When the Pupil is Ready, The Master Will Appear

From a Zen Koan, anyone who has attempted to gain mastery
in something has probably experienced this to some degree,

but it doesn’t usually happen in the education system.

I always have my ear to the ground, waiting to hear from a student who wants something more than curriculum.  On a good year I’m lucky to find one or two students who are looking for a career rather than a credit.

I came across this saying the other week and it got me thinking about that hope I hold out for ready pupils.  Teachers are paid to deliver curriculum whether students are ready or not (though the good ones try to minimize this friction); students are mandated to be there.  The option to be formally uneducated isn’t available in Ontario nowadays, we’ve institutionalized education into a mandatory process.  This regimented system reduces student readiness to engagement and throws the concept of patiently waiting for student readiness out the window.  That patience suggests a process where student learning is the main focus.  Have we lost the freedom to patiently wait for student readiness to the systemic efficiencies of regimented grading?

That a teacher will appear when you need them to advance your learning is a wonderful thought.  It suggests that teaching is implied in mastery, which isn’t the case nowadays.  In a time before mastery was monetized, keeping it alive by passing on skills rather than maximizing personal income was a big part of mastery.  Waiting on student readiness also places great value on the student, making their preparedness the priority in learning.  Engagement isn’t an issue with the student who seeks a teacher.  Perhaps the issue is that we’re buried in teachers nowadays.

That the teacher-student relationship has been subverted by the education system is old news.  Historically, learning was an experience unique to each individual, usually prompted by innate skill and desire.  Systematizing education might mean more people get educated, but not in with the same rigour and certainly not for the same reasons.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of systemic education is the externalization and abstraction of learning criteria.  By setting standards and holding students to them we create a system that has measurable criteria for curriculum, teacher and standards effectiveness.  We do this to create the appearance of academic credibility, so learning is not the focus of this kind of education, system integrity is.  This modern approach to learning creates a strange distance in the classroom from learning which has led to such insightful comments as, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.”

When the Zen koan that kicked this off was written a thousand years ago people who taught did so from their own mastery and were driven to do it to keep their expertise alive. Students were driven to learn from a radical sense of self preservation; their learning was central to their lives and livelihood.  Teaching wasn’t considered a skill in itself, but was an important tool to keep mastery alive.  When we separate teaching from mastery, as helpful as that is for school systems to generate curriculum, qualify teachers and graduate students, it leads us to a strange place where teaching and learning have little to do personally with the people in the classroom.  Education has only evolved into this odd system in the past two centuries. 

For the vast majority of human history education has been a bespoke experience, unique to the individual.  It didn’t happen on a rigid timeline overseen by bureaucrats, and it often didn’t happen at all.  When it did happen it was focused on mastery learning, which couldn’t happen until the student was ready for it.  That kind of patience is missing from our classrooms and is one of the main reasons it feels so forced, and fake.

Imagining that pre-industrial intensely personal world of learning from our perspective way up here in the regimented twenty-first Century is difficult, yet it is how human beings learned for millennia.  In that long ago world many people were left behind, but for the few who were driven to achieve excellence the master would appear when needed.

Suffering And Sacrifice in Eastern Thinking

A student used this as a graphic
text in an English Elearning course

I had an English student hand this in yesterday as an example of a graphics text.  The assignment was to create three questions with answers based on the graphic text.  This is a surprisingly quick way to assess a student’s understanding of a graphic text (well done Elearning Ontario).

But ya gotta be careful with the manga, it can get deep quickly, especially when you throw cultural differences into the mix.  The student’s understanding of this snippet fell into a number of problems, not the least of which was the yawning gap between how a Christian middle-class, white teen in rural Ontario and the Buddhist, Japanese writer of the manga interpret suffering.

The student took “a painless lesson is one without any meaning” and focused on the lack of meaning.  He suggested when random, pointless things happen to you, you should just roll with it; suffering just happens arbitrarily.  I like how student’s analysis of a text often tells you more about them than it does about the text.

Incompetence: when students suddenly decide to try they
think instant success will follow because the only thing
preventing it before was their lack of effort.  It turns out
that mastery requires  a bit more than showing up once.

I wrote back suggesting that without fully committing to what you’re doing and suffering loss and sacrifice in the process, you never really learn anything.  Only by being fully committed to your lesson, and possibly losing something valuable to you in the process, can you hope to truly learn.  A painless, safe lesson is meaningless because you’ll never learn (keep) anything from it.  It’s also useless because you’re not working at the ragged edge of your abilities, so you’re not doing anything you haven’t done before.  Put another way, no risk, no reward.

The student didn’t seem interested in my interpretation.  It fits a Western 21st Century teen’s world view to frame learning in terms of pointless suffering and minimal personal investment.  By being an intentionally ineffective agent in an arbitrary world, you can blame everything except yourself for your circumstances.  Your abilities are never in question because you are never the architect of any failure.


Eastern thinking is an ongoing fascination for me.  I did my first two years as a teacher in Japan. This student’s graphic text was especially resonant because I’d just read this the week before:

The nail that stands highest gets hammered down.
What looks like cruelty takes on a different tone
when you consider how stress and suffering
are integrated into Eastern Culture.

