The Centre Cannot Hold

I stumbled across this interesting article on curiosity and the neuroscience associated with  it:

“Encourage students to chase their own interests, cultivate curiosity.  It fires up brains and makes them better at remembering new information.  It also engages students in the best possible way.”


“When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes.”

If you’re not a teacher and are a big fan of the new Ontario government’s ‘teach ’em like we used ta‘ approach to learning, this is what we call pedagogy.  There is a lot of neuroscience that directs modern pedagogy in the classroom.  Put in simple terms, we don’t just make this stuff up; the education system spends a lot of time and effort understanding how learning works best and then training teachers to work with that.  Scientific research guides modern curriculum building, at least until right wing populist ideology dislodges it in Ontario.


Showing a teacher how curiosity can be used to amplify retention and encourage a focused approach to new knowledge acquisition is pure gold.  I fear the ‘take it back to basics‘ stance of our new government means this neuroscientific research is ignored in favour of the conservative reductive approach of rote memorization and zero differentiation of instruction.  It’s a common conservative belief that everyone (especially in the public sector) needs to suffer in order to show they are trying, but don’t expect anyone to learn anything in an environment like that.  Contrary to this grossly simplified view of education (in that case advocated by an American with no teaching experience), we’re not in it to punish anyone.  You don’t learn well when you’re being subdued.  You don’t teach particularly well in those circumstances either.

Some other gems in from that article:
“teachers can be models of how to be comfortable with uncertainty”


“When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes.”


***


An interesting connection with that piece on curiosity and information retention was this article in The Guardian about the age of skim reading. The author draws some interesting connections between Western society’s rise of populist regimes and the new lack of empathy and critical analysis in the population:


“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

If you’re wondering why we’re suddenly faced with these shocking politicians who seem out  of sync with the world around them, it isn’t them that’s out of sync, it’s you (if you’re reading this you aren’t the new normal).  The conservative ‘you must suffer to pay the private sector’s bills‘ thinking plays nicely with the lack of patience, empathy and curiosity we’ve been cooking for the past fifteen years in the incessant digital noise of the attention economy.  It’s easy to blame this on information and communication technology, but the tech itself has allowed us to make enormous scientific and technical advances.  Smart people have leveraged it to great advantage  It’s the attention economy that grew out of it that is causing problems for everyone else.


I’m a big fan of digital tools, but we’ve done almost nothing to actually learn how they work so we can use them effectively and without compromise.  In the past decade education systems around world have handed off control of our online learning environments to advertising companies like Google who have monetized everyone’s attention.  You don’t get the same return on investment if you don’t keep your users in a permanent state of data churn.   You do that by designing systems that encourage short attention data churn.  Every time we accustom a student to that environment we’re training the attention economy’s future users, whether they’re actively advertising to them or not.  As education systems become complicit in preparing our children for the vapid attention economy, many of their parents don’t notice because their noses are in a phone too.  Our political circumstances are a direct result of us all being immersed in this nasty mess.

One of the first casualties of new media has been long form reading:

“We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.” 


Alanna is teaching a senior creative writing class for the first time in a long time and she is shocked by what the new normal is.  You can expect grade twelves, even academically focused ones intent on university, to have never read a book for pleasure.  In some cases they’ve never read a book at all.  Their days are spent in the bite sized, simplistic cesspool of the internet.  They don’t have the patience to let a narrative develop.  The building of suspense frustrates them.  They live in a world of fleeting introductions immediately followed by puerile climaxes designed to hold on to them for a moment before their attention wanders to the next distraction.


Many students can’t even sit through a film anymore, let alone read a book.  Watch current high school students sneaking out their phones the minute a film starts and squirming if can’t find their digital churn fix; see if I’m not wrong.

Long form reading isn’t impossibly difficult, but it isn’t a natural human skill, we have to learn it.  In doing so we enjoy a richness of shared experience impossible to get any other way.  This leads to the empathy we’re struggling to keep alive in modern society.  It also leads to a richer internal world where you have the vocabulary and shared experience to express yourself succinctly.  If you’re reduced to expressing your deepest thoughts in internet memes, what a sad and dimensionless mind you must feel trapped in.  How much curiosity can you generate if you live in a world of instant, short term satisfaction?

In our ongoing social experiment I’m curious to see how this all plays out.  We introduced digital technologies that have revolutionized science, education, finance and communications, allowing us to take huge steps forward in terms of efficiency and collaboration.  A small group of sociopaths then used this technology to create an attention economy that has actually damaged our democratic institutions and the minds of the general public itself.  We find ourselves in a place where improbable governments suddenly have power and the people who voted them there have neither the ability nor the inclination to actually learn about why this is a bad idea.  We’ve weakened our ability to empathize and connect with each other, all ironically under the name of social media.  It seems this reductive process isn’t finished yet.  With short sighted apathetic government being put into power by an increasingly illiterate, distracted and stressed populace, I’m left wondering just how low we can go.

LINKS

www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf skim reading

www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-its-time-ontario-education-got-back-to-basics/ an american with no teaching experience tells us how to teach

hechingerreport.org/piqued-the-case-for-curiosity/ curiosity

www.fordnationlive.ca/watch_doug_s_plan_to_fix_ontario_s_education_system_by_respecting_parents_and_getting_back_to_basics
discovery math – isn’t a thing, back to basics means what? what are basics?  perhaps code for an excuse to eviscerate a successful system?

twitter.com/acampbell99/status/1034627621559181312 teachers arguing pedagogy online.

www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-in-the-ongoing-math-wars-both-sides-have-a-point/?cmpid=rss&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
math wars – see below, Canada is top ten in the world in maths.

***

Just a reminder, Ontario is Canada’s largest education system and Canada is consistently near the top of the world in terms of reading, science and maths.

But don’t let those facts get in the way of your politics:
www.businessinsider.com/pisa-worldwide-ranking-of-math-science-reading-skills-2016-12
Ignore all the single-party authoritarian countries at the tops of those lists – they only put forward their top students for assessment. Western systems put their whole populations forward.

www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/07/us-education-spending-finland-south-korea
“In Ontario, which educates 40% of Canada’s students, nearly 30% of the province’s population are immigrants. According to the 2015 Pisa exam results, Ontario scored fifth in the world in reading. Children of immigrants perform compatibility with their peers with Canadian-born parents in educational achievement.”

Ontario’s education systems is one of our most successful exports, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the new government. Private schools around the world use the Ontario Curriculum that they just started dismantling. Ontario trained teachers are teaching across the planet because they are Ontario qualified. If our education system were a private enterprise it would be held up as a paragon of success. Remember that in the coming months.

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wind storms and sci-fi reflections

I’m watching the new season of my current favourite sci-fi show, The Expanse.  It’s about the next couple of centuries where Terrans develop the technology to move out into the solar system, but rather than the Star Trek angle that completely ignores the nastiest aspects of human nature, The Expanse imagines a near future with technology advances but none of the social evolution of the Trek universe – it’s a politically messy, self-serving future, much like our present.  It’s something I’m starting to think we’ll never get to.

I’m also spending the day today putting our yard and house back together after a wind storm swept through here, and that got me thinking about all this technology we’re so proud off.  If it gets a bit windy, it all goes away.  After a couple of big gusts yesterday there was no internet and no power.  I was unable to deliver attendance data for my classes at the end of the day, let alone get information on what was happening.

 

We ignore data and facts.

At the height of the wind the local cell tower was down, meaning no information or electricity at all.  In the meantime (and when it works), I’m watching the news closely as the competition we’re supposed to be travelling to in a couple of weeks in Fredericton is in peril because the city is under water.  We’re ever so proud of our vaunted technology, but if it gets windy, or if waters run high, everything stops.  The real irony in this is that our fossil fuel powered society is what’s prompting all this extreme weather.  Even our supposedly green tech is manufactured using fossil fuel based manufacturing.  Our technology doesn’t allow us to control our environment, it provokes it to attack us.


