Student Driven Curriculum

One of the nice things about teaching computer technology is that you tend to get a lot of fanboys in the class.  They’re already giddy about the subject and keen to explore it (something sadly missing from many English students).  I’m hoping to harness that experience and energy this semester in senior computer engineering.

Ontario Comp-Tech, everything from programming to robotics!

Last summer I took my final, senior computer technology AQ, and we did a fair bit of focusing on curriculum expectations.  Those expectations are so broad that finding a teacher who is an expert in all of them would be pretty much impossible.  Fortunately for me I love being taught by my students (I’m as giddy and curious about comp-tech as they are).

Rather than present yet another linear, teacher-centric semester plan, we’re going to have a con-fab and talk about how to address the curriculum expectations.  They are trapped in the prehistoric tree sap of Ontario Ministry of Education documents which, at best, make for dry, inaccessible reading for students.  To make it accessible I summarized the key points in a prezi.  When the semester starts tomorrow we’re going to self organize around what we need and how we’re going to reach the remarkably diverse goals of the computer technology curriculum.

Hopefully the prezi format will make the goals of the course more accessible and allow us to plan out an approach that gets to all the expectations while allowing students to self direct their learning – a vital skill in an engineer.

There are threads in the course that run through the many diverse fields found in the curriculum document.  The design process is one of those keys to engineering that will serve us well while we plan out how to approach our learning.

The engineering design process is basically a forced feed-back loop that self corrects, leading to a solution.  It would work on everything from essay design to project management – it also leads to successful engineering projects.

If it works for NASA, it’ll work for us!

In our case we’re going to apply it to the curriculum of our courses.  Based on the time we have, access to equipment and experience in the class, we’re going to create a customized, student driven curriculum plan that (I hope) will also encourage student buy in.

I want to make our lab into a maker space, so my focus is going to be on facilitating equipment in order to feed hands on engineering projects.  As long as students are effectively exploring computer technology and expanding both their interests and the breadth of their knowledge, then I’m happy with the process.  My role will be to amplify their learning rather than direct it, and I hope to start that process with a self directed semester plan that we generate together next week.

While I’m at it, I’ll also get some feedback on my expansion plans to computer technology.  Who better to ask than my target audience?

The Learning Expert & The Skilled Master

The other day a tech-handy colleague said over coffee, “I should get my tech qualifications in computers, what did you have to do to take the course?”  I replied that I had to provide five or more years of industry experience and recognized qualifications in order to qualify for the training; he seemed put off.

I understand his response, I battled the same one when I was applying to get qualified.  It was a kind of knee jerk reaction, a ‘how dare you ask for specific qualifications!  I’m an expert learner with years of educational experience!’  I dug up my references and certifications and went through the process after putting away that ego.

This has me thinking about the duality of my educational background.  From high school dropout I attended a year of college before dropping out.  I then apprenticed as a millwright and returned to high school to graduate.  This eventually led me to university.  After university I was once again working in the trades as a automotive technician before eventually finding my way into information technology and finally teaching.  In the trades I worked in mastery focused experiential learning situations that were intense and demanding.  Academics were also demanding, but in a different way which usually had more to do with figuring out how to feed myself.  I got paid to apprentice in a trade, you are a customer when you are working through post secondary academics.  I saw a number of people being passed through that process simply because they wouldn’t quit.  You saw less of that in the trades because if you couldn’t do it, you often got injured and/or fired.

I took English and history as my teachables because it was easier to simply toss my degree into the ring than it was to cobble together all those technology requirements.  Most teachers in a high school are academically produced, the minority get into teaching through experiential/trades learning.  Those academically produced teachers are expert students themselves, they had to be or they wouldn’t have survived the educational process.  An expert student is as much a politician as they are a learner, they’ve figured out how to survive in what is really an arbitrary social construct.

Having worked on the experiential and the academic sides of learning, I’m now trying to define the differences in the two types of learning:

Experiential versus discovery learning.  When you’re learning a stochastic (experiential, non-linear) skill, you
need an expert in that experience to guide your progress.  When you’re learning academics you need an
expert learner to show you how to self direct your learning and survive the system.

I’ll talk about fundamental learning skills in another post, but in this case I’m focusing on the secondary learner who has already developed fundamental learning skills.  That student is capable of self-directing their learning, and in an information rich world like the one appearing around us this is a vital portion of their engagement in the learning process.  Where once we expected students to sit in rows and be portioned out information, nowadays teachers should be facilitating self-directed learning.  A 21st Century teacher’s greatest ability is their own expertise in information fluency, which they provide in order to produce similarly self-directed learners.

