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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Bare Minimums

I’ve had a go at professionalism a number of times on Dusty World.  You might even call it a recurring theme.  Here I go again…

“Wha’dyou care?  You get paid whether we learn anything or not.”

In one simple sentence a kid in my son’s grade 10 applied math class might have just summed up everything that’s wrong with Ontario and much of the Western world these days.  For the vast majority of people work is hourly wage labour, even when they’re salaried.  They aim to do the bare minimum – as little as possible – and only what they’re explicitly told to do in order to make as much money as they possibly can.  It’s only in a world predominantly driven by this kind of thinking that a failed businessman can convince people to let him run a province like a business.


The conversations that kid hears around his home must be brutal and simplistic; take all that you can and give as little back as possible.  Capit
alism likes to play the Darwin card where it describes itself as the engine of competition that develops excellence by rewarding strength and destroying the weak.  You’re poor because you’re lazy or stupid.  You’re rich because you’re driven and smart, but that isn’t the way of things…


Teaching is a profoundly challenging profession that demands
a lot from you because you’re dealing with complex people.
If you don’t like people, you’ll struggle to do the job.

Where does professionalism stand in all of this?  When I told people about that comment at the recent ECOO Conference, the teachers there rolled their eyes.  There may be a tiny percentage of teachers who mail it in, but I can only think of one or two in my school, the rest consistently go above and beyond in order to try and reach their students in as many ways as possible.  Teaching is the kind of job that you make too difficult for yourself if you’re not dedicated to doing it as well as you can.  The most miserable teachers I know are the ones with that minimalist approach who aren’t very good at it as a result.


Learning isn’t a linear production line where you can find economic efficiencies by grossly simplifying things.  It’s a complex interaction between many people at once.  A good teacher is always going to be looking for ways to reach as many of their students as they can, partly because doing the job any other way makes it nearly impossible and partly because doing it well feels fantastic.  It’s one of the reasons that class sizes really do matter; there is only so far you can stretch before you break when you’re trying to differentiate and reach dozens of students at once.  An profession has this level of complexity, but many of them are being managed by accountants with little or no understanding of that complexity.


A recent article by the Washington Post chases down much of the success enjoyed by certain education systems (our’s included) in the world…


“We have learned a lot about why some education systems — such as Alberta, Ontario, Japan and Finland — perform better year after year than others in terms of quality and equity of student outcomes.


Among these important lessons are:

  • Education systems and schools shouldn’t be managed like business corporations… successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • The teaching profession shouldn’t be perceived as a technical, temporary craft that anyone with a little guidance can do. Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training.”



Collegial responsibility, trust, collaboration and rational direction in management seems foreign (and probably a bit frightening) to that majority of money minimalists in the world.  Work is work, you do as little of it as possible to make as much as you can.  If you’re managing, you rip apart complexity and simplify the job at hand into something so abstract and simple that it doesn’t actually work, but you’ve maximized profit.  If you’re in business (or modern politics) you put on the blinkers and aim at the next quarter; this myopia is called called efficiency.  If you’re in a classroom this kind of management is a disaster because you leave most of the class behind.  You save a little money now to spend much more later.  Mr ‘what-d’you-care’ in my son’s math class is going to be costing us all a lot of money for years to come thanks to the values he has internalized.


The concept of professionalism can seem nebulous to the money focused minimalist majority.  It’s important to recognize that this money fixation isn’t necessarily a rich/poor distinction but an addiction shared by both extremes of the socio-economic spectrum.  The people who most idolize the wealthy are the poor and uneducated.  Even with that adoration, the gulf between rich and poor continues to expand as people struggling with money fantasize about joining their heroes in the one percent (the same people who are causing them to struggle).


How do you get wealthy?  By focusing on money beyond all else – as much as you can get while giving as little as you can, but what really matters is if you’re already minted.  That’s when you get into politics to protect your economic advantage.  Amazingly, it takes very little to convince people struggling in the system who idolize your wealth to then vote you into power.


