Debates of the Future

The data wranglers sat in a loose circle behind the cameras frantically shaping the data clouds around their candidates. The debating format hadn’t changed too much, but the show certainly had. Parties no longer threw candidates into the ring alone, a successful debate required a huge, group commitment. Candidates, party members of even the general public throwing in prioritized, well timed comments could make or break at debate in the new age.

The lights in the studio blazed on the candidates while they took great care to stay away from the dreaded O.R.L.. Out Right Lies became the killer app, as long as you had a good wrangler and a responsive party. Stating an ORL was a game killer, especially if your wrangler could get the pertinent data on the screen while your opponent was still speaking it. At best you looked ignorant, at worst manipulative and dishonest, if caught speaking a lie as the facts swirled around you to the contrary.
Rehearsals for debates now more closely resembled a football practice, with researchers, commenters and wranglers, than it did the solo focus of pre-crowd sourced debates; debates were now a team sport. What you needed in your party leader was someone who knew what they stood for, didn’t have a lot of mental space for playing a crowd and could reach out and make meaningful contact with people with their rhetoric. The idea of gaming democracy was so fifty years ago.
The real danger came from the audience. The peripheries of the camera shots in three dimensions belonged to the digital crowd. Old fashioned rules surrounding civilized conduct were still strictly enforced, but comments from credible sources carried weight, and if the crowd trended a comment high enough, it could actually impact the size of the data cloud around a candidate. Parties no longer ignored a credible analyst, they feared them. Positive comments could trend very well, but a high trending negative comment could cut like a knife. When the liar tag pushed to the very edge of a candidate in a previous debate, ultimately costing them the election, politicians realized that telling mistruths was a disaster in the making, especially if you were pinned to the lie while you were still speaking it.
Next time around they all tried to avoid saying anything specific, only to be turned on by the mob once again. When given a chance, voters are happy to call their bluff, and did. You can’t speak the nonsense of empty words, or mob mockery would quickly follow. Say what you mean, and mean something. Switching party positions just to try and win votes was likely to get you a face full of contrary video clips from your own lips from previous months. Being a consistent, values driven politician who acted on stated beliefs was your own real protection.
The debate raged on, politics laid bare. Trending thoughts, data in the form of text notes, video links, charts and other statistics appeared and peeled off into separate dialogs on secondary and tertiary feeds, sometimes trending back onto the main feed again. The audience watching the debate could follow the main feed, which looked a lot like the old television version, as it followed the speakers back and forth, or they could follow trending data, a specific candidate or manually direct themselves to any of the camera feeds available.
Data stormed around the candidates as they had to lay it all bare, nothing held back, egged on by the digital mob; gladiators in a fearsomely complicated storm of ideas that everyone participated in.

Media Arts Lab 2.0

Redesigning media arts to create, not consume

prezi.com/9ow8h2urx1va/dream-media-arts-lab/

The Macs in our media arts lab are getting old and plastic.  They can’t push the high-def video coming out of our latest cameras, so it’s time for a hardware upgrade, but it’s not just about the hardware.

One of the biggest problems we face in our static, desktop centred lab with ordered rows of imacs are the bad habits students fall back into.  Because our lab is like every other lab in the school (factory like rows of desktops in Pink Floyd The Wallesque rows of conformity),  students do what they usually do in a computer lab; they zone out and become passive media consumers.  Passive TV viewing has evolved into passive computer use.

In a media arts class where they are supposed to be in a creative, active mind-space, this is an ongoing class management headache.  Battling the Facebook zombies and youtube droolers becomes an ongoing headache in the typical computer lab, especially with the weakest students who tend to be the most non-experimental and habitual in their technology use.

I’ve looked at this from a typical school IT/lab point of view, advocating for a mini-lab concept that emphasizes diversified, mobile technology, but this is the media-arts angle.

Many of the ideas are similar, but the idea of mobile, adaptable media tools also spurred the realization that students in front of an online desktop act much the way that students in front of a television do; they become passive, unquestioning media consumers.  In a media arts lab this is an ongoing crisis.

There is the culture of entertainment that most digital natives subscribe to.  Computers with internet access are toys to be used for entertainment.  Their habitual use of computers at home and throughout their school careers have only enforced these bad habits.  Unfortunately, those habits extend to most educators too.  From PD days where the presenter assumes that if you’re on a computer you’re not paying attention, to teachers booking labs to have a period off, computers aren’t considered anything other than an entertaining distraction by just about everyone.

We then get them into media arts where they are creating large amounts of digital media, and most of them are trapped in their bad habits and social expectations of technology.  The fact that school related computer lab time is often unsupervised only adds to the problem.

Trying to break them out of that rut in a room with rows of desktops isn’t working.  Time to free up the tech, and break the passivity.

