Sunday, 16 December 2018

Framing Mathematics

We had a numeracy PD day a few weeks ago.  This filled me with trepidation having barely survived high school mathematics.  It began with a warning about how we frame the subject:

Fair enough.  Evidently I'm not the only one who treats mathematics with caution, but I can see the point about how negatively framing maths with students can cause problems.  If you don't think maths are a useful tool that can help you solve real world problems then you've been living under a rock.  Everyone should develop basic numeracy.  I'll try and do better with how I'm framing it, but that doesn't mean maths gets a free pass on how it's delivered.

We then did a maths based online escape room exercise with Edtechteam.  This was an engaging process, but it cast a bright light on what was for me one of the problems with trying to learn maths: parsing poorly written word problems.

When one of our group (a published playwright with a Masters in English) suggested that the questions were vague to the point of being misleading the math teacher in our group said, "yeah, but any language based question is going to be somewhat unclear."  The English teacher looked at her quizzically and said, "no it isn't."

Therein lies the problem.  If a teacher who has never focused on developing strong language skills gets lost in creating nuanced word problems to get at complex mathematics, you can see where this might go wrong for everyone.

From the point of view of someone who doesn't pick up maths easily, confusing language doesn't engage me, it does the opposite.  I'd rather (and I speak as an English major) have the maths served straight up without any confusing or misleading language in the mix, but maths teachers seem determined to lean on language skills they don't have in order to confuse the numeracy they do have.

This problem appeared again when we got out to an exercise where we (again, in groups) were supposed to find factors in an array of numbers, but rather than simply explaining the logic involved, the activity was dressed up in a tax avoidance theme that made no sense to me or the science and history teachers I was working on it with.  So far this morning both maths activities had demanded that we embrace confusing and contradictory language in order to get at the logic below.

In this activity, if you selected a number to get paid the 'tax man' got all the factors of that choice.  So if you picked twelve, the tax man got 1  2, 3, 4 and 6 dollars.  When I asked how I was being taxed $16 on the $12 I made I was told that the taxes don't actually come out of the money I was making, which isn't helpful.  When I suggested that people should pay taxes in order to support all the  benefits of society they enjoy and shouldn't be trying to dodge paying them, I was told that I was putting too much thought into this.  At least someone is.  This has always been the way with me and mathematics, especially when it dresses itself up in confusing language in a desperate attempt to appear more interesting.

I think I'm a pretty sharp fellow.  I've been able to calculate binary subnets in order to build networks and I've never had trouble doing the maths needed to be a mechanic or a technician.  When the maths are immediate and real I'm able to get a handle on it, but the bubble gum world of high school mathematics has always alienated and confused me.  It seems arbitrary and nonsensical because it often is.

Maybe the best way we can frame mathematics is to stop trying to make it into something it isn't.  If we treated it like the tool it can be instead of trying to turn it into some kind of spy based action adventure or libertarian tax dodging daydream, we wouldn't have so many people feeling alienated by it.

Of course, the solution is obvious but how we solve it is prevented by how we organize education into departments.  If we collaborated on word problems with the English department, we'd remove a lot of that confusion.  If we applied our mathematics through science, business and technology we wouldn't get lost in the confusion of maths for maths' sake.  We could be applying mathematics in the statistics we use in social sciences or  the ratios we use in art, but we separate numeracy off in high school and let it atrophy in a maths classroom that struggles to connect to the real. 

Ironically, our PD followed these two engaging but ultimately confusing activities up with two teachers telling us about their experimental manufacturing technology-mathematics combined course which encourages applied maths students to work through manufacturing technology in solving real-world problems.  No imaginary tax schemes.  No escape rooms.  Just applying maths to real world problems in an unobstructed and meaningful way that leads to outcomes that are transparent and obvious.