That’s academic‘ has long meant a course of action that has no practical purpose, but academics do generally produce self-directed learners who have had to survive the vicissitudes of many education systems over the years and have become self-taught in spite of the best efforts of many of their educators.

In management and education the goals are
abstract, fabricated and ultimately political

In comparison to my academic background my experiential learning has been uncertain and demanding with no guarantee of success.  The tension between success in a fabricated situation and success in a genuine situation that allows for failure became more apparent to me as I proceeded through university.  Matt Crawford brings this up in Shop Class As Soulcraft when he refers to the magical thinking conjured up by management to justify their decisions.  Education, like business management, is a social construct and produces what Crawford describes as ‘psychedelic’ justification for its own existence.  As his quote here suggests, when you’re learning experientially in a realistic environment you don’t get to say, ‘hey! great job!’ if you’re looking at your dismembered finger laying on the floor; reality doesn’t put up with that crap.

As someone who has bounced back and forth between both sides of the education spectrum I can see the value and challenges in both.  What surprises me is how unwilling academic educators are to appreciate the advantages found in the hard-knocks school of experiential learning compared to the complex political dance of the academic classroom.

I know a lot of teachers who get angry with Shaw’s pithy little quote about a character who is upset with his writing teacher, but I know a lot of teachers who teach writing who don’t do it themselves.  I know a lot of teachers in a number of subjects that don’t practice what they teach; it’s hard not to see some truth in that statement.

Watching some teachers struggle with the surging availability of information makes me wonder what they’ll do when an algorithm is created that does everything they do (I give it ten years).  There will come a time when our learning management systems become sufficiently intuitive and make the learning expert teacher redundant (while simultaneously personalizing education in a dramatic way).

It’s a tough thing to be made irrelevant, ask many factory workers.  The teachers who will avoid being replaced by software in this inevitable future are the experiential masters who are guiding learning through doing, yet another reason why I reopened my experiential past and got tech-qualified.  It’s too bad that not everyone practices what they teach.

Cookie Cutter ‘Formal’ Exams

We were recently told that our board is moving to a formal exam for every course model. We’re told that this needs to happen because if we don’t use formal exam days for formal exams, we’ll lose the days.  Perhaps we should lose the days.  Formal exams are an echo from the past.  Desperately trying to ‘keep’ them by forcing them on everyone isn’t the best approach to learning, it never was.  Clinging to status quo thinking seldom produces outstanding results in anything.

This conundrum once again has me feeling the friction between academic and technology classrooms.  To the majority of subjects in our school, an exam for every class simply means setting up more desks and running off more photocopies.

One of our auto-shop teachers tried running a ‘formal’ exam this semester.  He had tinkered with a car and then had students diagnose it.  Since he doesn’t have a 24 bay garage, he has to have students approach the car one at a time in order to diagnose it.  Because he is expected to have all students in the room at the same time (exams are blocked into two hour scheduled time periods, one per day), he had students come up one at a time to diagnose and resolve the problems while the rest wrote written tests that  did not reflect how students had learned in his class during the semester.

Cookie cutter exam schedules for cookie cutter learners.

The formal exam structure didn’t work at all in the shop.  The first kid up shouted out, “do you want me to change out this fuse?” and suddenly everyone in the room knew an answer.  It then kept happening.  When you’ve been teaching students to collaborate on diagnostics all semester, why would you suddenly have a summative that demands they don’t?  Even if that’s what a ‘formal’ exam is?

All that effort to create a genuine assessment within a standardized exam structure was wasted, but that doesn’t stop us from being expected to bring meaningful assessment to all our technology students in this cookie cutter final exam format.  How meaningful can this two hour window be when our courses are tactile, stochastic and experiential?  In a class where there is a linear progression from question to answer, and were the skills are assessed on paper this works a treat, but not in tech.

Coop avoids the exam problem by creating individual summatives (each student has an interview).  Of course this means that each teacher is handling 25+ hours of assessment for each class they teach.  I’m surprised that they can stuff all that meaningful assessment into a single exam week.  While this resolves the problem of trying to fit individualized exams into cookie cutter academic schedules, it doesn’t address the complexity of creating an entire class set of experiential problems of equal complexity (you couldn’t have the same problem because the first student out would happily tell the rest what they are about to face).  Creating individualized, immersive simulation for each student might be the ultimate in summatives, but a factory styled school system isn’t remotely designed to produce that kind of individualized learning opportunity.