There is this thing called the Kardashev Scale.  If you’re ever thinking how smart the bi-pedal apes are on the third rock from the sun, this scale will give you some perspective.  A level one society is one that harnesses the resources of an entire planet.  We’re not even close to that.  Carl Sagan suggested human society is at about a 0.7 on the way to being able to harness planetary power, but I think that’s wildly optimistic.  Our technology isn’t on its way to managing planetary processes, in many cases it’s prompting the planetary environment to violence – it’s the opposite of control.  There are some cases of sustainable (ie: non-aggravating) human technology, but since we base most of what we produce on fossil fuels and unsustainable manufacturing, it’s hard to say much of any of our technology is actually on its way to sustainable global resource management.  Our stubborn unwillingness to orientate ourselves in that direction is the problem, not our intelligence or technical capability.

When you get up into level 2 your society can manage the energy of an entire solar system.  We’re millennia away from that even assuming we pivoted today and actually worked toward sustainable global management that would allow us to thrive as a civilization long enough to develop it.  The way we’re currently going, we’ll probably cause global environmental upheaval before we’re likely to even establish a foothold in space (by that I mean permanent human habitation off-world, we haven’t even done that yet).  The environmental problems we cause now will eventually produce resource depletion that will result in war.  We love a good war to cap off our own bad habits.  Level 3 (effective galactic resource management and level 4 (universal/pan dimensional resource management) are so far beyond our short sighted, barely evolved minds that they beggar belief.

Meanwhile, here I am about to nail unsustainably manufactured aluminum siding back on to my wood framed house that was built with unsustainable lumber.  We have more in common with squirrels building nests than we do with even a level one civilization, except what the squirrels build isn’t burning a hole in the world.  They’re closer to a level one civilization than we are.


All the other unsustainably built, fossil fuel powered houses in my neighborhood are also missing bits and pieces.  Shortly crews of people will arrive in gas powered trucks to fix these problems.  That very process will further heat up the only world we’re capable of living on at the moment, making future weather violence even more inevitable.  We’ll be lucky to get out into the expanse at all.

Wind storm freak you out?  Don’t worry, it’ll be back to business as usual on Monday…

 

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Bending People to the Data

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The idea of data driven learning has become very popular.  This isn’t surprising since data is beginning to drive everything.  It becomes problematic when data is manipulated for ulterior, usually political motives rather than being understood in its own context.

It’s a complex series of events that have led us to this point.  We’re living in an age of data where we are recording much of it for the first time.  We mistakenly describe this as ‘creating information’, but we’ve always done that.  What digitization does is allow us to save that data on a massive scale and then make connections in it we couldn’t before.

We’re not creating any more information than we used to, but we are recording it now at an unprecedented rate.

We’ve been experiencing this information forever.  If I went for a ride on my motorbike in the 1950s I would have experienced roughly the same ‘data’ that I’d experience going for a ride now.  The difference now is that the go-pro on my helmet and youtube means that data is saved and shared.  We’re not creating any more information than we did before, but we’re recording it and allowing others to experience data now on an unprecedented scale.

This mass recording and access to data is a relatively new phenomenon so we should take care to contextualize it, but we don’t.  We recognize that data driven methods yield results, but in our rush to enter this brave new world of data we happily ignore what doesn’t suit our goals and take other data out of context if it serves our cause.  When politics or self-promotion drive data selection the benefits of data driven management are in doubt.  Politics and self-promotion always influence data collection and presentation.

Since it is so much easier to record and share data we’re tempted to structure our activities around data creation rather than being present in the genuine experience.  I suspect we’ll get better at this as technology becomes less invasive and allows us to capture moments with minimal interference.  The evolution from TV to analogue video to digital video is a good example of this progress.  But in the early stages of this evolution we’re still awkwardly focusing on data collection rather than genuine experience.  Selfies at the Tour de France this year are an example.  If you watch any live event where people are focused on recording rather than experiencing the moment you’ll know this is endemic.  From the World Cup to the Olympics, the focus on data collection gets in the way of being there.  This creates some interesting changes in experiential value.  You now need to share the experience live rather than relating it after the fact.  Being there is less important than your recording of being there.  Every experience is one step removed.

Education is no different.  Rather than focusing on ways to capture genuine experience in as non-invasive a way as possible, we create artificial situations that produce data for its own sake; standardized testing is a fine example.  Rather than integrating literacy assessment into genuine experience driven learning, we create an artificial testing environment that is designed to produce data.  Students and the complexities of literacy are minor components in that process.  We then base management decisions on the corrupted data that is produced from these artificial situations.

If data collection is the point of the exercise then the data you’re producing is a reflection of the data collection process more than it is a meaningful analysis of whatever it is you think you’re assessing.

Technology needs to be pushed to produce non-invasive ways of collecting genuine data.  Not only will this allow people to bask in the moment rather than ignoring first hand experience to create second rate data, but it will also serve student learning by focusing on the learning itself instead of the data gathering processes.  

We need to stop bending the people to the data and start demanding that the data find us where we are, in genuine experience.  In the meantime it is vital that we don’t blindly believe that there are absolute truths in data that is produced for its own sake with ulterior motives.

Is Our Only Choice Less?

Doesn’t matter how experienced you are
in unprecedented times…


This reflection might come out as a firehose of frustration, but this year in Ontario’s public education system has been one for the ages.  After a springtime of flat footed confusion nothing seems to have happened in the summer as the government kept moving the goalposts on what school openings would look like.  School boards have been left to scramble.  We start tomorrow and I have no idea how it’s going to go.  Some people are hanging on so tight their fingers are going to break while others have already taken a big step back.  My magic powers are bloody-mindedness and empathy.  I’m not particularly brilliant or erudite, but I can take a hit and always get back up again, and I care, which is good because we’ve been pummelled senseless in the past few weeks by chaos and the attendant system think that has arisen to try and control it.



*****


The metaphors are flying thick and fast this year as we struggle to launch Ontario’s public school system.  Tens of thousands of adults are trying to put new processes in place to protect millions of children after the provincial government offered little in the way of central organization and then played shell games with funding all summer.  Most recently they’ve paused everything else while half finished plans to open public schools continue to roll out.

While the premier mocked our union president for having an English degree the rest of us were doing his job for him: creating a plan that will (hopefully) protect staff and students from an ongoing pandemic we still don’t really understand.  Will it work?  Worldwide school reopenings, especially if they aren’t centrally organized and properly funded, cause large spikes in this easily spreadable contagion.  Some countries have managed it by pooling resources and working with all their partners closely to leverage everything at their disposal.  Partnership and teamwork aren’t something Doug Ford’s government comprehends so we’re attempting to open schools in Ontario in the least successful manner possible.

With the meta-framework of Ontario’s public education system being held hostage by a government intent on privatizing it, it’s a wonder the system works locally it all.  It has certainly struggled.  With the COVID19 pandemic piled on top I can say, hand on heart, that this has been one of the worst years to teach in Ontario in its history, but we persevere because education matters.  The only people telling you otherwise want to use and abuse you.



At the local level setting up for this school year has been like running a marathon where they keep changing the course and making it longer, while handing you bricks to carry; it feels like running a marathon no one wants to see you finish.  I know what I’m being asked to do is for the common good, but at some point (which we may have already passed), so much will be piled on that the basic functionality of the classroom (teaching, remember?) won’t be any better than in remote/elearning.

After six months of lockdown everyone is longing for face to face interaction.  I’m feeling it too, but in the drive to do that we’ve lost the plot.  When we started back we were told not to worry about curriculum and just make sure the kids are OK.  I understand the sentiment but the places that do that are called daycares and I didn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of my life to become qualified to work in day care.  Public education is one of the most powerful human being enhancers we’ve created.  Along with publicly funded healthcare it’s the beacon a society sends out to show that it is enlightened.  When our citizens are healthy and educated our country benefits in every way.  This isn’t anything as shady as economics which thrives on disempowerment and privilege, though health and education powers our economy too.  Strong public services that maximize our citizens’ potential is what civilization means.  All the other things (art, technology, medicine, economics) grow in this fertile soil.  We so often get this backwards.

The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the many social mechanisms that cause inequity and in the past decade Ontario has constantly chased economic gain while cutting the public systems that enable it.  Since 2010 Ontario police have experienced double digit pay raises, they are the only public service to see this kind of funding.  Meanwhile defund the police has become a cry to action during the pandemic because police are the hand of systemic racism and inequality in Canada.