Struggle for Smarts: How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning
From a Western perspective, struggle is “a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Like the author of that article, I saw Japanese students almost revelling in the difficulty of what they were failing at.  That difficulty and failure is what made it all the more satisfying when they eventually found success.  The Japanese don’t toss out suffering because it’s difficult, they use it to leverage learning and they do it in a culturally immersive way.  What looks like cruelty to foreign eyes is actually a sign of respect from a Japanese perspective.  If everyone is focused on doing their best then the rest will happen.  We’re much more focused on the end result in the West.

They don’t say good luck in Japan,
they say gambate: do your best.

I studied Kendo while I was in Japan.  In the thousand year old temple that was our dojo I was the only gaijin.  For the first six months I couldn’t get anyone to teach me defence.  My Sensei (a principal at the local high school) said I should be focused entirely on attack, if you think defensively you’ll never succeed.  I liked the boo-ya Bushido samurai thinking behind this, but suspected it was really because the other students loved beating the hell out of me with a stick.  I used to come home cross eyed from getting hit on the head, but I wouldn’t give up, I’m stupid like that, but it turns out that this stubbornness was what the Japanese enjoyed most about me.

I also played hockey while in Japan.  I had all sorts of trouble getting comfortable with my team mates until we had a wedding party that never ended followed by a morning hockey game.  We were a wreck, but seeing me in that kind of misery seemed to break down all the barriers.  Did the Japanese like to see me suffer, or did they like to see me gambatte?  It’s all about the effort, not the result in Japan.  It took me a long time to see it from an Eastern point of view.

Resiliency and genuine, deeply personal learning are born of failure, Eastern thought embraces this.  Western students, by contrast, preempt failure by refusing to fully commit to learning in the first place.  When they fail they shrug because they know it isn’t their failure;  you can’t lose if you don’t play.  Our glorious sense of Western individualism is remarkably fragile.  Isn’t this all about protecting egg-shell egos?  Western education systems encourage this approach by presenting learning in the most impersonal, abstract way possible and hiding any failures.  Safety nets abound ensuring that students can disengage from learning the moment it becomes difficult.

You’d never expect a Western school to take the weakest kid in the class and have them display their lack of skill in front of everyone as happens in that article, but then you’d not expect Western students to earnestly cheer the student when they overcome repeated frustration and see success either.  I suspect Stigler is right, we frame struggle in terms of a lack of intelligence rather than recognizing it as the foundation of resilience and genuine learning.

That English student stepped in a surprisingly deep puddle with that graphic text.

Tao of Teaching

Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching


The best education is the one no one notices, the people are free to go about the business of realizing their potential.  
The next best is the education that is loved, though this distracts people from realizing their potential in favour of a shared idea.
Next is the education driven by fear where testing and failure dictate your future.
The worst is the one that is despised, this education creates such hatred that none can succeed.

Student happiness in their school system

Ah, that Tao te Ching (that’s my favourite translation by Wing-Tsit Chan), it pretty much works for everything from governing to ethics to metaphysics to naming a blog…

 
Chapter 4… blunting sharpness, untying tangles, softening light and becoming one with the dusty world
I first came across the Tao in a fourth year philosophy class. Our prof had the six of us go through this little (5000 character!) classic in detail. It’s the closest I’ve come to finding a holy book. At the end of the course he asked us if we could find fault with the ideas presented in it, no one could. It’s a profound, deeply sensitive and honest guide to life. He then asked, will any of you give up your delusions and follow it? No one could or would. Opting out of modern society isn’t easy to do. Even finding the path out is difficult.

From bad days in class to moments of clarity, the Tao te Ching offers a voice to the teaching experience:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.
Thus the Master is available to all people and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.
What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
If you don’t understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.


The basics that Lao Tsu stresses are honesty, flexibility and an immediacy with creation. You’d think these simple things to keep in mind but we seem wired to cater to the distractions and abstractions of our intelligence.

There is a grace to Lao Tsu’s Way that emphasizes just how fractured we are from the world today. As a teacher I see it more than most because I see generations pass before my eyes. Rapid changes in technology affect both how they see themselves while also further limiting their relationship with the reality in which they exist.

It’s a pyramid, it must be true!  Hierarchy of Digital Distractions


The New Efficiency

This African proverb passed me on the
internet last week, and left me thinking.

Originally published on Dusty World in June of 2015:

temkblog.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-new-efficiency.html

Last semester I had an energetic grade 9 suddenly stop his interaction with the internet and wonder out loud (and it was asked in all seriousness):  “why is it in video games and movies old people are so cool, with hidden knowledge and special powers, but in real life they just suck?”

He received an avalanche of ‘how could you say that?!’, but then everyone went on to say how wonderful their grandparents were.  Everyone loves their grandparents, but no one was willing to defend age and by extension experience in and of itself.

When this African proverb popped up I immediately felt the pinch of that class discussion (yes, I know, we were talking about the value of age and experience in a class where I was supposed to be teaching computer engineering, I guess my kids won’t be ready for whatever standardized test they invent for it).