Is this what an exam for every course looks like?  Kinda like
the floor of a very serious factory, or a university…

Would I like to create a ‘formal’ exam that offers my computer students real-world, immersive, experiential computer technology problem solving?  You bet, but expecting me to do that in a two hour window for dozens of students at a time suggests that the actual goal here isn’t meaningful and genuine so much as generic and formulaic, like most ‘formal’ exams.

‘Formal’ exam is code for a university-styled, written, academic assessment.  It typically involves lots of photocopying and students sitting in rows writing answers to the same questions.  The teacher then spends a lot of time trying to assign value to this dimensionless form of assessment.  Like many other aspects of high school, formal exams are high school teachers imitating the university professors they wished they could be.

For hundreds of thousands of dollars with corporate sponsorship
and post-secondary support, Skills Ontario championships
create meaningful, experiential tech-assessment.

If you’re looking for an example of an immersive, complex, skills based assessment, we have a fantastic home-grown example.  Skills Canada does a great job of creating experiential assessment of technology knowledge and tactile abilities, but with million dollar budgets and support from all levels of government, private business and post secondary education, they exist in a different world from my classroom.  They’re also catering to the top 1% of 1% of technology students.  I have to cater to the other 99.9% with nothing like that kind of budget.

I’ve been mulling over how I’m supposed to create meaningful assessment for my technology students in that two hour time slot and I’m stumped.  No budget is forthcoming to purchase equipment and tools so that I can have every student doing the same thing at the same time – I don’t even have enough screwdrivers for all students to be building computers at the same time, let alone the computer parts needed to build them.  Those would be computer parts that some students would not ground themselves properly when installing.  Funding wouldn’t just need to be there for tools, it would also have to be there to replace breakage due to incompetence.

Technology teachers already struggle trying to explain technology costs to academics with only a vague understanding and little experience in apprenticeship and the trades.  When students are heavy handed or absent minded it costs us money to replace what they break, yet we struggle to get funded on par with academic courses that do most of their work on paper.

Now we face the prospect of being forced to reduce our tactile, experiential, immersive learning into cookie cutter summatives that jive with the pre-existing academic scheduling.  Just when you think we might be evolving beyond the 20th Century factory model of education it rears its ugly head and demands reductionist assessment for all.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we were looking to diversify summatives instead of cramming them all into the same schedule that existed fifty years ago?

Cultivating Genius & the Zen Teacher

A recent issue of WIRED has an article on student directed learning called: The Next Steve Jobs, which asks some hard questions about teaching and learning during an information revolution.

The idea of regimented learning in rows in classrooms is so obviously indicative of 19th Century factory thinking that it begs for change, but many traditional education organizations have so much invested in the status quo that they will spend all our time and money hammering people into system-serving standardized thinking.  Instead of developing the skills vital for learning in an information revolution, we cling to politics and habits.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in a poor Mexican school that wasn’t serving a genius in their mix.

You have to wonder how many of our students are marginalized and never see their own potential because we are wringing our hands about how not-average they are and how they don’t respond appropriately to being indoctrinated by an archaic education system.

The article leans on technology, brain science and student centred and directed learning to bring out real genius in a student who was otherwise disengaged.  The brain research is fairly straightforward (though ignored by most education systems):

“The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.

Neuroscience has proven this again and again, but education stubbornly holds to an information limited, rigidly programmed learning system because these traditions support the political makeup of that education system.

“If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”

Mitra’s research still assumes a teaching presence that will bump students along when they run into repetitive habitual patterns.  The key is a good leading question and then that dogged support as students find their own way to an answer.  The urge to interfere in this process in order to make learning clinical and exact is great, and many teachers do this with the best possible intentions, but what they are actually doing is taking away the student’s opportunity to internalize learning.

Learning is a messy process, at its best teaching is a subtle presence focused on producing a fecund environment for fearless experimentation and research.  An idea is only learned when it is internalized by the learner and that can only happen experientially.  Any time you see a teacher talking at students there isn’t any learning happening.

Faith in the self direction of a learner is something we’ve tried to remove from every aspect of the education system.  The system becomes the intent rather than the learner’s learning.  Words like curriculum, assessment and standardized data become watchwords for how effective the system is as a system, it all has nothing to do with learning.  