The Most Underused Resource In Education

*** in Ontario teachers have to undergo an in-class review every five years by one of the school administration ***

The other day our six month pregnant one contract/LTO teacher was running around in a panic trying to get dodgey board laptops to work with dodgey board projectors on the dodgey board network.  Her panic was the result of a VP coming into her class for her review.  I’ve seen this happen with many teachers, young and old; the panic over admin coming in to review their teaching practices.

The stress of poor board technology practices aside, this review of teaching practices by admins bothers me on a couple of levels.

Back in the day, when I was in millwright training, my old Jamaican mentor told me the story of our department boss.  He had a mechanical background, but he was incredibly lazy.  His fame came from being able to slide under a truck and fall asleep on night shift for hours at a time.  He was so bad at the work that the company had no choice but to promote him into management.  I’ve since come to realize that this was a pretty pessimistic view of how managers become managers, but as an impressionable nineteen year old listening to a man who never told me a lie, it seemed the truth.  I’ve always been cautious about management as a result, never assuming that they are somehow superior because of their title.

There is no doubt that leadership in education is a vital component, and we all hope that the people playing those administrative parts do it for all the right reasons (and not because they were such a disaster in the classroom that it was better for them to manage).  What I don’t understand is why admin are mandated to come into a teacher’s class and somehow assess their ability to teach.  What makes an administrator qualified to meaningfully review classroom teaching?  Whether an administrator opted out of the classroom because they found it tedious, difficult or simply wanted a change, the simple truth is that they aren’t teaching, and in many cases didn’t for very long before they stepped into a management role. Asking them to review something they dropped after a short period of time seems… odd.  Administrators are generally not master teachers.

I have no trouble with sharing my practice and would encourage teachers to experience each other’s classrooms at every possible opportunity, this isn’t about advocating for a closed classroom, and I’m not advocating for the removal of teacher in-class review, just who is doing it.

In most cases vice principals and principals take on these roles not because they were expert teachers, but because their interests lie elsewhere.  This would suggest that teaching was never their strong suit.  Taking on school leadership roles is a very heavy load, and I can appreciate the fact that some teachers want to put the classroom behind them and take that on; it’s important work and a great challenge.  What I can’t understand is why those same people are now mandated to sit in on a teacher’s classes and review their teaching skills.

In the case of a new teacher, it seems like it might help and offer them a bit of mentorship in the process, but what about the case of the twenty five year veteran of the classroom?  The master teacher who has not only survived but thrived in the role of teacher?  How does a VP with five years in-class experience assess that?  Do they even know what they’re looking at?

Those same veteran teachers are the most underused resource in education.  Department headships, like VP and principal positions, are administrative, they offer little in the way of teaching focused career enhancement.  Telling a senior teacher that this should be their focus isn’t honouring the expertise they have developed from years working with students actually teaching.

It might seem like a rather simple idea, but why don’t those senior teachers take on this role of in-class review and mentorship?  Having a senior teacher from my own department drop in for a lesson and a talk would be instructive for me, demonstrate respect for their skills and allow expert teachers to express their mastery.  It would also create a continuous sense of valid professional development within departments.  Instead of a fairly pointless and closely monitored five year review by people who don’t even want to work in a classroom any more, how about an ongoing senior teacher review (20+ years in the classroom in order to take on that role).

The administrative arm of things does important work, but to say they have the experience and skill to determine what a front line teacher is doing right or wrong in a classroom is ridiculous.  Instead of driving our senior teachers into administration as if that is the only opportunity for ‘advancement’, why not recognize mastery in a very challenging environment, and encourage those with that expertise to share what they know?

What Do You Take With You?

Part 1: What do you take with you into the future?

We live in a time of radical transformative social change. One generation’s experience is markedly different from the next. How we communicate with each other dictates our social structures, and we are in the middle of a communications revolution.  In times like this many traditions and habits fall by the wayside. If you have to cling to an ideal in order to ensure it survives this sort of disruptive evolution, what ideal do you cling to? After hearing a colleague describe themselves as unionist, and experiencing my own fall from grace, union isn’t what I choose to protect at all costs.  In fact, like many other institutions founded at the dawn of industry, unions and local boards are beginning to appear less and less able to deal effectively with our times.

I didn’t become a teacher to support unions, I became a teacher to support educational excellence and hone my profession.  Protecting education means protecting educational workers, but protecting educational workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. I was initially hesitant to become active in my union because of their blanket coverage of all members, regardless of competence. The occupy movement and the radicalization of economics in the past few years pushed me into action; at least unions offered protection from this short sighted narcissism. So many people are happy to give away their rights in order to dream of being rich while being made serfs. My union offered me a political mechanism to fight that idiocy.

