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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Sympathetic Teachers

For the past couple of weeks my yoga instructor has been away so I’ve been learning with another teacher.  I’ve been with the same instructor for about a year and I’ve gotten used to her ways.  Our fill-in instructor is actually the studio owner and a more experienced teacher, but I’m used to what I’m used to and I’m finding the change challenging.

The differences in how each teaches got me thinking about how learning and the relationship it is based on works.

My regular instructor pushes herself and her students.
It works for me.

I’m the furthest thing from a yoga expert but I enjoy the process and I’ve gotten better at it in a year of practice.  My regular instructor is very focused on form and pushing through physical barriers.  Her own practice is flawless.  Our current instructor is much more mentally focused, asking us to be mindful of what we’re doing and de-emphasizing the physical side of things (though I still find her classes very physically strenuous).  Neither is right, but they are very different in how they demonstrate their mastery and what they focus their students on.  I’ve enjoyed the change but I’ve bonded with my regular instructor and I’m looking forward to getting her back.

The personal nature of the relationship between a master and apprentice is based on choices by both.  Masters tend to select for apprentices who they can work with, and vice-versa.  Back in the day when apprentices were unable to select their masters this wasn’t the case, but nowadays you see this self-selection all the time.  When a student finds a teacher they share a wavelength with they tend to latch on.  Variety is the key to this selection process.  I probably wouldn’t have stuck it out (yoga is hard work) if I hadn’t connected to the instructor’s approach enough to overcome the difficult early months.

Another philosophical thought from my regular instructor.
She wants you to develop quickly, find your limits and
then push through them. In that struggle is found yoga.

In my first year of university I asked my history TA how she knew what to focus on.  She laughed and said it was all about the prof, why else would she be doing her Masters in Scottish history?  That personal relationship is an important part of a student’s willingness to put up with the pain of learning a discipline.

In the education system you get the impression that this individualism is a bad thing.  Teachers are encouraged to adopt whichever educational philosophy is in vogue and be ready to move on to the next one when the next book comes out.  Most experienced teachers have learned to not get caught up in this kind of thinking (one of the key failures of professional development).  It tends to be the game of educational leadership to push a school-wide vision of teaching in order to establish some kind of standard.  Teacher assessment uses checklists and fill-in-the-blank templates based on the school system’s idea of an ideal teacher.  This implies that there is only one way to teach properly which would kill any chance of a student finding a teacher who speaks to them, unless your students are as generic as your teachers.  When the system assumes surrogacy for learning, human relationships are diminished and the ability to learn is compromised.

Ease of learning is another aspect of this problem.  I like my yoga instructor because she doesn’t make it easy, she demands hard work but she’s quick to praise both the effort and the improvement that comes from it.  Many students came and went but this only reinforced the success of the ones who stuck it out.  This is the opposite of the everyone succeeds approach in the current education system.  Learning is not easy, nor should it be, but that doesn’t mean a teacher should be cruel or dismissive, quite the opposite actually (watch Whiplash for a complex look at this idea).  If learning is a challenge (and someone is trying to sell you something if they say it isn’t) then a teacher should offer an individualized and sympathetic means of accessing a discipline rather than making an already difficult task harder.  Empathy is implicit in teaching, but especially so when it’s between a sympathetic student and teacher – their shared ideals allow them to tackle ever more complicated learning on the road to mastery.  Not only is this an emotional support while dealing with difficulties, but it’s also an aid to communication.  Much less needs to be explicitly stated when you’re working with someone you understand.  I’d actually argue that mastery learning can’t happen without this relationship.

The concept of edutainment seems to have infected all levels of the education system.  Fun, happy learning where the teacher must provide so much entertainment value that students don’t even feel like they’re learning (!) is the mantra of modern education.  Expecting students to put up with difficult lessons and experience failure isn’t the way nowadays.  The vast majority of the coddled students I deal with wouldn’t have come back after the first week in my yoga class.

Perhaps the gee-wiz, ‘learning is fun and easy’ philosophy of education is really another attempt to undermine the pivotal personal relationship between teacher and student.  When students aren’t expected to overcome any difficulties and can’t fail you also don’t need to depend on the personal bond between teacher and student to encourage a student to withstand defeat, build resilience and eventually experience the kind of confidence that isn’t systemically assumed.

That muppet knows mastery learning!  The modern education
version would be, “just show up (optional)
and we’ll get you a diploma.”

I was looking for a challenge when I started yoga.  I was feeling stiff and old and I was willing to work at fixing it.  Being dared by my instructor to push beyond the obvious discomfort I was feeling only worked because I respected her approach to the practice.  The first time I found my toes again or got heels down in downward dog I was ecstatic.  It took me months to get there.

Almost a year later I weigh 20lbs less, my flexibility is always improving and I find yoga much less painful than it once did.  It wasn’t easy and I was tempted to quit a number of times.  The day after often felt like I’d been ‘hit by the yoga truck‘.  I was able to see improvement, but it happened slowly and sometimes I regressed.  Trust and respect in my instructor is what got me through the urge to quit early.  Why would my instructor spend all this time on her students who stick it out, pushing herself to demonstrate her practice in order to benefit us?

I’ve taken many aspects of my instructor’s practice and made it my own.  Her practice is uniquely her’s, but as her student I’ve been able to closely observe and internalize various aspects of her practice as well as her overall philosophy in order to develop my own yoga.  As a teacher my approach tends to be copied in part by like minded students (the incompatible ones aren’t even aware there is an approach, they think it’s all about facts).  It’s thrilling for me to see a student tackle a difficult problem and see a bit of myself in it – it’s almost like I’m the parent of their practice.

I speak with the voices of the sympathetic teachers in my life, any good student does, but if we continue to push for a systematized version of teaching that de-emphasizes the human connections through which we develop resiliency and master challenging learning, we’ll end up with students who are unable to do anything other than exist within an ineffective education system.

We should be celebrating differences in teachers because they all speak to different students and allow a wide variety of learners to find their own way to mastery.  The standardized, generic teacher who follows the lesson plan template using the educational philosophy of the moment is no teacher at all (though you sure could pay them less!), and they would be teaching to a standard student that doesn’t exist.  Had I walked into that on my first night of yoga I would have walked out again.

Academic Gatekeeping In a Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Accidental Engineers: Making Technology And Engineering Accessible to All

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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The Illusion of a Functioning Public Education System in a Pandemic


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Neurodiversity is Useful But Not Worth Nurturing



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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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