What role does age and experience have in the information age?  This proverb also refers to libraries, which have been facing their own test of relevance thanks to the Googliable nature of information.

Information technology has made personal knowledge irrelevant.  The life experiences of human beings have become meaningless, replaced by internet searches.  Why would you bother to ask your grandfather how to change the brakes on your car when you can just Google it?  Once a useful source of information, the elders around you are now objects of affection and little more, they serve no function.  You can get the information you need without any of the static (anecdotal stories that accompany the information).  This sanitized, machine driven version of knowledge has many benefits.

You can reduce complex human knowledge (for example, the development of literacy) into simplistic, easy to quantify standards and then make sweeping suppositions about the results.  Banal opinion based on internet ‘fact’ is the new intelligence.  Like any opinion you hear online, carefully crafted grading schemes end up becoming the truth, which fits nicely into the antiseptic version of knowledge the information age peddles.

Another benefit is the downward social pressure on human communities.  When you plug people into a centralized source of information you wean them from the social necessities of family, community and even nation.  When no one needs anyone else (but they do need an ISP), you have removed all the social static and laid the groundwork for a kind of hypercapitalism that will make past look like the middle ages!

When we try and argue for meaningful learning (in anything other than a poster), we are met with educational administration making sad faces and saying it’s not viable.  The reasonable provision of caps on class sizes is just such an attempt, which is why the meme on the right goes straight to the heart of this issue.

Tangible data that grossly oversimplify human endeavour are how we roll nowadays.  As the poster states, class caps mean nothing, but fail to hand out a piece of paper with grades so abstract that they are meaningless along with computer generated comments, and ‘everyone loses their minds!’

There is some push back against the dimensionless facts that drive the information age.  You find it in the physical world in grass roots movements like slow food or maker spaces where you see individuals trying to wrest control of production from the hands of remote systems.  In these places the idea of human interaction is key to the process of learning.  They are trying to build communities in an arid digital landscape that is bereft complex human interaction… unless they are under a corporate banner; communities designed for marketing purposes.  What would be the economic sense in creating a community solely for the benefit its members?

Ironically, human interaction is less and less a factor in human education.  The push to integrate technology into pedagogy without considering its implications has infected education systems with the same efficiency that we now enjoy everywhere else.  We can hardly expect the personally demeaned yet highly efficient funployees in the private sector to demand anything other than consistent menial labour, it’s what they do.  Developing complex personal relationships in order to effectively mentor and teach aren’t very efficient/economically viable.  They are certainly discouraged in the brave new world of 21st Century education where teachers are now facilitators, reduced to getting out of the way of learning and making sure the #edtech is working.

One of my students from many years ago is now out in the world.  She was sitting in a restaurant a few weeks ago watching two employees, a teenage girl and an older woman on their break.  The older woman kept trying to start a conversation.  The teen ignored her, buried in her phone until she finally snapped, ‘What? What do you want?”  She was incensed that this woman had interrupted her texting time.  She was probably in withdrawal because they don’t let her have the phone while working.  I can bet which one of those two employees gets better performance reviews, though she sounds like an ass.

Maybe human experience is meaningless nowadays.  Maybe old people are useless and libraries are a waste of space (great idea: replace every one in school with franchise coffee shops to balance the books!).  Maybe we don’t need each other to learn any more, it’s certainly not as efficient.

LINKS

Watch the new efficiency infect the UK’s Labour Party
“In 2015 we are living in a cold, cruel, and desolate country in which benefit sanctions, foodbanks, poverty wages, and ignorance reign, governed by a clutch of rich, privately educated sociopaths whose conception of society has been ripped straight from the pages of a dystopian novel.”

Stop and take in the moment…

Last year I was stuck behind a large group of cruisers and wondered out loud on the Concours Owners Group what the etiquette is for passing them.  It’s hard to pass a big group because of their shear size, and breaking up their formation by having to pull back in during a pass seems rude.  In addition to upsetting several bikers (a word I don’t use to describe myself), I got some good advice from motorcyclists who have been doing it for a long time.  The best advice came from a fellow who said that if he comes across a mobile chicane like that he just pulls over has a smoke and ponders things.  He then gets back onto an empty road in a contemplative state of mind.  Why so be in such a rush?

I liked his Zen approach though it isn’t in my nature to do it.  The other day on my short commute into work I was riding behind an ancient Muppet in an SUV who was barely doing 40 in a 60 zone.  He wasn’t going to work, but he’d elected to hop into his mobile castle and putter down the road in front of as many people as he could.  With a bike your power to weight ratio is stratospheric.  It’s (very) easy to make a pass, but rather than feed the speed monster I tried pulling over.  It helped that it was an absolutely stunning October morning with golden sun streaming through ground fog…


I stopped, turned off the bike, and sat on the side of the road for a few minutes soaking it up.  Once you drop the gotta-pass thing the urge quickly fades away.  In the stillness of that sunrise I became aware of what was pushing me.  Part of me was already thinking through all the things I had to do when I got to work and anxiety to get it all done was taking root without me noticing it, hence the urge to blow off traffic.  Your subconscious can be a pain in the ass that way, infecting what was otherwise a beautiful morning ride in to work with an unnecessary sense of urgency.  It’s nothing that a moment of reflection can’t beat back though.  How often have you reacted to stress or pressure by passing it on to something else?  I transfer moods like this all the time.

