Binary Thinking

More notes from Phoenix, along with some editorializing:

Education is an analogue, non-linear, complex, biological process because we are non-linear, complex, biological organisms.  Data and the technology that produces it are none of those things.  Data might point to a vanishingly small piece of this complex puzzle, but it will never explain, justify or encompass education, no matter what vested interests might tell you.

We are such chameleons. The dominant thinking of our time actually changes how we see ourselves. When the social norm was religiously defined we saw ourselves as angels and demons. When industrialization occurred we described ourselves in terms of the machines we were creating. In the information age we define ourselves in terms of digital data. It’s important to remember that we are none of these things, but rather the creator of all of them, and therefor greater than them all.

Digital technology is turning our thinking binary.  How do you feel today? A) good B) bad By participating in this data gathering process you have reduced your complex mental state to an absurdity.  Every question is reductive, every piece of data a feathery abstraction of a deeper, more complex meaning. Every time education acts on this reductive logic it becomes less a form of human expression and more an act of compliance with digitally limited technology. There is a branch of thinking that suggests that this is simply because technology hasn’t become fast and vast enough to manage the data, but even at its best digital technology will always be limited to how it works. Even at near infinite speeds with infinite amounts of data you’re still reducing reality to ones and zeroes, which it isn’t.

If digital technology forces reductive binary thinking then any cost savings realized from it will come at the cost of our ability to express ourselves in all the ways that we can.
 
This is a transitional thought, it led to this line of thinking:
Rigour doesn’t exist in data or the statistics derived from it, rigour exists at the limits of human expression. It is never dictated by the limits of hardware or software.

What do I mean by rigour? Thorough and careful – digital data is neither. It is accurate, but only in a very specific sense. We take that fine accuracy and direct it at a far larger array of cause and effect than it could possibly represent, mainly because recognizing the limits of data doesn’t suit the people peddling it. Statistics never encompass the truths they claim to.

Mastery is the result of genuine experience. No one ever gained mastery from taking a test.

If genuine experience is what drives leaning, why do we keep inventing abstractions like testing to drive it?

The answer to that one is obvious: it’s cheaper and easier to manage if we grossly simplify learning to the point of abstraction. Of course, that kind of hypocrisy and self-serving nonsense provokes awkward questions:

If learning is for the learner, why do we do most of what we do in education for everyone else involved?  Is education motivated by politics or pedagogy?
The easiest most self-serving way for ‘educators’ to dehumanize students is by reducing them to data. This becomes more self-evident when you realize that most data collected from education is focused on the system rather than improving student learning.

The Politics of Pandemics: Quadmestering Schedules

A smart friend this past summer described last year as being a lobster in a pot as the temperature was slowly turned up to boiling.  It’s a good metaphor – I didn’t realize I was in the boiling water until it was too late.  This year I’m making a conscious attempt to understand my circumstances so I don’t end up in that boiling pot again…

***

Last year’s last minute emergency schedule was a mess.  With little central planning or leadership from the Ministry, school boards had to cobble together a pandemic compliant quadmestered schedule and the end result made for radically inequitable work expectations.  For some it was an easy year of half-day instruction with afternoons at home.  I wasn’t so lucky, teaching over twice the face to face instructional hours of some colleagues while also simultaneously having to cover twice the online instruction because my school couldn’t provide qualified support.

I ended up throwing myself into the gaps in that cobbled together schedule last year to the point where I hurt myself and my family.  That isn’t happening this year.  Alanna had a colleague who said, “this year my extracurriculars are going to be me!” in reference to being run into the ground in order to keep our politically sabotaged public education system running.  That sense of self-care is prevalent in a lot of teachers I follow:

What was most difficult last year (other than the constant switches to fully remote learning because safety precautions in schools obviously weren’t working) was trying to teach a 110 hour course in 52.5 hours of instructional time.  The expectation that students would work on the other half of the course remotely was more of a daydream than a reality, especially in my case where I never once had a face to face relief or online instructor qualified in or with any experience in my subject area.  This had me producing 5 hours of daily instruction while simultaneously trying to cover face to face and remote student needs.  My principal has moved mountains this year to resolve that inequity and I intend to lean on that support.

Teaching in class is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this gig.  Prepping for class is a big part of the workload and then assessing and marking student efforts is on the backend, so when I’m buried in instructional hours I’m also buried in additional prep and marking.  In a typical school year I’m responsible for three seventy-five minute instructional periods.  This means I’m teaching for 225 minutes (or just under four hours) per day.  Because I teach technology, much of my prep involves preparing electronics, computers and software in our lab for students to use.  Sometimes I can streamline this process (which is good because I also get on-calls where I covering another absent teacher’s class), but I typically spend about thirty minutes prepping for each instructional period.  This gets me up to about 315 minutes of focused work each day (that’s just over five hours).

A five hour work day?  Must be nice, right?  Well, you’re forgetting the marking and you’re also forgetting that a teacher’s work day doesn’t end at me instructing my own classes.  There are duties which can range from covering other absent teachers classes (this can be if they’re sick but also if they’re away coaching a team or taking a class on a field trip).  There are also lunch duties and other extracurricular expectations that take up hours in the day.  What the regular schedule allows for is teachers covering each other off and enabling a rich ecosystem of additional learning opportunities for students.  There are very few teachers in my building who aren’t coaching teams, running committees ranging from graduation planning to career pathways and curriculum development, or managing school productions, clubs or other enrichment.  With all that piled on your typical teacher is at school from 8am to 4pm and then working on it outside of time at school too.

The good news about this year’s adjusted schedule is that we’re no longer pretending that cohorted hybrid classes are sustainable or credible.  Face to face instructional hours have been restored to something like normal but in order to do that our workplace (and our union) has demanded a radical increase in teacher productivity – during a pandemic where everyone is exhausted and more likely to be away ill themselves.  In order to make this condensed schedule work the contract was scrutinized and every possible moment of instructional time possible was stuffed in.  This timetable not only buries teachers under increased instructional workloads, it also thrusts students into marathon two-and-a-half-hour classes while removing any capacity for absenteeism or enrichment, which is contrary to what the Minister of Education said would happen in the summer.

We’re still quadmestered, though why we are is a bit confusing.  The argument is that there is less mixing of students in a quadmestered schedule, but this is a shell game in terms of student mixing and it isn’t true for teachers at all.  In a regular semester I’d be mixing with three classes of students every day.  In our current system I’m face to face with two classes in quadmester one and three classes in quadmester two – so the solution is to put me in front of more students during a pandemic?  And my union agrees?  My dues are too busy being focused on provincial political careers for me to expect support, I guess.

In the case of students, they might only have two instead of three classes per semester but they are also being encouraged to leave at lunch because we don’t have the capacity to seat them all in class cohorts in the building, so any concept of cohorting students to reduce transmission evaporates at lunch time.  Even if they stay in the school to eat they are doing it unmasked in large rooms full of other unmasked people.  Even before they get to school, 80% of our students arrive on school buses with up to 37 students shoulder to shoulder on board.  In that environment there is little adult oversight (the adult on the bus is driving the thing), so masking compliance will be minimal.  If students aren’t being cohorted at all other than in their classrooms, why run quadmesters with onerous productivity demands for teachers and untenable (and pedagogically questionable) marathon two and a half hour classes for students?