Your place in this socio-economic spectrum largely depends on your circumstances, not on your plucky attitude.  The rich retain more and more wealth even as it moves further away from the rest of us because the system is designed to make money out of money more than it is to make money out of work.  Professionalism can act as a cure to this disease, but so few people are able to access it in a 21st Century where automation and overpopulation conspire to minimize human value that the idea of doing a job as well as you can without money as the primary goal seems antiquated.


What’s left?  Do as little as you can for as much as you can.  A 50 in grade 10 applied maths is a fantastic return on investment if you have to do almost nothing to get it.  You’ve learned your parents’ value theory well kid, they’ll define you for the rest of your life.

Watch the middle class and professionalism melt away before your eyes.  Your arms are indeed getting shorter as your pockets get deeper – unless you’re one of the ultra-rich who have gamed the system for your own benefit, and then gamed politics to convince that burgeoning majority of undereducated poor people to support your obscene wealth.

Professionalism still lurks out there in the corners, and you better hope it survives.  The professional doing the brakes on your car is (you’d better hope) doing the job to the best of her ability, not as fast as she can in order to maximize a pay cheque.  The professional nursing you in hospital is (you really hope) doing the best job he can in ensuring your care, not the cheapest one possible.  The teacher in your child’s class (you sincerely hope) is doing the very best they possibly can to reach your alienated, confused and profoundly ignorant child so that they don’t have a future dictated to them by your money myopia.


Professionalism is a way of looking past the blinkered and culturally emaciated world of money for work that the very rich and the very poor on both sides of a vanishing middle class are fixated on.  When you’re a professional you do the very best job you can and society recognizes that value by looking after you because you give back much more than you take.  In any professional practice you’re going to spend your own time and money improving your craft, that’s what makes it professional.  To the ‘training is what happens to me when I’m at work’ crowd, that grade 10 math student’s comment echoes their own experience.


The most frustrating thing is that anyone in pretty much any job could be a professional.  When I worked in an oil change shop in university, I quickly found my way into the role of service manager because I took the technical work very seriously and was always looking for ways to improve.  I read technical manuals on my own time and did more advanced work after hours in and out of the shop in order to improve my skills, and as a result had a perfect technical record.  When I was in IT it was the same thing – spending my own time and money to improve my craft.  I’ve always had trouble separating work from who I am because if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing as well as I can.  For too many Ontarians that sounds like a sucker’s game, and that thinking has turned us all into suckers.


For the vast majority of teachers in Ontario there is no start and finish time, there are no weekends or holidays.  You’ll find teachers spending their holidays and weekends at conferences and training, and you’ll often find them working on a Sunday morning or Thursday night, marking or prepping lessons, not because they’re on the clock, but because what they’re doing matters much more than that.


I’ve gotten on planes and seen flight attendants who obviously take their jobs professionally and as a result I’ve had a wonderful flight that would have been misery otherwise.  I’ve seen mechanics who take the time to do a job right, even as their employers and customers whine about every penny they just spent to be safe in their vehicles.  I’ve seen professional drivers who take pride in their efficiency and effectiveness who you’d never see texting behind the wheel.  Professionalism should be something we’re all able to access in order to find our best selves, but to make that happen we have to get off this insane money train we’re on before it burns the world down.


Wouldn’t it be something if everyone were a professional in whatever they did, and they were respected financially for that effort by society instead of being driven to do less for less to make a tiny percentage of us pointlessly wealthy?

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Simple Magic

We recently spent a day in Stratford and one of the more surprising and engaging events was a Q&A talk with two of the Festival’s experienced actors.  Maev Beatty and Ben Carlson are both starring in The Front Page.  We hadn’t seen the play and I was a bit worried that it’d be all about that, but it wasn’t at all.  When you get two smart, capable professionals showing you inside their process, whatever their profession, it’s an enlightening experience.  Here are some of the highlights that I’m still mulling over:


Adrenaline


Early on someone intimated that it must be nice only having to work 2-3 times a week for a couple of hours and I think both actors bristled at that suggestion.  One of the stresses on acting that most people wouldn’t think about is the physiology of putting yourself out there in an absolute physical sense.  On an evening you’re going on stage you typically start to feel that intensity in the early afternoon.  By the time you’re on stage your adrenaline is peaking and, though they didn’t mention it, I doubt many actors can go right to bed after performing.  Ben noted a study that showed a working actor experiences as much adrenaline as you’d feel in a car accident, times two!  He noted that if a normal person were to receive that much adrenaline at once they’d have a heart attack and die; it’s a high intensity high.