Our board has since relaxed the hangout and chill stance and is encouraging curriculum and skills development but any teacher worth their salt knows how Maslow would feel about this.

Knowing that basic needs have to be met before we go after the higher cognitive functioning needed to learn effectively is probably why people at the board office were pushing for a relationship focused quadmester.  Schools have always tried to fill that gap between how poorly a society treats its disenfranchised citizens and the privilege others benefit from, but COVID19 has widened that breach to such a point that it’s impossible for a headless, underfunded public education system to come close to crossing that bridge in this crisis.  I’m starting to feel that the people in charge want to fill that gap with our bodies.

We’ve been buried in wordy presentations and piles of emails dictating our new normal which isn’t normal at all.  Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it you can expect it to change.  Admin are as exhausted as everyone else as we all madly dance to this insane tune.  While the onslaught of instructions, signs and rules continues from on high I’m actually expected to be face to face with students (but not really, we’re all socially distanced and behind masks) all day every day.  While that’s going on I’m also supposed to be monitoring and running elearning for the other cohort because our board’s solution to massive class sizes was to have every teacher being in two places at once.

There are stories of classrooms stuffed full of students in Ontario this fall during a pandemic.  Since the Ministry left it to each board to decide how they would proceed, each has gone in a different direction.  Each plan has its own benefits and disadvantages based on no central planning and inconsistent funding support.  In our board they’ve cut any class over twenty students into two cohorts.  The students who are bussed come in in the morning and the walking students come in in the afternoon, but while I’m face to face with my half classes I’m also supposed to be providing material and managing elearning for the other half.

This approach has the benefit of not overloading classrooms with bodies and so takes steps to mitigate the health risks we’re all facing, but it has its own problems.  I’m now trying to be in two places at once.  They given me a teacher who was on prep to oversee the online work, but this teacher is unqualified to teach my subject, knows little about it and isn’t expected to do anything tangible.  What it comes down to is make-work because we’re not trusted to help the school function without being over scheduled and micromanaged into the ground.  I understand the impulse as a few people will use not being in class as an excuse to do as little as possible, but the vast majority would be able to fill these gaps much more effectively using their own initiative, as I’ve already seen many teachers do.  But initiative, like differentiation, is dead in our micro-managed pandemic classrooms.

Our prep time was also cut in this format where we’re teaching face to face (kinda) all day, so now another teacher is coming in to cover us while we take our prep, except that teacher isn’t qualified to teach my subject either.  They aren’t even tech qualified so students can’t keep doing hands on work when face to face (which is the whole point of being face to face) unless I let my prep go and just stay in the room, which was what admin suggested our entire tech department do.  So, downloading work onto classroom teachers with no prep time and twice the planning is the solution – it’s actually the answer to every question:  download anything that comes up onto the already crushed classroom teacher.  One of my grade 9 parents won’t provide internet when she isn’t home so her son can’t do elearning even though they have all the tools.  The solution was for me to print out a special course of study for this one student on paper to study computer technology on paper, which he then takes home… during a contact tracing pandemic.  Don’t expect flexibility this semester, but do expect absurdity.  They’ll tell you all decisions are based on reducing the risk of transmission, but that one wasn’t.

This situation raised another point:  because students are only in half days, parents working in essential jobs all day are stuck trying to decide how to make that work.  We’re a high school and we’re all having to grow up quickly in this ongoing crisis, so I’d hope that a high school age student could provide some self direction and work from home, but not in every case.  A system response that honours equity and tries to help those families that need the extra support would be to direct those students in need to a socially distanced resource for the afternoon when they can’t elearn at home, but our spec-ed resource room has been cut and the experts in there are all teaching instead.  It’s important to treat everyone the same in an emergency.  Our split day schedule assumes that all students have connectivity and technology at home – it’s a system predicated on privilege that ignores home circumstances.  While all this is going on we’ve been getting PD about how unfair systemic privilege is.

I had a plan in May, Ontario still doesn’t
really have one in September.

Looking at how messy some of the other reopenings are in the province I think our board has done an exceptional job with no direction and inconsistent funding, but the two hidden mechanisms that make it work are downloading extra work on classroom teachers and assuming privilege in terms of the digital divide.  We took drastic steps to get  technology and connectivity out to students in the spring but that has since been returned (kinda) and that capacity has dried up.  I dreamt that we’d be building capacity and reducing the digital divide over the summer because you would have to be oblivious to this situation to think we won’t be fully remote learning again at some point, but none of that has happened in the chaos of a mismanaged face to face reopening.

We’re unable to climb Maslow’s hierarchy and do our jobs (developing students’ cognitive skills at the top of the pyramid, remember?).  In the case of such a catastrophic failure of Ontario’s political responsibility to its citizens perhaps all that is left to us is to make sure the kids are ok, as long as we’re all happy living in a less literate and numerate future.  Part of this new < normal is ensuring that you as an educator are still functional physically and mentally.  The ECOO Virtual Conference a few weeks ago kept emphasizing this advice which is inline with what you get from an airline when you get on a plane (remember when we used to do that?).


This past week I’ve been putting my lab together solo because students can’t come in to help me as they usually do.  Even my own son, who is well within my bubble, isn’t allowed to come in and help.  The thick blanket of rules we’re buried under are as much about managing liability as they are about medical safety.  I’ve also been running all over the building helping dozens of teachers, including the many new ones, get their rooms sorted and operational from a digital perspective, all with the usual lack of acknowledgement from administration, though they’re sure to thank everyone at the board office who have been busy making two hour powerpoint presentations that are contrary to our inequitable school opening plan.  A lot of that technical support has also included emotional support because my reflex when I see someone drowning in panic is try and help.

A fine example of this over management was to order all teacher desks to the front of the classrooms.  This was done (presumably) to facilitate better management of people coming and going from the room, but since that isn’t happening much and our face to face class sizes are smaller anyway, I have to wonder which curriculum expert who hasn’t been in teaching in a decade made that decision.  The digital projectors in most rooms are plumbed in to where the teacher desk is so this dictate meant that dozens of rooms were suddenly disconnected from a vital teaching resource.

Another baffling choice in the chaos has been to cancel student safety agreements for science and technology classes.  The board has always vigorously demanded absolute compliance with these documents.  When you’re working on dangerous equipment with legally not responsible teenagers with undeveloped frontal lobes that prevent them from forecasting the results of their poor choices, a signed legal agreement with their legally responsible adult parents or guardians puts everyone on the same page in terms of safety expectations.  These are common sense safety expectations, but common sense and teenagers don’t often occupy the same room, so it’s important to have their parents aware of the weight of this responsibility.  It’s also vital for liability.  When a student ignores the agreement they and their parents have signed and an accident results, it produces a better outcome for everyone, except it’s been cancelled during the pandemic because they don’t want us using paper.  Then in our last staff meeting (which is really a litany of what to do with little collegiality or interactivity) we were told that using paper is fine.  Do try to keep up.

I’m usually able to reflect my way out of a negative place with these blog posts, but I’m still in darkness here.  I’m terrified of bringing home a virus that could be fatal to my partner.  I’m worried about my students’ well being and frustrated that climbing Maslow’s hierarchy is simply a bridge too far this year.  I’m also frustrated by the provincial system’s inability to show any vision or organization in helping us succeed in this crisis.  Finally, my own board’s efforts, while exceptional in terms of what else I’ve seen in the province, are inconsistent, undifferentiated and predicated on assumptions about the digital divide that we’ve already shown to be untrue. 

There are glimmers of hope in the chaos.  I’ve seen cunning and cheap solutions to common technology problems that could expand the functionality of our laptops by turning them into document cameras, and I’ve seen local teachers jump on it and make it happen  (I hope to have these churning out next week).

I also keep finding myself in other people’s ewaste that could be turned into remote learning tools, but being buried under two simultaneous classes a day all day, and having one of my senior sections cancelled by our previous principal, I don’t have the time or the senior student expertise to make this happen.  So much could happen if we depended on teacher initiative and expertise instead of spoon feeding them hours of powerpoint and pages of step by step instructions.  I fully expect to be told to sit in a French class next semester to cover someone else’s prep (I don’t parlez the francais).  Such is the resolution everyone is running at, when it runs at all.