I don’t join things easily, I tend to skepticism, but OSSTF claimed moral high ground on so many issues that I couldn’t help but become a believer. What’s not to like about an organization that claims democracy and is founded on the idea that wealth should be fairly divided and members should consider the common good before their own?

When times were good accounts were managed well.  Grievances were dealt with, expectations of the membership were minimal, people focused on the important work at hand. In the past year we’ve come face to face with a government that appears to have no moral centre whatsoever, and a public that is more than willing to be lied to in order to become incensed with us.  The resultant mess has me asking some hard questions about the antiquated organizations involved in our education system.

There is a lot of history tangled up in how we manage education in Ontario, and I don’t think it’s creating a transparent, representative system. We’ve got local boards that don’t actual bargain with their employees anymore, we’ve got local unions that don’t actually bargain for their members anymore, we’ve got a College of Teachers who got chucked into the mix the last time a psychotic government decided to play fast and loose with education, we’ve got a Minister of Education who has more in common with Mussolini than John A. MacDonald, and carnage across the province with strike days, almost strike days, crippled extracurriculars and frustrated citizens on all sides. If you think this has been well managed by any of the combatants involved, you must be crazy. I argue that this is the result of a tangled, historical organizational mess, and it’s time to move Ontario’s education system out of a Victorian mindset.

In what follows I’m considering alternatives that actually protect education workers (what we have now obviously does not), and puts the focus on our profession rather than the antiquated political structures around it.

Part 2: Behind The Times

The stumbling approach to this last round of bargaining suggests that unions are having real trouble dealing with twenty first century realities. From social media causing a surprise grassroots movement that bypassed provincial executive plans to a stubborn refusal to change their ancient communications habits, unions in general and mine in particular have looked like confused Victorian gentlemen at a rave.


Local boards, like union locals are in even more trouble.  They have been made redundant, looking on as the provincial ministry directly bargains with provincial union organizations. There is no local bargaining in Ontario any more. With so many vestigial political interests around the table it’s no wonder that Ontario’s education bargaining has been a mess this year. Perhaps it’s time for a historical cleanup.

I’m now wondering what Ontario education would look like without local political interests like boards and unions, assuming that we can find other ways to protect this vital resource in a centrally bargained environment. The old players certainly aren’t protecting quality of education, in this past round of bargaining they haven’t done anything at all except watch as provincial heavy weights speak over their heads.

This questioning began when @banana29 shared this article that questions the value of unions in Ontario education.  If you can get past Wente’s heavy handed right wing propaganda in the first few paragraphs, the piece asks some hard questions about the role of unions in maintaining status quo in an education system that struggles to keep up with our times. Her intent is to dismantle public education and infect it with market interests (it is the Globe & Mail), my intentions are quite different.

Part 3: Wente Article Response:

Technology In Education and institutional drag

Wente makes some  pretty simplistic arguments for technology in education. If you think Khan Academy is the future of education then you’re about as pedagogically sophisticated as a donkey. Having said that, technological implementation in education has been slowed at every turn by boards and unions, both of whom have frantically told teachers not to use new communications mediums to communicate with and teach students.  Running at the speed of the slowest adopters of technology is no way to run a relevant education system.

Technology being used in classrooms lags years behind what students experience everywhere else, and doesn’t begin to prepare students for the rapidly changing world they are graduating into.  Teachers struggle to engage students on antiquated software and hardware, and no one wants to consider what a teaching job beyond concrete walls looks like. It behooves the unions and boards to keep school in the classroom where the have a lock on how to manage education as a production line. Ask any teacher who has done elearning how their non-standard work hours become a real problem to both boards and unions.

Not only does this luddite thinking infect the classroom, but also the management of both unions and boards.  Communication with members remains firmly stuck in the last century. Video meetings? Shared online resources? Social media? These things are adopted hesitantly or actively discouraged by parochial thinking. Teachers using them then bypass local roadblocks because that is what modern communications are capable of. From unions trying to control a message to boards trying to limit student access to communications – information is flowing around these road blocks on smartphones and social media, yet they don’t realize how irrelevant their control mechanisms have become.

Instead of encouraging teachers to experiment with new technology, local interests tend to parrot panicky, unfounded broadcast media ideas about them. We are ruled by ignorance and paranoia when it comes to technology in education. The question is, how do we create an education system that can experiment and advance at a reasonable rate without being slowed by the insular thinking of its slowest adopters?

Can you protect education without a union?

In spite of its shortcomings Wente’s article did make me wonder, what would education look like in a future without a union/board system?  I speculate on this not as a means to dismantle, demean or weaken the profession. I am under no illusions, teaching needs to be protected from short sighted business-think, but after watching McGuinty’s Liberals gut years of collective bargaining I wonder if unions are the right social mechanism to protect us anymore. Could education prosper and even improve without union/board paradigms?

