Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Temporal Prejudices

Recently a friend on Facebook shared this Washington Post article about Winston Churchill. I tend to shy away from hero worship, it isn't really in me to do, but I am motivated to try and address one of our last blind spots when it comes to prejudice.

I've seen people time and again criticize those who lived before them as being immoral and somehow answerable to the laughable ethics of our own time. That article on Churchill, a man who lived at the end of the British Empire and spent much of his career trying to hold the tattered pieces of it together, often using the same kind of bombastic rhetoric you still see today, is no doubt accurate, but the re-defining of statements made over a century ago based on modern values is neither fair nor particularly useful, unless you're a politician trying to win a point.

There is a real danger in interpreting historical people from a modern perspective. We are all creatures of our time - it dictates our thinking more than our culture, language or economic status does. To criticize someone for a lack of understanding at a time when it didn't exist is itself a kind of prejudice. A fairer way to judge them would be to consider if they helped move us toward the clarity of thought we think we enjoy today.

This first became obvious to me when a history professor told us the story of his father coming back to university as a retiree. The man was well into his eighties and he thought it would be fun to take early Twentieth Century history since he'd lived through it. He quickly became so despondent with the course that he dropped it. The young students in the class ripped into what they called the rampant racism of the time. He tried to explain to them that racism wasn't rampant, it was how society functioned back then, but they didn't want to hear it. It's hard to understand his point unless you're aware of just how blinkered you are in your own time. Most people are happily ignorant of these prejudices.

Everyone, as they get older, must experience this strange kind of temporal emigration. We all move away from the values we grew up in. I suspect it's one of the things that wears out seniors the most, society moves on without you. Newer people change the rules and things change (hopefully for the better, but there is certainly no guarantee of that). I imagine most aging people feel like the world has become a foreign place to them.

Based on the myths Western society is founded on, you'd assume that this is a case of continual improvement with us becoming the shining zenith of civilization, but human history suggests otherwise. We have moments of rationality that become eclipsed by our own darker nature. When that happens you'd better hope there is a Winston Churchill to fend of the Nazis of the world. There are racist imperialists and there are racist imperialists - had the other guy won the definition of racist imperialist would have ascended to new heights. Starving people in India to feed soldiers during a war is a very different thing to active genocide.

There are a number of points made in that article that, while true, ignore the circumstances they were made in. Dresden fire bombings are described as an unmitigated act of terror. In retrospect the Allies won World War 2, but this was by no means a certain outcome. In an all-out war with both sides intent on the complete subjugation of the other, the Allied firebombings not only severely affected the German war machine's means of production, but it also struck fear into an enemy drunk on its own sense of superiority. You don't win wars by pulling punches. Was Churchill an imperialist? No doubt, and he shared the racist views of his culture and time period, but to rewrite history to suit your own values without recognizing that cultural influence is itself a kind of prejudice.

We go to great lengths to acknowledge history these days, and I think that's an admirable thing, but we are still blind to so many influences. The recent Oscar ceremony was doing back-flips to acknowledge the rampant racism and sexism implicit in the business, but then proceeded to give a standing ovation to an American soldier who proudly stated that he went to a country half way around the world (Vietnam) to kill the people there for not capitulating with his government. Imperialism is alive and well and we dress up celebrities in fancy dress to give it standing ovations and world wide TV coverage. I wonder what the people of Vietnam thought of that magical Oscar moment. Perhaps all we've done in our post-colonial world is hide it behind rhetoric and politics better than we did in the past.

There is something to be said for the clarify of purpose and honesty with which people used to go about the business of empire. At least back then you knew what people stood for. In Canada this looked like outright oppression, religious indoctrination in residential schools and overt colonization. Today all that is hidden behind a quiet racism and just enough prosaic government support to make the people its supposed to be helping helpless. In 150 years it might be said that all we've gotten better at is management. While all that's going on we're removing John A. MacDonald from that embarrassing historical record. At this rate we'll have history scrubbed clean with our revisionism in no time. Don't worry though - the racism and cultural inequalities will stay safe and warm under that revisionist blanket.