Give me a little latitude and I could perform (bigger) miracles, even in this monstrous circus, but latitude and professional trust was the first victim of this pandemic.  Given a minimal budget and some space I could all but resolve the digital divide in our board and prepare us for fully remote learning that seems inevitable, but they’d rather me just follow the plethora of signs.  Whoever is making those signs seems to have infinite resources.

I just got handed this cart of old netbooks that were headed for ewaste.  With a Linux install they would provide dozens of students with remote learning devices they could keep in a pandemic.  With more latitude I’d be picking up #edtech from RCTO’s Computers For Schools and providing desktops and portable devices for staff and students (as I did in the spring and all summer) across the board.  Give me even more latitude and I’d be in touch with Google’s Loon to see if we couldn’t provide local free school internet to all students who attend a school regardless of the urban/rural digital divide.  But initiative and individual responsibility and expertise are atrophied by a panicked system operating in a pandemic.

Alanna’s been channelling Simon Sinek.  Perspective helps:

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Velvet Ropes and Differentiated Access to Schooling in Ontario

As we stagger towards reopening Ontario classrooms, which is something that, quite frankly, I want to see happen, I’m left wondering why a number of obvious things aren’t happening.

In early August we all got a summer cold, but being the pandemic summer that it is we were worried, so we drove twenty miles south to the nearest city and got tested at the nearest COVID test centre that yes, required us to leave our low risk rural area and drive into a city riddled with it.

The testing centre wasn’t busy and was very efficiently run and we were in and out in about fifteen minutes.  Seventy-two hours later we all had piece of mind knowing we were not infected.  Considering how efficient the testing process has become and how important it is to ensure a safe environment, I’m at a loss to explain why no school board in Ontario is testing its face to face educators before we start up again.  Speaking as a parent, it would be a relief to know that all the staff at my son’s school isn’t guessing they don’t have COVID19, they know it.  Our approach to COVID is so low-resolution that its almost blind.  It certainly isn’t cost effective.

What a thing it would be to put out a press release saying all face to face staff have been tested and are COVID19 free prior to classes restarting. This could happen by school site or board wide, but it really should be happening. We’re all walking around school right now wearing masks and afraid of everything. Some piece of mind knowing we have a COVID-free site, even if it’s just in this moment, would be a welcome thing.


A friend who is a chef mentioned that she’s expected to be tested each week.  This is yet another example of how businesses are expected to (and do) comply with public health, but Ontario’s school reopening plan (which has a number of medical experts concerned) seems to go out of its way to ignore the rules that everyone else is complying with.  This virus is a slippery thing that ducks detection with a high number of asymptomatic carriers.  How ignoring the medical directions that everyone else is following to deal with that slipperiness is anything other than political cynicism at its worst is a betrayal of the public trust.  When things go wrong, and the biology suggests it will, I’m sure the weasels running this show will still somehow find a way to make it the teachers’ fault.

This absurd situation is in no way the fault of the school boards.  My own board has done everything it possibly can with no centralized plan, insufficient funding and random changes in direction from our politically misguided Ministry.  If the province wanted to pivot and stop playing political games with staff and students’ lives, aligning Ontario’s school opening plan with what’s happening everywhere is an obvious starting point.  Working with local health units to provide onsite testing at schools would be a great next step.  It would also offer a glimpse into what a more functional COVID19 world might look like in the coming year.

Solutions to viruses in the form of a vaccine don’t arrive with Dustin Hoffman on a helicopter, except in movies.  In the world we actually live in we more often manage viruses with testing and social adaptation.  Our focus on testing has been… poor, but there is hope.  Rapid COVID19 testing is on the horizon and might get to market as soon as October.  What might this look like?  An automated, highly accurate, non-invasive testing system based on spit that provides results in seconds; that’s where the velvet rope comes in.

In my better Ontario we would be opening schools based on need rather than ramming through a poorly executed and underfunded plan that doesn’t even align with other public health rules.  Classes that have to be face to face for liability reasons (I’m thinking technology and physical education specifically), should have priority in f2f classrooms.  The other priority should be students in need.  We should be reopening based on equity needs rather than doing this poorly designed full-court press.  A cautious, differentiated f2f opening means our schools would stay open and the people who need them most would have access to them.

Students who are on the wrong side of the digital divide?  Families who are working in essential services and need schools to normalize?  Subjects that require the safety and expertise of a face to face classroom?  These are where schools should focus their reopening, but Ford’s inequitable government can’t conceive of its responsibilities when it comes to addressing inequity.

Our staged, differentiated, equitable reopening would also include on-site testing which would increase as testing improves.  Ideally, but the end of 2020, we’d have rapid on-site, automated testing at every public school in Ontario.  When we know (not guess) that our schools are COVID19 free, we can relax all of the other expensive and restrictive practices we’re doing poorly, like PPE, social distancing and OCD levels of cleaning, and all students could return to a safe, normalized learning environment.  Our current approach is expensive and not effective because we’re flying blind.

With cheap, effective, accessible testing COVID would stop sneaking around in asymptomatic carriers and spreading like it does.  There might still be COVID19 outbreaks, but they would be quickly recognized and stopped.  Carriers would be isolated and we’d finally have a handle on this thing.  Rapid testing would lead to less transmission and take the wind out of the COVID sails.

After months of flinching everytime someone sneezes, imagine how it would feel knowing your kids were going to school in a COVID-free environment.  Imagine how it would feel going out for dinner knowing everyone in the restaurant is green.  Playing hockey knowing that everyone on the ice was COVID-free?  Life as we once knew it could return and we could start to relax our blind, awkward and expensive social distancing/PPE/OCD cleaning scramble.

I have ten more years of teaching left and I have a number of things I want to achieve before I hang up my boots.  There may be teachers who don’t ever want to go back, but I’m not one of them.  We had a Skills Ontario championships and a pile of travel and learning opportunities taken from us by this lousy virus in 2020 and I want to get back to pushing pedagogy in a rapidly changing technological landscape and showing students that they can achieve things they never imagined.  A staged return focusing on differentiation of learning based on student and curriculum need and then embracing rapid testing as it comes online in the next few months is how we can get there.  What I fear is going to happen instead is that the current plan will cause schools to be shut down and emergency remote learning (which we’ve done nothing to prepare for) will land on us again by Thanksgiving.  And a lot of people will get ill as a result.

We need schools for students and programs that need that infrastructure to succeed, but throwing everyone back into it while ignoring public health requirements is going to cripple public education with another round of school closures and poorly delivered emergency remote learning that we’ve done nothing to resolve digital divide issues with.  A differentiated, staged return with testing anyone?

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#ECOOcampON 2020 Virtual Conference Reflections

ECOOcamp Ontario happened in Peterborough last year and was the usual mix of keen people getting together to improve their technical skills and launch another year of teaching in an avant garde style.  Had you asked anyone there what the summer of 2020’s ECOOcamp would look like, a virtual online conference during a pandemic wouldn’t have been the obvious guess, but ECOO managed to pull off #ECOOcampON, a virtual conference using tech most people hadn’t used before, with astonishing fidelity.

As you’d expect there were technical issues, but what ECOO does a good job of spreading is the idea that teachers can become digitally fluent enough to resolve these problems themselves.  Early on link issues stopped the conference in its tracks, but the tech-savvy educators running the event iterated at high speed through troubleshooting and within twenty minutes everything was back on track again.

Digital fluency has been cast in a stark light this year with Ontario’s sudden move to emergency remote learning, so you’d think that more educators have technical proficiency at front of mind as the first school year in a century kicks off in an ongoing pandemic.  ECOOcampON managed over 500 registrations this summer, which goes to show you just how resilient some Ontario educators can be in trying to get literate teaching in a still new(ish) digital medium, though only 0.3% of teachers attended in Ontario and I’d guess that 70% of them need it.  In a better world this conference would have drawn over one hundred thousand educators looking to raise their digital fluency in order to prepare for the inevitable next round of remote teaching.

What follows are some personal reflections prompted by the event.

Krista Sarginson and I presented on CyberTitan, the Canadian Student Cybersecurity Competition on the first day of the conference.  Krista’s CyberLions rocked a 2nd place finish in the middle school division in her first year coaching in 2019.  I’d been looking for a brave teacher to leap into this and help me advocate for it.  Krista is fierce and fearless and did a great job encouraging other elementary panelists to consider giving it a try.