Centralizing control is happening already. Modern communications will continue to force this change whether unions or boards like it or not.  If we’re going to evolve from a parochial, historically restrained system to something adaptive and forward thinking, we need to think of a new way to organize and manage the vital social service that is education in Ontario.

Part 4: Education: an essential service

Vital is exactly what education is. A first rate education system means that all the other essential services (police, medical, fire) have less to do because the populace isn’t feral and desperate. A properly run education system means the vast majority of the population comes closer to expressing their potential. It means that socioeconomic status isn’t the prime breeder of crime and poor health; failure is less an excuse of circumstance. Good education means less people in jails, greater economic output and interested, active citizens powering our democracy. In this context, how could anyone not see education as an essential service?

Education should be declared an essential service. This automatically guarantees third party arbitrated contracts, which would mean that bargaining isn’t the wild west that it is now, and governments couldn’t simply bypass it with cynical, undemocratic laws like Bill 115. It would also mean that militant unions aren’t necessary because the system in place would be implicitly fairly bargained. 

Arbitrated bargaining would also take the unionized target off teachers’ backs and let them adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye. Education workers would still be protected, but the system itself would be the protection. Depending on militant unions hard bargaining with local boards didn’t work and has evolved into unrepresentative (OECTA) or misrepresentative (OSSTF) provincial bargaining. Our process of bargaining is a broken, divisive, old fashioned habit that antagonizes the general public, vilifies our profession and makes hay for cynical governments.

Part 5: Freeing ourselves from history

local vs. provincial bargaining

When union locals used to bargain individually with their school boards each area’s special interests were baked into contracts. This made sense because of Ontario’s vast size and the unique and isolated nature of its many settlements. If you travel around Ontario now you’ll see the same Justin Bieber haircut everywhere. Clinging to isolationist thinking in an information revolution is asinine. Communities are no longer isolated, they no longer need individual contracts.  If you don’t believe me, believe union provincial executives who (foolishly I think) agreed to align all contracts in the province resulting in this past round of failed provincial negotiations.

The fictional professional association for education professionals
in Ontario (except it shouldn’t be fictional and we shouldn’t be
 running education on socialist ideals, it’s a profession!)


If we can bargain provincially (and it appears we do), why not have an Ontario Educational Association (modeled on the Doctor’s OMA) bring in elected representatives from across the province every four years to iron out a contract with the government while a neutral, third party arbitrator ensures the process is fair. This is a far less dramatic, adversarial process, but I think everyone in education (except the ones who profit from the fighting) would like to see less hurtful public drama and more focus on the profession itself.  

Unions themselves have made their locals irrelevant by focusing their own membership through isolated, politicized provincial leadership. The result has been confusion and a failure to represent member’s interests. OECTA agrees to contracts without even asking its members, OSSTF has the rug pulled out from under it by a grassroots social media movement.  Unions have centralized power and are then astonished when their remote members aren’t thrilled.

It’s time to give up the idea of locally defined educational organizations, both boards and unions, and begin a process of creating a democratic, less politically tangled system of educational representation. This isn’t so much a matter of amalgamating existing districts as it is a rethinking of how best to represent educational interests in the province. A system based on current cultural divisions (rural-natural, rural-agricultural, small town, suburban, urban) would certainly allow us to continue to address regional differences without carrying the weight of a redundant, regionally defined historical system.

how many public school systems do we need?

If we’re trying to free ourselves from history, it wouldn’t hurt to stop funding semi-private, religious schools that are only willing to serve a specific population. 

Once again, this made sense in Ontario a long time ago when Catholics and Protestants had to agree to live together, but Muslim, Hindu, atheist and every other stripe of religious belief must all wonder what this is all about when they first arrive in Ontario.  These people constitute the vast majority of new Ontarians, it’s time to recognize that in a representative, equal for all public education system.

Part 6: Removing politically inflicted value in our education system

I’ve always had trouble with how unions favor (and reward) seniority over any other contribution to the profession; at best this is simplistic, at worst it encourages disengaged senior teachers to interact less as their careers mature (check out who is doing extra-curriculars in any school for confirmation of this).  We are one of the few professions that, as one colleague once put it, “have all the colonel level people sitting out of leadership positions, we’re led by lieutenants.”  This is entirely the result of union value theory, and it harms the profession.

The basic job of teaching, if grossly simplified, becomes a person doing minimal hours of work, with nothing value added, using the same lessons year in and year out. Ultimately this hurts the learning environment for everyone. Unions and boards protect the (small minority) of teachers who approach the profession in this appalling manner more than they do teachers who push boundaries and attempt positive change.  Status quo thinking defines most educational leadership.