Why we’re not back in a regular schedule is beyond me.  It would reduce workloads for teachers, enable the promised extracurriculars and give students that sense of normalcy that everyone keeps saying is so important.  With busing and unsupervised lunches off-site in the plan, we aren’t strictly cohorting students when they’re at school anyway.  This incoherent and absurdist COVID theatre is what I’m finding most draining about the pandemic.  We have absolute rules designed to protect everyone at all costs at certain times of the day and then do things that directly contradict them when we run out of capacity.  You don’t dare contradict the rules unless you’re the one making them.  And all this in a schedule designed to offer no overhead in terms of absenteeism or extracurricular capacity.  That my union is silent on this is something I’m finding increasingly impossible to forgive.

When we first got our new schedule (last week, a week before school started because once again we were given no central direction or support from the provincial government – actually it was all just cuts this summer), I was immediately concerned about how this year had been pieced together.  Our contract is based on a semestered system, so 225 minute instructional days are written in, but because this is written for semesters it doesn’t recognize the imbalances implicit in a quadmestered system.  In my first quad I’m responsible for 2 x 2.5 hour classes – that’s four regular periods of prep and assessment or a 25% bump in my workload.  They get around exceeding the contract’s time limits by dropping other teachers into my classes and giving me a 37.5 minute prep time in each 2.5 hour class period.  When I finally get out of the always on quadmester I’m thrust into a coverage quadmester where I’m still having to prepare 2 x 75 minutes of instruction but I’m also expected to cover two other teacher’s classes so they can get prep time.  I’m also supposed to cover unmasked students from many classes eating lunches.  There is a limit to how many coverages I can do in our contract but to get around that they’ve decided that the coverages we’re doing aren’t going to be called coverages and don’t count as such.  The words in our contract literally don’t mean anything any more and no language around quadmestering has been added even though we’re in our second year of them.

My preps are now cut to confetti and reduced to 37.5 minute blocks covered by another teacher.  I also won’t have access to my classroom to prepare equipment because students are already in it with another teacher, so my physical prep will have to happen outside of school hours.  My admin has done backflips to provide qualified support but we computer technology qualified teachers are thin on the ground.  I’m working with a new teacher in my department but he hasn’t finished the senior qualifications for comp-tech yet so he’s not qualified to cover and my afternoon class has a business teacher covering, so despite best efforts I still don’t have qualified coverage.  On top of that, the schedule is so tight that there is no travel time for covering teachers doing these extra duties (but we’re not going to call it extra duties and instead we’ll use quadmestering as a means of ramping up work expectations), so my prep times will never be 37.5 minutes anyway.  When you stuff everything to capacity in a tight schedule leaks are inevitable, but don’t worry, teachers will just jump into the gaps again even after already being pressurized systemically.

This always on schedule means there is no time for extracurriculars, or sports, or field trips or anything other than always on teaching.  And don’t get sick and be away… during a pandemic.  I can’t help but think this schedule is built on the assumption that we’ll all be fully remote again.  If that sounds impossible, do a bit of research on Delta Variant“the Delta variant is more transmissible than the MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu, and smallpox viruses and is as contagious as chickenpox…  74% of infections with Delta took place during the pre-symptomatic phase, which means people spread the virus before knowing they are infected”   We’re still doing daily screening even though Delta works around it because we’re still clinging to the systems we developed last year to fight an entirely different COVID19.  More alarmingly, the provincial government has downgraded all masks for staff to level one ASTM and cut extra cleaning, so we’re not even fighting spread as well as we did last year – against a variant that spreads significantly more efficiently.  Maybe overloading the schedule with the expectation of going remote (again, more than any other province in the country) is just the sort of cynicism we should all get used to.  I don’t have time for cynicism as I’m more interested in not bringing home a pandemic to my medically compromised partner.

It was suggested to me that we can’t back out of quadmesters now because they align with the in-again out-again needs of elearning students who might want to move between courses presented remotely and face to face as it suits them.  You can’t do that in a semestered system but cut the schedule to confetti and you can have people dropping in and out of elearning as you like.  Sure, learning for everyone suffers, but quadmestering helps make mandatory elearning the new normal.  I don’t know if this is true or not but it does align with the current government’s intention to force elearning on all students regardless of whether it suits them or not.

I only have sympathy for the people at the board level trying to make this work.  It’s like trying to weather a storm on a boat with no captain.  The sailors are doing the best they can with next to no direction and the ship has no one at the helm.  We’re lost in rough seas and land it well out of sight.  With no control of my work situation, I’m slogging away on the lower decks as water rushes in.

This year I’m not going to climb back into the pot without realizing that it is a pot and it’s being set to boil.  For the sake of my own sanity and the well being of my family I have to take a step back and recognize that the only person who will save me is myself.

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A Numbers Game

Can’t say I’m a big fan of Marx, I’m more of a
Leibniz guy, but he’s a useful tool for examining
the blind spots around systemic privilege.

One of the perils of having a degree in philosophy is that it provides you with a wide range of tools for dismantling bureaucratic doubletalk.  One of the most dangerous of these tools is Karl Marx.  I can’t help but apply Marx’ aggressive economic analysis to any idea being floated as, ‘dismantling systemic prejudice’ in order to parse bureaucratic language couched in privilege. This week in PD this reflex was twinged by how the upcoming destreaming of grade 9 mathematics is being framed in Ontario education.

The way destreaming was portrayed to us (in keeping with current educational value theory) is as anti-racist pedagogy.  We were earnestly told that destreaming destigmatizes our students of colour and sets them free from educational oppression.

It helps to live in a rich area that offers
limited access to specialist schools that
don’t admit the proles if you want to science!

I’m no fan of streaming.  The myth of STEM and many other educational prejudices are founded on a university focused system being run by academics from that same university system.  I was writing STEM curriculum in the spring when the doctor/president of a STEM focused organization dismissed my intent to focus on technology subjects because, “no schools run them, they’re irrelevant.”  This academic prejudice made it difficult for me to continue working with a group that casually dismisses all but the streamed super-students they teach at their specialist urban school.

I believe that there is a distinct advantage to running de-streamed classes.  The neuro-diversity in an open level class offers all students insight into how people other than themselves think and also offers a qualitative performance advantage when students in groups can leverage many different thinking approaches rather than all following the same (terrifyingly tedious) route to a singular solution.  This implies open level classes are at least (if not more) pedagogically rigorous than current, streamed academic classes.  Having said all that, my last principal said that my open level classes ‘were too difficult’ and that I ‘should make them easier’ (even though we hadn’t had a failure in years).  I’ve never found an open level de-streamed class an excuse to do less.  It’s an opportunity for students to escape their intellectual ghettos and understand the world and how to solve it from many perspectives.  If only de-streaming were treated as a pedagogical tool rather than a financial one, we’d see real advantages to de-streaming, but the cynic in me suspects that pedagogy isn’t actually the focus of de-streaming.