This would mean combining mathematics with other courses and then working to integrate numeracy into those subjects in a constructive and transparent way.  There could still be an academic/abstracted mathematics stream for the tiny percentage of students who would need it, but for those of us who aren't aiming to be theoretical physicists or academic mathematicians, we need our math served up without the garnishes.  Knowing what we're doing it and why we're doing it would go a long way to alleviating the maths anxiety so many of us have.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Neverending Story of Rational Reductionism

Remember the first time you went away from home without your family?  I'd done scout weekends and that sort of thing, but the first extended time away was when I was heading to Air Cadet Basic Training in Trenton for two weeks in the summer of 1984.  Just before I left I saw The Neverending Story.  As a creative kid who was neck deep in Dungeons & Dragons and art, and whose dad kept telling him to stop wasting his time and take real courses that led somewhere, it resonated.

It's been thirty-five years since fifteen year old me saw that film and an awful lot has happened in the meantime.  Having just watched it again, I'm stunned by how strange a film it is.  What I took as a high fantasy romp when I was a teen is actually a bizarrely meta (physical) narrative that would make a suicidally depressed Hamlet snort with amusement.  The film was directed by famed German director Wolfgang Petersen, and boy does das kopfkino it produces lay on the schadenfreude thick.

The film's message, that your imagination can save you from the banality of existence, suggests that you need something more than rationality to justify your reason for being.  Or, back to Hamlet again, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  I find a great deal of comfort in recognizing the complexity of existence, though many people seem terrified of it and go to great lengths to simplify it.

The film's thesis is that imagination allows us to withstand the pointlessness of existence and offers hope.  If you turn yourself off from the impossible it prevents you from holding despair at bay.  The scene in the film where Atreyu's horse gives up hope and sinks into the mud of a swamp (of Sadness no less) is one of the most powerful in the film.

The quest that drives the story forward is the destruction of Fantasia, an alternate reality that exists as an expression of human creativity and imagination.  It's being destroyed because people are losing their hopes and dreams, the very things that cause Fantasia to exist.


Viewing this film produced one of those strange lateral connections for me that science minded people put down to coincidence but artists thrive on.  I've just finished reading Michael Crichton's Travels, an autobiographical book by the popular author where he reflects on his travels, both physical and spiritual.  As a hardening atheist (thanks to reading Dawkins' The God Delusion) I found myself suppressing eye rolls as Crichton attempts new-age spiritualism again and again in search of something tangible beyond the science he started with as a Harvard trained medical doctor.  But Crichton's canny speech at the end of the book offers an approach to the unknowable that I couldn't help but agree with.

It's worth reading Travels just go get to to the closing speech that he never gave.  It deconstructs a number of scientific prejudices that hard rationalists cling to even though they aren't particularly logical, such as surgeries carried out to prevent a possibility of illness with no clear scientific benefit, or the long history of fake experimental results that are accepted because they support a current world view rather than the truth of things.  Hard rationalism is as susceptible to fantastic thinking as any other human endeavour.  Crichton's final lines highlight the space he has made for human understanding beyond the limitations of rational inquiry:

"...we need the insights of the mystic every bit as much as we need the insights of the scientist. Mankind is diminished when either is missing. Carl Jung said: The nature of the psyche reaches into obscurities far beyond the scope of our understanding."

Our rational understanding of things allows us to do many relatively mundane things in the real world, but our existence reaches deeper than that, and we ignore what we are capable of if we limit ourselves to the realms of what our remarkable but limited intellects can comprehend.  Put another way, there is understanding to be found in our being as well as in our thinking.

Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching had this covered 2500 years ago.  We've
forgotten a lot of that wisdom in our information age.
In addition to critiquing science's hypocrisy, Crichton also bounces back 2500 years to Lao Tzu (who I have a weakness for) and describes how the founder of Taoism understood how our rational minds and our irrational existence must work together to bring us into a fuller understanding of our place in the universe.  It's powerful stuff, and a reminder that there is no simple (ie: only mind-based) answers to the big questions.  It takes all that we are to even begin to attempt answer them.  In embracing our existential intelligence we also come to a more balanced understanding of our place in the world.