Secondary teachers tend to be more reticent about participating in things they can’t show intellectual dominance in.  I’m hoping that Krista’s influence engages more elementary Ontario teachers in participating in this competition.  It’s a great way to raise awareness around information security and opens up an entire industry to students who might otherwise have no idea it exists.  It’s a tough year to encourage extracurriculars, but something like CyberTitan could become the basis for a cybersecurity course, which is something Ontario is way behind the curve on.  Here’s our presentation if you’re curious:



The round table discussion that night talked about resilience and how we frame challenges.  This past year seems like almost infinite challenges.  From a vindictive government intent on attacking our profession and diminishing public education to a worldwide pandemic, it’s been a burning dumpster fire of a year for educators in Ontario, with no end in site.  The new mix is the vindictive government using the pandemic to physically threaten staff and students.  It’s not understatement to say that I’ve never seen colleagues so scared and uncertain about teaching in a few weeks.  How can we be in poorly ventilated classrooms that ignore the rules we’ve been told to follow for the past six months and feel safe?  Our doughty premier is frustrated at the response (usually framed as an attack on unions), but no other front line workers are being forced to ignore public health rules in their workplaces.


In this context I found the roundtable discussion difficult to navigate, though they gave it a good try.  One of the speakers was a big fan of nature, but it was a romanticized view of nature where people should just find themselves at their ease in natural surroundings.  That park-setting idea of nature is very much dependent on a manicured and managed environment.  I love being out in nature, but I enjoy it because it’s relentless in its expectations of competence.  Being happy in nature is as simple as not being hungry or cold, or avoiding being eaten.  Few people have been face to face with that kind of nature.



Disney’s romanticized version of nature,
in reality this is a great way to get rabies.
Austin Vince has a documentary on riding into the Sahara Desert called Mondo Sahara.  In it he talks to an off-road expert who has spent a lot of time in the deep desert.  He makes a clear distinction on what your focus should be: always make sure you’re dictating what is happening because the moment the desert is in charge things fall apart quickly.

Survival training was like that too, especially the winter stuff.  Our instructors were insistent on the exhausting job of managing cold and wet to ward off the ever present fear of hypothermia.  Nature isn’t only beautiful, it’s also so immersive and demanding that you can quite easily drown in it.  Most people have never been in a survival situation like that.  Society does everything it can to ensure you don’t have to keep yourself alive in nature, it’ll do it for you – usually while killing nature in the process.  If most people got driven into the wilderness and dropped off they’d be dead in a week.  That is terribly beautiful, but that isn’t how nature was presented.  Being demanding is what makes nature teach resilience, but we try and weed harsh lessons like that out of education wherever we can.

I’ve recently had trouble with how our return to face to face classrooms was being framed.  We were initially told that relationships are all that matter and that we shouldn’t even worry about curriculum.  There is a place where that is the case, it’s a daycare centre, but I didn’t go through the long and difficult task of becoming a teacher so I could provide daycare.  Yet in the greatest social crisis we’ve seen in recent years, instead of focusing on being resilient and holding everyone to higher standards, the reflex is to do whatever it takes to make people more comfortable.  You can learn a lot by being uncomfortable.  A good place to realize that is in nature.

The other side of the roundtable focused on happiness, which is much more complicated because we’re more than happy to destroy nature just to ensure our own short-term comfort, future generations be damned.  If we want to consider nature it’s as a form of entertainment.  Living in nature is nasty, brutish and short, to paraphrase Hobbes, and too much like hard work unless you think nature is pulling your RV into a campground.  Look no further than our response to COVID19 (which is nature at work).  We’ve actually slew footed our own self-serving, cancerous economic system just to keep as many humans alive as we can, yet even during a world wide health emergency we’re still adding the populations of Guelph AND North Bay to the planet every single day, while stopping economies to keep everyone alive for as long as we can.  Everything we do with technology, economics and society are contrary to nature, so holding it up as a solution seems a bit disingenuous.  It doesn’t matter though, nature will sort things out soon enough.  If we’re too stupid and selfish to be on the right side of that it won’t matter because ultimately what we think doesn’t matter.

The happiness side of the discussion was enlightening.  The question of what is happiness is a surprisingly complicated one.  I was chasing it in an online psych course from Yale earlier this year called The Science of Well Being.  For many people happiness is doing as little as possible, but I’m all about agency (your ability to act).  When that is cut away from me I become very frustrated.  The best leaders I’ve had recognise that I’m a self starter who wants to act and provide a framework that directs me into doing what they need to get done.  The vast majority of leaders I’ve had are frustrated by my inability to stand in line waiting to be handed the same work as someone who doesn’t want to do anything at all.  During the pandemic this everyone-do-less approach has been strangling me.  Most of the managers I’ve had in Ontario education are of the lesser variety who want to cookie cutter everyone into undifferentiated jobs.  I’d hoped being a professional in a recognized field would bypass that, but Ontario education is remarkably juvenile in how it directs its employees.

If you’ve ever seen Saving Private Ryan, I’m a Tom Hanks kinda guy: I don’t care if the work’s difficult, but I need the people in charge to recognize that with a bit of latitude I can get things done that others cannot.  Most organizations’ inability to differentiate their duties for employees is why I often have problems with organizational structure.  The people who maintain that structure very much identify their own self worth through it, and I frequently come into conflict with them as a result.  Give me a big, difficult job and the latitude to attack it and that’s happiness for me.  It’s why I’ve never been on a cruise or to an all-inclusive resort, it’s my idea of hell.  That understanding was a great metacognitive reflection that ECOOcampON provided for me at the end of day one.

I attended a number of sessions ranging from equity to media literacy around the credibility of sources, and found them rich and helpful in framing this year’s difficulties, but it was the closing keynote that closed the circle for me.  Daniel Lewis is a successful entrepreneur who struggled in the education system and overcame a number of personal hardships to find success.  He is inspirational by nature, and I enjoyed his relentless positivity, though I’m often cautious with optimism because it can be used to overly simplify a difficult situation.  When someone says, “you got this” in terms of going back to school it feels an attempt to ignore the difficulties.

Daniel didn’t take that approach though.  He emphasized the power of your own thinking; self determination was the underlying message.  Even if you’re in a broken, leaderless system staggering under absurd political machinations, you are still free to think what you want to think.  There is power in that kind of stoicism, especially in tough times.

There was a lot of talk about getting out of the box in terms of thinking without being restricted by the people and systems around you, which aligned well with the keynote’s theme (though it contrasted with the resiliency and happiness roundtable from the beginning).

I’m always cautious around entrepreneurial pep talks.  Business has a way of turning that optimism and relentless enthusiasm into sales.  In this case it was the idea that once you free yourself of the boxes other people have put your thinking in, YOU then get to make the boxes.  I took that to mean for other people.  Why would you want to make a box to limit your own thinking?

Perhaps I’m odd in that I educate to empower, so breaking out of the box aligns with that, but the last thing I’d want people to do with that freedom is start boxing in other people, but that’s society.  I was troubled by the idea that the moment we free our minds we look to use that freedom to enslave others, but maybe that’s just how people work.  Freeing people doesn’t guarantee happiness in any case.


Boxes aside, it was an engaging and uplifting closing keynote to a remarkably resonant ECOO Conference.  We are free in our own minds regardless of how tightly our struggling school system ties us, and there is comfort in that.  If you’re able to free your mind from the fear and uncertainty you can grasp your own agency and get things done.  The pandemic has deeply wounded everyone’s agency, so Daniel’s stoic message resonated well, though I’m still troubled by the reflexive need to box people.


If you bounce over to the ECOOcampON webpage, you’ll find links to all the presentations.  I think they’re also wrangling the recordings of all the presentations together so you can view what you might have missed.  I’ve always found ECOO’s model of teachers directing their own PD to be both engaging and effective.  When I compare it to professional development that’s mandated and thrown at me, this feels much more valuable, but that’s probably because I use my own agency to create and participate in it.  There is a distinctinction in there somewhere around passive and active learning that anyone interested in pedagogy should be considering, especially in a world where a passive-do-nothing approach is now a governmental demand.
***

I”ve been reading a lot of Tao Te Ching this week.  It offers me some perspective when the walls feel like they’re closing in.