Many of the fads we embrace in education around self-directed learning are little more than smoke and mirrors – the appearance of self-direction in order to fool the student into engagement with otherwise rigid systemic need.  This is exactly why a genius in a poor Mexican school couldn’t engage enough to show her talents until her teacher threw away the paradigm.

Sand in the Sahara

The other day I was trying to work out how experiential and academic learning interact.  In the process I also found myself assuming things about fundamental learning skills that don’t necessarily exist in many modern classrooms:

Foundational skills are changing now that information is no longer scarce

It used to be that literacy and numeracy were the student skills we felt they needed to succeed.  Information fluency was less important because the gatekeepers of knowledge (teachers) and the limited nature of published paper meant you didn’t have access to what you needed to know so you needed an expert to direct you.  In a world with limited information having a guide direct you to a scarce resource is invaluable.

When I was in high school information was hard to come by.  You needed access to a limited number of books and if you had a question a teacher would provide you access to that information.  Because of scarcity, verbal transmission of information (teacher’s mouth to student’s ear) made sense.  Many teachers still cling to that model because it’s the only one they’ve ever known and they identify their profession through that process.  In 2014 they they are trying to sell sand in what has become the Sahara.

Information is abundant and accessible with only a basic understanding of the technology that provides it.  A modern student who looks to a teacher to give them facts has been conditioned by teachers to be helpless.  Teachers who jealously guard and distribute knowledge in predigital ways are the ones crying about how technology lets students plagiarize or collaborate with each other, or share information – it’s really all the same thing.  Students who are able to find, critically assess and organize information are the ones modelling 21st Century skills.  The ones who have been taught to be passive receivers in a sea of information are a failure in an education system set on maintaining traditional habits.

Considering how information fluency has changed from a passive to an active pursuit (in much the same way that passive TV watching has evolved into active video game participation), it would behoove the education system to recognize the need to integrate information fluency into early education in order to produce self-directed, empowered learners who are able to leverage the ocean of information that surrounds them.  Ignoring this new fundamental skill is producing whole generations of digital serfs.

There is no doubt that literacy, numeracy and the basic socialization of early school is still the foundation, but upon that foundation we should be building information fluency in order to produce people who are not overwhelmed or habituated into a dangerously simplistic relationship with information technology.  By the time a student reaches secondary school they should be sufficiently skilled in literacy, numeracy and information fluency to be able to self direct many aspects of their learning.  In that environment a classroom teacher would very much be a facilitator rather than a traditional teacher, but it’s never going to happen if we don’t take information fluency as seriously as we do literacy and numeracy.

Building foundational learning skills should result in empowered, self-directed learners who can
survive and thrive in an information rich world.

Procedural Learning

From Dusty World in December of 2014:

You can learn anywhere, but some places are better than others

We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I’m not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don’t consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We’ve build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren’t going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I’d initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn’t like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I’d like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I’d often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I’m not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don’t spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie’s equipment if you don’t appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.

You don’t have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.

When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you’re going to run into engagement problems.  I’ll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it’ll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I’ll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won’t do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you’re some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, “the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline.”  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn’t give a care that there isn’t a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.

I’ve tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I’m speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they’ve said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I’m amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.

You’re Supposed To Tell Me The Answer

“You’re supposed to tell me the answer, you’re the teacher, it’s your job!”

Isn’t that a sad expectation from a senior high school student?  After twelve years in education this is what they think the process is about.  I wonder how many teachers it took to embed this thinking in these students.

My considered response to this was, “it’s not my job to give you the answer.  If I give you an answer it isn’t yours.  It’s my job to ask you the right questions and give you the tools you need to answer them yourself.”  This isn’t a handing off of the responsibilities of teaching, and it isn’t easier than giving students answers by talking at them each period; this isn’t a case of a teacher becoming a facilitator.

Part of setting up the right question is carefully considering the student’s knowledge and where it can go next.  The right question is a tricky proposition.  Your classroom relationship with students has to contain a lot of two way communication and observation if you’re going to get a handle on where they are in their learning, you’re never doing that when you’re talking at students giving them all the answers.  You can’t frame questions that are in a student’s zone of proximal development without a lot of feedback and observation.  Teachers who talk at students and hand out answers and information like candy have little idea of where student understanding begins or ends. 

The other side of this equation is providing tools for learning.  This is a bit more complicated in an engineering class as I have to bring in a lot of equipment for student use.  That equipment needs to be open and accessible so that students are the ones setting it up and making it functional.  I was amazed this year when the vast majority of my senior computer engineering students had never partitioned a hard drive and installed an operating system.  That kind of nuts and bolts work when building a functional learning environment is vital if students are going to begin to take responsibility for their learning.