I took a couple of more minutes and photographed the sunrise…

Back on the bike I continued in to work, getting there five minutes later than I otherwise would have but in a mellow state of mind.  I actually caught up with the Muppet and his train of frustrated commuters in the next town over, so my five minute sojourn with the rising sun didn’t make me any later than I would have been anyway.

This Zen break was easy because nature was putting on a show, but it’s a habit I’d like to try and get into.  Nurturing a calmer mindset results in deeper thoughts, and time to ruminate is one of the reasons I love riding a motorcycle so much.  The time to reflect doesn’t hurt either.  If I can sense when worldly pressures are infecting my mindset on the bike I’ll become a better rider.

Learning Curves

Following up on the ‘just tell me the answer‘ post last week, I’ve been trying to find ways to articulate what I’m attempting to do with students so that they don’t become frustrated.  It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt, but what I’m hoping is that familiarity breeds confidence and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of student knowledge.  

The germination of self-directed learning should be the goal of instruction in any teaching.  A student who is forever dependent upon a teacher is a poor student indeed.  With that goal in mind I’m working out the process of developing self directed learning in students using Prezi to map out how familiarity breeds confidence and self direction.

 


Some brilliant Google+ sharing by Liz Krane &
Carmelyne Thompson via Josh Kaufman

Explaining this to my senior computer engineers I tried to stress that this process is what I’m looking at, not necessarily what you know.  Even though the seniors are supposed to have previous experience many don’t so the course needs to be flexible in how it approaches a wide range of abilities.  If I see steady growth in familiarity through guided instruction the inevitable result should be the formation of self-directed learning demonstrated through experimentation, collaboration and troubleshooting.  Looking for what a student knows is much less important than looking for where a student is in this learning process towards mastery.  Mastery itself is really just another word for a person who knows enough to error correct and self direct their learning – expertise never came at a teacher’s hand, mastery is always self taught.

Josh Kaufman’s TEDtalk on how 20 hours takes you through the initial steep climb (humbling and intensely rewarding) when picking up a new skills is telling:


We fail to do a lot of these things in school.  Distractions in the form of bells, announcements, lousy chairs and tables, large classes, and dozens of other interferences break focus.  I like to say, “stop learning now, you have to leave” to students when the bell goes and students who were lost in what they were doing are jarred back into the present.

Kaufman’s learning curve,
seems perfectly sensible…

On top of school itself we now have digital technology which is most effective at monetizing us if we ‘surf’ rather than focus.  The habits we develop while being consumers online plague educational technology as students who are used to being digitally shallow out of school bring the same lack of focus to their learning.  That we ignore digital habits and corporate influence in educational technology will probably be the reason it never does what it promises it might do.

Beyond industrialized settings and digital distractions education systems fail to recognize the basic process of learning and in doing so spend a lot of time and money producing under-performing students.  When 50% is a pass even a perfect pass rate isn’t saying much.  If our learning happens on a curve as Kaufman suggests, then we are doing this wrong in just about every possible way.

About a year ago I took a weekend course in order to begin riding a motorcycle.  Difficult and uncompromising it demanded my full attention both in the classroom and for hours in the saddle.  Not paying attention resulted in possible injury (and several people were).  That weekend course might seem too short but it just happens to be about twenty hours long (what Kaufman suggests you need to get over the steepest part of the learning curve).  With the right kind of support (small class size with a 1:4 instructor/student ratio and everything we needed to learn the skill including bikes, space, etc) and an expectation of focused learning, that twenty hours got me over the hump and able to continue developing expertise in a complex skill set that I had no previous experience in.  I’d have to say, anecdotally, that Kaufman’s 20 hours seems right on the money.

We don’t think about learning curves in school.  We don’t consider how students feel when they are picking up a new skill and feel inadequate; feelings aren’t in the curriculum.  Worse, we consider learning to be a twelve year long marathon in school rather than a series of short sprints.  Student goals aren’t always clear or consistent, failure isn’t considered an option and learning itself is less a focus than are irrelevant personal details like your age.  We’d rather bunch students by age than where they are in their learning process.  We lose sight of the possibilities and challenges inherent in the first twenty hours of new learning in favour of decade long statistical growth.

Can you imagine a school guided by Kaufman’s logic?  Students are given focused learning to get them into a self correcting phase and then are expected to self-direct their learning. There would be classrooms with very high student:teacher ratios where the focus is on early learning.  There may be other times and spaces where students are entirely independent and producing their own directed learning.  Instead of a blanket approach our classrooms and schedules would reflect our variable learning curves; our schools would be responsive to how we learn instead of the other way round.

Digital technology would lend itself to this kind of learning by offering information, collaboration and communication to students on a profoundly personalized level.  If we don’t begin taking the training of digital tools seriously the consumerist habits developed by everybody (students and staff) outside of school won’t allow us to de-industrialize education and adapt it to how we learn.