We often sit up here in the 21st Century criticizing the shortsightedness of the people before us. I wonder what our descendants, looking at us sitting on our high horses while appearing blissfully ignorant about our hypocrisy, will say about us.

We're burning a hole in the world with fossil fuels, industrial farming the earth into a desert to feed a never ending population explosion, wearing clothes made by third world workers in economic slavery (itself based on the remnants of colonialism), creating the worst economic disparity in human history and proudly supporting martial force when it suits us, which usually means when we need what they have. They only difference between imperialism a century ago and imperialism now is the marketing we put on it. We used to be honest about our imperialist intentions, now we tell everyone we're exporting freedom.

We're all blind to the things our time period is unwilling or unable to address. This is as true for Churchill as it is for Mr Tharoor. A good dose of humility is what we need here, not more rhetoric by a politician. A bit more awareness of circumstance and compassion for historical circumstance might also translate into a less judgmental view of our own elderly. Trying to understand someone from a different culture is something we say we value. Recognizing that people from other time periods are essentially from a different culture as well might make us a bit more aware of our own hypocrisy.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

When Assistive Technology Doesn't

Recently, my son was undergoing his IPRC process to enter high school and I'm suddenly privy to how parents experience this aspect of the public education system.  The parties at this meeting seemed to genuinely have my son's best interests at heart, but there are unseen forces in the education system more interested in saving money than promoting pedagogy.

One such area is technology support for IEPed students.  The goal here is to provide digital tools that allow students with special needs to keep up with their class work.  In many cases this can mean something like a Chromebook, which is essentially a web browsing laptop.  I'm not a fan of Chromebooks, they are a corporate means of collecting users into a closed ecosystem.  The intent of Chromebooks is to pass any online experience through Google's corporate lens (Chrome) and to keep people within that singular view in order to benefit what is very much a for-profit business.  

Google struggles to treat education and students in particular as anything other than a commodity because people's internet attention is why Google is one of the richest companies in the world.  Google is very aggressive about maintaining its monopoly which is why I'm reticent about things like GAFE, evangelizing groups like Google Certified Teachers and Chromebooks.

Google is a powerful tool, no doubt, but if it's the only way you ever interact with digital technology then you aren't particularly digitally fluent, any more than you could call yourself truly literate and knowledgeable if you only ever read one publisher's books.

The default response from the school board when we began talking about replacing my son's very old (he takes good care of it) laptop was to give him a Chromebook.  Since we only pay lip service to developing digital fluency in Ontario and graduate a large majority of digital illiterates, this seems like a cheap and easy way to hand out tech, but in this case it is a kid who is already digitally skilled and who intends to make computer technology his life's work.  He is already competing in robotics competitions and building computers.  The courses he has signed up for in high school focus on digital engineering.  Giving him a Chromebook is like giving a carpenter a toy hammer and expecting them to frame a house.  It's neither individually appropriate nor particularly useful.

I have been pushing to get him the tools that he needs to pursue his interests, but I'm speaking for the trees here as well as for my own son.  I teach computer technology and have a high preponderance of ASD students who have a great interest in and a neuro-atypical approach to technology that allows them to tackle it in interesting, unique but usually never time efficient ways.  Handing any of those students a Chromebook is like giving a mechanic a twelve millimeter wrench and then telling them to disassemble an engine with it, in an hour.

When he is learning electronics next year in grade 9, he'll need to install Arduino on his computer and then use it to code circuits.  It's free on a 'proper' computer running Windows, Linux or OSx, but Arduino can only be done on a Chromebook with a monthly fee (not covered by the school board).   If he wants to run RobotC for his robotics classes, he can't do it on a Chromebook.   If he wants to run 3d modelling software?  Code in the IDE of his choice?  Run the plasma cutter software?  Sorry, none of those happen on a web browser.  If all we're aiming to do is teach kids how to browse the internet like the consumers we want them to be and through a single, corporate lens, then we're doing a great job pitching Chromebooks at them.