There’s something to be said for putting yourself out there.  It’s one of the reasons I encourage my students into competition.  The heightened sense of purpose that burst of adrenaline gives you allows you to do things you might not otherwise be able to do.  Experiencing that intensity also teaches you to manage it.  This is one of the reasons why I think things like school plays, competitions and sports are so important, yet they tend to be the first thing we throw under the bus when we start to look for ‘extracurriculars’ to cut.  The fact that the school system calls them extracurriculars is telling in and of itself.


Controlled adrenaline meant the busy kitchen we had lunch at was churning
out dishes at a prodigious rate.  The three chefs barely said a word to each
other, and could often be seen wordlessly handing each other what they needed
just as they needed it.  Professionalism kept popping up in all sorts of places
after that morning talk.

Teaching students to take risks and manage the adrenaline that comes from it should be a vital part of any school experience, but the vast majority of students running through schools don’t and the few that do tend to be the most economically advantaged ones; that’s a real system failure.


Watching these two professionals, who do a job that most people would find too terrifying to imagine (me being one of them), and listening to how they deal with that terror, was fascinating.  Many people say they wish they had a job like that, an extreme job that demands all of you, but even taking the exceptional skill-sets required out of the equation, the vast majority of people couldn’t take the heat of working in a kitchen like that.  For all the jealousy people feel for successful actors, musicians or athletes, most couldn’t handle the intensity of a life like that.  The amount of work involved puts it beyond the reach of most, but it’s the performance aspect that people don’t think about.  The wear and tear on their minds and bodies is astonishing.


Failure


There were a lot of questions around how you deal with failure in theatre production, including a number of questions about how you deal with poor performers or productions, but the most telling moment, again, I suspect in response to that initial intimation that acting was an easy gig, was how they both described auditioning.

These are two of Canada’s more well known actors and both are making a good living at it.  When asked if they still had to audition, they both said they did.  Ben suggested you could find the odd moment when you’d just give a hard no, but that isn’t generally the place of an actor.  Actors act and to do that you audition.



Once again referring back to how a Stratford actor fills their idle days, both said it isn’t uncommon for people in the troop to be on stage in up to half a dozen different plays, all of which required thousands of hours of preparation and rehearsal.  Since all actors are inherently self-employed, they also have to keep their ears to the ground in terms of possible TV and film opportunities and prepare auditions for them, which also take time and commitment.  The agonizing thing about this is that the vast majority, even if you’re a well known name, end up giving you back nothing.  To the I-do-work-and-get-paid-for-it crowd, this is yet another example of why one of those dream jobs like acting isn’t what you think it is.


Both Maev and Ben described weeks where they would audition almost daily and walk away empty handed.  Their experience has taught them to not take this personally (casting is alchemical and complicated and not about who is most well known).


At another point someone asked if they could create productions that suited them, but they said an obvious truth: “that’s not the job of an actor.”  They also mentioned that that’s a good thing.  Twenty-something Ben would have told you he could do anything, but the wiser, older Ben knows now that he couldn’t.  Letting directors direct and actors act is yet another of those intensity based requirements that we should consider in a classroom, but don’t because we shy away from genuine experiences in favour of artificially successful ones.


I’ve long talked about risk aversion and modern education’s almost psychotic insistence on success for everyone all the time.  Building resilience in an environment like that is nearly impossible.  Failure and our response to it is vital in everything from daily life to the grand trajectory of our lives.  Our education system is still built on the idea of passing and failing, but failing is where we learn the most and gain the least in our system.


