Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Happy Ship

One of the more ASDish qualities I have is finding awards ceremonies difficult to fathom, especially graduations.  Being packed into a room with a big crowd of people is tricky enough.  Doing it under the constant threat of public acknowledgement is agonizing.  I get the sense that North Americans play this up more than in other places, so perhaps there are some cultural influences going on here too, but my savage disregard for awards seems to run deeper than just cultural dissonance.

I am in the process of weathering two days of back clapping by people who thrive on back clapping.  Their love of self aggrandizement (and don't kid yourself, graduation ceremonies are all about acknowledging and empowering the system) makes my hatred of it confusing to them.  I never feel more alienated from neurotypical people than I do when graduation rolls around.

The first was my son's grade eight graduation put on earnestly by his elementary school.  As in every other graduation I've had to weather, this one involved repeatedly congratulating the same students over and over again for being advantaged and conforming to norms in a manner so efficient that they produced outstanding results in a system designed for them.

And why shouldn't all those advantaged, neurotypical kids be awarded for these things?  They thrived in the artificial learning environment that is the classroom.  They arrived well fed and clothed and culturally aligned with the process that was about to assess them.  These students all had a clear understanding of how to manipulate that system to their own advantage.  It was amazing to see how many of the awards focused on that socializing aspect, recognizing compliance in maintaining social norms as the highest virtue.  Awards for helping to run the school appeared thick and fast with happy teachers handing them out while not having to hide their favouritism any more.

I showed up to school in Canada as an immigrant from a lower socio-economic bracket.  I don't think like other people and have trouble remembering who is who let alone how to create tight social bonds with teachers that would result in any kind of award.  My son gets to skip the immigrant thing and I've gone to great lengths to ensure that socio-economics aren't weighing him down like they did me, but I've also given him an even healthier dose of ASD than I have.  He got to sit through two hours of hearing about how all these wealthy, socially engaged and advantaged, neurotypical kids deserve to be honoured by a school system designed for them.  How do you think that made him feel?  He has struggled to finish his elementary career this week on a positive note.  And yes, this makes me angry.  Not only is the ceremony actively exclusive, but the social pressure involved in attending is absolute.

I just finished reading Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania: paddling the Pacific, so I've got nautical themes floating around in my head as I write this.  Paul is an odd duck himself.  He takes great pleasure in doing things differently and being alone doesn't freak him out in the way it does most people; I imagine he'd find graduation ceremonies as alienating as I do.

As I fidgeted in the humidity of that packed room, the idea of a cruise ship came to me.  On that happy ship are all those students predisposed to success in school.  They thrive in noisy rooms full of people, they are socially tuned to make best advantage of the entire school system, and that system is eager to reward their compliance.  Their communications skills allow them to create positive, supportive relationships with their peers, but most importantly, their teachers.  These uber-kids are like professional athletes.  They excel in an artificial environment and then get rewarded for it handsomely by the people intent on maintaining that system.

As if every day at school stepping into a shoe designed for them wasn't enough, they then get graduation where everyone gets to hear about this very abstract and specific version of excellence, for the same people, over and over again.  These are the students that I meet in high school who don't really care what Hamlet's motivations are and don't think there is anything to actually learn about human nature in literature, but they do want to know how to get the A+.  Education isn't self improvement for these people, it's a flag they wave around for social advantage.

From an outsider's perspective it feels at best patronizing and at worst like you're getting your face rubbed in it.  If you see any awards that aren't based on 'academic excellence' (whatever that means), they tend to be tertiary awards given as charity without any other criteria.  The best you can hope for is someone saying how hard you tried, but don't be patronized by that pat on the head.  For the neuro-atypical thinkers who don't work best in a classroom, but are learning all the same, there are no awards for all the books you read  (or wrote) that aren't on the curriculum.  There are no awards for all the art you made that didn't happen in class.  There are no awards for all the sports you participated in that didn't happen under the hammer of a phys.ed. teacher's critical eye.

