Saturday, 18 March 2017

Facilitators

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/17/the-secret-of-happy-children-get-rid-of-teachers-and-ban-homeworkThis provocative article was shared on Facebook recently.  Teachers sharing and talking about education during March Break, I know, crazy, right?

There is an technologist slant to this article that, like everything else people do in the age of information, reduces complex human interaction into a simplistic informational exchange.  We fall into this trap in every age we live in.  When society was church based we defined ourselves as souls and saw ourselves as intangible spirits in a material world.  When we industrialized people started to see themselves as machines.  In the information age, unsurprisingly, we treat ourselves like computational nodes in a network.  We always seem trapped in our sense of self by the reflection our society casts casts back at us.  In every case we're taking what we are and reducing it to the limitations of the flawed technology we are producing.


By forcing our definition of people to fit the technology at hand we make humans an integral and exploitable part of that technology.  If you can reduce complex human social interaction into simplistic social media exchange and centralize the profits from those interactions you've made a fortune.  The same companies doing this do everything possible to avoid paying taxes to support the societies providing that data.  This is one of the best examples of business leaching off society (other than the stock market itself) that I can imagine.

The fortune to be made reducing students to data is often dressed up under the guise of happier more engaged children, but in my experience the self directed learning suggested by the author of this article is neither efficient nor particularly engaging. Self directed learning requires the kind of focus, self discipline and appreciation of future benefit that most children are incapable of because they haven't developed that bit of their brains yet.  

Many adults are equally stymied by self-direction.  For most, getting into a directed course of action means happily surrendering free will in order to work out of habit.  This a much less stressful way to live a life.  Developing routines and sticking to them means you get to off-load responsibility for the outcomes of those routines onto the people or devices that manage them.  Being able to complain about this while taking no responsibility for what is happening (you're a helpless cog in the system) is one of the most cathartic things your typical human being does in modern society.  Schools are a favorite target of the lazy or aimless; an easy institution to hate because they are trying to develop you into a more fully functioning human being against your every effort.

The brave new world of self directed child geniuses being monitored by cheap, non-professional facilitators that require no special training get a lot of neo-liberals excited about the cheap and engaging de-institutionalized future of education. In the coming age of machine intelligence, computers
 will do all of the thinking and management. Human beings won't have to do anything more than assimilate with those machines... and complain about them. 

Perhaps this writer has a point.  In 20 years when AIs are doing the jobs of most of the non-specialized workforce, why waste money educating them? Students can go to school and perform the same mind numbing habitual activities they do at home. Once we've achieved this nirvana we will have taken the final step toward becoming nothing more than the technology we create.  We will then have truly found the end of history.


Saturday, 4 March 2017

Trust


I came across this excellent article by the Harvard Business Review about how trust relates to productivity in business. It turns out trust goes a long way towards creating a productive learning environment with students as well.  Trust doesn't end in the classroom though.  Between teachers in a building, across entire school boards and in the education system in Ontario as a whole, trust is the cement that turns us from individuals into powerfully focused groups. After reading that article I couldn't help but wonder at the damage done by the aggressive politics that drive out of date and combative management practices in education.

This week we were handed a remedy for a court case won by teacher's unions in Ontario. In 2012 the Ontario provincial government decided to ignore the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and deny the right to strike and force a contract on teachers in the province because bankers had tanked the world economy a few years before and the government's way to fix that was to vilify and then bleed public employees dry.

You couldn't pick a finer example of broken trust within an organization. After a miserable late 1990s under a tea party style conservative government that was bound and determined to diminish the teaching profession in Ontario, the Liberal party was ushered in and a decade of rebuilding occurred. In that time Ontario shot up the ranks in terms of world education. Suddenly, in 2012, in a desperate attempt to garner conservative votes, the Liberal party chose to ignore the Canadian Charter - the document at the foundation of our democratic rule of law - and force a contract on teachers, just to move some money around on ledgers so it appeared that they were more fiscally conservative. The strips to sick days actually cost Ontario more even before the government lost the court case and had to pay restitution. It was a case of desperate and illegal law making and profound mismanagement.  The people responsible have never apologized.  If your boss did that would you trust them?