I teach technology courses and all my classes have been de-streamed forever.  Even my ‘M’ level supposedly post-secondary focused senior classes are typically filled with 10-20% essential students and an even split between applied and academic streams (I’m still capped like an academic class at 31 though).  What this means is that the system drops high-needs essential students in my class while offering no increase in resources to support these children.  In my experience, de-streaming is an excuse to offload more work onto teachers while pulling funding in sections and resources that previously existed.

Ontario’s current push to de-stream grade 9 mathematics is, I believe, a good idea, but I have little faith in the system doing it for the high-falutin equity ideals they claim are motivating them.  When equity is used as a marketing tool for financial oppression, no one wins, and when we’re all sitting in larger classes with more diverse, higher-need learners and less resources to help them find their best selves, I can’t help but wonder how the people marketing this can sleep at night.

The current representatives in Ontario government
are taking educational oppression to new heights.

A brutally honest Marxist analysis might look like this:

A school has 20 sections of grade 9 mathematics, 2 essential level, 10 applied level and 8 academic level classes.  Essential classes are currently capped at 21 out where I am in order to provide more support for these high-need learners.  Applied classes are capped at 23 and academic classes at 31.  I imagine you can see where this is going but I’ll take you there anyway.

In our imaginary school this would result in 2 sections for 42 essential students, 10 sections for 230 applied students and 8 sections for 248 academic students.  That’s 20 mathematics sections serving 520 students.  In our system, open level classes are capped at 27 students, so our 520 students would find themselves in 19 sections once de-streamed, which begs the question: are we doing this to save money or help students find success?

I don’t know what the caps are for these new, de-streamed classes, but if the system ignores its own class caps for open level classes and magically sets the class cap for de-streamed math at 28 or 29 students (changes like this always offer an opportunity to get more for less), suddenly our 520 students are being stuffed into even fewer sections and larger classes, which makes the whole ‘we can decolonialize and produce greater equity in education by destreaming’ angle look a bit disingenuous.

Ontario’s de-streaming is being heavily marketed as an anti-colonial escape from systemic oppression.
It could be, if it isn’t actually cost cutting under an equity marketing banner.

There are genuine benefits to destreaming.  Prompting more neuro-diversity in a learning context offers rich alternatives to rote learning catering to the neuro-uniformity prompted by streamed classes.  Struggling students are surrounded by peers who can show them better habits and capable students can soak up rich opportunities to mentor while also exploring alternate pathways to solutions.  There is also an equity benefit in that everyone is humanized and formerly streamed students are less likely to look down on their peers or turn into teachers who dismiss blue collar subjects out of hand.

These advantages are predicated on de-streaming happening in order to nurture student success, not as the result of hidden financial imperatives designed to cut costs while marketing the whole exercise as the enlightened removal of systemic oppression.  If this really is a numbers game then everyone loses, and who loses the most?  The kids with less social privilege to begin with.

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Project Management as a Fundamental Skillset

Unbeknownst to many in the education sector, project management has grown into a complex academic and applied discipline of study with clearly defined best practices and standards.  As technology continues to evolve and offer efficiencies in productivity, it has also prompted a revolution in project management that is becoming a foundational aspect of modern work life, but we don’t teach it.

Last week Alanna and I presented on this foundational collaborative standard from two angles at the well attended ECOOCamp 2021 online Ontario educator’s conference.  Alanna’s recent post-graduate course covered project management from an academic/industry angle and my grade 11-12 software engineering class has basically become a project management course as a result of many students having had no contact with it in any other courses.  From those two angles we asked the big question, “why aren’t project management best practices taught and used in public education?”


Like many aspects of modern work evolution, project management (PM) best practices aren’t a focus of study in public education.  This is a disservice both to students and educators alike.  Following project management best practices means you’re not wasting time in meetings that aren’t meetings.  If a meeting isn’t predicated on necessary two-way communication in order to reach a consensus, it’s a bad meeting.  When was your last staff meeting about two-way/consensus building?  Teacher contempt for the the institution of the staff meeting would quickly fade if PM best practices were applied to them.

There are other obvious benefits to public education engaging with PM best practices.  If everyone on your staff has a clear idea of what they are responsible for, the timeframes and resources they have to work with, and access to support in order to meet expectations, your in-school projects will be more than an empty checklist and will actually engage and motivate your staff.
From the student angle, applying PM best practices allows for consistent, meaningful assessment of process while also ensuring better outcomes for student led projects.  When students graduate they’re able to immediately understand and engage with post-secondary and workplace expectations around collaboration without being surprised by this world-wide literacy they’ve never been exposed to in class.  Why project management best practices haven’t been integrated into curriculum across all disciplines is a very good question.

Modern PM leverages digital tools to achieve credible levels of clarity and shared purpose in group work.  In our presentation, Alanna leveraged the PM industry awareness she had just developed from her Instructional Design post-graduate course from Royal Roads University.  In our presentation Alanna explained Kanban and covered how it grew out of Japanese manufacturing management from the mid-twentieth century.  From there we introduced Trello, a virtual Kanban inspired online tool that helps remote groups organize, clarify and assign responsibility though an intuitive and remarkably high-fidelity online interface.

This all came about because, as Alanna was taking her project management course, she was listening to me behind her in our shared office applying PM best practices with my software engineering class.  The combination of my applied project management and the academic research Alanna was doing for the course produced the grist for our presentation:

Vague and inconsistent group project expectations
in student collaborative projects result in headaches
for both teachers and students.  You owe it to
yourself and your students to engage
 with PM best practices!

Teachers and students both struggle with collaboration.  From the assessment side, group work, especially without clearly defined guidelines and expectations, can quickly devolve into chaos where work is not even distributed and projects do not reflect collaboration so much as the efforts of one or two key people.  That happens to students in classrooms but it also happens in staff management.  One of the main benefits of following PM best practices is that group work isn’t an excuse for doing less.  Individual accountability is obvious to everyone involved and this leads not only to satisfyingly successful collaborative work but also to an appreciation of your individual best efforts.  The students who struggle most in my class with project managements are the ones who have learned that they can Jedi Mind Trick their way through group work and do very little.  The leads quickly realize how important it is to clearly communicate consistent expectations and many quieter students in the class thrive because group activity isn’t equated with having a big mouth.  There are real benefits to adopting these standards of project management excellence beyond just productivity.

Using PM best practices allows us to tackle complex
technology in groups and produce a rich, engaging
and ultimately successful student directed project
for a wider variety of students.

In our software engineering course students begin grade 11 by training in Unity game development and Blender 3d modelling.  These challenging technical skills were (I thought) the biggest hurdles, but it turns out they weren’t at all.  We’re at the point now where the grade 12s teach the technical training in only a couple of weeks and then support junior students in a live software development environment.  Students are able to produce complex, genuine software engineering and digital creativity with our process.  For the students committed to developing these high-demand skills, our technical training gets them there efficiently and supportively.

The big struggle turned out to be getting high school students to recognize why their project management strategies weren’t working and providing guidance and tools that would support best project management practices which most were unaware of.  When we looked at how group projects are developed in other classes, we found a wide range of approaches ranging from almost completely lacking in any organization or credibility to rote, restrictive, step-by-step strategies that offered no genuine management control by students and stifled creativity and self direction.  We couldn’t find any other courses following industry standard project management and I struggled to find any on the staff side of the equation either.