Mastery Learning, Digitally Empowering Idiocy & Being Humble Before the Task

I ended up presenting on what mastery learning is and what mastery might look like in digital realms at ECOO13 last week .   

HERE is the prezi.

Developing digital mastery in a digital world

The Humble Egotist: A teacher who encourages learning…

In untangling what digital mastery might look like I had to back up and describe mastery learning in general.  This ended up clarifying my ideas around the process of learning itself.  As much as we’d like to think we impart learning as teachers, the process itself is very much internal to the learner.  Teachers aren’t nearly as central to the process as they like to think they are.

I started studying instructional technique when I was still a teen in air cadets and through coaching sports.  That progressed into technology instruction in business and then language instruction in Japan.  Finally getting my B.Ed. years later was just the latest in an ongoing personal journey to understand learning.

I’m self taught in so many things that I have trouble remembering being taught.  I’ve dropped out of every kind of education you can imagine, and finished some too.  I have real trouble with authority for the sake of authority and I’ve always found a strong element of that in teaching.  There is no doubt that a teacher can be an important influence in a young person’s growth (I have several who were, we all do), but those people were never magical because they taught me something, they were magical because they enabled me to learn something.  No one else has ever been the architect of my learning, it has always failed or succeeded because of how I tackled it.  A good teacher looked at me and figured out how to enable my tendencies toward learning something effectively.  A bad teacher would sabotage my learning, usually because my hero worship wasn’t up to their standards.

Teaching is a tricky business.  It takes a lot of self confidence to do the job, but it also takes a lot of humility to get out of the way and let people learn.  Self confidence and humility seldom co-exist comfortably in the same person.  The urge to sage on the stage is strong in a lot of teachers, they really enjoy the attention and the social status (no matter how staged it is).

Not unless you do it you don’t,
learning isn’t downloaded,
it isn’t given, it isn’t easy

But learning is an internal process, you can’t have learning implanted in you (this was one of the reasons it seems so magical in The Matrix), as the learner you have to be the active agent, learning is hard work.   We confuse this with a lot of edu-babble about engagement and over-focus on how entertaining a teacher can be but this ignores the essential issue.  If a student doesn’t want to learn then they won’t.  The value of learning should be self evident.  It takes a colossal amount of work by the education system to assume responsibility for learning and hide the truth that students are the real agents of their learning.

During the ECOO presentation I described a good teacher as an awesome roadie, you can’t even tell they are there until they adjust or fix something to better enable the show.  The learner is the one on stage doing the learning, a good teacher, like a good roadie, makes the show run smoothly but they aren’t the main act.

I see far too many full period lectures with sages on stages.  Those people retire and are immediately back in the classroom because they miss the audience, they miss being in a socially constructed place where people have to listen to them.  They don’t do much in the way of encouraging learning, but boy do they talk a lot, and they have no idea that students live in an information rich world and don’t have to wait for the slow drip of a teacher’s talk to learn a fact.

This isn’t to say that the flipped classroom is the obvious way to manage this.  Learners have to internalize their own learning, but students who are many miles away from what they need to be broken out of their habitual patterns if they are going to learn something new.  Sometimes this takes a teacher who is the centre of focus in a classroom.

How do you manage a room full of digitally super charged ids?

This is especially true when educators attempt to integrate digital devices into learning.  Digital devices slavishly satisfy the desires of their users no matter how asinine or repetitive.  An idiot on a digital device becomes an empowered idiot.  A teacher can be a vital influence in breaking that destructive, repetitive cycle, but not if they are as habitual and limited in their use of digital tools as their students.  Being humble before the task of learning gets even harder in a digital environment where every stupid urge is moments away from being satisfied. The teacher cannot facilitate student learning in an environment that they themselves are also oppressed by.

One of the key pressure points in learning is breaking someone out of
habitual use in technology (the pink bit), but that’s impossible if the
teacher is as habitual and illiterate as the student is…

If you’ve ever seen how many students (and  teachers) treat school computer labs you know what I’m talking about.  Rather than selecting the tool for the job, a teacher with low digital fluency will ask students to use computers as an analogue for something else.  The computer is treated like a book, or a paper and pen.  Booking a lab for this purpose is akin to renting a car to drive to the end of your street.  You’re not using the technology for it’s capabilities, you’re using it to exacerbate your own habits.

That’s assuming the teacher didn’t book the lab as a digital babysitter while they get marking done (or so they could just surf the net in the same way as their students).  In those classes I’m having to replace vandalized computers and students may as well be at home doing whatever they do there online.  This damages digital fluency for everyone in the room by actually encouraging habitual usage, and it’s expensive.

Trying to focus on learning is difficult in the hyper-personally empowering digital realm.

Developing mastery of any kind isn’t a focus in education, trying to do it now with digital narcissism at every fingertip is even more difficult.  Classes are set with 50% credits and minimal expectations around attendance in order to facilitate pass rates.  In terms of digital mastery, administration seems to think this is about device access, but it’s more about people, self-discipline and work habits.  Digital mastery falls back on the habits of the learner.  A strong, self-directed learner is empowered by a digital environment,  a weak, dependent one is impoverished by it.  For the strong it empowers their ability to learn, for the weak it offers them a constant stream of distractions so that they can stay in the most base, trivial, superficial and habitual parts of their minds.