Responsibility is at the bottom of this.  Learning isn’t something that you do to someone, though many of our students believe this to be the case.  Learning never happens unless the student doing the learning is active in the process, no one ever learned something from being told.

We’re back at it again tomorrow, and I’m still working to convince my senior engineers that they are the ones creating their learning, not me, I do a lot to curation though.

More Than A Book

I’ve got a nine year old son who is a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series on Nickelodeon.  It’s a huge improvement over his Spongebob period and a very intelligently written series.  I am guilty of watching it over his shoulder from time to time.

This Splinter was once a man who grew up in a family clan of ninjas who benefited from a lifetime of rich, traditional learning.  The action movie one read a book.

In the cartoon Splinter, the turtles’ surrogate father and sensei, is the descendent of a ninja clan.  He had been trained as a martial artist his entire life.  When he was mutated into a rat, he used this deep mastery to train the turtles.  Splinter is a master who is both funny, approachable and very strict.  His relationship with the turtles is deep and nuanced.

Because of this fixation with TMNT I found myself sitting in a movie theatre with my son watching Michael Bay’s ‘live’ action movie this summer.  The Splinter in the film is actually a rat.  When he got mutated (into a bigger rat) he found a book on ninjitsu and trained the turtles.  That the kids watching this film think that this is a viable avenue into mastering martial arts points to a lot of things wrong with the world today.  A lot of that thinking is driven by the ease of access to information championed by digital technology.  But information isn’t knowledge and it certainly isn’t mastery.


I like the concept, it’s empowering, but even the best self
directed learning is going to pale in comparison to what
you’ll develop in a rich social context.

Computers have been a hobby for me since I was ten.  I did a lot of learning on my own out of books and magazines, but the process of taking courses and certifications to become a qualified technician pushed me well out of my comfort zone and forced me to become familiar with aspects of computers that I otherwise would have stayed away from because I find them difficult.  Working with experts also let me see how they fill in the massive spaces between information.  How we manifest knowledge is more important than the knowledge itself.

I’ve always been interested in writing and philosophy, but taking degrees that oversaw skills development and demanded ongoing demonstration of my improvement with a variety of experts created something that no number of books could.

Knowledge is the start of the process, not the end.

The idea of mastery learning implies that a master passes it on to you.  My professors and mentors did a lot more for me than simply pass on information, they also showed me how it might manifest itself.  Modelling is a mighty powerful means of passing on knowledge, and you get none of it out of text.

If someone told me that I could get the same thing my degree gave me out of a book I’d call them a fool, though many people call higher education a waste of time purely on those grounds.  Information is accessible and cheap, so teach yourself!  You’ll only be as effective as your teacher, but hey, it’s inexpensive.  This feeds modern value theory that devalues human capital in favour of machine capital, in this case championing information over experience.

Mastery learning requires something more than a book.  I’m not surprised that the team of writers for that movie didn’t get that though, looking at the quality of their script.


It’s a trap! But watch Nickelodeon’s TV series, it’s brilliant!


The Tyranny of Collaboration

I was talking to a digital native the other day in English class about Shakespeare.  This particular Millennial is a top 5%er who will go on to do great things.  She was wondering who the people who wrote Shakespeare were.  I was surprised at the question as I’ve always thought one person wrote Shakespeare.  I even have trouble with the classist conspiracy types who think an actor couldn’t be that smart so a noble must have done it.  Having read a lot of Shakespeare (all of it actually) over decades, I know his voice, and it isn’t a voice by committee; that kind of brilliance doesn’t happen around a meeting table.

I thought it interesting that the Millennial mind assumes collaboration, infecting her own generation’s constant interaction across history.  The internet has turned the digital natives who live in it into a hive mind.  They can’t form an opinion without socializing or turning to the internet for information. Their waking lives are awash in constant communication.  They describe moments ‘trapped’ in their own mind when they are unplugged as boring.

The modern mind is open in a way that someone from 20 years ago, let alone 400 years ago, would find alarming. Our marvellous information revolution has not only made our data public, it is also changing what we think we are individually capable of.  Needless to say, if we start thinking that individual genius can’t happen in the quiet of our own minds, it won’t.