Engaging with PM best practices and then giving your students the guidance and tools needed to successfully work together on collaborative projects is an individually empowering step that will help students not only in school, but when they graduate too.  I’ve had university students return and say that my open level technology course did more to prepare them for challenging university project work than any ‘U’ level class they took.  I’ve had college and apprenticeship students return with the same insight.  In case you think this doesn’t apply to workplace students, I’ve had them return saying that this experience has gotten them jobs and helped them find promotion once employed.  This really is a 21st Century fluency we’ve missed.

If PM best practices started in classrooms, I’d hope at some point that they would begin to infect educational management as well.  I had a former department head tell me that she diligently kept receipts for the first couple of years of managing her department budget but eventually let it slide because the budgets they were operating under were frequently adjusted in the murky world of public sector accounting.  I’ve frequently been asked to do project work within the system where we are given no clear budget, timeline or even specific outcomes.  This kind of vagary produces frustration and disengagement in staff and students alike.  PM best practices not only result in greater individual engagement and positive morale, they also let you get stuff done fairly and effectively.

We had a great crowd at ECOOcamp and now we’re going to aim the presentation at the Ontario Library Association super-conference.  If we can engage teachers to adopt PM best practices, their students will benefit in many ways.  If we can reach a critical mass in aligning public education with PM best practices, we could revolutionize the bureaucratically obscure system we’re all living under and produce happier, more engaged staff who produce more efficient and effective projects.  I don’t enjoy the disengaged, sardonic staff thing that happens in education.  If we could all believe in the system it would make for a more pedagogically meaningful working environment for all.  It just takes some transparency and clarity to achieve.

The benefits of digital tools aligned with PM best practices also promises to raise the engagement and effectiveness of your online classroom.  With everyone on the same page in terms of expectations, and with rich online tools like Trello to intuitively interface with what’s happening in group work, rich, meaningful learning can happen collaboratively, even in a remote setting.  In a digitally powered face to face classroom tools like Trello can keep students organized and focused on their specific tasks and responsibilities, leading to greater student project success.  Because the collaboration is transparent and meaningful it is also a genuine learning opportunity because each student’s actions have a credible impact on the outcome.
Here’s hoping project management best practices and professional understandings can find their way into our public education system sooner than later.

ONLINE PROJECT MANAGEMENT RESOURCES


The presentation slide deck:


The Project Management Institute

https://www.pmi.org/

“Project Management Institute (PMI) is the world’s leading professional association for a growing community of millions of project professionals and changemakers worldwide.”


Trello, a (free!) online project management tool:

https://trello.com/


Project Management 2nd Edition freely available text:

https://opentextbc.ca/projectmanagement/


Online Resources for Project Managers:

https://www.proofhub.com/articles/project-management-resources


Resource Management 101:  Guide for Project Managers:

https://teamdeck.io/project-management/resource-management-guide/

Ontario Colleges Project Management Courses:

https://www.ontariocolleges.ca/en/programs/business-finance-and-administration/project-management

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A Canadian Student Bill of Rights

2020 was an unprecedented year in Ontario public education.  After two years of a hostileincompetent government hacking away at the system in order to replace it with inferior, for-profit options conveniently supplied by their party donors, we rolled into a world wide pandemic that only amplified the lack of competence in our political leadership.

Education is too important to be derailed by political demagogues intent on dismantling public services for their friends’ profit.  If the past three years have shown us anything, it’s that Canada needs a student charter of rights in order to prevent corrosive political interests from abusing this vulnerable population.

With Canada’s history of systemic abuse in education you’d think protecting students from misguided political interests would be an obvious step forward, but no politician likes to enact laws that limit them from doing whatever they like while grasping for another election win.

I’m not sure how to pry education out of the hands of self-serving and manipulative provincial politicians, but something needs to be done federally to ensure that Canadians who are members of vulnerable communities (like k-12 students who have no vote or say in how our society operates) have protections enshrined in law.
You’d hope their parents would act in their children’s best interests but that clearly hasn’t been the case in Ontario or other Canadian jurisdictions.  It’ll take someone with principles and fortitude at the federal level to see this through.  A Canadian Student Charter of Rights would mean Machiavellian interests can’t run roughshod over the rights of every child in Canada to access a safe and rationally administered learning environment focused on enabling them to become their best selves.

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Recognizing Your Own Accomplishments

 I’ve written a number of negative end-of-year reflections on this absurd year of teaching and not shared them because swimming in those waters is poisonous.  I’m glad I was able to write and reflect them out of me though.  They’re hanging in the blogger draft space and I might just let them loose one day in the future when the idiocy of this past year is a distant memory.  I think it’s important to critically assess everything that went wrong in this human disaster in the hopes that it won’t happen again.

On Friday I attended a webinar put on by a group of professional creatives that focused on recognizing your own accomplishments.  This group formed to look at ways of maintaining creative output for a living.  This isn’t something most people have to worry about since their jobs are quite prescribed.  For too many teachers their teaching is prescribed but I’ve never been a fan of that approach.  For me teaching is a creative, never-rote activity and talking to professional musicians and visual artists helps me find the capacity to teach in the ever-evolving way that I want to.

I struggle with public acknowledgement of accomplishments.  I don’t do what I do for accolades and I prefer to step out of the way and let students take the limelight.  As long as I’m able to find the resources we need to be successful then I couldn’t care less about acknowledgement, except acknowledgement is frequently a mechanism that has brought us the resources we need to succeed so dismissing it out of hand isn’t sensible.

In listening to the artists in this webinar talk about their wins, I still struggled with the idea that this just sounds like tooting your own horn.  Creative output, for me at least, always comes with a healthy dose of humility.  Having crushed any rose-coloured glasses I’m able to get on with the difficult job of creation without any delusions, but this isn’t very marketable and marketing kept cropping up in discussion.  Does creativity have to include suffering?  Can you be clear eyed about your creativity or is being creative inherently delusional?

The other side to this harshness in terms of metacognitively accepting and being able to speak productively about accomplishments is that not being able to recognize your accomplishments can hurt you psychologically and ultimately make you uncreative and unproductive.  If you fall into a depression over abuse or unfairness then you won’t be able to do what you do.  Striking a balance with recognition of accomplishments is both a personal mental health and a being a functional creative issue.


From any rational point of view I should be viewing this past year as a towering success in my career.  My students fought their way to two places in the national finals of the CyberTitan Canadian National Student Cybersecurity Competition and both overcame all sorts of adversity in order to produce our best results ever.  Being top ten twice out of over 150 teams should be something we acknowledge positively.

Over in Skills Ontario we did backflips to keep student competitors engaged and although we had one competition drop out, the others performed exceptionally well.  We’d only ever won medals in IT & Networking previously but we didn’t just keep our string of IT medals going for a fifth consecutive year, we also won our first provincial medals in electronics, coding and GIS as well.  That too deserves positive reflection that encourages future attempts.