 If we practiced mastery learning across education then digital mastery would follow.  If we took teaching digital fluency seriously (in both staff and students) we would have a chance at using technology to create amplified learners who are able to access information and self direct their learning at a rate unseen before.

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t dropping the digital football just to keep the traditional power structures in play.

note:  this is the 4th re-write of this post, it’s an ongoing attempt to figure out some big ideas, I’m still not happy with it but I’m going to let it lie and move on.  I suspect I’ll be trying to clarify the ideas in here in future posts.

Fear & Arrogance

Quote from Bull Durham

The industrial mindset around education tends to look away from this approach to learning, but there is something to be said for bravery in the face of overwhelming odds; it’s a true commitment to what you’re learning.  Of course, if you’re going to learn something like it matters then failure should be an expectation if anything other than competence is demonstrated.  In a school system that prides itself on stats it generates about itself, this kind of without-a-net learning doesn’t happen.

When I say true commitment I mean a willingness to put your learning to the test (and I don’t mean a standardized test).  There is a reflective aspect to learning that we tend to ignore in education.    We like to say we’re looking at meta-cognition and self-aware learning, but only without questioning the context we frame it with.  Unless a student is considering the school system in which they find themselves complete with all its financially forced lunacy, the metacognition they are asked to endure in class is little more than another attempt to pretend rows of desks and student numbers are the ideal.  In that environment the student who shrugs and walks out of class in order to truly test themselves in a trade or other real pursuit is the only one answering the metacognitive question correctly.

Learning without concrete, relevant feedback is empty, pointless.  The type of feedback students get in school tends to be abstract to the point of emptiness.  We then wonder why their poor grades don’t motivate them to try harder to get better abstract numbers, and then teachers agonize over how to ‘engage’ them.

When I first started to teach in Japan I tried to understand why my classes were so different even though the lessons were the same.  In looking at my learners I realized that some were intrinsically motivated and some extrinsically motivated.  The doctor who came in to work on their presentation to have their work shared in an international conference?  Those classes were stellar.  The employees who were required by management to upgrade their English?  Tedious.  Intrinsically motivated learners are a joy to teach though also a great challenge because of how voracious they are.  When we create an education system we iron out intrinsic motivation in favour of standardized, extrinsic motivations (grades, standardized test scores, report cards).  Any fear or arrogance in daring to explore and expand beyond our comfort zone is stamped out in favour of standardized assessment.

I’ve been learning the art and science of motorbike riding over the last couple of months.  I can’t think of an activity that requires a greater commitment (except perhaps tight rope walking).  The learning process for this activity is ruthless and demanding.  I don’t get days off or time to relax when I’m working on my craft.  I don’t have someone constantly correcting my behavior to keep me on task.  And it hurts doing it, let alone if I do it poorly.  What got me on a bike in the first place?  Fear and arrogance; the chance to do something difficult well.  Thinking that I could learn this thing with grace and skill was a dare I’ve always wanted to take.  That I want to be successful in something I’ve seen kill other people is perverse and satisfying.

We don’t like students to learn things that are challenging to them, we like them to all do the same thing on a bell curve.  We process them as statistics that we can then manage.  If you’ve ever tried to submit a class of all failures or all perfects you know this to be true; they want a bell curve of grades with a median in the Bs.  Student centred learning tries to put an individualized face on this, but the assessment rubric will quickly bring it back in line again.  It’s unreasonable to expect a teacher to individualize learning for thirty people, but if we’re going to run this like an assembly line we can’t bemoan the loss of individual learning.

The real trick with learning is to want to do it.  Once you’re there and you have a deeply seated need to figure out what it is you want master, you can begin to develop those skills.  In addition to fear and arrogance (two methods of not being daunted by learning a challenging skill), you should also embrace patience and a willingness to laugh at your failures without ignoring them.  With a flexible, resilient approach to learning in place you are sure to succeed at your craft, though not always in ways you may have imagined.

Mastery takes longer, but this’ll get you over the steep bit
at the beginning of the learning curve

I stumbled across the chart on the right a few weeks ago on Google+.  Whenever I hear someone say, “I wish I could draw”, or, “I wish I could code”, or any other longed for learning you care to name, I think back to this chart and wonder why they never spent the time if they wanted it that badly; they obviously never wanted it that badly.  Learning isn’t magic and teaching isn’t a dark art.  The learner has to recognize the value of the learning and have an emotional need to achieve it.  The teacher has already walked that path to expertise and cultivates that love of the material by challenging the student to achieve that which is barely within their reach.  Their expertise allows them to dare the student to appropriate challenges.  Learning is a visceral, thrilling self-driven, emotional experience, not a pedantic, systemic process to be forced on rows of victims.