A smart, capable digital native can’t conceive of a single mind being capable of producing great works, they must be the result of never ending communication and collaboration.  A couple of centuries from now people who have been immersed in digital communications for generations will wander around The Van Gogh Museum or read Macbeth and think that people from back then must have been mental giants to do these things alone, that or they’ll reinvent history as each age does, in its own image, seeing collaboration and minds peeled open under a barrage of constant communication where none were.

Education hops on the back of this communication revolution (flood?) and has integrated collaboration into just about every aspect of learning.  Leveraging technology to find new and exciting ways of collaborating is one of the pillars of early Twenty-First Century education.  Students have lost the idea of personal mind-space thanks to current communications habits.  The classroom, one of the last places where a student might find privacy in their own heads has been crushed under the weight of expectations from this social shift.  Much of this is shrouded in talk of engagement and preparing students for the modern world.  I just hope that preparation has real advantages for the student in terms of personal development.  I’m starting to doubt that.

Brainstorming about the advantages of deep thinking in your own head – from an ENG3u class two years ago…

Archetypal Emotional Response In High Stress Learning

An editorial piece I read in Bike Magazine a while back has stayed with me.  In it the author (a veteran motorcycle trainer) was describing how a rider’s emotional response to high stress situations limits their ability to learn from them.  It struck me because I still catch myself falling into both of the archetypal mind traps he describes.  I now struggle to get beyond them and adopt the clinical approach of a master learner that he suggests.

In a high-stakes, emotional environment like riding you can’t be trowing tantrums or assigning blame (though many do), you need to be calm and aware in order to both assess a situation as its happening and accurately recall and learn from it later.  Emotion is a natural response to high stress situations but it often gets in the way of attaining mastery.

The author of the piece (I’m still looking for it but I think I lent the magazine out) suggests that people fall into archetypal behaviors when they are stressed and emotional. These behaviours prevent you from making coherent decisions in the moment as well as preventing progress by hiding memory details behind ego and emotion.  The two archetypes we fall back into are child and parent.  Since we’re all familiar with these roles it only makes sense that we’d revert to them when we are under pressure.

The child throws tantrums and reacts selfishly, aggressively and emotionally.  People falling into this mind-set shout and cry at the circumstances and focus on blaming others.   The child is emotional and blind to just about everything around them except the perceived slight.  This approach tends to be dangerously over-reactive.  Have you ever seen a student blow up in an asymmetrical way over a minor issue?  They have fallen into the child archetype emotional trap.

The parent mind-set seems like an improvement but it is just as effective at blocking learning.  The parent shakes their head disapprovingly and focuses on passing judgement.  You’ll see someone in this mind-set tutting and rolling their eyes at people.  The parent is focused on passing judgement loudly and publicly.  You can probably see how easy it is for teachers to fall into this one.

The child is selfish, emotional and immediate.  The parent wraps themselves in a false sense of superiority that makes the user feel empowered when they might otherwise feel helpless.  Both archetypes attempt to mitigate frustration and ineffectiveness behind emotion and ego.

I’ve seen students stressed out by exams or other high-stakes learning situations fall into these traps but it took that motorbike instructor to clarify how students can lose their ability to internalize learning by falling into these archetypes.  He describes riders who shout and yell at someone cutting them off.  They are responding to their own poor judgement and lack of attention with the emotional outburst.  Suddenly finding themselves in danger, they lash out emotionally in order to cover up their own inadequacies.  That emotional blanket effectively hides any chance of reviewing and learning from a situation objectively.  

The parent adopts that judgmental stance.  Last summer I had a senior student who rides a motorcycle get involved in an accident.  He had bad road rash and was bruised all over.  He went with the parent approach.  The woman who hit him was panicked and frightened because she hadn’t seen him.  Her own mother had been hurt in a similar motorcycle accident and she felt a lot of guilt over being the cause of this one.  The student said ‘she came out of no-where’.  I said, ‘that’s odd, cars weight thousands of pounds.  I’ve never seen one appear out of nowhere before.’  Rather than review his own actions and perhaps learn to develop better 360° awareness, the student was happy to piggy-back on the driver’s emotional response and pass judgement.  He never felt any responsibility for that accident and still believes that cars can come out of nowhere.

I enjoy riding because it is a difficult, dangerous craft that it is very important to do well.  In pressurized learning situations you need an alert, open mind.  I’ve never once seen this the focus of consideration in school (except perhaps in extracurricular sports).  What we do instead is try and remove any pressure and cater to emotionality rather than teaching students to master it.

Other Links:
Comparing Teacher PD to Motorcycle Training
Training Fear and Ignorance out of Bikecraft
Archetypal Pedagogy