My son's grades look remarkably like mine.  When you get grades like that they tempt you to say fuck it to school, which I'm sure makes the neuro-typical people who deliver them feel very powerful.  Assessment for compliance.  Assessment for conformity.  Assessment for learning?  Rarely.  Sitting through graduation ceremonies only exacerbates that feeling (I didn't attend any of mine).  I had a chat with my boy afterwards and reminded him that what teachers are willing to see in the very limited classroom environment is not in any way an accurate reflection of what he is capable of.  When you have the kind of intelligence that is very difficult to observe let alone quantify, part of your genius has to be nurturing it yourself.

We're all crossing the learning ocean, but some of us know
what the waves sound like because we're out in it on our own.
All those neurotypical kids on their big cruise ship crossing the learning ocean have the benefit of a system designed for them, but many of them also forget that they're actually on the learning ocean; the cruise ship becomes their whole world.  When they have to disembark in that glittering graduation ceremony of privilege rewarded, they are lost.  They didn't learn anything for its own sake, they learned things for grades and accolades.  They struggle to find their way in a world that doesn't always reward their privilege with success, though they'll never forget that feeling of privilege and will seek it again and again for the rest of their lives.

I ended our chat with this:  embrace your difference, don't surrender to their assessment.  And if you don't want to go and watch them clap each other on the back for being privileged, then don't.  It's the dropouts and outliers who tend to invent new things - no artist ever learned their art in a classroom.  The fighting spirit you develop in yourself getting beaten up by the school system will be what makes you strong when you don't have to suffocate in it anymore.  Whatever happens, never forget that learning isn't school.  Always be learning, never let them rob you of your creativity.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Competitive Urges: Skills Canada National Finals in Edmonton, 2018

I've hesitated to post this because I get the sense that competition is generally sneered upon in Ontario classrooms these days.  With earnest people saying everyone is a genius and anyone with the urge to pick up a tool is a craftsperson, something like Skills Canada might seem like a cruel and unusual way to show that as obviously incorrect.

I've always had a competitive streak and think there is real value in both winning and losing, but losing really bothers me (hence, competitive streak).  This was written on a long flight back from Edmonton as I struggled with failure.  Contrary to popular belief, I consider this to be a good thing.

Can you feel the heat?  Skills Canada Nationals is a pressure cooker of excellence!

I was in a foul mood when I started writing this, but by the end I'd thought my way out of the frustration, which is the most I can ask from a reflection...

I’m at a loss to explain how we can be so dominant in provincial competition and then fumble Nationals.  Two times now we’ve taken the time and expense to come out to Skills Canada Nationals and have come up short.  In the latest case I could not have possibly arranged things any better.  From coop to employment opportunities to multiple in-class opportunities and supports, my current candidate had every tool possibly on hand to achieve success, but we haven’t.  This is the worst possible time to ask me (on the plane, flying home, empty handed), but I’m feeling tired, frustrated and struggling to understand why I’d go through this again.
4am wake up for a 10am departure - moving hundreds of
people, many of them with hundreds of pounds of tools
is a logistical challenge.

A consistent issue with leaving our small town to come to nationals is circumstantial.  In our first go around, the social pressure around missing high school prom proved such a distraction that my candidate arrived with a pocket full of angry texts and little chance to focus on preparing for the coming battle.  In this year's case, a sports injury in a pointless local game the week before the competition led to a week away in wheelchairs and on crutches.  In both cases small town life conspired to produce the kind of static that knocked capable technicians off a medal.   But maybe there is more to it than that.

I don’t think the competition is particularly technically challenging.  There is nothing asked that my competitors aren’t directed to and encouraged to get a handle on.  This has worked so well provincially that we’ve medalled the past three years (two golds and a bronze), but at Nationals both times the wheels have fallen off the cart.  That we can do so differently at two near identical competitions suggests that our issue is psychological, not technical.

Team Ontario is a monster!
So, what about Nationals is so overwhelming?  The assumption (I think) is that Nationals will be next level, but Ontario provincials have many more competitors from many more schools.  Getting out of Ontario is by far the most difficult part, and we’ve managed it twice.  The people we face at Nationals aren’t IT unicorns; they’re kids, all with less experience in competition.  In some cases they only had to show up to get to Nationals because there were barely any provincial competitors.   I’d assumed that our previous ‘blind’ Nationals experience (where we placed 4th anyway), had prepared us for this one.  My candidate was more experienced, more focused (barring sports injuries and school plays) and had been given many more opportunities to develop their IT skills than our first go around, yet subjectively we’ve underachieved.  Our best hope now, prior to knowing the scoring, is a tie with our last attempt, but I fear that might be too much to hope for.