A Chromebook isn't cheaper than a basic Windows laptop.  It is only a browser whereas the Windows PC can install a massive ecosystem of programs for a wide variety of purposes.  The only advantage is that the Chromebook is easier to manage.  Because you can't install anything that isn't a simplistic Chrome extension on it, you have less headaches with software conflicts; it does less, is easier to manage and does a great job of performing its primary function:  feeding the Google data mining machine with much needed fuel.  Pedagogy designed to expand digital fluency in our students isn't the reason why Chromebooks are now ubiquitous.  Management of educational technology is easier if you drink the koolaid and get on the magic Google bus where you don't have to worry about all that messy digital diversity and the complications of actually teaching students (and teachers) how technology works.  Google (and Apple, and Microsoft) are happy to usher your classroom in to a closed system for your own ease of you, learning how technology works be damned.

In discussing this issue with the school board I was told that my son doesn't need a full laptop because the specialty classes that require that software will supply it in class.  His IEP specifies that he be given extra time to complete work, but that is impossible if the technology needed to do his class work is only available in a particular classroom.  How does that help him finish his work after school, or on a weekend?  It doesn't help him if he is trying to do work during his GLE support period either because other students are using the in-class equipment while he is elsewhere.  There is no guaranty that the technology would be available at lunch or before or after school either, so the 'what he needs will be in the classroom' answer seems to be intentionally ignoring the extra time his IEP clearly states he needs.

Differentiation of assistive technology with an eye on customizing it to specific student needs is exactly what the IEP (INDIVIDUAL education plan) is supposed to be doing.  If we were going to begin to take digital fluency seriously, assistive digital technology that encourages a diverse digital ecosystem and renders a wider understanding of how technology works would be a great place to start, especially with digitally interested students.  

A Chromebook should be the last thing suggested.  This, or course, begs the question:  if Chromebooks aren't any cheaper and don't improve digital fluency, why are we using them at all?  Well, it makes our monopolistic corporate overlord, um, partner, happy while not being any cheaper and doing less, but it sure is easier to manage.  

Whoever this is a win for, it isn't providing my son with the technology he needs to succeed.  It also puts the pedagogy around understanding the technology we've made an intrinsic part of our classrooms on the back foot.  As near as I can tell, other than feeding a corporate partnership and rolling out something so simple it can't really break (or do much), there is little to recommend the Chromebook, especially as an assistive device for a student who will need things it can't do in his classes next year.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Failure of STEM

This has been taken apart and rewritten several times now.  It started with a colleague sharing an article about how STEM grads aren't particularly useful to STEM based industries.  I've long found STEM to be overly white collar focused and exclusive.  This article about how the predominantly wealthy, white, males of STEM aren't being benefited by their exclusively designed courses made me start to deconstruct my own experiences (mainly failures) in STEM, and led to this...


What this actually means is Google isn't
happy with how we're teaching STEM?
I've seen several articles about how we need to produce less STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) focused students.  Most recently Google noted that the soft skills it needs aren't found in STEM focused students.  This isn't a function of the STEM subjects being taught, it's a function of how they are taught.  STEM has traditionally been treated as an exclusively academic discipline.  This white collar approach to STEM means that teachers focus on theory and academics to the exclusion of everything else.  If any applied activity does happen in a traditional STEM class it's a pre-conceived experiment with a directed, single outcome.  Students in many traditional STEM classrooms aren't given open problems to solve and generally don't tend to solve what they are given collaboratively.  Traditionally, STEM defines itself by heavy, repetitive, solo workloads.

Not so strangely, Google and other technology companies aren't finding these theoretically focused science-matheletes particularly good at actually building things, or working with other people.  In fact, Google has found STEM graduates lacking in all of the 4 C's that are generally considered vital for success in the 21st Century workplace.

Critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration aren't unique to the liberal arts, but when I was in high school one of the things that alienated me from maths and the sciences I wanted to make a part of my future was a stubborn disregard for all of those things.  My maths and science teachers made a point of grading based on theoretical knowledge and individual work, usually based on hours of daily homework that a kid working seven days a week found difficult to get to.  If group activity happened at all, anything that came of it was based on solo, theoretical analysis usually shunted to after school hours when I was busy working.  There was always a proper way to do something with very strict process guidelines - my STEM teachers thought that good students all hand in logically and visually identical hours of homework.