These moments of learning greatness where students reach for more than they should and see success (and failure) happen in schools all the time, but they are usually the result of a good teacher trying to protect students from systemic processing.  They also tend to happen in stochastic learning or extracurriculars more than the ordered learning of the class room.  In the kinetic action of arts, technology or physical education students still have the freedom of unregimented, hands on learning toward less specific ends. That stochastic space allows them room to attempt greatness, to bypass the routine learning and realize a eureka moment.  Formal classroom education irons that out with curriculum, formalized assessment and systemic teaching practice.  The freedom still evident in stochastic learning tends to unnerve the professional student and educational administrator, both of whom have learned to play the game of Education rather than simply encourage people do what they are naturally predisposed to do.  For the true apprentice hands on learning is the last bastion of real learning in our education system.  It may be the unspoken reason that killing extracurriculars in Ontario this year cut so deeply.  Only in sport and other physical activity can we appreciate the immediacy of failure and the joy of real success.  You can’t bell-curve reality.

All is not lost.  We could begin revising education towards learning rather than self serving statistics gathering.

Imagine an education system that didn’t work to generate its own self-serving statistics.  A school system that was focused on developing an environment in which students were able to develop a deep, intrinsic love of learning, where no extrinsic motivation existed to force them into a mold of grades and average expectations.  Failure in this system could be brutal and obvious, but students would be encouraged to attack their learning with fear and arrogance (and patience and humor) knowing that they would never be demeaned for failing but only for ignoring their failures.

Do As I Say

Reading Shopclass as Soulcraft a second time has me thinking about the similarities between Crawford’s and my work histories.  I walked out of high school before I finished.  I wasn’t failing anything, I was just sick of the officious and arbitrary nature of the place.  I wanted to learn how to do *things*, but I was being taught how to sit in rows and do what I was told.  I’m not very good at that.

“Teaching takes a back seat to the more socially salient task of sorting, and grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses.” p 146 Shopclass as Soulcraft

From there I bounced around your typical low income jobs (night time security, Canadian Tire) before finding myself an apprenticeship.  This I did for a couple of years before finishing up high school and going to university.  It only took me until second year to get into trouble at university, brashly questioning the veracity of my professors.  The younger profs tended to want to change your life.  I have a great deal of trouble buying in to systems, especially when the people advocating them put themselves in the centre of this marvelous new way of thinking.  I’ve always felt that these Rasputiny types aren’t in it for mastery, they are in it to be masters.  My skepticism in this has been born out in politics as well.

“The master has no need for the psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate. He does the same work as the apprentice, only better… for the apprentice there is a progressive revelation of the reasonableness of the master’s actions.” p. 159

When I worked as a Millwright, I had a number of senior mechanics who taught me the ropes.  They taught me by doing the job, showing me the job, letting me do the job while they berated me for doing it badly, letting me do it on my own and if it worked, it worked.  It was messy, but at no point did any of the senior guys have to tell me they were the experts and I should do what they say, they let the work demonstrate their expertise.  I seldom saw that kind of do as I do, not as I say demonstration of expertise in formal education.

Students are always looking for credible teachers.

Many teachers I know don’t practice what they teach.  Many business teachers teach business, they’ve never run one.  Many art teachers teach art, but don’t make any themselves.  Many English teachers teach writing, but don’t write themselves.  You might make the argument that they teach, and that is what they are good at.  I’d argue that this is an abstraction of an abstraction, and whatever it is they are teaching, credibility is in question; student engagement necessarily follows (they subconsciously pick up on a teacher’s own doubts).  If you’ve ever shown students your own work, they look like meerkats; they long for credible learning, and showing mastery does that.

Last summer I took my additional qualification for computer studies.  I worked in I.T. after university, mainly because objective skill sets pay a lot better than abstract ones.  Ask anyone with a Masters Degree in the arts or humanities how the job search is going for proof of that.  While in university I worked as an auto mechanic because it paid way better than the knowledge economy job my arts degree was preparing me for.  I’ve always migrated back to those objective skill sets because it feels like credible work.  You don’t have arbitrary managers downsizing you based on abstraction, personal dynamics or their own towering sense of self importance.

I love seeing those MBA types on the side of the road, their BMW SUV’s tire flat, waiting for someone who can *do* something to come and move them back into the clouds they live in.

Crawford makes a compelling argument for respecting those skills that we tend to diminish.  Objective, experientially gained mastery is often looked down upon by the academic class which itself rules education with a university-clad fist.  Objective mastery isn’t up for debate, or the charismatic manipulation of office politics by experts in “human management”.  If you know what you’re doing, reality responds, and no amount of talking is going to change that.  I miss that kind of traction in education.

Objective Learning, Humility and Real Achievement

I’m re-reading Shopclass as Soulcraft, which begins with Matt Crawford asking what value hands-on work offers.  He questions the abstractions in which we all traffic (consumerism, academics, politics) in the information age.

There is value in learning about something external from ourselves, something with absolute requirements unlike the everyone’s a genius in their own way/student success means everyone passes/let students direct their own learning so they aren’t bored mantras you see whirling around edu-speak these days.  Crawford is focusing on trade skills in the book, but he’s arguing for any skill that has needs beyond whatever criteria we choose to apply to it.  This would apply to languages (you either understand and can communicate in it or not), technical skill (you can rebuild that carburetor so that it works, or not), or even sports (you can ski down the hill, or you can’t).  These kinds of skills get short shrift in schools these days because we can’t bend the requirements sufficiently to pass everyone and claim success.