Got the kit...
Last year we blew provincials and didn’t go through.  I lay the blame for that entirely at my own feet.  The change to a Toronto based venue meant a cruel and unusual commute that made us exhausted and late; we didn’t have a hope of peak performing (yet we still managed a medal).  This year we did back flips arranging hotels and finding ways to minimize the financial burden on our competitors in order to ensure our best shot, and that worked.  Leading up to Nationals I made sure everything was taken care of and any possible need was filled prior to sitting down to compete.

Expectations are perhaps the killer here.  Our first time around I took Nationals to be a reconnaissance.  We’d already over achieved to such a degree at Provincials that I was just happy to be there.  Sure, a medal would have been nice, but understanding the contest was my real goal.  That we came so close to getting a medal had me convinced we were moving in the right direction.  This time around my previous champion gave a detailed rundown of what to expect on Nationals and we didn’t go in blind, yet we have failed to capitalize on that information.  This could mean it was bad information, but I doubt that.  It could also mean we simply didn’t make the time to make use of that information because my two competitors have an unhealthy competitiveness between them.   We have underperformed, yet the competition was described as too easy, and we knew what was coming.  How are we bottom half?  With the medal ceremony behind us, I’m left wondering where we are, and, as a coach, I don’t like the feeling - the lack of understanding feels like a failure on my part.

This might sound like whinging or poor sportsmanship, but I didn’t spend all the time and money and stress to not place again.  This isn’t even a case of gold or die, just knowing we were there or thereabouts would have met my expectations; I don’t think that’s an absurdly challenging goal.  If we didn't want to be competitive, why did we compete?

Pre-contest huddle.
One of the more surprising aspects of this trip was just how different my competitor was.  On our first go I had what looked like an Eastern European rock star who had the swagger to go with it.  He had the technical chops, but his cockiness also meant he’d tackle problems aggressively and with some verve; he wasn’t intimidated by anyone or anything.  I suspect that fourth place finish was as much the result of that fearlessness as it was his technical skill.

This time around I had an anxious perfectionist who I couldn’t read very well and (I fear) I didn’t coach as effectively as I could have.  Maybe, in this case, a less acerbic approach might have served us better, but my approach to coaching and teaching has always been to encourage an independent and experiential approach to the challenges of technology.  I give students the gears if they make a silly mistake, but never penalize them for it.  The ones who stick around end up resilient, self-aware and technically superior.  I don’t baby students and hand them answers, I’d rather see them struggle to a solution themselves.  The result is a technician who might not know all the answers, but damn well knows how to find them.
Like herding cats...

Except at Nationals.

This time around I had a university bound, academically strong student for whom this was just one of many feathers in his hat.  This is his second national final in an ICT related field in as many weeks.  At the CyberTitan National Competition, on our first go at it, we placed as high as I’d hoped we would and that trip was (I think) a great success.  My expectations here were actually similar this week, to finish in the top half, but we’ve failed to do that.  There were only 7 competitors in the national IT & Networking final – three provinces and all the territories failed to produce candidates who could meet national standards – so finishing in the top half would have meant a medal.

My first national finalist was a college bound kid who had been on the verge of failing in the years before and found his way out of that mess though finding his genius in info-tech.  He ended up going to college for IT and considers his Skills experience a vital piece of his career (as he should).  I never once heard my first champion say, ‘it’s just IT’ when someone asked him what competition he was in, but I heard that too many times this week.  Downplaying the field of study (I fear) when competing at the national level in it was a reflection of the doubt that plagued this medal run.  At one point I heard, "I don't understand why I'm here with all these people" (meaning experts in their skilled trade).  I thought it might have been false modesty, but it in retrospect it was doubt, which is a disaster when you're in a pressure cooker like Skills Nationals.  Maybe I should have identified that and talked about it earlier, but if years of straight ‘A’s in computer and software technology courses, multiple provincial medals, full time summer employment as a  network technician, a top five finish in the related cybersecurity contest nationally, detailed notes from all the competitors who came before and a coop in IT wasn’t enough to instill some confidence, I fear nothing will.  I don’t think this result was a deficit of technical skill.