Watching two toughened veterans of a brutal industry might make you think that they have become hardened themselves, but another repeating theme of their talk was in surviving the onslaught of theatre by working with the right people…

Working from a place of love and support


In the fiery crucible of the stage you really don’t want to be doubting where the people you’re in there with are coming from.  Any ideas of office politics or drama (the pedantic kind) make working in such an intense situation untenable.  Maev talked about a few productions where the people on stage were very difficult to work with due to their nastiness, but as a general rule this isn’t how actors relate.


When you’re displaying that kind of vulnerability on the stage you don’t want to be wondering if your partner is going to throw you under the bus.  She said, and it has stuck with me, that ” you want to be working with people who are coming from a place of love and support”.  Even under the crushing pressure of a live stage performance with everyone OD’ed on adrenaline, knowing that your colleagues have your back is vital.


I’ve been in situations where the pressure has created friendships that have lasted the rest of my life.  I can only imagine the personal connection actors feel with each other after going through that glorious hell together.  Staring into the abyss but knowing the person next to you isn’t going to let you down allows you to do incredible things, like create live art on stage.


That kind of empathic bonding is something else that too few students get to enjoy in school.  Once again this is a division of the haves and havenots.  The kids who have to go to work right after school never get to develop that sense of belonging whether it’s on a sports team or a stage production or a technical competition, and that’s a tragedy.  From that angle there is nothing extra about those extracurriculars.  There is a reason why you can’t remember a single lesson from high school but those experiences are pivotal to who you are today.  We’d be insane to dismantle them and should instead be incorporating them into learning expectations for all students.  Who doesn’t deserve to learn what that kind of love, belonging and support feels like?

Loving a bad character

The idea of having to act a character you hate came up along with the how do you work in a bad production or with bad people questions – there was a lot of curiosity from the audience about how things might go wrong.  The positivity and boundless optimism of the responses points to yet another difference between most people and the few who are willing to throw themselves at seemingly impossible jobs.


Ben’s answer to this once again pointed to that idea of positivity overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.  He and Maev gave several examples of characters they found so difficult that it seemed impossible to express them well.  In looking at the character, Ben said he always looks for something he can love about them and works from that.  Unlike the unwashed masses, actors can’t work from a binary place of I like ’em or I don’t like ’em.  This must seep out into their dealings with other people, though they didn’t mention that.


This was yet another theme that paralleled my own professional experience.  I’ve had students who I couldn’t stand, but I’ve always tried to operate from a place of positivity.  In getting to know them, I’ve always found some aspect of them that is worthy of appreciation.  It’s that approach that keeps me away from the staff room where well meaning binary colleagues want to tell you what a worthless piece of shit a child is when you mention that you’re teaching them for the first time.  I’ve never met a person so unworthy of any consideration.




Simple Magic


My glorious wife, Alanna, asked a question that had been tugging on her since our last trip to Stratford.  I commented, in my usual way, about how we are quite venerable ourselves and yet we were the youngest people in the audience by a decade or more.  In twenty years that theatre would be mostly empty.  My conclusion was that theatre is dying with this demographic.  The audience at the Q&A were of a similar demographic.


Alanna asked if theatre was evaporating before our eyes and Ben picked this up with glee.  He noted that theatre has been dying for centuries, but what always saves it is its simplicity. If you have an actor and an audience, you have theatre.  In talking it through, and this happened on many questions, both actors would think through the implications of a question out loud, he unpacked the history of theatre and came to a conclusion about how it always seems to survive its imminent demise; at its root, theatre is about people getting together.


That simple magic is what keeps theatre alive; it feeds a human need to gather together.  No number of screens, wifi or virtual presences have satisfied that need, and he noted there is some push back against the direction this has taken.  Making anonymous or even just remote comments online is nothing like the same as having a face to face encounter.  My role as a computer teacher and technician has no issue with this observation.  There is a quality in face to face human interaction that not only satisfies a deep human need, but also never be achieved through digitization, something will always be lost in translation whether through a lack of fidelity or a genuine presence and responsibility.


Theatre, like schools, libraries, concerts or sporting events, offer people something that digital experiences don’t.  That complexity of presence (call in bandwidth if you want) and sense of belonging call powerfully to the human psyche.  The sense of being there is important, though our digital adolescence crops up there too with idiots on lousy cell phone cameras making terrible media instead of enjoying the moment they went to so much trouble to experience first hand.