Tao is empty (like a bowl). It may be used but its capacity is never exhausted
It is bottomless, perhaps the ancestor of all things.
It blunts its sharpness. It unties its tangles. It softens its light. It becomes one with the dusty world.
Deep and still, it appears to exist forever.
I do not know whose son it is. It seems to have existed before the Lord.

Heaven is eternal and Earth everlasting.
They can be eternal and everlasting because they do not exist for themselves, And for this reason can exist forever.
Therefore the sage places himself in the background but finds himself in the foreground.
He puts himself away, and yet he always remains.
Is it not because he has no personal interests? This is the reason why his personal interests are fulfilled.

To hold and fill a cup to overflowing Is not as good as to stop in time.
Sharpen a sword edge to its very sharpest, And the (edge) will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall, You will not be able to keep them.
To be proud with honour and wealth Is to cause one’s own downfall.
withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven’s Way.

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Stretched Thin

Originally published pre-pandemic in March of 2019 on Dusty World:  temkblog.blogspot.com/2019/03/stretched-thin.html

I need to reflect my way out of a dark corner.  Yesterday I got some surprise PD on students I have with profound hearing loss.  The PD was quality.  The person presenting it was not only very knowledgeable, but she was also wearing two cochlear implants, so could speak from experience.  By the end of it we had a very tangible idea of just how difficult and exhausting it is for hearing impaired students to function in a standard classroom, and yet a standard classroom is where we expect them to thrive.


How do we expect them to thrive?  By depending on the teacher to differentiate instruction, use technology and modify their lesson delivery to reach those students.  Why that?  Because any other alternative is much more expensive and downloading onto teachers is the default approach to any problem from a cost-effectiveness point of view (that’s the dark corner talking).


Empathy is my superpower when it comes to teaching.  It’s a reflex I can’t stop, but it’s also exhausting me.  By the end of that PD I was emotional about the difficulties these HH students experience all day every day and wanted to do all I could to help, but I’m not sure how much of me there is left to do it.


In a capped-at-27 students open technology class where we are working hands on with 400° soldering irons, sharp edges and live electricity, I have two students who are hard of hearing to such a degree that we are legally required to address it.  I have 9 students, or a third of the class, who have learning impairments ranging from autism to ADHD that I’m legally required to address individually.  The entire class is also in the throes of puberty.  As an open class it contains students who range from gifted/academic and on track to becoming engineers to essential students who are functionally illiterate.  Some students are living in luxury and are about to take a three week March Break on holiday (I’m supposed to plan for that too), while others aren’t getting fed before coming to school in the morning.  I’m supposed to engage all 27 of them equally and consistently no matter where they are using differentiation while also ensuring their safety.  Feel overwhelmed yet?  I do.  And that’s just one class of three.  The other two have similar expectations around size and diversity.

A long time ago now in Teacher’s College we did a day on assistive technology and I couldn’t help but think that this technology would help everyone learn more effectively regardless of where they were.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching technology is for how it can functionally improve us.  People who use technology to waste time and distract have missed a golden opportunity in my eyes.


At our HH PD the instructor ended with this cartoon.  It speaks to that feeling I had years ago at the assistive tech day.  The sound-field system that I now have not only assists my HH students, but also my students who have signal processing problems with background noise.  If everyone can hear better, everyone will learn better.  It also saves my battered vocal cords, which is no bad thing.  It begs the question, why we don’t have sound field systems in every classroom?  But we all know the answer to that, don’t we.


In the PD it was also suggested that we have acoustically effective rooms by covering walls and floors with soft surfaces that don’t create hard, echoey soundscapes.  It was suggested that we bring in carpets and wall hangings, but based on health and safety responses to other brought in furniture, I doubt that would be allowed.  Having soft materials on the concrete blocks and industrial linoleum floors of our classroom would be great, but I doubt money exists for any of that.  It sure would be nice to work in a typical office environment, but we’re not that lucky.  Plastic floors, plastic chairs and cinder block walls are where learning happens in Ontario.


We were also encouraged to remove ambient noise as it has a deleterious effect on signal processing and requires everyone to be louder to overcome it.  That increased volume wears out voices and ears and makes for a less effective learning environment.  That’s why lawyers, bankers and politicians all have nice carpets and soft walls in their offices.


There is a lot of ambient noise in our computer technology shop.  We happen to be next to the heat exchanger in my relatively new school,, so when the HVAC system spins up background noise thrumming out of the ceiling  jumps by 15 decibels.  The 30+ fan cooled PCs in our lab add to the din, as to the dozens of adolescents sitting at them.  A typical student needs a 5-10 decibel volume bump to clearly understand instruction.  Hard of hearing students need even more.  How do we make quieter learning environments?  By not building schools as cheaply as we can, but that isn’t going to stop.  Well it is, because we’re just going to stop building schools.


So, rather than provide technology and acoustically healthy environments in reasonably sized classes for everyone, including HH students, to more effectively learn, the answer is to download the problem on teachers.  At least then it can be said that we’re doing something about it.  That’s assuming things stay as they are, but they won’t.


All this is happening in an environment of anxious uncertainty.  The general feeling is that Ontario education will be cut to the bone and what we’re expected to do will only become more absurd in the next few months.  It isn’t just in education either.  As the new Ontario cuts programs to support children with special needs, guess who will pick up the slack on that?  Yep, the education system, and it’ll be expected to do it with less.  Fortunately they have a free escape valve, just ask teachers to do more with less, probably for less.


There are numerous places we could find efficiencies in education in Ontario, but thanks to trickle down economics you can bet that the majority of those cuts will land on frontline classroom teachers and negatively impact student experience.  Those higher up the food chain will make sure their jobs are secure.  The Heinlein Starship Troopers part of me wishes we ran things like the mobile infantry: everyone drops, everyone is on the front line.  Too many people find ways out of teaching and yet get paid more for it.  In my efficient Ontario education system everyone keeps a toe in the classroom and teaches.  No one gets to opt out into a support role with zero instructional responsibility.


I get a lot of satisfaction out of my job and have no wish to leave the classroom.  Launching my students into meaningful careers in much-needed ICT roles from workplace to university streams isn’t easy but it is a real thrill.  It’s important work for Canada’s future and I want to keep doing it.  All I ask is that we be supported in that effort and not have the system punish us for its own shortcomings.  What got me down about this PD was that it boiled down to yet another level of differentiation I’m expected to deliver with little or no support.  That the system thinks this somehow resolves the problem is really aggravating; these kids deserve better.

I don’t only cater to easy to teach academics (though my classroom is capped the same way) and want to see my full spectrum of students find success, that includes special needs students like my HH kids.  My goal is to maximize their learning and help them find their best selves.  Because we’re working in ICT I hope this means they will find satisfying and challenging careers that will enable them to support themselves and their families in a very changeable future.

With all that in mind, I’m already stretched thin trying to teach with and around various special needs in a hands-on technology environment that is designed around thrift and the biggest caps in the province rather than effective learning.  That we’re as good as we are now (and that’s in national competition) in spite of all that is great, but the thought of things only getting worse is wearing me down.  If we’re going to up the ante to 35+ students and cut budgets so that we can pay for increased housing allowances and make new jobs at EQAO, I’m going to have to start putting the things down that I don’t get paid for in order to manage a punishing work load designed with generic production lines in mind.


Lowering my efficiency and not pushing us all to be our best in an emerging industry is the last thing I want to do, but needs must.  That HH PD on Friday only underlined for me how complex and multifaceted what I do is.  All I want to do is try and fulfill that difficult role as well as I possibly can, but I can’t do it if the system is intent on being less for less.


If what’s got me down are the dark headlines and ominous future of Ontario education, then I’m falling into the old trap that J.K. warns of.  What I should be doing is what I’ve always done, make best use of what I’ve got and try and reach as many students as I can.  Thanks to Friday’s PD I now have some tech in my room that should help me do that.  On Monday I’ll be speaking a bit softer but being heard better.  I’ll deal with what happens later this year when it happens.