Since then trust has been thin on the ground in Ontario's education sector, yet this article on trust goes to great lengths in underscoring just how important it is to create a transparent, consistent and reasonable relationship between the members of an organization:

"Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy, collaborate better, suffer less chronic stress & are happier - these factors fuel stronger performance"

Having worked in the private sector for fifteen years before coming a teacher, I'm often surprised at how unenlightened management practices in education are. Perhaps it's simply a byproduct of being managed by politics rather than productivity.  In any case, the mismanagement of Ontario's education system over the past few years is neither cheap, nor productive.


I've worked for my current employer for over ten years.  In that time I only ever asked for a single exception to being expected to come in to work every day.  In 2012 my mother committed suicide.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as a result but was expected to be in class teaching volatile teenagers.  I went to my principal and asked for help.  She called HR for me to navigate the process but we were told by a senior manager, "we have people at work who have had a heart attack and have cancer, what makes you so special?"  I went back to work with images of mopping my mother's remains off the floor still floating before my eyes.  Can you imagine my level of trust since then?

This month I just got back from surgery.  I went back to work 2 days before I should have because we are only allowed 3 days off before needing to contact HR - something I wasn't going to do.  I'd lost so much blood due to this surgery (sinuses, it isn't a nice one) that I passed out at the end of the school day while stacking chairs in my classroom.  I woke up on the floor in a puddle of blood, cleaned myself up and went home and called in sick again. Damaged trust isn't easily forgotten and can put people in ridiculous situations that need not occur.

Trust looks wish-washy from a conservative mind-set, but it's actually a fiscally powerful incentive.

Mismanagement has a trickle down effect.  Board level administration is required to support and enable Ministry dictates, no matter how politically arbitrary, damaging to learning or asinine.  School level administration ends up in a frictional relationship with their teachers as a result of this trickle down distrust.  The end result is that people tend to duck and cover.  It's difficult to get people to raise their heads out of their classrooms and collaborate on anything because they doubt the veracity of the people who manage them.

"when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A Google study similarly found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work."

Trust creates a bond between teacher and student and student and peer.  Knowing you're working with someone who has your best interests are at the centre of what they do makes learning more effective.  A teacher who students can't trust is a poor teacher.   Students don't know what to expect or what is expected from them.  A teacher who surprises students with tests, sometimes on material not comprehensively covered in class, is a teacher students shy away from.  For the rest of us who are trying to establish a trust relationship with our students in order to empower their learning, these teachers are a cancer on the profession.

When you think about your favorite teacher I doubt it's because they gave you a high mark, or because they were hard to figure out.  Teachers that enable us are honest, direct and help us to exceed our own expectations of ourselves.  Trust isn't a nice idea in those cases, it is the foundation of the entire process.  After reading that article I now realize that trust is actually a mechanical process hard wired into how humans think; it's the mechanism that makes us so socially powerful.

Enabled, energized people in an organization, be it a board of education or a classroom, want to engage.  Engagement is a big buzz word in education right now.  It occurs in high trust organizations naturally.  If it isn't happening in your school or classroom look to how you are developing trust to see why it isn't happening.  Demanding engagement is a sure way not to generate any.

"Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator: A 2014 Citigroup and LinkedIn survey found that nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work."

I'm at my best in a classroom when I'm able to define goals, ensure students have fundamental skills in place and then give them the time, space, equipment and positive encouragement to figure it out for themselves.  This light-handed approach means that when they get something to work they feel that they've figured it out themselves.  This is very empowering.  Another benefit of this light handed approach is that I'm not so focused on talking at everyone that I'm able to see what individual students need to move forward.  I'm happiest when a student learns things they weren't able to do before and feel that they did it themselves.  I know I'm important to the process, but students need to feel engaged and enabled in order to own their learning.  Trust powers that process.

My school and board is at its best when we have clear, tangible goals and decisions are made transparently and rationally.  The more this happens, the more effective these institutions become as places of learning, and the more I trust the people who are leading me.  When I trust my leader there is little I won't do for them because I feel that we're all working toward the same goal.

Much of the article that kicked off this blog post drills into the neuro-science of trust.  We are social animals hard wired to use trust as a means of working effectively together.  If we want to best make use of our powerful social habits, building trust is where we should be concentrating our efforts, especially within the entire educational apparatus where trust is (or isn't) the glue that binds us together in the complex social task of teaching and learning.

https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust


The gallows humour of Despair.com is mostly based on people identifying with how
little trust there is in their workplace.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

A Slippery Slope

Fortunately, the ark didn't have to worry about any of
those pesky fictional icebergs...
Over the past couple of days the concept of professionalism seems to keep popping up, usually after it's been lit on fire.  It began when someone posted a quote on Facebook based on a Twitter storm.  It was described as 'interesting' on Facebook and lots of people on there were very happy to prop it up.  I would have called it asinine.  My first instinct was to write back, 'it's important to remember that amateurs built the starship Enterprise but professionals built the space shuttle.'  But I didn't.