With Crichton's angle on how we frame the impossible in my mind, I was slapped in the face by The Neverending Story's strident attack on reductive, 'feet on the ground' rationality in the face of the threat of non-existence.  The brief scene between Bastion and his father is stark and cruel, but I think it points to something obvious.  It's never mentioned how Bastion's mother dies, but the father's unwillingness to acknowledge it in any way suggests a shameful death, and we all know which kind of death is the most shameful and must not be spoken of.

"When a visibly sad Bastian tells his father that he's had yet another dream about his mom, he responds that he understands, but quickly adds that they have to move on, emphasizing that they can't let her passing stop them from getting things done. And just when you think he'll soften up and help Bastian process his pain, Bastian's father lays into his son for doodling in his notebook during math class."

Considering the metaphysical message of this film and that strange dialogue between father and son, I was left hanging on the edge of tears.  My Mum was upstairs the last time I saw this film.  She's been dead six years this time around, but that sense of loss is always surprisingly quick to surface.  Her life as an artist was frequently derailed and undervalued, and her end was, I suspect, similar to Bastion's mom's.  The Neverending Story suddenly took on a resonance that it didn't have before.

The evil that is destroying the world in The Neverending Story is The Nothing.  It is quite literally non-existence.  Bastion's father's brusque 'move on and keep your feet on the ground' advice suggests (quite obviously I think) that his mother commited suicide.  The entire narrative in Neverending Story is based around Bastion trying to summon his imagination to battle this existential disaster, something that Lao Tzu and Michael Crichton would both agree can't be done with reason alone.  The film's only weakness is it's reductive imagination is the answer philosophy.  Imagination is vital in bringing you to a place beyond the rational, but populating it with make believe isn't the goal once you get there.  Imagination is what allows us to see beyond the world around us and plumb those existential mysteries.


From Kermit the Frog pondering Rainbow Connections to Alice looking down rabbit holes, there is a lot of art that seeks to explore the limitations of rational inquiry and how it fails to answer the big questions.  Creativity is hard enough without tying your hands up with rational absolutism, so I can appreciate why many artists lean more heavily on the hidden intelligence found in existentialism for their inspiration; there is power in our being that cannot be easily explained.  

Our ability to reach down into our selves and gain inspiration and insight makes us powerful in a way that thinking never can.  For the Bastions of Neverending Story, travelling Crichtons and other artists out there, it's something we should never let the hard rationalists of science ever try and trivialize away as flights of fancy.  There are truths in our being that can't be found through rational inquiry.

Imagination by itself is a fine thing, but when it's used as a means of opening the door to existential comprehension it really comes into its own.  Crichton describes how measurement always misses the quiddity of a thing, it's inherently reductive to say anything can be completely understood through its measurements.  A wholistic, existential understanding, along with specific, rational comprehension, is the most complete way a human being can relate and understand the world.  Crichton's closing lines encouraging us not to ignore and belittle the irrational - something that The Neverending Story also argues, though it gets lost in imagination for imagaination's sake.

Valuing both rational and irrational human comprehension offers us a more balanced and effective way forward, and gets us into the vicinity of answering the big questions.  The trick is not to get carried away with imagination or rationalism and end up treating either one as the answer to everything.  As in all things, balance offers more insight.

Other notes:

Atreyu: If you don't tell me, and the Nothing keeps coming, you will die too, both of you! 

Morla, the Ancient One: Die? Now that, at least, would be *something*.

Urgl: I like that, the patient telling the doctor it's all right. It has to hurt if it's to heal.

I'm not the only one picking up on the weird vibe this film is giving:

From a 2018/the sky is falling/we're-all-illiterate-because-of-technology point of view, the book keeper's scorn when talking to Bastion, the pre-teen main character way back in 1983 (over two decades before smartphones) is interesting:

Koreander: The video arcade is down the street. Here we just sell small rectangular objects. They're called books. They require a little effort on your part, and make no bee-bee-bee-bee-beeps. On your way please.

... and reminds me of the Socrates quote and that we're most prejudiced with our own children.  It's also a timely reminder that the tech of our time doesn't define us any more than video arcades did in the '80s.  I grew up in them and it didn't make me illiterate.