We need to recognize all the ways that education workers add to the learning process. This usually falls short when management attempts to grossly simplify the work in order to quantify it. If we’re in the job of marking students in creative, individualized ways, we have to do that for educators too, but too often teacher assessment is simplistic or made meaningless in order to simplify book keeping or to protect union members at all costs.

Leadership positions in teaching also need to be made meaningfully. Forty bucks a week doesn’t cut it (yes, that’s what many department heads get for management work in teaching).  I’d also want to recognize teachers who do extracurriculars, if not financially, then at least through minimizing their required duties. The teachers who do little else could do oncalls and caf duties, those that are knocking themselves out to make their schools a learning community shouldn’t be ignored for it.

The desired result in all this would be competition for headships and extracurriculars (and administration positions) with top candidates selected.  You seldom see more than a single sacrificial person dropped into any of these jobs – not exactly the way to get the best candidates.  Lineups for leadership, coaching and non-classroom school activities would be a powerful way to move us forward.  It’s sad year in year out hearing the teachers trying to run these things begging for people. 

There is a climate of apathetic mediocrity in our unionized system. Members tend to be indifferent to their union and uniformed as to their work situations. They are encouraged to do as much or as little as they please, knowing that the money will always increase; hardly an environment that fosters engagement and improvement. If we want to continue to focus on improvements in education, we should be considering what is needed to put education first, not what is needed to keep the status quo.

Conclusion

Protecting education means protecting education workers, but protecting education workers does not necessarily mean protecting education. It is vital that Ontario’s public school system continue to improve its high standards and fight for relevancy in a rapidly changing world, but the old paradigm of this happening only on the back of unions and boards is dying; their failure is indicated by their inability to protect and support their members. 

A mandated, transparent, less politically charged, non-localized organizational structure would result in less drama and better representation for everyone involved. Advances in communication mean that we no longer need to think locally in geographic terms.  It would also remove the stigma of unionization from teachers and allow them to adopt a more professional aspect in the public eye.

Walmarting the profession to U.S. standards will result in U.S. standards. You’ll end up with business wanting to intervene with Charter schools, which aren’t really public at all.  Equality of access to education is vital to any democracy, Ontario citizens must not lose access to a fair, open, world class public education system.  Never suspect that a system with a for-profit middle-man will outperform a public system founded on excellence. You’d have to be an economic idiot (or con artist) to suggest that this is possible. 

It’s vital that public education be protected from the short-term gain crowd. Unions have performed this function for many years, but in recent times, and like so many other institutions founded before our age of communication, they are being  bypassed by their own member’s new-found ability to communicate directly with each other. 

We keep slipping into an inevitable future, and we’re often only able to bring what we hold most dear to us across the threshold.  Many assumptions and traditions are slipping by the wayside as society and technology continue dancing at an increasing tempo.  If I have to cling to a belief and have it survive this transformative time, it isn’t unionism, localized education or even a political belief, it’s an axiomatic declaration about the power of public education:

Equally accessible, professionally driven and maximized public education is vital to our future success. It allows everyone to realize their potential regardless of their socio-economic circumstances and creates a population that is capable of responsible democracy, meaningful economic output and reasoned problem solving; without it we are lost. The society that protects and enhances public education is the society that produces active citizens whose eyes are wide open, and who are capable of dealing with the challenges technological, social and personal, that we will all be facing in the difficult decades ahead.

I would protect that belief before I worried about keeping the politics of tradition. I would have my profession managed and led on the basis of excellence and engagement rather than nineteenth century, socialist, union ideals. By protecting and encouraging excellence, we could rejuvenate Ontario’s tattered education system under a reasoned, unpoliticized, professional ideal.

Wanted Word: DIGERACY

www.ncte.org/governance/literacies

@banana29 just came back from the OLA super conference (where she presented this).  Thousands of librarians from all across Ontario (and Canada) came together for a huddle.  They are pretty keen technologists and aren’t remotely Luddite, but one of their issues was using the word LITERACY to describe a lack of familiarity when using technology.  Literacy is not the right word, we need something a with better etymological roots.

A lot of other words are trying to describe the gap we are beginning to see between people who use technology effectively and those who are used by it.  21st Century Fluencies is a big one, but it’s a mouthful.

Literacy, numeracy; we need a *acy word to link to technological skills in the same way that literature was linked to *acy in our last big media evolution in order to describe the important new skill set needed around reading and writing.

Digeracy might work.  It implies a wider connection to digital fluencies and doesn’t point to a single platform or skill set.  Cyberacy doesn’t have enough consonants in it for me, and technoracy doesn’t work because it points to too broad a concept (this isn’t about technology as a whole but rather the digital evolution of information).

Digeracy points to a person’s fluency in digital environments.  Their ability to understand the flow of information and how to interact with it efficiently.  While familiarity with hardware and software might help in specific instances, digeracy refers to a wider comfort level with digital information.