Watching mastery across such a wide range of skills
never gets old.  If you get a chance, go to Skills Nationals.
This year in electronics we took a giant step backwards, to the point of me wondering if we were ever moving in the right direction.  My competitor was crushed by our poor result and this prompted me to chase down her judges and request some clarification on our results.  She'd actually ended up in the medals on the two toughest categories (building circuits), which helped restore some confidence.  Then we got clarification on what we missed, which has shed such a bright light on what we need to do that I can’t believe we won’t be contenders next year.  Her response to all of this was stubborn anger.  I can work with that.  One of the judges encouraged her to hang in there saying, 'it’s the failures that toughen you up and eventually make you a champion.'  It’s that kind of thing that makes me want to do the hours and hours of volunteer work it takes to build up to winning provincials again and perhaps going through another exhausting and potentially hope crushing week at nationals.

Maybe one of the things I need to be doing when I’m looking for candidates to take on this overwhelming challenge is to look for the tenacious scrappers who can’t, won’t and don’t stop.  Maybe that was missing this year.  A student following in his brother’s footsteps for whom things had fallen into place, winning medals even when he claims the whole thing was a disaster was suddenly doubtful of his place in the competition.  I don’t know what to do with that.  Maybe that judge is right – it’s overcoming the setbacks that make you commit to the competition and fight with conviction.  Win or lose, if we left everything on the competition floor I’d be happy with the result, but something stopped us from doing that this time.  Perhaps it was the injury, perhaps it was nerves, perhaps I'm just the wrong coach for a this particular student, which is a shame for us both.

I didn’t do well in school.  You can count the number of ‘A’s I got on one hand.  Things generally have never come easily to me, I have had to fight for them.  I dropped out of college, out of an apprenticeship and struggled to get into and through University.  I’m good at many things, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural at anything.  The things I’m good at are the result of determination and stubborn disregard for failure.  It’s that kind of tenacious student that I’m best able to help because I can identify with them.  I find the honour roll perfectionists alien and don’t always know how to work with them to bring out their best.  Perhaps the best thing I could have done here was to send another teacher instead.  If I could go back and rerun this week over and over again Groundhog Day style, that would be one of the variations I’d try.

I’m most effective helping the stubborn, scrappy student I have much more in common with attain their mastery than I am trying to aim an honour roll kid at gold.  Those scrappy students also play to my love of underdogs.  As I said earlier, perhaps expectations are what make this so difficult to take.  This time I thought I'd brought a howitzer to a knife fight.  As fixated as I am in this moment on failing to medal again, in less fraught moments I’m more about a good struggle than I am about winning – but it’d sure be nice, just once, to sit on this long road home with something tangible to show for it.


A week after we got back we had an interview with the local paper.  When asked what I thought something like Skills Canada does for a student I immediately went to the degree of resilience it develops.  I truly believe that competition is good for us all, and that competition has to involve winning and losing.

At the opening ceremony the MC asked the audience of hundreds of competitors who was going to win a medal, they all started cheering - the unspoken disappointment was left hanging in the air, you can't all be winners.  More people come home disappointed after Skills Nationals than satisfied.  That's no bad thing.

My goal as a coach is to find ways to help competitors put their best foot forward.  This year has taught me a lot about how I can better do that.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Next Steps after Attending the CyberTitan Nationals

I just got back from the Canadian National cyber-security finals in Fredericton, NB. This was the first national championships in cybersec and it piggy backs on the the US/worldwide cyber-security contest called Cyberpatriot. Canada, and especially Ontario, is late to this party, but there is still time to catch up.