The current drive to elearning as a cost effective way to deliver learning is yet another example of failing forward into the idea that digital experiences can replace the real world.  It’s cheaper because it isn’t as good.  If you consider it from a bandwidth perspective, the sheer amount of data passing between a teacher and student in even a simple face to face encounter is something digital simply can’t touch.  Augment?  Assist?  Absolutely, but we replace basic human needs with poor digital equivalents at our own peril (and a multi-national’s profit).   We’re all poorer as a few get rich in this scenario.


That response got me thinking about how we prioritize our lives.  I’m an avid photographer, always have been, which is one of the reasons I don’t have a lousy cell phone camera in my hand all the time, especially when I’m at an event.  If I take a photo, it’s gonna be a good one.


Sean Penn has a great line in The Secret  Life of Walter Mitty when he’s talking about being in the moment instead of trying to record it, and he’s speaking about it from the perspective of a photographic artist, not some idiot with a cell phone in their hands.  These digital invasions, ironically driven by our need for digitally impoverished social contact, are eating away at our lived experience.


Simple magic is a good way to look at many aspects of modern life.  What core needs do human beings have and how have we always met them socially?  Are we meeting them as well in digital media?  Theatre is going to survive because it has more in common with genuine human need than social media ever will, and it’s able to do it in a simple and direct way.  The response to Alanna’s question gives me hope that one day we’ll wake up from this attention economy nightmare we’ve immersed ourselves in.


***

I went to this initially thinking that it would be a bunch of theatre shop talk, but there was barely any (and what there was came mostly from the audience).  Instead it was an introspective and insightful talk by two talented people at the height of their powers.  Their understanding of themselves, their art and the insight it gives them into the human condition makes it a must-do for anyone who can get out to Stratford… and it’s free!  It runs into October – a field trip including a talk like this  (though each is, of course, different) could change lives.

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A Cruelty Free Response to Pandemic Response Teaching

Instead of double doubling classroom teachers with absurd remote/face to face simultaneous instructional expectations and a schedule that fires a month of work at students that teachers are then expected to prep, deliver (in two places at once) and mark with no time given, let’s review and improve this situation.

Course duration has always been set in Ontario at 110 hours, but instructional time has been systemically devalued by waiving expectations for remote learning and dropping unqualified teachers into make-work support roles instead of using them for what they should be in schools for.

In a pandemic where everyone is stressed, a schedule that is uneven and cruel has put unnecessary pressure on both staff and students.  Let’s take a step back and see if I can’t spitball a better solution.  I ain’t no senator’s son sitting in an office deciding these things, I’m just one of the people who is being waterboarded by them, but I’ll take a swing at that difficult job anyhow.

THE SITUATION WE’RE IN NOW

A teacher typically teaches three classes of 20-31 students per semester.  Let’s say that’s 75 students you’re responsible for (some semesters I’ve had 90+).  If we made all classes capped at 20 students (a single cohort), each teacher would be responsible for 60 students, which is less than most of us normally are.

We have way fewer students in schools right now because many have opted for fully remote learning, so there are empty classrooms all about.

We have a shortage of specialist teachers and can’t provide qualified coverage for them.

We cling to the idea that we need to keep prep periods in our schedule and then fill them with meaningless, un-pedagogically sound busy work while causing always on quadmesters where your prep isn’t happening even as you’re being asked to rejig a curriculum to a schedule no one has ever seen before.

Students with special needs are swamped by the machine gun like efficiency of quadmestering.

Students without special needs are overwhelmed by the drink from the firehose curriculum of quadmestering.