Beyond the amateurs-are-really-good-at-building-things-that-don't-exist thinking, I was more put off by the implicit attack on professionalism.  Ironically, it's the lack of professionalism in our news that's accelerating this anti-professional bias.  When you share media created to force an opinion rather than declare facts, you're pouring gas on the ignorance fire.  From patients spending half an hour on Google and then telling their doctors what their self-diagnosis is and demanding they medicate them for it (self assured arrogance is a wonderful byproduct of everyone's-an-expert), to shady business men taking over super powers (dido), the idea that we don't need professionals any more because we all have access to information and therefore know everything is rampant.

The problem with our information deluge is that it isn't vetted.  With no oversight or fact checking, alternative facts become facts when they are repeated often enough.  Opinions become truths when you find enough people to agree with them.  Part of this comes down to the shear volume of information around us.  We're living in a tsunami of data and we're very bad at curating it.


That quote is from 2010.  The revolution happened, but it hasn't been the touchy-feely future of knowledge that we thought it would be.  Maybe AI can sort it out because we've made a mess of it.

This flood of social media produced data has us awash in information, much of it crap.  With a waning (professional) fourth estate and everyone on the planet rapidly getting to the point where they can broadcast their opinions no matter how factually bereft, we are living in dangerous times.  There was some hope, early on, that crowd sourcing would help manage this onslaught, but it turns out a large proportion of the crowd doing the sourcing are idiots.

Our willingness to absorb lies is amplified by the idea that we customize our social media feeds based on our own beliefs.  Doing so turns our 'news' intake into an echo chamber of ideas that only support our world view; a sort of self-fulfilling propaganda.  This quickly takes on Orwellian proportions as people who once kept their racist thoughts to themselves suddenly find themselves at the virtual equivalent of a Clan meeting.  Those embarrassing prejudices are validated and suddenly become worthy of broadcasting.  This process is a powerful one, and its tail is wagging the political dog in 2017.
Alternative is right - this 'headline' photo is taken from a
2007 HBO film.  Welcome to 2017. 

It isn't just the alt-right who are happy to take this neo-propaganda and make use of it.  With no oversight everyone with a strong opinion is happy to do things like take pictures from a film and publish them as if they are news - just to convince people that what they think is right.

Way back in the naughties ('06 I think) one of my media studies students brought in a video that prompted tears and a lot of conversation.  The inevitability of what they proposed in that video caused a lot of anxiety in our class, me included.  At the time social media barely existed so this seemed like a real stretch, but in the dystopian future they describe in the film the traditional news media has fallen apart, eaten by the internet.  What's left is a shallow, sensationalist mediascape that caters to the quality of thought most people aspire to.  In the past year I've begun to think that this quality of thought isn't anywhere near where I thought it was.


The description at the end might be starting to feel all too familiar:
"At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper and broader and more nuanced than anything available before. But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted..."  
It's what we have today.


We're too busy, distracted and incompetent to vet and even critically analyze the media that engulfs us, and we're too cheap to hire people to do it for us.  It turns out we weren't just paying for information from the fourth estate, we were also paying for critical analysis.  But if we can get sensationalism for free why pay for hard truths?

A philosophical underpinning to all of this is the idea that anyone can do or say anything they want simply by wanting to do it.  Effort to develop mastery, and the professionalism implicit in it, is frowned upon.  We're told by wealthy people that doctors, politicians, teachers and other professionals are shysters who are trying to take advantage of us, and we buy it!  Much of this media push is an attempt to crush unions and the middle class they represent.  We idolize the mega-rich who are so simply because of the situation of their birth rather than because of any professionally developed skill.  The lies we tell ourselves every day are part of a vicious cycle made possible by politically poisoned media delivered through a sabotaged information revolution that makes everything except learning the truth easier.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Institutionalizing Success and Teaching Millenials

This was shared online this week and it prompts some thinking about how we deal with the generation we teach.