A person with high levels of digeracy is able to pick up new equipment and quickly work through its strengths and weaknesses in order to optimize their use of it.  They are able to access information in a variety of software environments and quickly understand the capabilities of the digital tools they are given.

Someone with digeracy might specialize in various bits of software and hardware, but they have developed sufficient breadth of skill that they are able to pick up any digital device and make it sing.  Their comfort level is sometimes seen as magical by others.  This extends beyond individual devices and platforms to knowledge of how to make best use of networks as well.

Like a fluent reader and writer with literacy, or a mathelete with numeracy, the technologist with digeracy is comfortable enough to swim in the digital ocean, to experiment with what they haven’t seen before and quickly come to terms with it.

Game Mastery

I misspent an awful lot of my youth Dungeon Mastering. We often spent whole days, ten-twelve hour stretches in a row, playing Dungeons and Dragons in various basements. During the summer it wasn’t uncommon for us to do whole weeks of days (or nights) like that.

If you’ve never played the game before, it’s basically a combination of story telling, creative writing, map making, art and random dice rolls. You create a character with a set of statistics and you go out and adventure with them. As you gain experience, you get to improve your statistics and get better chances to survive battles and face greater challenges. The characters develop based on their experiences (and their luck). Over time people get mighty attached to them. The players control themselves, the DM is the story teller, the one who controls the world in which they find themselves. When it’s done well, it feels a lot like you’re all creating a fantastic narrative together, and none of you knows how it’s going to end.

I ended up falling into the role of the DM because I could story tell well, and I learned to roll with the dice, I didn’t try to force the story when a lucky dice roll would change my expectations. Early on I’d over-script adventures and then have trouble when the dice allowed characters to do things I didn’t expect (or shouldn’t have had a statistical chance of happening). It took a bit of practice (and developing confidence) to trust that the story would unfold before us.

In one case I planned to kill off all the characters in the first five minutes, and then have them adventure in the after-life trying to get their lives back. As I mentioned, people get mighty attached to their characters. Dying freaked them out, they fought and fought. Finally, a tiny little hobbit-thief was the last one standing, facing the Grim Reaper himself. I had to give him a chance, otherwise the dice (and game) are pointless, so I said he had to roll a natural 20 (a 20 on a 20 sided dice) to successfully attack death. He actually did it. Right then I had to throw away my plan and go in a new direction. It wasn’t as nuanced as what I had prepared, but it mattered more to the players because they were authoring it, rather than having it read to them. Giving players no authorship in the game made it empty, pointless. That game became infamous, as did the Halfling who foot swept Death.

After a while, DMing all came down to world building (those are two of dozens) for me. I didn’t worry so much about what they would be facing on a situation by situation basis, as long as I knew where we were and when we were. The more richly we’d develop the world, its politics, religion, history, geography, the easier it was to create a rich, interactive experience around my players (this was a very collaborative thing, players would bring maps, histories, heraldry, costumes and all sorts of other surprises to games).

Our first road trip at 17 years old was an adventure in a rickety Chevette from Toronto to Milwaukee for GenCon, the gaming fair put on by the makers of Dungeons and Dragons. In the ’80s, this place was the Mecca for gaming. Tens of thousands of attendees in the largest conference centre in town. We attended lectures on ethics in gaming, integrating history and geology into world creation, and we played tournaments with thousands of others. We met the artists and authors that we loved; a professional conference for geeky seventeen year olds!

We took that richness and turned it over into our game play. Our stories evolved from dungeon crawls for loot, to archetypal quests to modern day parables about the evils people do. At its leading edge one of our games could speak to our own alienation and sense of desperation, while simultaneously giving us a means to exorcise it.

All of this made me aware of how a game works on a fundamental level. If you apply certainty and destroy choice (and chance), you kill it stone dead. If you place one participant in a position of absolute power so that they become a teller, rather than a participant, you’ve killed it again. You play a game best when you play it within its own context. Any game that breaks the forth wall falls to pieces. Game coherency requires consistency, not to a person’s will, but to the circumstances of the game. The best games are flexible enough to become richer as players add their own content (experiences, objects, ideas) to the game.

I’ve seen players cry when their character dies, but not only in sadness, also with respect. A good death is a good story, it honours the player’s efforts, the character’s beliefs and the game itself. The nice thing about a game is that sometimes Valkyries can then bring that dead hero to Valhalla, and you never know what can happen from there… good games give you a chance to maximize people’s involvement in them using the full spectrum of human emotion and intellect.

This has been percolating since I met another former DnDer (@liamodonnell) at OTF21C a few weeks ago and said, “everything I know about teaching, I learned from DMing.” It’s the truth.