Perhaps it is my messy, and mocked liberal arts background has enabled me to approach STEM in an applied way that many STEM teachers find less academically rigorous, but then I don't think demanding thirty identical projects from my students to be particularly academically rigorous, I'd actually call it academically lazy.  That supposedly academically rigorous STEM program doesn't appear to be producing STEM grads that STEM industries find useful, though it is handy at making a socioeconomically homogeneous STEM culture.

Who this homework heavy, compliance based learning does benefit are the socially enabled, neuro-typical alpha academics - the kids who tend to look like the white, middle-class, neuro-typical people who populate STEM jobs.  These students are pre-selected for STEM success because homework is the only work they have to do, and they play for grades because they have a socioeconomic status that allows them to focus on school work to the exclusion of everything else.  Socially enabled, neuro-typical, wealthy, white, North American males tend to fall into STEM for these reasons.  The party line is that these are the best students.  The fact that they all tend to come from the same background is a happy accident.

As a neuro-atypical student from a lower SES, I was preordained to struggle with STEM.  Expectations of hours of homework, easily picking up the mathematics and the promise of some exclusive future in STEM industries which my family had no experience with had no currency with me and seemed designed to diminish me.  When you come from a lower income background you tend to be pragmatic.  Being an immigrant with ASD and constantly wondering why people are doing what they are doing tends to make you pretty damned pragmatic too.  I have always been proud of my hands-on skills and how they have provided for me, but now I realize that those skills are a necessity of my socio-economic status as much as anything else.

I just finished reading Guy Martin's autobiographical When You Dead, You Dead.  Guy has always had an impact on me because he's an ASD technician who has stumbled into celebrity.  Guy is fiercely proud of his hands-on skills and still considers being a mechanic his primary focus even though he is also a successful motorcycle racer and television personality.  Any neuro-typical person would drop the dirty work and immediately double down on the celebrity, but not Guy.  I identify with him because he too comes from a lower SES and has found success in spite of various social pressures against him.  Between this book and the research for this piece, I'm left with the belief that STEM is what it is because it has been designed to knock all but a certain class of people out of succeeding in it.  If we're wondering why wealthy, white males constitute the bulk of our academically focused, homework heavy STEM programs, then this singular focus on socio-economically enabled, homework intensive, conformity driven learning is a clear reason.


A senior student build presentation to lead junior engineers
through why communication and collaboration can lead to
better creativity and problem solving.  Exactly what Google
feels is missing from STEM graduates, but mine learn it.
This semester I'm teaching another packed to capacity class of software engineering students.  As a kid who dropped out of computer science because he wasn't good at doing everything by someone else's exclusively particular and time consuming rules, this might seem odd.  However, my software engineering class isn't designed to chase students out with steep academic demands.  In fact, my students range from essential to applied to academic, and they will all see success and feel that STEM is something they are capable and worthy of.

Applied engineering courses, especially in software, are thin on the ground, but they are exactly what we need to be doing to fill the gap between what we're graduating and what companies like Google need.  Academically focused STEM teachers need to recognize that they can't keep producing one trick ponies who are only good at being in school.  That skill-set becomes useless the moment you graduate, and while they are producing graduates people find difficult to work with, they are excluding the majority of students who should have at least a passing acquaintance with STEM as it has so much influence over our lives.

“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM,” President Obama said in March. “We want to make sure everyone is involved.”

On the left is a slide from one of my grade eleven student's introductory presentations to the course.  Her skills are well rounded and jump all over the look-fors Google wants.  The purpose of these presentations is to get hired into student designed and built projects that run in the second half of the semester.  These feel like job interviews as everyone in the room is looking for who they can most effectively work with, they feel high stakes and important.  The last thing on anyone's mind are hard technology skills or a lack of theoretical knowledge.  Some of the juniors worried about it in their presentations, but as one of the seniors said while teaching the seminar on Friday, "if you can listen and work with us, we can teach you the technical stuff."  And that work will happen in class, not on your own time in the hours after school.