The Way:

Thursday, 29 November 2018

ASD Heroes and Where To Find Them

Seeing a neuro-atypical hero who resembles yourself is jarring.
Seeing one that defies toxic masculine stereotypes is thrilling,

bad probably for business.  People prefer reductive stereotypes.
Throughout my life I've been kindly described by friends and family as 'marching to the beat of a different drummer'. In less supportive circumstances I've met people who take an immediate and intense dislike to that difference.  When I was younger this often involved a gathering of like minded people and me getting a beating.  It persists into adulthood and frustrates many of my attempts at socializing.

As an adolescent I tried to harness the anger I was feeling in those beatings and express it physically, but just couldn't. The thought of hurting someone else while I was in a rage was something I couldn't bring myself to do. I recall several instances when a part of me was impassionately observing my assailants. The look of sheer, savage joy on their faces was utterly foreign to me; it's something I couldn't begin to emulate.  Knowing that this kind of viciousness is pretty common in human beings is one of the reasons I'm so cautious with them.  I've yet, at nearly fifty years old, laid knuckles on anyone else in anger, it just isn't in me though I've often wished it were - it would make being male much easier.  I suspect my gender dysphoria is at least in part due to this sense of alienation with what most consider to be appropriate male behaviour.

Being the bottom feeder it is, media is only happy to capitalize on this base, stereotypically reductive male behaviour.  Unless your hero is an aggressive sociopath he isn't a real man.  You'd be hard pressed to find any male hero that isn't written into this bizarre little box and then used as a dimensionless plot device to drive adrenaline fueled violence.  For men looking for another way of being male that isn't founded on this mythology, there isn't much out there.  For a neuro-atypical male the opportunity to see heroes that in any way reflect my experience is pretty much a zero game, I never see anyone like myself on film.

Last weekend we went to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest Harry Potter film. I'd almost been talked out of seeing it by CBC's movie critic Eli Glasner, who seemed to dislike every aspect of the film, but especially the main character, Newt Scamander, who he described as awkward and unlikeable. I don't disagree with Glasner's analysis of the plot, I think JK(Rowling - the author) tried to fit too much into one film and it gets a bit jumbled (I'd love to see an edited version that cleans up the plot), but when it comes to Eddie Redmayne's character Newt I was annoyed at Glasner's neurotypically prejudiced response to his complex, non-typical heroism. Fortunately, I'm not the only one:
(at 9:12 on): "Newt exhibits the characteristics of someone on the autism spectrum. He's awkward in social settings. He doesn't like being touched. He feels intense empathy for others but has trouble connecting to people and making friends... careful viewers will notice his aversion to direct eye contact.... Newt's social anxieties are not framed in the stereotypical ways we've come to expect from Hollywood."

That description of what ASD can feel like certainly resonates with me.  What a stark difference it is to every other male hero you see in film.  Newt's neuro-atypicality allows JK to avoid the toxic masculine stereo-trap while also presenting a viable alternative hero.  Many examples are shown in the video above of the kind of sociopathic, violent movie hero we show our boys in film.  The majority pick this up quickly and then weaponize it socially as shown in Ontario's recent boys' private school scandal or pretty much any sports locker room.  Fantastic Beasts has managed to side step the stereotypically male hero, but avoidance may also be its downfall.

I'm glad we didn't let Glasner talk us out of seeing Fantastic Beasts.  His dislike of the main character is in tune with criticism found all over especially North American reviews and another reminder of how hard it is to find a male movie hero who isn't toxically reductive.

Fantastic Beasts goes well beyond toxic masculinity by actually showing us a nuanced, non-stereotypical ASD hero, which is quite frankly astonishing, and perhaps unique. The instinctive dislike of him by most people (as evidenced in pretty much every movie review you'll read) reflects my own experience and will be why the franchise fails.  It will become yet another reminder to those on the ASD spectrum, or any male that doesn't want to put on the toxic masculinity society expects of them,of  just how peripheral they are.  Reductive toxic male stereotypes are the only ones that sell.

