportunity to go ‘all out’ doesn’t happen very often.  I’ve thought about this from a Rick & Morty perspective in 2018 and it comes up whenever I’m watching documentaries on extreme sports.  Dakar long distance race legend Simon Pavey, when asked why he puts himself through this kind of danger and torture, said it was just so he didn’t have to do any dishes for a week.  There’s a truth underneath the Rick & Morty Susan Sarandon counselor character’s, “the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die” and what Pavey said that I’m trying to dig out.

The very odd film, Up In The Air (2009), has a scene in it where Clooney, whose job it is to fire people, attempts to spin this debilitating experience as an opportunity, but I think they have it wrong.  The problem with Bob’s job isn’t that it didn’t follow his dreams, it’s that it doesn’t use him to his fullest, and in doing so engage him fully.  This only links to your dreams if you dream of challenge and growth – many people dream of ease and privilege; your dreams can be as big a trap as anything else.  In a job like that it’s always going to turn into nine to five plod because the job doesn’t ask enough of him.  Perhaps following his dreams and becoming a chef might have, but it’s the minimalist demands of his work and the salary trap that makes it an existential dead end.

In most cases everyone begins a new job hoping it will become this kind of challenge and provide a life long sense of achievement and direction, and in many cases that dead-end job highlighted in Up In The Air is the result.  Most jobs don’t want you to give your all, they want you to do what you’re told.  You’re a cog in an organization, not a human being that needs to be realized.

I was watching Moto2 motorcycle racing from last summer over the winter and came across a brilliant interview with John Hopkins, who is into coaching young riders these days.  In it John describes how he establishes trust through completely honest interactions and then, using that unpoliticised, transparent communication, creates clear step by step goals for younger riders to develop their confidence and tackle the seemingly impossible job of riding a modern race motorcycle at the limit.  There’s no mystery to peak performance, but so many organizations struggle to find it.  It never seems to happen through committee.

Netflix’s The Defiant Ones tells the story of music
producers Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. 

This weekend we watched The Defiant Ones and the story of Jimmy Iovine sheds light on the job that becomes an all consuming passion.  Jimmy’s a relatively uneducated fellow with an obvious ADHD spin to him, but he found a creative profession and threw himself into it completely.  Stevie Nicks ended up seeking him out because he was always in the studio; his commitment was absolute.

Many employers will say that they want to see this sort of commitment but it isn’t actually the case.  The nature of management in a hierarchical organization means that this kind of full commitment is a threat rather than a usable commodity.  They’re more interested in everyone supporting the corporate vision than they are in individual expression or differentiation.  Before you know it, even in a job where you think professionalism drives some kind of excellence, you’re mailing in your job and eagerly looking forward to doing anything else when you clock out.

This came up in the show New Amsterdam as well.  The maverick new medical director discovers that there are people in the hospital with forgotten, dead-end jobs that have them doing next to nothing all day.  His argument is that the x-ray technician who is collecting a paycheque for doing nothing would rather have a job that means something and helps the hospital save lives ends up being naive.  The old guy just wants to sit in his empty office with the dust covered x-ray machine collecting a paycheque until he retires; meaning has nothing to do with it – it’s all about the paycheque.  He has atrophied into laziest version of himself in order to keep collecting the paycheque.  It’s hard not to see this in education as people end their careers in an almost robotic trance, rolling out the same old lessons, doing no extracurriculars and inspiring no one while collecting the highest salary in the building.  If they’re really crafty they’ve found a way into an administrative job that doesn’t even have the demands of teaching.


In a typical year of teaching I have frustrations but I’m usually given enough latitude that we can aim at awesome.  These competitions give us a reason to step out of the ‘good enough’ of EQAO and provincial curriculum and apply ourselves more completely as human beings.  I’m often asked how we’re able to perform like we do against schools and systems with more money and resources.  The short answer is because we throw ourselves into it completely.  There is risk in this but what encourages students is that they know I’m as committed to them as they are to the contest.  In that trust lies great performance.


This year has thrown extracurriculars into the weeds.  We’ve managed to place two teams in the national finals of CyberTitan this year, but even that isn’t as easy as you’d think with students dropping out at the last minute and those left struggling to stay engaged in a schedule designed to run them into the ground.  Skills Ontario approaches and I’m still struggling to get students to commit to even minimal amounts of preparation.  This has been the year of shrug and walk away.