Meanwhile, from a classroom teaching perspective, we managed to retain very high engagement rates in this rudderless year of hybrid simultaneous face to face and remote or fully remote learning.  Even in the final quadmester our fully-remote (again) and exhausted game-development students produced fantastic examples of what digitally fluent Ontario high school students are capable of.  We also punched through to new heights in terms of student achievement while also saving those that were drowning in the sea of systemic failure.  I couldn’t see that though because what we were doing was only ever a fraction of what we normally do in a school year.

As a teacher I suddenly found myself being put up for awards and winning them.  NCWIT not only awarded two of our graduating women in technology their provincial award but also acknowledged me as a 2021 educator of the year for supporting girls in technology and engineering.  Then my board gave me an Everyday Hero Award and OTIP let me know I was an honourable mention in their provincial teacher award.  These are the hardest for me to talk about because my reflex is to step back and let students take the accolades, but the support of parents and students in writing those applications means the world to me so ignoring them is neither appropriate nor appreciative.

I’ve been unable to give these things the positive reflection they deserve because of the cruel year we’ve just been dragged through.  Next year doesn’t look much better with the same sabotaging political mismanagement in an education system paralyzed by our own political failures, but if I let the good things fade into the malaise from all these elements beyond my control then I’m lost.

I’ve put down several extra jobs this summer in order to find my mojo again.  I can’t go back into the classroom having lost all hope in the credibility of our education system.  If I can get my feet under me again I can stand up and fight for what matters for another year.

When the education system fell apart around me and work became frustration piled on frustration I found a creative outlet to release myself through.  Starting last fall I was up at 4am every morning when work anxiety wasn’t letting me sleep writing and I’m now 160,000+ words into a novel that I never thought I’d find the time to write.

I’m energized by teaching because it lets me pour my efforts into something that is difficult, important and credible, ideally while being surrounded by people doing the same meaningful work without pretense.  With credibility circling the drain this year and pretense the new normal, I needed to do something real that wouldn’t take anything other than my best effort.

I prefer to put my energy into something I believe in and that appreciates and respects that commitment.  When I couldn’t find that at school I did what I could to help and refocused my energy on this creative writing project that had no room for pretense.  Should anyone ever read the book I think they will find the frustrations of the last year written into it large.  France’s collapse in 1940 against the German Blitzkrieg has many parallels with Ontario’s approach to COVID19 in the past year.


Dusty World is going on hiatus for the summer and I’m going to focus on finishing the novel.  Now that I’ve gotten this negativity out of me I don’t need to carry it any more and I’m putting down teaching at least until the ECOO Conference in August because even in a year when I’ve lost faith in education I still can’t help but go above and beyond and start my school year weeks early in hopes of making it better for everyone.

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Hiding History Behind Politics

History isn’t just an informational subject, it’s also very much about critical media literacy.  Trying to get a clear view of history through what’s left to us is nearly impossible because human beings will immediately want to spin it for their own benefit.  These prejudices come from the people at the time, the people who decided what survives and the people in charge now.  This propagandist approach has a great deal of power when applied to the study of national history because it produces dangerous byproducts, like patriotism based on national myths that systemically exclude whole swaths of our society.

This is the cover of Flashback Canada, the history book they handed me to teach a grade 8 class during my teaching practicum in Peel in 2003.  I wasn’t a Canadian citizen when this piece of propaganda was handed to me and I was told, as an agent of the system, to indoctrinate the class (most of whom were also new Canadians) with this violently untrue rendition of Canadian Federation.

I can’t find the full illustration from inside the book (it’s a two page spread!) but I recall it had indigenous groups in traditional garb, unaccompanied women and many BIPOC characters fictionally back-written into the narrative of a multi-cultural Canadian history that never happened.  Teaching this “we’ve always been multi-cultural” myth of Canada made me very uncomfortable so instead of teaching the text I found some other historical images of Confederation done close to the time and then the students and I looked at the differences between the textbook’s rendition and other historical documents.  As you might have guessed, Canadian Confederation in 1867 was a lot of white dudes (because they were the only people considered as people under the law – no one else could vote or politically mattered):

How did this play with a lively, very multi-cultural class of grade 8s in 2003?  Code-switching wasn’t a common term back then but many of the BIPOC students talked about how stuff like this makes them doubt their own experiences with racism in Canada.  This made my older, white Canadian supervising teacher uncomfortable.  These days I’m sure she would be on board with the current ‘woke’ white settler types who want to make make a lot of noise in this moment that will quickly fade to leave us with our lousy status quo again.  Dwelling in the discomfort by prompting discussion and then making systemic change as a result is a way to move beyond our reflexive need to retain a status quo built on lies.

I’ve talked about historical prejudice before on Dusty World but the events currently happening in Canada are bubbling it all to the surface again, though I don’t understand why anyone is so surprised by them.  These children disappeared in plain sight and reports of the nastiness of religious residential schools aren’t new.  Choosing to be surprised by them now feels like political spin.  Part of that latest push is to cancel Canada Day but this politically divisive move only shames anyone who disagrees while amplifying the voices of those who want to leverage this disaster for their own political ends.

I’ve heard (smart, historically aware) people advocate for cancelling Canada Day because aboriginal families are mourning the recent discovery of thousands of children’s graves from the Canadian religious residential school genocide, but the only people reeling from this ‘discovery’ are politicized left-wing Canadians who have now decided to (loudly) acknowledge this hiding-in-plain-sight colonial history.  I doubt native families are ‘stunned’ by these ‘findings’ as they’ve been living them for generations.  This ‘white surprise’ must seem disingenuous.

I’m left wondering if children’s history text books are still as multi-culturally white-washed as that one I was handed in 2003.  My approach to that lesson caused friction with my (white, established-settler Canadian) teacher-mentor.  Teaching rote curriculum out of prejudiced texts works much like taking down statues and cancelling holidays: it’s an effective way to revise historical fact to suit the current political narrative which is itself a nasty piece of work.

In the next two centuries the selfish decisions made by current generations around rampant overpopulation, wasteful consumption of resources and pollution of our limited ecosystem will make any previous genocides look tame, yet we’re quick to burn anything historical that doesn’t meet our myopic ethics.  That well-travelled, carbon spewing first-worlders who hop into their 4×4 SUVs wearing sweatshop made clothing are so loudly self righteous is another example of temporal prejudice, but then you don’t see a lot of humility or self-awareness in history.

It’s easy to criticize previous generations without making any attempt to contextualize their decisions in the time that they were made.  This temporal prejudice is every bit as corrosive as racial or gender prejudice.  Mass consumers waving social justice flags while making decisions that will kill billions in the future are just as blind to their own contextual short-comings.  Wouldn’t it be something if everyone tried to overcome the pomp and circumstance of history with humility, honesty and fairness?

Cancelling holidays  that are guaranteed for you but not for others at the rough end of the socio-economic spectrum reeks of privilege, while taking down statues and renaming things is more about rewriting history to make it less uncomfortable than it is about making any genuine systemic change.  What we should be doing is legally deconstructing confederation and taking the colonial prejudices out of Canada’s political structureFirst past the post British electoral systems prop up old prejudices and should be dismantled but won’t because party ‘representatives’ that could make the changes won’t because the status quo is what handed them power.