What got me thinking about cyber-security was an article WIRED did last year on the Russian attack on the Ukraine. Countries are now attacking each other using information technology infrastructure, yet we seem happily oblivious to this in Ontario. New Brunswick entered 10x more schools into this competition than Ontario did - New Brunswick has seven hundred and fifty thousand people in it. NB is also launching a number of provincial initiatives to place them at the front of a rapidly expanding and very under-served industry:
Homepage - CyberNB
Welcome - NBIF - FINB

1st time on a plane, 1st time out of the province for half
our team - they'll never forget this trip.
I'm going to be presenting on our participation in the Canadian CyberTitan arm of the US based Cyberpatriot competition at the OTF PB4Technology conference in August, and again at ECOO in November. If you're curious about how to get into CyberTitan, it runs as separate contests for middle schools and high schools. You do three 6 hour rounds during the school year, and depending on where you finish, you might find yourself on a fully funded trip to New Brunswick for the national finals in 2019.  What you're doing in the competition is searching for malware and exploits and removing them from the systems.  It's ICT technical work crossed with investigation.

You don't need to be techie or have previous experience to get into the competition. It's a small entry price ($200 last year) and you get 10x back in access to Cisco, Microsoft and other content. You also get a really nice set of team shirts, pins and challenge coins (Americans know how to do swag). Your students also get to brag about working off US government servers, because that's where the contest takes place virtually.

Cyber-sec is a field that is in high demand, it's exciting, ever changing and the requirements and pathways to get to it are rapidly evolving and improving. The Canadian Forces are launching a cyber-command that will offer high school graduates equivalent college level training in cyber-ops.

From military to government to industry, this is a rapidly expanding and diversifying field of study that isn't just about comp-sci degrees any more. Considering the fragility of our ICT infrastructure and the number of state and individual threats to it, I'm astonished that we haven't worked towards integrating cyber-security into our curriculum sooner. The US Department of Homeland Security has a great resource on cyber-sec education called NICE: National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) | NIST

Hours in and hours to go - engagement was 100% through the whole thing even with technical failures and other frustrations.

Some links:

Links to next year's CyberTitan competition:
Register – CyberTitan – ICTC Canadian Youth Cyber Education Initiative

If you're curious about who the Information and Communication Technology Council of Canada (ICTC) are, you can learn more about them here: https://www.ictc-ctic.ca/about/

From Public Safety Canada: Critical Infrastructure... Critical Infrastructure 

A recent blog post on the competition and our lack of focus on vital, 21st Century infrastructure: Dusty World: Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Ignorance

Not covering the skills and knowledge needed to maintain our critical infrastructure in Ontario Classrooms is a glaring oversight (IMO)...

Monday, 14 May 2018

Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Ignorance

It's been a crazy week.  It started with Skills Ontario provincial finals in Toronto where we won gold in IT & Networking for the second time in three years, then I attended my first ever Ontario Council of Technology Educators conference on the Friday.  I write this the next Monday evening from a hotel room in beautiful Fredericton, New Brunswick where we're set to compete in the CyberTitan cyber-security National Championships.

With all these powerful events pulling me out of the classroom, I'm enjoying a strategic perspective that I'm usually too busy teaching to consider.  These events are also forcing me to explain to people what information technology, networking and cyber-security are, which is odd, because they all live their lives every day within this information  infrastructure.  How can people be so unaware of something that affects their lives every day?

Canadian Nuclear Labs are
one of the most advanced
research facilities on the
planet - these are their main
A strange thing happened at the OCTE tech teacher conference I attended last Friday.  I finally got to meet other computer technology teachers in the province only to learn that many of them appear to be looking to hand off their classrooms to pre-set curriculum like First Robotics.  I can't speak to the effectiveness of First Robotics myself, but the evangelism of the people in it makes me suspicious.  That evangelism was set to such a high volume in this meeting that one teacher declared that IT & Networking is, "a waste of time now...it's so simple that an idiot can do it..."  If that's the case, why is our information technology infrastructure so fragile, and intermittent?  The general public is oblivious to this infrastructure and many teachers of computer technology appear to be grossly ignorant of its complexities and importance.  We're ignoring vital technology infrastructure in the classes we're supposed to be teaching it in!  It has taken me a few days during this wacky week to formulate a response to his comments, but here it is:

There is a lot more to computer technology than plugging your students into a robotics competition, no matter how well intentioned it might be.  What should be at the core of computer technology education (IMHO) is an understanding of how technology empowers and influences our society in the Twenty-First Century.  Nowhere is our ignorance of critical information technology infrastructure more pronounced than it is in cyber-security.