Four social circumstances that have millennials struggling:

1) Failed parenting strategies include children being told they are special and can do whatever they want just because they want it.  They have won awards their entire lives for simply showing up.  This award inflation devalues excellence and embarrasses the failures these children experience.  They've learned not to strive for excellence because it doesn't matter.
2) Technology: Millennials are surrounded by filtered social media where everyone appears to have it figured out and puts on a good face.  On top of that they have the same relationship with social media as a gambling addict has with a casino, except this addiction is only ever a touch away.
3) Impatience:  They want to reach the summit and have a 'big impact' but are unaware that the summit lies at the top of a mountain.  Is this related to number one?
4) Environment:  Companies (and schools?) should be rebuilding the confidence and resilience of this generation by reconnecting them to personal relationships and long term goals.  This means stepping up to combat number 1, something that most school administration really isn't willing to do.


Now imagine standing in front of thirty one of them.
I've struggled with the vagaries of the millennial mindset in the classroom many times over the past few years.  From the grade inflation of risk averse learners and five-ohs to the complaints of industry, I'm familiar with the millennial challenges Sinek refers to in his interview above.

Battling these frankly bewildering and fictionally driven parenting strategies seems to be a lost cause for most educators.  Since banks and multi-nationals decided to burn the economy down and cause years of austerity, education (and governments in general) have taken on business-think in an unprecedented manner (some kind of Stockholm syndrome?).  The modern approach seems to be 'the customer is always right even if they have no idea what they're doing'.  Rather than expecting competence on the part of the student I often find myself defending a failing grade from a student who has never completed any work at grade level and has missed weeks and weeks of class.  Parents don't want to hear that their child is incapable and they certainly don't want to accept responsibility for that incompetence.  Their only goal seems to be finding ways to blame anything else.


We're not doing a lot of either these days.
Technology is another place where education has thrown in the towel.  Students can do whatever they want with their devices.  Any attempt to redirect a student away from inappropriate technology use is wasted as these devices are now considered to be a constitutional right.  It isn't uncommon for me to ask a student to focus on what we're doing and have them tell me they are in the middle of a text conversation with their parents which is obviously much more important than whatever's happening in class.  They're probably planning a two week absence from school for a holiday - another exciting new millennial parenting tactic that would have been foreign to my parent's way of thinking.  Sinek's no smartphones in a meeting rule wouldn't fly in a modern classroom.  You can't helicopter parent without the tether.


How education is becoming less able
to manage these dangers we face.
Patience isn't lost in all students but even the most capable are dwindling in attention duration.  At the beginning of our last unit I showed exemplars of previous projects done over the past few years.  The top student in my class asked, "are people getting dumber and dumber?"  Good question.  They certainly seem to be less and less capable of developing skills complex enough to tackle curriculum level theory and practice.  Perhaps if they weren't taking weeks of unexplained absences and holidays during the semester things would be better.  Perhaps if they were expected to attempt all course work to the best of their abilities skill-sets wouldn't be deteriorating.

In modern high schools students take the courses they want, not the ones they are capable of.  Students who fail advanced courses get a variety of options to regain the credit and are seen at the same level next year regardless of how little they've proven they can do.  Parents demand access to advanced classes for students who barely find time to attend school and are unwilling to actually do anything.  If I fail anyone I have to justify the failure, not so the absent, incompetent student.  Even trying to offer a range of courses doesn't work because everyone is an academic all-star who should be getting the most advanced credits.

The complaint from people in post secondary education and the work place is that we're producing graduates incapable of working effectively in the 'real world'.  Sinek's comments go straight to this.  Any absence or student failure isn't an administrative issue; the system won't even address it.  There used to be a limit on unexplained absences and then a student was kicked out of a course, that doesn't happen any more.  There used to be criteria for failing late work, that doesn't happen any more.  There used to be requirements for staying within an academic stream, now it's do whatever you want.  When a student is absent or obtuse teachers are told to contact the parents who caused the situation in the first place and work it out.  In Ontario this approach has been institutionalized using laws like school until eighteen no-matter-what.  By keeping students in school at all costs we've effectively removed anywhere to drop out to.  With no bottom to fall through, graduation rates are on the rise!  We've effectively institutionalized failed parenting strategy number one:  everyone is a winner!


The internet is full of memes that suggest the approach we're taking isn't helping.