The nastiness of Canadian colonial history isn’t easy to stomach but throwing a cancellation blanket over it isn’t going to solve anything; we need to dwell in this discomfort if it’s ever to prompt real systemic change.  Politically driven divisive ideas like cancelling national holidays and renaming everything to make it less offensive is more likely to support the status quo than change it.  We’ll never overcome historically prejudiced propaganda by spinning more of it.  Real change has to happen at the legal level or we’ll just keep spinning lies to maintain this poisonous politically charged status quo.


RESOURCES

https://blogs.umass.edu/linguist/secret-path-residential-schools-reconciliation/

“Come learn about indigenous people’s history that you probably weren’t taught in school…”

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/first-nations-right-to-vote-granted-50-years-ago-1.899354

First nations Canadians didn’t get the vote until 1960!  Canada’s concept of representative democracy has always been flawed and yet it’s treated as sacred – which is how you ensure that status quo continues.  These days the old white guys in charge casually dismiss the Charter of Rights whenever it suits them.

https://www.cbc.ca/kidscbc2/the-feed/why-it-took-so-long-for-women-to-get-to-vote-in-canada

“…in September 1917, the Wartime Elections Act was passed in Canada. It granted the vote to women in the military and women who had male relatives fighting in World War I, but it also stripped away voting rights from many Canadians who immigrated from ‘enemy’ countries.”

Asian Canadians didn’t get to vote in Canada until after WW2!

“The story of the right to vote in Canada is the story of a centuries‐long struggle to extend democratic rights to all citizens. It’s a chaotic tale that includes rebellions and riots, as well as protests, and visits to the Supreme Court of Canada.”

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/confederation

“Indigenous peoples were not invited to or represented at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences. This despite the fact they had established what they believed to be bilateral (nation-to-nation) relationships and commitments with the Crown through historic treaties. (See also: Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada; Royal Proclamation of 1763.) The Fathers of Confederation, however, held dismissive, paternalistic views of Indigenous peoples. As a result, Canada’s first peoples were excluded from formal discussions about unifying the country.” 


You won’t find anyone on the Canadian Encyclopedia page who isn’t an old white dude because they are the ones that confederated Canada, specifically while denying anyone who wasn’t from their background any participation.  Re-writing history to ignore what actually happened isn’t a great way of learning from those mistakes.

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Equity Theatre, Safety Theatre, COVID19 Theatre: The Appearance of Caring

Wired had an insightful piece on diversity theatre in a recent issue that exposes the organizational lie behind equity programs trotted out by management to give the appearance of caring about current social issues.  

“Diversity theater creates a sense of dissonance: Workers have to represent the company publicly while feeling victimized by it privately; they must identify shortcomings but are punished for acting on them.”

The frustation felt by people of colour who take on equity management roles only to discover that they aren’t allowed to be critical of anything their employer does casts a harsh light on the game of appearing to care as a marketing promotion.  Actually caring and the systemic change it would prompt is something most organizations are unable or unwilling to do because most organizations exist as a result of some very one sided history, and no one is willing to hand back their systemic privalege.

This isn’t just as private company gambit, public services are in the same boat.  Governments formed on the back of economic imperialism aren’t willing to move from that position of privalege and dominance.  The primarily white, heteronomative, neurotypicals who roost in organizational management positions are more than happy to spend a pitance on theatrical appearances but would never risk their privaleged positions by pushing for true institutional change.

One of the thrills (for me at least though many others don’t seem to be feeling it) in teaching is helping a student in less than ideal circumstances rise above their socio-economic station and get onto a pathway that best reflects their potential.  In the past year I’ve seen the public educaiton system in Ontario, already under attack from a hostile government, convulse under the weight of a mismanaged health emergency.  The people to blame for this exist at the highest levels of government and, in this particular government’s case, have been ushered in to office by a misled electorate who have given them the power to deconstruct the few remaining equity processes in our public education system.  When they couldn’t force the system to throw its least privaleged students under the bus, they simply leveraged a pandemic to do it for them; and the political organizations standing against them in public education capitulated in a panic.

I’m not so sure that it did any more.  COVID has been the hammer Ford wished for – everyone else in education has been outsmarted by the virus but Ford seems to be leveraging it.

Theatre is a great way to hammer home inequity while appearing to care.  COVID theatre is the current weapon of choice.  I just learned that we are doing quadmesters again in the fall.  It won’t matter that all staff and most students will be vaccinated by then, it’s easier to look like you care by throwing a radically inequitable schedule at students and staff and then sitting back to watch it mulch them, all the time saying that it shows how much you care about their safety.

We’re facing an unprecidented number of failures in school this year.  I have strong students who have simply given up and fallen silent, and my heart is broken for them.  I’m willing to bet these students in particular are in the middle of family economic crises with parents laid off due to the pandemic, and/or the loss of family members, and/or depression from the lack of genuine social contact for over a year now.  Even with all that happening, I’m hearing from even the strongest students that they are being run into the ground by twelve plus hours a day of maths work as teachers desperately try to jam 110 hours of complex instruction through the key-hole of emergency remote learning in wildly inequitable situations.  STEM is for the rich and privaleged who have the time and space to keep up with the workload.

Many parents of students with IEPs have told me of the crisis their children are experiencing at the hands of a system determined to play the COVID-theatre of business-as-usual in education.  Watching (usually young, energetic teachers looking for contract sections) pipe up about how there are real advantages to quadmestered teaching is laughable, but one of the best ways to get into a system is to help it support its myths.  This slight of hand is heartbreaking and deeply personal because I’m a parent of a student with special needs.  When your child’s IEP specifically states they need extra time to work on material and you see teacher after teacher running them off the treadmill of quadmestered/reduced time/accelerated learning, you have to wonder where everyone’s heads are at.  Compassion should lie at the heart of equity but it seems that compassion is in short supply over a year into this pandemic.

Last spring we magically passed everyone even though the system lurched into fully remote emergency learning completely unprepared.  After being run through face to face learning only to be pulled out again and again this year when school driven pandemic spread was proven to be the engine driving our provincial disaster, the validity of ‘credits’ in the 2020/21 school year is, at best, questionable.

Even when we were face to face (in masks, distanced) students were still expected to spend half of their course learning remotely.  The other half had them in barely functioning face to face cohorts where they were being taught in madly restricted classrooms by exhausted teachers trying to be in two places at once.  In the insane year I’m just staggering to the end of I never once had a covering teacher, either online or in person, who was qualified to teach my subject.  I never once even had a technology teacher covering me in live classes so that students could keep using tools and equipment in what little face to face instructional time they did have.

Quadmestered face to face teaching meant two 2.5 hour continuous instructional periods everyday where, if I had to duck out to use the washroom, I was putting my students at risk leaving them with a teacher (sometimes they weren’t even teachers) who were unqualified to monitor safety in the room.  Safety-theatre is another one of these smoke and mirror games organizations like to play where (as long as it doesn’t mean any extra work for them) they’ll put you in a position where you’ll do extra to keep things working to the point of hurting yourself, like I did this year.

Each of those 2.5 hour face to face instructional periods without qualified relief wasn’t the only ball I was juggling.  Simultaneously I was also setting up remote learning and monitoring that, because every teacher I was partnered with was unqualified to teach my subject area and usually took that opportunity to fade away and leave me trying to be in two places at once.  Students in my current remote class don’t know who our elearning support teacher is because they’ve never seen her.  Multiple calls to my union was met with silence and I’ve since stepped back from the position of CBC rep because I’m not sure I actually have a union anymore.