We're surrounded by toxic masculine heroes that trivialize what being male could mean to all men while at the same time encouraging gender driven violence.  Fantastic Beasts' ASD hero sidesteps this trap and breaks these conventions.  It's a shame that it won't sell to the North American public because it doesn't pander to their prejudices.  Fortunately, it's doing better on the rest of the planet.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

ECOO BIT18: Reductionism and Ignorance in Educational Technology

I've been ruminating over the latest ECOO conference for a couple of days now.  Strangely, this technology conference began and ended for me with others suggesting that digital technology is a dangerous waste of time and that we should step away from it in our classrooms.  Looking at my ECOO reflections over the past eight years I'm seeing a clear shift from optimism that we will get a handle on the digital revolution to caution and now a determined luddite push to walk away from it entirely.  The now obviously deleterious effects of the attention economy seem to have produced an unprecedented negativity around educational digital technology in 2018, and ECOO book-ended it for me.

These aren't toys, they're tools!
Calling them toys says a lot
about how YOU use them.
I opened the conference bringing armfuls of emerging technology to Minds on Media.  I've long tried to avoid the 'here's-a-turnkey-tech-tool' presentation because it usually comes with corporate compromises.  That split focus in a lot of 'edtech' means much of it isn't really so much about learning as it is about data collection or closed ecosystems that drive profitability.  Besides, I've long advocated for teachers who push technology to actually understand the technology they are requiring students to use.  That kind of technical fluency means you don't get sucked into absurd situations like giving away student data for a 'free' service or driving students into expensive, proprietary, closed technology designed to make a profit when it inevitably breaks.

As in previous ECOO MoM demonstrations, I brought a variety of tech from different manufacturers and simply encouraged educators to become aware of an emerging new medium, in this case virtual reality.  I have no agenda and nothing to sell.  I get nothing for showing the technology and don't benefit from anyone buying one thing or another.  This platform agnosticism means I can talk about the tech without prejudice or hidden agenda.  I was happy to be attending another MoM day and looking forward to showing people this emerging medium.

At least I was until Peter went around the room having the stations introduce themselves.  It all went well until we got stuck on one station that repeatedly described what everyone else was doing in the room as 'playing with toys' while describing their own noble pursuit as being 'real' and technology free (though without ICT infrastructure they couldn't have done what they were doing at all).  This attitude isn't new.  A surprising number of educators refuse to leverage digital tools to make their teaching more effective, but to hear someone shit can what everyone else is doing at this edtech conference was shocking.  There was no opportunity to call her out on it then, but I can now:

Too bad we don't teach it like it matters.  Critical InfrastructureJobs in ICT.

This Minds on Media presenter monopolized the microphone to suggest anything digital was essentially meaningless (a toy) and that when people were ready to stop playing with their toys here she was ready to show them something real.  As a technician who trains engineers and technicians to run the world we live in, this made me angry, especially considering it was done at an educational technology conference that should be advocating for technical fluency across our education system in order to understand and effectively participate in the world we live in.  This didn't put me in a great frame of mind to start the conference, but I soldiered on.

Cybersecurity in our classrooms.
I did two other presentations during the conference.  Both were presenting on platform agnostic technology opportunities that would teach students and teachers about a critical infrastructure (cybersecurity) and addressing our collective ignorance of 3d media.  In both cases I was advocating for not-for-profit digitally powerful learning opportunities that would enable Ontario educators and students to leverage the digital TOOLS at their disposal.  This is the opposite of the reductive and now recessive thinking I kept experiencing.

3d media in marketing & learning
There is now a two pronged attack on digital technology in the classroom.  The corrosive ra-ra edtech crowd seems increasingly determined to brand themselves behind proprietary corporate systems designed to deliver technology with no understanding required (and with lots of hidden profit centres), while the increasingly loud anti-tech crowd rises up against them, advocating that we receded from technology because it's a distraction and a waste of time.  Both sides seem determined to ignore a simple fact: we're supposed to be TEACHING students how this all works, not branding them or hiding them in a cave.  What edtech there is seems determined to follow consumerism into the most simplistic and ignorant relationship with digital tools possible.  In 2018 you can get branded or abstain from tech entirely and then feel mighty righteous about it.  Is anyone left just, ya know, teaching it any more?