With competition erased or minimized and classwork crushed under unreasonable expectations, I’m finding teaching isn’t the outlet for excellence that I usually try and make it.  I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do if I weren’t this deep into the teaching thing.  I’ve walked away from lucrative jobs before because they asked too little of me, but I never had a family to support when I was doing that.  In my final decade of teaching and with family support in mind, I’ll have to find other outlets to go ‘all out’ because the classroom isn’t the place for it any more in Ontario.  The last thing I want to do is mail in my job, it’s too important for that, but I don’t know what’s left to do.

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ECOO 2013 Presentation: Harness your nerdist ways

Still thinking about ECOO in a couple of weeks.  I’ve already taken a run at it on Dusty World once.  There is a lot in this, I’m still curious to see how it will unfold.

http://lanyrd.com/2013/ecoo13/schpzd/

We live in a time of profound change. The very definition of who and where we are is constantly changing. Never before in history have people been as connected to so many different people and places as they are now. Trends suggest it will only intensify. Are we doomed to a half existence in many places, constantly distracted, unable to complete a thought? Or will the person on the other side of this technological adolescence be multi-dimensional in ways we can’t currently imagine?

Come with me on an examination of recent history and future trends. How can we integrate or separate technology to better facilitate learning? How can we prepare students for the strange world they are about to graduate into? How can we survive and thrive in these times of profound change ourselves?

What started this line of thinking was a post in Dusty World in the spring called Digital House of Mirrors.  In that post I was trying to describe how digital technology is changing our sense of self:
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“Our selves are being stretched and amplified in ways they never have before.  Nick Carr’s The Shallows puts us on a pretty stark trajectory towards idiocy with what is happening to us.  The digitization of the self stretches us flat, making continuity of thought impossible and turning us all into distracted, simplistic cogs in a consumerist machine designed to turn us all into the lowest common denominator; none of us any smarter than our smartphones.”

http://www.robinsloan.com/epic/
Way back in 2006 a student showed me the video above.  That it was made so long ago is quite prescient.  They didn’t have the future exactly right, but they come surprisingly close in many ways.  The part that stuck with me the most is this quote:
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“At it’s best, edited for the most savvy readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at it’s worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational.”

If that doesn’t describe the experience of most ‘digital natives’ online, then I don’t know what does.  This is exactly the kind of habitual ignorance I find in technology use.  Children who have been immersed in digital technology have only learned to do what pleases them and know nothing about the technology itself, they aren’t generally literate.  They are like self-taught readers who have memorized a single comic book.
Whereas digital immigrant ignorance arises out of fear or pride, though they do still have some sense of what they don’t know.  The digital native is blissfully ignorant of what they don’t know, though they spend most of their lives now in that virtual world they know nothing about.

That technology could retard our ability to think is a dangerous consideration that a number of people are concerned about.  I don’t doubt that digital tools can enhance us as human beings, I’m writing this and you’re able to read it entirely due to digital technology.  Digital tech lets people work around authoritarian governments and democratize media.

I occasionally see people who are able to harness technology as a personal amplifier, but for far too many it is a source of distraction, habitual time wasting and a net loss for them.

A book I half read a while back was The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick.  I wasn’t able to get through the self help bit at the back, but the first half was an interesting autobiography of a guy immersed in technology to such a degree that it derailed him.  His philosophical change allowed him to regain control of his career and put what he describes as his nerdist ways to productive use.   Rather than spending eight hours a day playing World of Warcraft, Chris chose to focus his nerdly powers of concentration on productive activities.  He describes a nerd as someone who is able to hyper focus on minutia that fascinates them.  He broke his habitual use of technology by demanding that his fixations serve him instead of the other way around.  If it can work for a nerd (and we’re all nerds according to that definition) then it’ll work for everyone.

Is always on exhausting or exhilerating?  Is it functionally better to be connected?  What is the golden ratio for communicating f2f or remotely?  How could technology itself assist us in optimizing our presence both physically and virtually?  How can we highlight ineffective use of technology, analyze it and resolve it?

I suspect this is going to become a timeline.  With a bit of perspective I might be able to make some reasonably accurate predictions about where we going, because this is one big weird rabbit hole we’re all going down together and a lot of people are getting lost in it.

The followup post analyzing the ECOO13 conference can be found HERE.