This course has been packed to cap with 31 students each
semester over the past 2 years while academic senior science

classes run half full - prejudice in action? Students recognize that
this course teaches them the tangible skills needed to get into
competitive post-secondary programs in the field.  Many of
our graduates can attest to that now that we're in year four.

Most of them are applied students in college.
I've worked hard these past five years to develop a program that helps students from all streams into a working relationship with computer technology.  I've graduated a number of engineers in a variety of disciplines, which is very satisfying, but my greatest successes have been enabling applied students to find their genius in technology.  Those students, overlooked or punished for their lack of academic prowess in other STEM classes, find themselves winning provincial competitions and going on to successful careers through college programs.  As Obama suggests, STEM should be for everyone.

The engineers were always going to find their way (and unsurprisingly they have all been socially empowered middle class white males), but enabling a student who was never considered STEM and who had been labelled essential to find her genius in electronics and gain access to a competitive post-secondary college program?  That feels like the kind of magic STEM is capable of.  It's what drives me.

Helping another into a technically challenging digital arts program with almost impossible entry requirements?  Yet another STEM refugee finding her way back to what she has a talent for.

Taking a student from struggling to show up to school to finding his genius as an IT technician, winning a provincial championship and going on to succeed in a challenging post-secondary program?  He was considered mediocre by other STEM programs.

Unsurprisingly, a number of ASD and other neuro-atypical students find their way to me because I give them a space to express their love of technology and the science that supports it without the arrogance and exclusivity.  All of these disenfranchised people are who STEM should have been helping in the first place.  Computer technology programs like mine run in less than 30% of Ontario high schools.  For the vast majority of Ontario students, you better be well off and able to spend hours a night on homework to prove yourself STEMworthy.  If you live in a conservative area like I do, you also better be male, because those science and technology jobs are for boys.

All Ontario graduates, regardless of gender, race, SES or neuro-atypicality need flexible and inclusive access to STEM programs, and those STEM programs need to be about so much more than theoretically intensive, homework heavy courses designed to chase economically disadvantaged and/or neuro-atypical kids out of the STEM classroom.  My son is heading to high school next year and it is through his ASD that I've come to better recognize my own.  I fear most for him in STEM classrooms.  I remember how it felt to be told I was incapable in science and math.  Getting the STEM dreams beaten out of me in high school took years to unravel and repair, and I'll carry the bruises my entire life.

Every graduate we produce should have some grasp of STEM as it's a vital 21st Century need.  STEM needs to be accessible to everyone regardless of their circumstantial ability to deal with expectations founded on abusive, compliance driven workloads.  This would not only prevent the pre-selection of circumstantially advantaged students making STEM programs more diverse, it would also make STEM programs more functionally useful to the industries that need these graduates.

We've designed a system that creates a stunted skillset that only does a few things well.  In doing so we've done a disservice to dimensionless STEM graduates who industry finds impossible to work with.  While that is going on, the majority of students are chased out of STEM because of a mythology of academic stringency that is really based on socioeconomic circumstance.  Our STEM education appears to not be working for anyone.

If there was ever a time to re-vamp how we teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics, this is that moment.  In the 21st Century we need everyone to have a working knowledge of STEM as it touches all our lives all the time.  We also need to diversify the pool of STEM experts in order to create a resilient and creative industry that reflects the people it serves.  Then there are all the applied STEM jobs we aren't able to fill because academically focused STEM programs ignore them.  The obvious place to start is in public high schools where we need to stop pre-selecting for a dangerously homogeneous STEM population that is increasingly unable to understand, let alone represent the interests of us all.

Some Research on how we've handled STEM:

https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1144312   "...low-SES students are disadvantaged in the pursuit of STEM majors. Higher family SES compensates for negative predictors of STEM enrollment, such as gender and race, and strengthens the effect of positive predictor, such as math preparation. The gender and racial gaps in STEM enrollment narrows for students from higher SES families, and the positive correlation between math preparation and STEM enrollment strengthens with the increase of family SES"

How Socioeconomic Inequality Affects STEM Education"schools give “unequal access to rigorous mathematics content” between low- and high-income students" - the correlation between SES (socioeconomic status) and Ontario's streaming system in high school is well established.  We save the rigorous mathematics for the socially empowered kids, so they get the nice STEM jobs.  Except evidently we're not even doing them any favours.