Conestoga’s Motorcycle Training

This past weekend I took a motorbike training course.  It was exhausting, and very rewarding, and it had a six and a half percent failure rate. Those people paid four hundred and fifty dollars and were unable to complete the requirements of the course in a road test.  They left frustrated, and in some cases angry, but in a very real way they demonstrated that they could not control and place the bike.  The instructors were transparent and explained the failed components in detail, but people still left early with high emotions.  It’s hard for people who are used to paying and passing to suddenly find themselves having paid and failed.  Doesn’t payment equal success?  Doesn’t consumerism replace competence?  It does in many situations, and increasingly in education.  Students become clients (especially in post secondary where they are paying directly for it), but even in k-12 tax payers are the clients and success for all is what they are paying for.

It’s fair to say the test asked us to demonstrate about 60% of what we’d been asked to do that weekend – it wasn’t brutal by any means, but controlling a motorcycle is a tricky business, and some people found the learning curve too steep.  Whether it was full body coordination or keeping what you’re doing organized in your head, there was a lot to manage in doing this test.  The criteria were clearly explained and had been practiced relentlessly for two full days, there were no surprises yet some people were unable to *do* what was required.  Alternatives weren’t offered, differentiation was self directed – by you – while you were learning on the bike, the instructors offered advice and it was up to you to take it or not.  Those that failed generally didn’t take it.  Riding a bike isn’t like driving a car.  You’re alone on it, you don’t have a voice in your ear making suggestions or stepping in with alternate controls, it’s all up to you.

The curriculum was demanding and had specific requirements that couldn’t be ignored. It was physically exhausting and required twenty four hours of your time over a single weekend, early wakeups and hours outside in very changeable April weather.  When someone showed up late on Sunday they were dropped out of the course (and seemed utterly flabbergasted at the situation); 100% attendance was required, and in order to see success you had to be there mentally, physically and emotionally.  There was a high correlation between failures and people who were always the last to show up.  As Crawford mentions in his book, learning an objective skill requires a degree of submission and humility to the task at hand – something that we ironically iron out of schools in order to demonstrate success.

For the rest of us, marks were given and certificates (which include a big drop in insurance costs as well as a direct pass to the next level of licensing) were given out in a ceremony.  People who got perfect scores were mentioned, and applauded. Everyone still in that room realized how much work they’d put into their success that weekend.  But they’d put in more than effort, they’d also been willing to be taught, to check their pride at the door and learn something challenging and new from the ground up.

There is an important difference between submission and humility. One can be humble and it enhances self worth, and allows learning in the oldest educational context we possess.  Submission is about the power of the strongest, humility is about an honest awareness of one’s circumstance.  A master at a skill is honoured when their apprentice is humble before the task because they are receptive and teachable, and they are also respecting the skill that the master possesses. That humility allows you develop perhaps the most powerful learning tool available to us, self-discipline, which in turn grants the serious student the ability to master skills that would otherwise defeat a dilettante. You assume the mantle of a serious, even professional student when you are able to apply self-discipline gained through the humble acquisition of meaningful skill.  In school we constantly seek ways to amateurize learning in order to satisfy a Taylorist economic logic.  We try to streamline and ease student passage, forgiving absence and inattention in a misguided effort to generate successful data.  Any statistic you’ve ever seen about education has nothing to do with learning.

This sounds like throw back language, especially in light of the MBA edu-babble popular today. Students teaching themselves in order to stay engaged?  Best not done around a band-saw, as Crawford suggests.  Students able to ‘pass’ with a 50% average? Or with weeks of absenteeism?  They’ve hardly mastered anything.  Students given multiple avenues to success with targets that get closer the more they miss?  This learning is empty and pedantic, and students recognize that. Reward comes with real effort, and real failure.  Guaranteeing success for all?  The surest way to a systemic failure of learning.

I hurt all over from this past weekend, but it was profoundly satisfying.  I worked hard, didn’t treat it like a joke, gave it my full attention and realized early on that the people instructing know so much more than I do that it would behoove me to be humble before their skill and experience.  I think that humility is what led to my success.  That success may very well save my life one day.  Engagement was never an issue.

I won’t see much of that humility and openness to learning in the diploma factory I’m returning to today, though I’ll try and try to put reality’s demands in front of my students and let them be frustrated by it.  It’s real success when you overcome an obstacle and figure something out, especially if you experienced failure in the process.  Not so much when people systemically remove obstacles to keep nearly inert objects in motion.  As self discipline erodes and humility dries up, the process of learning itself begins to break down.

Are you teaching curriculum today?  Or are you teaching how students should passively pass through the Kafkaesque education factory in which they find themselves?

Being taught how to actually do something with objective demands has made me proud, humble and grateful for the skillset I have as a learner.  When I see opportunities to approach learning with humility and develop self-discipline missing from so much of what we do in school, it makes it seem an empty, even dangerous place.