Last year I read WIRED's shocking article on Russia's attack on the Ukraine.  Like much else in cyber-security, most people are oblivious to the fact that nation states are currently attacking each other through information technology infrastructure.  Russia and China both have sizable military organizations dedicated to attacking IT infrastructure.  The Israeli and US cyber militaries have remotely dismantled Iranian nuclear research through digital attacks.  We're living in a brave new world most people have no idea about.

You might think that all this tech is just for entertainment such as social media, but you'd be wrong.  IT has worked its way into everything from our utilities and financial systems to food production and healthcare.  How we secure our information technology isn't just about looking after your personal information while you're wasting time on your phone.  IT is now a vital and targetable infrastructure asset.  Other stories on how social media became weaponized in order to influence elections also highlights our ignorance around how fragile our IT infrastructure is.  I was talking to an elderly relative about our upcoming cyber-security competition on Mother's Day and described it this way:

Ten critical infrastructures that people depend on daily.  See
robots on there anywhere?  CompTech should be about
showing students the vital roles technology plays in our
lives, not just a singular focus on robotics or anything else.
If you want to build a house you would have to go through many safety regulations to build it.  All subsystems in your house would have to conform to standards designed to make them as safe and resilient as possible.  We put these rules in place because we recognize how potentially dangerous just slapping things together in the cheapest way possible by people not professionally qualified to do the work would be.  Having your house plumbed by your cousin's kid who likes playing with water or getting the wiring done by your brother-in-law because he likes wires seems insane, but that's the relationship too many people have with our information technology infrastructure.

Even where professional standards exist, they are often ignored and undervalued (evidently by Ontario computer technology teachers as well as everyone else).  This happens because we don't recognize the dangers of an under-engineered, cobbled together information technology infrastructure.  We're then amazed to learn that Russia can turn off the lights in another country prior to annexing parts of it, or that social media can be engineered to break a democracy.  These things are already happening all around us.

So here I am at the first Canadian Cyber-Security National finals trying to overturn decades of willful ignorance.  New Brunswick seems aware of the urgency of this situation in a way that Ontario does not.  In spite of being a fraction of the size of Ontario's education system, many more NB schools participated in the CyberTitan contest this year, and awareness of the problem seems much stronger here.  

CyberNB does not appear to have an equivalent agency in Ontario that recognizes the urgency and fragility of the situation we've made for ourselves.  Our apathy has resulted in frail information infrastructures that are not up to the task of maintaining our critical social systems, let alone defending us from cyber-attacks by malicious states and individuals.

If I can help ICTC and the other organizers of CyberTitan and the CyberSmarts 2018 conference shed light on this neglected yet increasingly important Twenty-First Century fluency, then this process will have all been worth it; we need to build our ICT house to withstand the storms that are coming.  When we're done here we'll head out to Edmonton in a couple of weeks and go for a National Skills Canada medal in IT & Networking.  Perhaps in the process we can talk about how security should be implicit in that effort.  If this starts to gain traction, could we see a cyber-security Skills Canada competition sooner than later?

Team Falcontech from Centre Wellington District High School at the first annual Canadian Cyber-security national finals in Fredericton.  Two of them hadn't been out of the province or flown before!

Related Links:


"Saric is confident that students from a range of backgrounds and of different ages will be able to rise to the challenge of tackling real-world business problems. She points to ICTC’s CyberTitan competitions as proof. These six-hour competitions that take place online, scoring students in real time as they work to secure systems. “They have so many of the tools and many of the skills in their repertoire,” she says. “I’d never underestimate the skills and brilliance of youth.”




Ontario's neglected computer technology curriculum continues to miss the mark:  http://temkblog.blogspot.ca/2018/04/ontario-educations-neglected-computer.html

All we need to do to resolve this is address it!