Theatre runs thick in our union too.  This spring at AMPA, the yearly provinical gathering of regional representatives, members of colour were kicked out of the online event for having virtual avatars on their accounts that upset the always-white provinical management.  White supremacy, as described on those avatars, wasn’t an over the top suggestion but it hurt the feelings of the delicate white people in charge and so they banned those members of colour.  We’ve since had it explained to us (multiple times by old white people in charge) that those members broke the parlimentary rules everyone agreed to abide by and that’s why they were removed.  They then voted in another white president, though it is a woman and we’ve only had two of those in a century, so little steps.  The woman of colour who could lead us into a more equitable future was convulsed out of contention as this old Canadian organization does what old Canadian organizations do best: cling to colonial prejudices when it best suits the people running them.

In reference to the attempts to address systemic racism in one of the biggest boards in the proivnce, a member of colour said they felt like OSSTF provincial was weaponizing our own consitution against us.  I’ve been seeing that side of OSSTF since 2012.  Maybe one day we’ll put aside the equity theatre and actually be equitable.  Any mention of this online whips senior (white) union management into a, “you’re a union basher!” stance.  I can assure you I am not, but I’m no fan of the status quo and they shouldn’t be either.  Instead of weaponizing an archaic paliamentary system that keeps the status quo intact, perhaps we should be looking for ways to rejig the system so it’s actually more equitable and representative of all members.  That isn’t just something my union should do, it’s something our not-so-representative Canadian governments should do too.

The hair-trigger decision to go with quadmestered classes in the fall even though we’re not sure where we’ll be by then and case numbers continue to fall even as the province opens up thanks to a vaccination system that is finally working is, at best, short-sighted.  It plays the COVID theatre game by showing how serious everyone is about safety while ignoring the gross inequities of quadmestered scheduling.  It also happens to reuse all the planning done last year but I’m sure that easy way out wasn’t what prompted the decision.  Someone decided that students with special needs or the ones under durress at home can burn for another inequitable, unsustainable quadmestered school year for valid, pedagogical reasons, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, front line workers will get dunked into another year of unsustainable and inequitable work overload.  Attempting to be in two places at once (for me at least, for many teachers with smaller classes it’s an easier ride) is absolutely harrowing.  COVID theatre will also demand that everyone wear masks in a one-size-fits-all organization in poorly ventilated rooms not because vaccinations don’t work (they do), but because it’s important to look like we care.

We’ll probably have a lot of well-meaning (is it well-meaning if it’s theatre?) equity PD again this year even as we roll out a schedule that (once again) systemically attacks students with special needs or who lack the privalege needed to effectively leverage remote learning.  It’ll once again be left to individuals on the front lines to make up for this systemic failure by trying to bridge the pedgagocial gaps we’ve opened up.  The theatre of cruelty isn’t over yet.

It’s not over – it may never be over.  That lack of hope is corrosive.  Some leadership that embraces hope would be… magical.

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Do Or Do Not: 2021 Competition Season Reflection

The competition season is finally winding down.  Student competition is one of my favourite parts about being a teacher.  It allows for radical differentiation in a wide variety of directions, shines a light on my gotta-market-it-or-it’ll-die program and helps guide our program development by clarifying what we’re already covering and pointing us in the direction of emerging digital trends.

I got a good piece of advice from a prof at Nipissing teacher’s college back in 2003.  We were all struggling to get through a dense curriculum when he suggested I leverage my computer skills to take a swing at Statistics Canada’s yearly awards for post-secondary research (you might have noticed Stats-Can coming up in Dusty world a fair bit – that’s why).  We were using Stats-Can to research the communities our practicums were in and I found the data gave me a better understanding of my teaching environment, but doing the contest seemed like more than I could manage at the time.

My professor, John Lundy, said, “you’ve almost talked yourself out of doing this but so has everyone else.  If you stay with it you might be surprised at the results.  You’d be amazed how often you can win things by sticking with it.”  It was good advice.  I stuck it out and the award paid for my last semester at teacher’s college.  You’d be amazed how often you can win things just but toughing it out and not giving up.

When I picked up teaching computer technology almost a decade ago we stumbled across a robotics competition at Conestoga College and gave it a shot – and medalled!  I’d been supporting students in media arts at Skills Ontario so I looked at all the digital competitions and started lining us up for them.  As a new teacher attempting to deliver a ridiculously far-reaching curriculum I found competition invaluable for directing our research and development.  Ontario covers IT, networking, electronics, robotics and low and high level programming in the computer technology curriculum.  All of those things would have their own program in any other subject.  No teacher has advanced expertise in all of them (my background is in IT), so Skills Ontario in particularly really helped us get our program into focus and allowed me to differentiate for students developing in those many diverse pathways.

Students almost always doubted their ability to participate let alone compete, even when we found ourselves at national finals, but I was always able to pass on that simple advice:  give it a shot, see what happens.  This consistent approach, though quite minimalist in appearance, has paid dividends.

I’d spent many years coaching various sports teams in school prior to shifting my focus to program based technical competitions.  For many students sports are the hook that keeps them in school but I found that it often ended up providing entertainment for the most privileged students (you don’t have time for practices and games four days a week when you’re working).  The technology competitions we participate in are accessible to all students and I’ve seen them raise kids out of difficult home lives and launch them into meaningful careers, so there is equity in this as well.


This year the show-up-when-everyone-else-is-looking-for-reasons-not-to approach has been greatly amplified.  While COVID has caused particular suffering in marginalized populations, it has also dampened the enthusiasm of privileged schools who leverage their socio-economic advantage to win competitions.  Those privileged schools haven’t developed the resiliency needed to push back against disparities like those caused by the pandemic and have evaporated from competition, leaving opportunities for the rest of us.

At the Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge our two teams finished well into the top 10, in 6th and 7th place with our female team once again showing the value of communication skills in the field of cybersecurity.  I like CCDC for their multi-pronged approach to cyber defence.  They don’t just run it like a hack-a-thon but place emphasis on the team’s ability to communicate their technical findings to non-technical management, which is very much a real world aspect of cybersecurity that gets ignored elsewhere.


The girls finished behind the boys in technical scoring but overtook them in the communications round, once again emphasizing for me how important it is to have a gender diverse team that leverages the strengths inherent in different values and approaches.  I’m once again trying to figure out how to develop co-ed approaches to team competition that appreciate the value of diverse and complimentary skills – boys, especially high school boys, can be difficult to work with and present an on-going barrier to this approach.


We were gutted last year to see Skills Ontario vanish in the chaos of the first wave of COVID19.  We had the most finalists in our short history lined up for the 2020 provincial finals and several gold-medal prospects.  It was heart wrenching to see those opportunities borne from years of effort fade away.  A competitive Skills Ontario student takes years to develop so losing an opportunity to compete isn’t the loss of a single year of effort.

Skills Ontario was still very much a
‘hands on’ competition, even in this
year of COVID remote schooling.