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Pandemic Reflections: F2F Has Way Better Bandwidth

I’m a teacher with a lot of technical expertise.  I don’t just teach effectively with digital technology, I teach the subject itself.  Fifteen years working in information technology in roles ranging from systems implementation to technical support and training are what led me into teaching the subject.  When I began teaching in 2004 elearning was beginning to evolve out of distance (ie: mail order paper based) material.  I jumped on it the summer after I started teaching at Peel DSB.  At that point elearning was a very loose HTML webpage where you had to write code to display the content properly.  I had some very interesting experiences teaching senior, university bound English on that system.  When I moved to my current board I volunteered for their pilot elearning program and taught a variety of elearning courses purely online, and then did a blended face to face introduction to elearning while teaching the mandatory career studies course.  One of the best things to come out of that project was that all of those students had a very clear idea of whether or not elearning would work for them.  A third of the class never wanted to see it again, and the correlation between students with IEPs and students who had trouble with elearning was nearly 100%.


All that to say, I’ve spent a great deal of my career exploring how digital technologies might augment our teaching, but I’m also well aware of the shortfalls.

The recent pandemic shutdown has driven a lot of teachers and students online, and the framing by our Ministry early on was very elearning focused, but a colleague in our first ever staff video conference said something that resonated for me:  this isn’t elearning, it’s isn’t business as usual, this is emergency response remote learning – we’re not ‘going online’ we doing everything we can to keep education alive at a time when it’s too easily dismissed.  This might sound like an arbitrary distinction, but it isn’t.  Not everyone needs to go online, and in many cases (as in the 2011 career studies experiment above), we have a sizable portion of our student population who cannot learn effectively in that space.  When you also toss in the inequity of online learning, it leaves option looking like a very poor go-to.  As educators, whenever we see the system roll out an undifferentiated, blanket response to an issue (like EQAO), we should take a hard pedagogical look at it.  Uniform responses that don’t honour our student (and teacher’s) individual approaches to learning and teaching are, by definition, unresponsive and ineffective. 

Since the school closures happened, I’ve been very conscious of the economically disadvantaged students who have been cut off at home.  This may very well be a home that isn’t safe, isn’t providing adequate care and isn’t where the student wants to spend their time.  The “stay at home” message that started this off is couched in privilege.  For many students home isn’t a nice word.  I’ve been frustrated by the lack of initiative shown in this crisis, but the digital divide many of our students face was something we could have addressed before, but didn’t.  Some leaders are now using that lack of equity as an excuse to do nothing, which strikes me as the worst kind of hypocrisy.  If we messed it up before, we’re messing it up now for even more people because what we didn’t do before is an excuse to do nothing now?  Wow.

I’m also staggered that there is evidently no one in the largest school system in the country who is responsible for emergency response planning.  We seem to be making it up as we go and delivering planning by press conference, and we’ve already lost three weeks to plan something that should have been in place from the go.  You know what’s harder than teaching remotely?  Teaching remotely using constantly changing expectations.

So here we are, in a pandemic situation that people have been warning is coming for years.  Our solution is to throw elearning at it, and (so far, 3 weeks in) do nothing to address the fact that thousands of Ontario students don’t have the devices at home and/or the internet connectivity to access it – and those are the students who most needed education to support them from the beginning.

There is a reason why we truck in students on diesel fume spewing school buses each day to a face to face learning environment; public education is the great equalizer.  More than anything else it helps us find the best in our population and enable them to achieve beyond the socio-economic situation they find themselves in.  For wealthy students school can feel like a step down from a life of choice and excess, but for others it is a bastion of reliability; the only time in their day when they’re talking to dependable, capable adults.  For some it’s the only time when they aren’t hungry, and our solution in an emergency situation that demands isolation is to ignore them?

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/computer-skill-levels/
Level 3 means you can take a time and date out of an email
and put it in an online calendar, this isn’t rocket science,
and yet most people aren’t even there.

Let’s say we get the digital divide under control and manage to get everyone connected (we haven’t and we wont’, but let’s imagine we did).  Now that we have everyone online and using an appropriate device, we need the majority to leverage digital skills they haven’t developed and get them learning remotely.  Ontario doesn’t have a digital skills continuum, other than some vague language dropped into other subjects here and there, yet we were increasingly expecting students and teachers to use digital tools in school and now they have suddenly become a necessity.  I teach computer technology and have a well developed program, but I only reach about 100 students out of the 1300 in our school.  If you count the business tech courses and media arts that also build digital fluency, all together we’d be lucky to reach a quarter of our student population, the rest have basic, habitual digital experience – like most of the population.  What we’re doing with elearning is akin to handing out books to illiterate people so they can learn at home with them.


Could elearning work?  It has in my experience, and I’m seeing some of my very digitally fluent seniors doing outstanding work online now.  I’ve had some very positive elearning teaching experiences where we leveraged technology and created a remote learning environment that was rich and responsive.  When it’s happened it was with a digitally focused and experienced teacher and voluntary students who also had the resilience and technical expertise to make it happen.  When you teach online it feels like you’re looking at your students through a wrong-way-around telescope.  I described this recently in terms of bandwidth.  When you’re face to face with someone you’re able to read their body language in fine detail.  The tone of their voice isn’t a dimensionless thing coming out of a tiny computer speaker, but it doesn’t end there.  I’ve had students with obvious (when face to face) hygiene issues that I’m able to notice and subtly address by getting our councillors involved.  I’m able to leverage the fantastic food school resources our school offers to get hungry students fed when we’re face to face.  I’m able to overhear student conversation in class that gives me the context I need to connect with them more effectively.  I’m able to present body language and nuance of voice that develops trust and a human relationship.  I’m able to differentiate instruction with students quickly and effectively while face to face.  I’m able to close the digital divide for all my students when they enter my lab.  There is a reason we learn best face to face, it has way better bandwidth than any digital option.  Even if you and your students are digital ninjas, remote/online learning is always going to be a lower bandwidth, less effective option that face to face learning.

In a perfect world we’d develop our staff and student’s digital fluency and engage in augmented 21st Century learning using digital tools and connectivity to enhance our ability to collaborate and communicate (and be ready for bizarre emergencies like this one), but it makes for a poor replacement; educational technology for augmentation is a worthy pedagogical goal.  Educational digital technology replacing face to face learning isn’t pedagogically motivated, it’s usually tied to scalability and the resultant monetization of a platform, usually with an eye to reducing costs.  The elearning push by Ontario’s current government was entirely focused on this without any thought given to the digital divide, dearth of digital skills and pedagogically reductive nature of remote elearning.

This pandemic has shone a harsh light on the inadequacies of our system in terms of emergency response and digital skills training, as well as highlighting the ongoing digital divide.  A good that might come of it is that we begin to address all of these issues and build a more resilient and effective education system that is able to take initiative and respond to an emergency situation without taking a month to think about it.

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Education Will Never Become What It Should Be Until It Is Freed From Politics

Education is a leaky, old boat.  It limps forward, year after year, attempting to do a difficult thing: raise everyone who darkens its doors toward their intellectual potential.  It does this with as few resources as it possibly can.  Students in the system span the full range of human society, from future astronauts and doctors to serial killers and drug addicts.  With the same simplistic, systemic process, education attempts to meet each of them where they are, which can range from years ahead of the curve with loving support from parents, to intellectually challenged and abused children who don’t know what a safe home is.  Those two students often wind up in the same class.

To further complicate things, education is run by politicians.  These are people whose first inclination is to ensure their own re-election, regardless of how cruel they need to be to satisfy their angry, ignorant, myopic supporters.  The education system knows nothing of long term planning or sustainability, which is why it struggles to keep up with societal shifts such as the evolution of technology.  Depending on the vagaries of Canada’s outdated first past the post system, a small minority of Canadians can vote in a ‘majority’ government that has four years of free reign with no checks or balances.  Plans and programs can disappear in a single election cycle to be replaced by whatever self-serving project the sitting government decides suits it.  The Ministry of Education isn’t really about education, it’s about governments exercising unchecked power.