A CRUELTY FREE SOLUTION TO PANDEMIC RESPONSE TEACHING

  • in semester 2 return to semesters and end the quadmester cruelty
  • each week is one class with a weekend to de-COVID the place (that’s a good idea)
  • make every Friday an independent review and catch up day for students to give them time to make sense of the hectic influx of material
  • on those Fridays staff are given time to mark the week’s work, contact students with updates and concerns and prep for the next week’s influx
  • each month/4 weeks is a complete tumble of the schedule
  • teachers don’t have prep ‘periods’ any more (they have the Friday and smaller cohorts)
  • teachers all provide their own remote learning support (so a qualified person is teaching students they are familiar with)
  • leverage the empty classes generated by fully remote learning to spread out cohorts and cover the bump in classes running
  • leverage the teachers currently brought in at teacher salaries to babysit to actually teach classes
  • each class is a three hour face to face morning session (12 hours of instructional f2f time per four day week)
  • each class has a 2 hour remote/online expectation for review and consolidation of learning WITH THE SAME QUALIFIED TEACHER
  • teachers can leverage their relationships with students to engage them in online work
  • at five hours per day of instructional time, and 16 weeks of class (4 tumbles through the schedule), students would experience 48 hours of face to face instruction and 32 hours of guided online instruction with a qualified teacher familiar with them from face to face learning.  They would also have 5 hours of Friday consolidation of learning time each week for a total of 20 hours in the semester.  That adds up to one hundred hours of learning at a pedagogical effectiveness we can only dream of right now.
  • add in an exam/culminating presentation day per class at the end of the year and you’d be at 103 hours of instruction with credible culminating grades generated (exams are cancelled currently)
  • students cannot opt out of remote learning and every effort will be made to ensure they have connectivity and technology at home with which to do it (this is happening now anyway – not the opting out part, you can do that – people are knocking themselves out to ensure this isn’t a digital divide issue though and would continue to)

The benefits of this approach?

  • small cohorts to reduce the chance of COVID transmission
  • a qualified instructor who knows students providing remote learning
  • a much higher quality of remote teaching
  • a teacher not expected to be online and in class simultaneously
  • time given for meaningful one on one feedback both face to face and remotely
  • time given for redesigning an entirely curriculum schedule on the fly (that’s not happening right now)
  • time given to recognize the cognitive load on students trying to cover a month of material each week
  • time given for pedagogically sound learning
  • time given for students to sleep on and review their learning and consolidate it
  • students with special needs would have time given to support them (currently that’s all cancelled)
  • a more reasonable schedule that is evenly distributed and isn’t trying to kill people with stress during a pandemic (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to write)
  • restore credibility to online/remote learning after a year of the Minister and now boards suggesting it’s optional and doesn’t matter

SUMMARY

We’ve clung to some assumptions (teacher semestered prep periods in scheduling) while tossing out others (time spent in a course doesn’t really matter).  Our priorities are out of whack and the result is hurting people and damaging learning.  Things are never going to be as they were prior to COVID while we’re under the weight of this pandemic, but we can get closer with a bit of flexibility and kindness.

Teacher prep periods have remained even though they make no sense in a quadmestered system.  The result is a massively uneven quadmester schedule that waterboards staff with high class caps in one and leaves them with make-work in the other.  There is enough real work to go around.

By leveraging the empty space we currently have in schools due to fully remote learners and adjusting the work load by producing smaller class sizes and spreading out instruction, we could have a schedule that comes much closer to providing a kind and more effective learning environment.

But what to I know, I’m just a classroom teacher.

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Is It Over?

 

No, it hasn’t.  Prepare to get maytagged by quadmesters for the foreseeable future


I’m staggering to the end of this absurd quadmester. When it started I wondered if less was all we could manage, and it turns out that it is.  From administration dismissing concerns about masks that don’t fit (or really matter when you can catch COVID through your eyes) and are so far beyond of Health Canada and local health unit expectations that they end up being more restrictive than needed and not at all designed for all-day use (especially while performing instruction), to a schedule that seems explicitly designed to download an abusive amount of work on classroom teachers with the highest class caps, this quadmester has been a disaster.

The lack of focus on what we’re supposed to be doing (providing effective and differentiated instruction that maximizes student learning, remember?) suggests that these things never really mattered in the first place.  Got special learning needs?  Too bad, special education support is cancelled.  Find keeping up with school difficult?  Too bad, we’re going to fire you through courses at record pace even though everyone is reeling from a pandemic.  Don’t worry though, it doesn’t really matter if you keep up or not because you’re getting credits regardless.