This year the organizers have done a spectacular job keeping as many competitions running as they could remotely.  This is especially challenging in a hands-on technical skills competition where many of the students are working with tools, live electricity and other safety challenges, but Skills Ontario pulled it off magnificently.

When our electronics competitor, Rhys, got a package in the mail for electronics engineering I was buoyed by the hope that these weren’t going to be all screen based simulations.  We do well on tactile skills at Skills so seeing them retained was encouraging.

It didn’t start well though.  Many students are struggling with work life balance in harsh and inequitable quadmestered hybrid scheduling.  Web development is a tricky competition as it’s half technical/back-end coding and data management and half front-end graphic design, marketing and ergonomics.  We had one of the most ambidextrous technical and artistic students yet lined up to do it but she couldn’t participate due to pandemic related stressors.  I had a graduating student who was already working as a web-developer in the summers.  He didn’t have the graphic design skills but he was spectacular at back-end programming and would have been very competitive, but he ended up dropping out due to crushing homework loads that he thought, “should be illegal”.  So, our first Skills competition of the 2021 season was also our first ever DNF.

This induced a great deal of anxiety in me.  I coach in these events to engage and enable students, not to make them feel like they’re being run over, I shouldn’t have worried though.  The next week Max and Russell cranked out our first run at Geography Information Systems (GIS).  We don’t work with GIS and didn’t know what it was two years ago, but last year we had two students leverage the digital skills we develop in class and figure out the software.  Max continued in it this year and when paired with the incredibly technically talented Russell, they both did a great job winning a bronze medal!

Two days later two of our top digital artists from last year’s gamedev class took a run at 3d Character Animation.  This was another competition that we don’t cover in our curriculum, though our game development class uses Blender 3d modelling and the Unity game engine, so I thought we might be able to bridge that gap.  Evan and Alexander worked away at their animation over the weekend and submitted the minimum six seconds of work by the due date.  They didn’t medal but I hope they placed.

The next week we were in a three day marathon with our three core competitions:  electronics engineering on Tuesday, IT & Networking on Wednesday and Coding on Thursday.  Rhys volunteered to take a swing at electronics.  Being new to secondary competition and only in grade 9 I signed him up as a no-stress reconnaissance of the competition, but I’ve learned never to underestimate Rhys who astonished everyone with our first ever silver medal at Skills provincials!  Wyatt is one of our most talented IT technicians to date, and we’ve had many.  He was worried that he’d fumbled the competition in his first run at it online, but I suspected even a bad day for Wyatt was better than most people’s good days.  That turned out to the be the case as Wyatt kept our string of five consecutive Skills Ontario medals in IT & Networking alive with a bronze medal.

On the final day the mighty Matteo, who was also still competing in the national finals of CCDC, did Skills Ontario’s coding provincial finals.  I’ve thrown exceptional students at this previously and we’d broken into the top ten but with our school shuttering on-site computer science I’ve been left as the only teacher in the building covering coding, which seems incredible in 2021.  While juggling CCDC (I had to get him excused from Skills for twenty minutes to present to the judges in CCDC finals), Matteo battled to an astonishing silver medal finish in what is always a very crowded and competitive Skills Ontario competition.

Four out of six (it would have been five if we could have stuck the webdev) is a spectacular run for a program that had only previously cracked IT & Networking.  I’m hoping we can build on this momentum next year as every one of our medalists is returning.


With Skills Ontario behind us we turned to CyberTitan National Finals this past week where our senior co-ed, female captained team was potentially dangerous and our all-female top wild card team simply wanted to do their best and enjoy what would be the second and final national finals event for the senior Terabytches who started the team and changed the complexion of the event three years ago.

My son Max and I were watching the awards ceremony online on Wednesday afternoon.  This event feels like battling giants because the schools we’re up against are specialists with access to resources we can only dream about.  I was eating pie and waiting to see who won when I was astonished to see FalconTech Plagueware being awarded the Cyber Defender Award.  I frantically started searching for my competition t-shirt so I could have it on as asked when we went live for an interview.

We’ve had more academically focused teams (our two 5th place finishing teams in 2018 and 2020 for example) in this competition, but Plagueware is by far the most diverse.  Our team captain (the webdev artist/technician) is a Cisco networking wizard who got some of the highest scores in Canada during CyberPatriot – and she’s in grade 10!  Unfortunately, that network architecture skillset doesn’t get any exercise at CyberTitan nationals.  Our Skills coding silver medalist is on the team as is our Skills GIS bronze medalist.  The team also contains one of the team members from last year’s 5th place team who connected us to that team’s skills and experience, along with our first ever grade 9 to get a perfect score in Windows 10 on CyberPatriot and the coop student who ran our award winning junior team last year.

Plagueware are an incredibly diverse and talented group.  A third of the team are applied stream students who couldn’t even get into the schools we’re up against.  A third of the team are autistic and the majority of the team have individual education plans due to special leaning needs.  From the academic streamist’s point of view this team wouldn’t rate, and yet they finished 4th in Canada beating most of the competition.  Their audacity and out-of-the-box thinking also won them the Defender of the Year award for the team the judges felt demonstrated the most innovative and team based approach.

That result has me thinking about how to remix teams for a wider range of skills and approaches.  As our first Terabytches graduate I’m thinking maybe it’s time to work towards co-ed teams that offer a complimentary set of skills that make students not only competitive but also valued for their differences.

Convincing students to take the risk and compete against students from other boards and provinces gives me a barometer for how effective our program is and offers support and direction as we continue to develop skills in a wide variety of digital disciplines.  For students these experiences can be defining both in developing confidence and technical fluency.  This approach benefits students in all streams and offers both a tool for equity by providing enrichment for students who can’t otherwise afford to participate in extracurriculars.

The most difficult part remains convincing students to give it a go, but when they do they often see great success just by giving it a shot.  If you are interested in developing digital fluency in your students there are a variety of competitions available that can help you make that happen for little or no cost.

COMPETITION LINKS

Skills Ontario:  These are the scopes for competition (they describe what each competition is about and how it will run): https://www.skillsontario.com/competitions/secondary/scopes
Whatever you teach, Skills will have a competition that aligns with your curriculum.

CyberTitan: National Student Cybersecurity Competition.  CyberTitan is the Canadian arm of the international U.S. based CyberPatriot competition.  It costs a couple of hundred dollars to participate but the students get a lot of cyber-swag and the competition is very well run and accessible.  The event runs from October to January in three rounds that can happen as an in-school field trip.

Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge:  CCDC runs out of Winnipeg and has good pickup in Western Canada, though I think we still may be the only team east of Winnipeg participating in it.  It is a very accessible and innovative competition with live drama student performances bringing the competition to life and a points assessment that includes quality of student understanding that prevents schools who are scripting their wins from doing well.

CanHack:  based on the PicoCTF U.S. based cyber competition.  It’s very computer science/mathematics based and would work well as an enhancement for any comp-sci program.  With no local comp-sci at our school, we use this competition to help fill that hole.

ECOO Programming Contest:  another comp-sci/maths focused contest.  We haven’t done it because the math department usually does it, or doesn’t.


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The Bar For Being Human Just Got Raised Again

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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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



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


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


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


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


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

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



OTHER READING


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


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

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