STEM Education: "...gender disparities continue to be a defining characteristic of STEM education."

The STEM Workforce: An Occupational Overview:
"In STEM, there is under-representation of women and minorities; where minorities and women are employed they are often concentrated in lower-paying technical occupations."
"Black and Hispanic or Latino STEM professionals still earned thousands of dollars less than White and Asian STEM professionals in 2014."

Understanding the STEM Path through High School and into University Programs: "...key determinants of the decision to stay on the ‘STEM preparation path’ are the students’ previous grades in science and math, especially at the point when the subject becomes optional."   ... and especially in the sciences.  

I'll take a swing at this one.  The "gatekeepers of university" I met as science teachers in grade 10 and 11 failed me despite my obvious interest in the subject.  The main reason I didn't get the grades I needed in STEM courses was because working 20+ hours a week (I was helping pay for my family's mortgage) meant my homework was never as shiny as the wealthier kids whose job was homework.  Having ASD, I also had problems understanding and meeting the very specific communications conventions that others seemed to grasp intuitively.  Those gatekeepers are still alive and well in high school math and science classes all over the province now.  Want to know why lower SES students aren't in STEM?  It's reserved for the neuro-typical rich.  A lower SES kid touched by ASD never had a chance.

That fake sense of 'academic credibility' tied to an inflexible schedule that caters to wealthier students' ability to concentrate on studying to due dates means the kids who don't have to work or worry about food or a safe place to spend the night get to be successful.  The digital divide has only exacerbated this since my time in school  The neuro-atypical kids who need extra time to grok the material?  They too are excluded.  U
ltimately, if you want to be in something intellectually demanding like STEM, you need to be advantaged That is why STEM is predominantly an upper class, white, male field.

Science minister, Trudeau encourage young girls to pursue STEM studies at U of T conference:
"We are committed to strengthening science in Canada by improving the representation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines,”
“We try to shake the stigma attached to studying math that many young women experience in high school,”
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan

Equality And Diversity Toolkit: socio-economic background"Those facing the greatest inequality are more likely to be young people who are disabled, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, refugees, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers, Gypsies and Travellers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and young mothers."

"Whites of European ancestry still make up the vast majority of subjects in large genetic studies — over 80 percent."

Business is now dominated by white, privately educated 'tech bros' – and that's bad news for the rest of us

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Scientific Illiteracy Threatens U.S.

These are just a few of the articles and research I found on a lack of diversity in STEM.  If you don't like these links, there are thousands of others.

An experiment:  

Googling Scientist produced 40 identifiable people.  23 of them (58%) are white males.

Googling Engineer produced 46 identifiable people, 42 of them (91%) white males.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

A Media Comparison: Hactivism Then & Now

In 2012 I saw We Are Legion - The Story of the Hactivists at the Toronto Hot Docs film festival.  It's a full length film so it'll take a while to get through, but it's worth it.  It's an inside look at the birth of hactivism from its early roots in 4Chan to the birth of Anonymous.  It's edgy, funny and surprisingly gripping...

There is a kind of poetry in the chaos of those early moments of online activism, it makes me hopeful.  Technology used to overcome tyrannous governments, churches and corporations?  Technology used to bypass media control and free information?  I'm a fan.

Fast forward six years and we seem to be on the other side of this revolution.  Instead of technically skilled mischief makers fighting against systemic inequality, we have Nazis using that same technology to self-organize, tech-corporations removing net-neutrality and making advertising revenue from fake news and foreign governments disrupting elections.  The technology that once promised to set us free is being used to craft even thicker chains.

You can always count on WIRED
graphics to back up a powerful story
WIRED has hit this from a lot of different angles, all of which prompt some hard questions about how the technology we thought would free us has turned into a means of disenfranchisement and control.  Here are a couple of articles that highlight this change:

It's a difficult thing to see such a promising revolution end up serving the moneyed interests it claimed to stand against.