I’m able to provide interactive, relevant online learning opportunities for my students and even I still struggled with between 20-40% disengagement in remote learning this quadmester.  I’ve heard of other classes that just did nothing online.  If you talk to admin about it they’d rather pretend it’s happening than do anything to ensure it is with anything like quality in mind.  I had a class drop down to twenty students which means it could have become a single cohort and I could be their online instructor, but making a change for pedagogical effectiveness that would have alleviated a staff member’s medically supported issues with the provided face masks wasn’t something anyone had any time for.

https://twitter.com/tk1ng/status/1324470383496564736

I recently learned that students can opt out of remote learning entirely if they want.  This has resulted in kids who have attended less than fifty hours of instruction earning Ontario high school credits this quadmester (Ontario high school courses are supposed to be 110 hours of instruction).  Remote learning with a teacher unqualified or even knowledgeable about the subject (as was my case with both of my online support teachers) can’t be called instructional time anyway.  ‘Quadmester’ should be changed to ‘freemester’ or ‘fakemester’. 


This kind of inflation is exactly what the current government has been trying to do over the past two years by pushing massive class sizes (even during a pandemic) and devaluing complex pedagogical practice in order to cheapen public education.  They couldn’t stuff more students into classes, so they reduced expectations and lowered the efficacy of the system to the point of absurdity while handing out credits like candy, and the people making it happen are getting bonuses for devaluing our education system!  They must be very proud.  Fear not though, PC party backers are ready to step in with private for-profit options that are likely to perform worse and cost more.

***

As I wrap things up from my double cohort/teaching continuously all day/double class/teaching continuously every week quadmester one I’m struck with how this drink-from-the-firehose schedule that doesn’t remotely meet Ontario standards not only injures already traumatized students and staff but also removes the most challenging work I do in class.

We got to the culminating projects (exams are cancelled – as is all safety paperwork because why not) and I found that my grade 9s have not had the opportunity to develop a rigorous and resilient engineering process in the way that they would in any other year, though considering the class is half as long as it should be I shouldn’t be surprised.  I’ve been able to cover the basic material, though the speed at which that came at students was overwhelming even to the stronger ones.  Neurologically speaking, you need time to reflect and internalize new learning, but best pedagogical practices have long since been flushed down the toilet.

I keep hoping that we’ll make adjustments toward making Ontario education more equitable and fair to everyone as this slow burn pandemic grinds on, but the powers that be appear to believe that they are finished and are ready to fire us through quadmester after quadmester rather than responding in a best practices-continuous evolution.  I’ve suggested previously that the week-on week-off is already problematic, so why not just go back to week on week off semesters?  If we did that with a Friday fully remote review day we could also give teachers and students the headspace they need to consume new learning, but the new normal is too waterboard everyone with a pedagogically bankrupt schedule that only has the appearance of credibility.

As we lurch into quadmester two with no quadmester ending in sight I’m looking forward to not being waterboarded any more, but I’ve still been handed another technology course with two cohorts and a teacher who has no background in my speciality ‘covering’ the remote part of the course, so I can expect another poorly engineered schedule designed to hand out cheap credits.  I got handed the same thing (a course I’m not qualified to teach) to provide remote support in even while I’m still providing technical support to people across the school and beyond.  There is evidently no way to differentiate teacher schedules to give them time to provide system support either.

I’ll do what I can to mitigate this poor scheduling (again), but since the system has downloaded all guidance and special education expectations on me as well I’ll be stretched (once again) to the breaking point trying to protect students from a schedule designed by people who don’t seem to care for their personal circumstances and well being… while struggling through a pandemic with my own health concerns.

Even evidence that the system think types are evolving this in the right direction would be helpful, but communications are nearly non-existent and there is no sense of vision or even an acknowledgement that what we’re doing isn’t kind, let alone working.  The new normal is a cruel, undifferentiated and ultimately meaningless place.  With a complete lack of leadership from the Ministry or Minister, we’re likely to see Ontario plunge in years of darkness as a result of this overwhelming and cruel schedule.


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