I wanted to turn this into a rant on gamification in education, but in looking back on this, I realize that these ideas are very important to me. I’ve always had a great deal of trouble believing, but my years spent as an acolyte of gaming have made me just that, a believer.

I’m going to leave the other bits below, but feel free to stop reading here. I’m happy with clarifying a good idea rather than attacking a bad one.

 

Notes that didn’t make the cut:

Games aren’t ephemeral, if you want them to work, you have to nurture coherency within the game context

Not knowing what was going to happen also, ultimately, made it easier for me as a game master. I got to share in the story instead of telling it. I wasn’t a transmitter, I was part of a cast, bringing a story to life.

Any of this sound familiar from a teaching perspective?

If you deliver your teaching with cardboard certainty and inflexible perfection, your students have no authorship in that experience, it means nothing to them. If you teach as a participant, the interaction has life, and everyone involved is authoring it. It might not be as efficient or technically perfect as you’d like, but then I think perfection is entirely overrated.

The real danger is when those cardboard teachers try to use games as if they were a sugar coating you can apply to make something edible. Gamification tries to use game play as a way of getting people to do things, but that is a disaster.

Gold stars aren’t a new idea, but they sound like one if you throw fancy terms like gamification on them.

A good game needs to work within its own limits, but those limits should be deeply embedded within the game dynamics, and they should be designed to be adjustable, games should evolve meaningfully as their players do.

Bad Habits: these tools are not toys

The other week we had a PD on differentiated instruction. Before this long, undifferentiated lecture, I tried to get netbooks into as many interested teacher’s hands as possible. We set up a Google doc, opened up Twitter and began back channeling. It went well, most of the teachers trying it had never back channeled before. In a one way lecture with virtually no two way communication between the audience and the lecturer, we had ourselves a bracing and critical discussion about the material being covered.

That’s not how the vast majority of our colleagues saw it though. The cut-eye from people began the moment I opened my netbook; the assumption is that if you’re on a computer you’re wasting time, not paying attention, screwing around. Admittedly, the vast majority of the angry (embarrassed even) stares came from older teachers, but not exclusively. The passive, talked at audience thought we’d found a way out of the lecture using technology, rather than a way to make it engaging. The highlight came when the lecturer began standing next to one of the back channelers in an attempt to use proximity to get her back on task; even the instructor assumed technology use was time wasting.
One of the most powerful aspects of back channelling, even in the most non participatory lectures, is that it can create a responsive, audience involved activity that allows viewers to engage in learning actively. That many people in the room didn’t recognize what active learning looks like in a world of Twitter and shared documents tells you something about where they see their classes from.
The assumption I’m most interested in is that technology allows the user to screw around, not do what they are supposed to be doing. This makes me wonder what these teachers think their students are doing when they book them into a computer lab, is it a free period in their minds? Or does this have more to do with how people pay attention to a lesson or lecture? If that’s the case, do they assume students aren’t listening when they are taking notes? or not staring at the speaker?
There are some interesting questions around multi-tasking here, but I’ll leave them for another time. What I suspect is that this all comes back to a fear of technology in learning; it’s still assumed by many that internet access is a complete waste of time. They think that the web is Youtube, Farmville, Facebook and meaningless, puerile and unproductive navel gazing. For many students (and teachers I guess) it is, but then, isn’t it up to us as teachers to show students how to make productive use of what may be one of the pinnacles of human engineering?
As old fashioned as this sounds, this may all boil down to what we think about note taking, a skill that is all but ignored in education. Learning how to take notes is vital, and back channelling, shared documents and a plethora of online services (Google docs, Prezi, Twitter, Adobe Connect and other video sharing tools, wall wisher, Todaysmeet, Backnoise, and many others; this is constantly evolving) have created new opportunities for note taking and interactivity with learning interaction and recording that didn’t exist previously. These new skills need to be integrated into basic note taking. We need to stop ignoring technology competency in the learning process.
However you care to illustrate the process of learning, recording your learning in some way is a vital part of the process. It allows you to clarify ideas, isolate material, review it at a later date and summarize your knowledge. Note taking works as a fluid process that integrates the learner into what can be an alienating, passive situation, making them an active participant. I don’t think anyone would suggest that students shouldn’t take notes, but passive lectures (unless you’re at PD) have become a thing of the past. Differentiated instruction and student centered learning have tended to de-emphasize note taking (often replaced with handouts). This seems to cause students new to university a great deal of difficulty.
Perhaps the best thing technology can bring to this are new ways to collaborate, participate and communicate a learner’s response to new material, but not if we’re assuming that the tools used are really just toys.

Caution, Fear & Risk Aversion in Students

The first ever post on Dusty World from way back in 2010!

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Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
Bertrand Russell

… but we don’t set up schools to nurture a love of learning, we set them up like 19th Century factories.