The rubber hits the road in the classroom where teachers attempt to ply their trade under seemingly random changes of management.  As a teacher your goal isn’t to cherry-pick the best students and forget the rest, as in business, though that is what many teachers fall back on due to a lack of training or support in our changeable system.  The true goal of public education is to have everyone finish their year better than they started it.  That alone would be a difficult ask, but in the lost world of public education teachers also have to force students with a wide range of socio-economic and developmental disparities through standardized testing that demands all students of a certain age, regardless of their personal circumstances, perform similarly in reading and mathematics.  Privilege is systemically rewarded in public education.

A worthy long term pedagogical goal would be to ensure every student ends the year better intellectually equipped than they began it, and a viable graduation requirement would be for every student to have attained a proximity to their own specific developmental potential, but none of this is the case.  Grades are a fiction designed to compare students to an average that doesn’t exist.  If every graduate was operating close to their specific potential, society would benefit greatly and we wouldn’t wound students by educating them as we do.  Instead, as in society at large, the education system rewards privilege and exacerbates social inequities on a massive and meaningless scale.  No wonder so many students and the adults they become hate the education system, but in fairness, our education system is merely a reflection of the shittiest aspects of our society.

At times of stress, such as during a pandemic, education’s low resolution, stigmatizing approach to learning is cast into a clear focus.  When suddenly asked to learn from home, it becomes apparent that many children don’t live in home that can or does focus on maximizing their potential.  The most obvious examples are socio-economic in nature.  You can’t be a student in a home where you have neither the space nor the resources to use the digital tools needed to continue your learning remotely, but these students never had these means of enrichment, though they’re expected to be fluent in them.  Academic students go home to stable, literate and enriched home lives, applied and essential students go home to intellectual deserts.  This isn’t always socio-economically driven.  A student can be just as intellectually impoverished when their parents decide to buy them game systems and toys instead of multi-purpose computers and other tools capable of something other than mindless entertainment.

The stigmatizing nature of our education system also produces its worst outcome: school is something that is done to students against their will.  They are passive victims of their own education – a dehumanizing process that they are dragged through unwilling and something they come to despise as a great injustice in their lives.  When an emergency prompts remote learning, this culture sees students walking away in droves the moment the Minister of Education tells them marks don’t matter any more.  Marks never mattered.  These same children, disenfranchised from their own potential, grow up to vote in anti-education politicians who gleefully eviscerate the system further, usually by instituting punitive standardized testing that moves education ever further from its primary duty of helping everyone attain their potential.

Our society is broken in so many ways, and our education systems reflect that dysfunction.  Individual pedagogical needs are subsumed by systemic processes driven by the punitive aggregation of individuals into dehumanized, simplistic levels.  The system divides children into Brave New Worlds of academic, applied and essential levels of learning based as much how a child’s social circumstances have influenced their intellectual output as what they are actually capable of.  If you don’t have to work thirty hours a week to help your single parent keep a roof over your head, you have much more time to put a shine on your school work and enter the rarified academic stream.  That also happens to be the stream that the instructor at the front of the class wants to teach.

Imagine an education system that is considered an essential service and exists to meet a rigorous set of requirements based on scientifically demanding best pedagogical practices.  This system exists beyond the reach of callous politicians and the angry, bitter people who put them in power.  Its only function is to raise everyone in it year over year and graduate them as close to their human potential as possible.  This imaginary system does this as safely and progressively as it possibly can.  It embraces change and works continually to develop the science of pedagogy.  Adults working in the system are held to the highest standards and success in it takes more a privileged home life.  Imagine an education system blind to privilege that can see a student’s potential clearly, wouldn’t that be something?

By refocusing on individual student needs this imaginary education system would radically differentiate itself.  The idea of a ‘standard’ classroom would fade away to be replaced by responsive learning spaces that can adapt to individual learning needs.  Engagement would play a role in this, but it wouldn’t be the cart-before-the-horse that it is now.  Education would come into a high resolution relationship with each student.  Standardized testing might also play a role, but only insofar as it helps direct system efficacy, never as a punitive outcome for the students taking it, or the teachers who have to administer it.  Imagine testing that helps a compassionate system recognize the need for more support in a low-literacy neighborhood instead of one that just lowers real estate values.

The backwards class size arguments made by people who know nothing of the science of instruction would also disappear in this system.  There are class sizes that produce optimal learning outcomes.  That is how big classes would be.  In a class where a number of students have learning challenges, the class size would be smaller.  In a class full of capable senior students, classes would be bigger.  The idea of a simplistic cap that ignores who is in the room would no longer exist.

Graduation would fall out of its yearly lock-step.  Instead of low-resolution grading and group assessments leading to a fictionalized grades, students would be required to individually demonstrate mastery and would then move on individually.  Students may still find themselves in loosely grouped cohorts by age, but their learning is individually analyzed and advancement is based on mastery rather than the year they were born.  In this way some students might graduate high school when they are fifteen, while others may do it when they are twenty.  The stigma we apply to age and grade would fade away in a system when individual student mastery was what defined advancement.

This fictitious education system as an essential service would be lean.  Its main focus would be on student learning.  Positions in the system that did not directly support differentiation and personalization of learning would be rare and only filled by peer reviewed experts.  The moment such a position had met its goals it would release the teacher back into teaching.  People who didn’t want to focus on teaching wouldn’t exist in this lean system.  The current bureaucracy in education that insulated privileged people from the harshness of the classroom would blow away. In Canada’s essential education service everyone is in immediate proximity to teaching.  Non-teachers are hired to manage administrative details, but these specialists have no financial or administrative control over pedagogical decision making.

Massive secondary education factories would give way to smaller radically localized schools that embrace immediate community connections.  The walls of schools would be much more permeable than they are now and the concept of school would seep out into community centres, old age homes and local businesses.  Students would work with peers of different ages and these localized schools would be connectivity hubs for their areas, providing digital literacy to both students and the community at large.  The majority of students would walk to these localized digital school houses rather than being herded on busses to age specific, remote locations.  Canada’s education service would also be a green revolution with a radically reduced school busing system no longer spewing diesel and making our roads less efficient in order to benefit an antiquated, age based school system.

Virtualization means that some teachers would spend the majority of their time providing their expertise through specialized instruction to a wider audience in cyberspace.  Augmented and virtual reality would have students and teachers meeting in immersive, meaningful ways not based on geographic proximity.  Advanced experiential simulations would offer students learning opportunities that today’s analogue, geographically limited systems can only dream of.  Rapid development of these systems and home connectivity provided by radically localized schooling means that remote teaching in a pandemic isn’t a disaster but an opportunity for enrichment.  In such a culture of learning, students and teachers wouldn’t find reasons not to learn and teach during a crisis.

The various bureaucracies that have attached themselves to the current school system in order to defend it from politics would fade away in a this essential service that self organizes around individual learning needs and instructional effectiveness.  As geographic groupings became less relevant and the benefits of wider networks of distributed expertise came into focus, the service would have an increasingly wider focus, eventually eclipsing national boundaries.  At some point in the distant future, a student in Ethiopia would be able to participate in a virtual class happening in Ontario, Canada, all of them operating under the same best pedagogical practices.  Education would finally become the great enabler in an interconnected world.

Until public education is unhitched from our increasingly myopic and self-serving political system and placed in a protected category of an essential service focused on maximizing individual potential, it will continue limp along as a broken reflection of a society in distress, augmenting societal inequalities rather than mitigating them and graduating generation after generation alienated from their own potential.

Ewan McGregor
Ewan McGregor after visiting a school in Ethiopia on Long Way Down.  In places where education is still recognized as the opportunity it is instead of an expected government service that aggrevates privilege, students approach learning in a very different manner.

NOTES

The UN describes education as enabling “upward socioeconomic mobility and is a key to escaping poverty”, but it’s the first thing cut to support ‘financial experts’ intentionally destroying the economy in western democracies.

Schools are poorly maintained on radically cut budgets, and classrooms limp along on equally eviscerated budgets (my program is enjoying a budget one-third of what it was five years ago, while trying to serve 25% more students).  

Ontario pays less than the Canadian average per student in public education, while also running the largest and most diverse (Ontario takes in as many new Canadians as the rest of the country combined) education system in Canada.  Canada itself pays significantly less tax per person than any other G7 country for education and other government services, but produces some of the highest education results in UN testing, beating all those other G7 countries that pay more for less.  And still, education is a political scapegoat.

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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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