 

I’m teaching a grade 12 class on computer science. If my computer science teacher knew I was doing this, he would roll over in his grave. I haven’t coded since the ’80s, I’m a technician. I got knocked off coding by that same computer science teacher who could only approach coding from a mathematical/logical direction. My hackering/tinkering/non-linear approach to generating code depended on a natural fluency with syntax and a willingness to break things in order to come up with something new. I never cared about solving for x, I was always about the why.
 
So here I am, in a class full of students who my old compsci teacher would have adored. Math wizes who have learned how to learn so well, they can’t do anything (else).
 
Lisa Simpson (during a teacher’s strike): I can’t take this anymore! Please, mom! Grade me! Grade me! Validate me!!!
 
That’s at the bottom of it all. These A students are so trained to the system, so inured, that they can’t possibly get unplugged from the Matrix. The idea of learning for sheer curiosity’s sake has been beaten out of them by a dozen years of positive reinforcement produced by their spectacularly successful student careers.
 
When I suggest we take a left turn, instead of doing more pointless actionscript programming that no one else on the planet except Ontario Elearning finds valuable, and go after C++, which none of them have any experience in, only one is even willing to try it. The rest are paralyzed by fear of failure, or even worse, not being able to demonstrate consistent mastery – because that’s how we really grade. You only get perfect if you’re already ahead of the material. You can’t get low marks at the beginning, continually improve, and end with an A+, those early failures that produced understanding are factored into your grades. We penalize learning in the class room. There has been some change in this, formative/summative and such, but the vast majority of grading still follows the broken example above. Learning is a non-linear process, experimentation, failure, reassessment, reattempt, fail in a new, more interesting way… but we train students to think it’s an inbuilt ability, which you either have, or struggle with. Grades reflect this.
 
Even the one student willing to self-direct his learning and take on a challenging new language (one that his university uses extensively and we’re pushing him toward with no experience whatsoever) sent me an email anguishing over his grades if he cannot demonstrate fluency in C++ in the 5 weeks we have left. I’ve approached this a number of ways. Firstly, by working with him to set attainable goals (this still freaks him out, he can’t see the mastery in setting the goals to a reasonable level, so feels his marks will suffer). Secondly, I’ve gotten him into a course of study that leads him through the beginnings of C++. The end result should be a working familiarity with a language he’s never seen before demonstrated by some basic scripts that show him coming to terms with the material. Thirdly, I told him to forget the numbers. He is putting hours in on this, not because he has to, but because he wants to. The end result is irrelevant, he is directing his own learning – a dead art in an education system designed to force conformity in order to keep costs down and appear financially responsible. He’s doing something no one else is willing or able to do. He’s also learning something that will immediately assist him in university next year. How is any of this not 100%?
 
I only wish I could overcome the caution and apathy born of risk aversion in the other students and set them free. We feed them a steady diet of caution, then wonder why they aren’t willing to take risks in learning.
 
I’m not the guardian of knowledge, I shouldn’t even get to decide how they learn, I should do everything I can to ensure that they do though.


Update:  I just ran into this student at the Grad ceremony a couple of weeks ago.  He’s in his first year at Waterloo U doing computer science (a wickedly difficult course to get into).  It was nice to hear that the C++ really payed off, in a way that the actionscript stuff never would.  He’s finding it difficult, but he’s seeing success, and his greatest advantage?  Taking a run at the programming language they use at university before he got there, errors and all.

BYOD: Build Your Own Device


Proof of mastery: you build your own tools.

Perhaps we can work this Jedi logic into education?  


Want to make use of educational technology?  Unless you’ve built it yourself you don’t get free access, you haven’t demonstrated competence!  Access to technology based on demonstrated understanding rather than the net income of a student’s parents?  That sounds like a more sound pedagogical model than current BYOD policies we have.  It’s time for education to take technology fluency seriously.

I’ve already argued for a pedagogical model for technology access

prezi.com/bjmmmgc3aka5/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

I think I rushed into mastery too soon there, it’s commonly overused in education anyway.  Unless the digital wizard can produce their own wand they haven’t demonstrated real mastery.  Recognizing all elements in your discipline is a vital element to mastery, including the tools that you need to demonstrate your mastery!

The hunter who hunts with the bow they made?  The rider who rides a bike they built?  The artist who stretches their own canvases?  No one could argue that their understanding of their craft isn’t deeper than a consumer who purchased off the shelf, yet we’ve modeled educational technology on consumerist ideals rather than pedagogical imperatives.

From board provided technology to a mini-lab to bring-your-own-device to build-your-own-device, there is the new continuum.  Until you’ve built your device from the components up and mounted software on it, you haven’t demonstrated mastery of technology, you’re still just a user.

Until we begin to do this in education we’ll continue to produce technologically incapable students who are slaves to their habitual technology use.

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.