There are technicians and engineers all around the world who provide digital infrastructure that we all depend on.  These people understand this technology and are much less likely to act like the sheeple who stare slack-jawed at their phones for hours on end.  To digitally literate people this technology is a powerful tool that is enabling us to do everything from gene editing diseases and linking disparate areas of study to creating more efficient critical utility systems.  Digital technology has become a vital part of the infrastructure around us, yet the vast majority of us, including many teachers, are completely ignorant of it.

For some baffling reason we seem intent on ignoring the actual teaching and understanding of these powerful digital technologies in favour of using them with the same perverse ignorance, and now fear, as the general public.  What is our role as educators in terms of technology if we aren't producing technically competent graduates who can successfully navigate and participate in the digital world around them?  By the way, our ignorance of digital technologies is staggeringly bad. If you haven't followed any of the supporting links in this so far, follow that one.

The closing keynote ended the conference by banging the same drum as that 'when you're done playing with these toys come and do something real' comment that kicked it off.  This time one of the engineers of the attention economy that is causing so much damage earnestly suggested that we need to recede from digital activity in order to preserve not just learning but our very humanity!  Rather than acknowledge the potential for digital technology to enhance learning, his entire talk was aimed at retreating from it.

This particular group of Silicon Valley architects now wants to save the consumers they got wealthy commodifying.  I get the impulse.  If I had a bank account full of blood money like that I'd feel bad about it too, but as a means of resolving this technological adolescence we're all living in, it won't work - they can't see past the mess they've made and they certainly aren't approaching it from an educator's mindset - but then neither are the educators.

There was not a single example of how digital technology might amplify or improve learning outcomes - a decidedly odd way to wrap up an edtech conference.  Our speaker went on to encourage the removal of personal technology from the hands of students and get back to a pre-digital time when everything was better.  As a digital immigrant I know that there was no such time.  If you think students weren't distracted in class in the 1980s you weren't a student in the 1980s.  These Silicon Valley wolves can't see people as anything other than the consumer sheep they used to prey on.  I'd hope that teachers see much more potential in their students than these attention peddlars do, but I'm starting to think that vapid consumerism is the only relationship we'll ever have with digital technology.

Invent a crisis and then offer a solution
to it. American business in action.
From an educational perspective digital technology offers a powerful tool for learning, but it doesn't work if the teachers, administrators and government driving it are ignorant of how it works.  If the teachers and parents can't manage the tech, then we can hardly expect students to.  I'd hope that ECOO and other curriculum support organizations would understand that and advocate for understanding and the development of broader technical fluency rather than encouraging willful ignorance.

Hiding digital tools and telling people to ignore the way the world works is a poor way to run an educational system, unless your goal is to produce ignorant consumers.  Instead of running away from the digital revolution that is driving innovation and increasingly managing the infrastructure around us, we should be teaching self regulation of personal technology and comprehension of how it all works in order to generate a genuine understanding the world we're creating.  Teaching effective digital fluency means we're less likely to be taken by the consumerist wolves and are able to effectively use digital tools rather than being used by them.

I'm all for being challenged in my thinking and often go out of my way to try on difficult ideas just to see how they fit.  I've weathered Nick Carr's The Shallows and watched society wobbling under the weight of the robber barons of the attention economy.  Now I've attended an educational technology conference that began and ended with an ignorant and frankly dangerous dismissal of digital technology as a toy for idiots that should just be taken away.  Meanwhile digital infrastructure made that very event happen.  It fed the people who attended it and provided them with the resources they needed to travel to it, yet it isn't worthy of teaching in our schools?  And teaching it is precisely the problem.  We pick up edtech and apply it without teaching it to staff or students, and now we're shocked that it isn't working well?  Sometimes I wonder how educationally aware our education system is.

I've been banging my head against this call for technology fluency for so long that I can't help but feel like this dismissal of technology both by participants and the conference itself in that closing keynote is a betrayal of what I thought were shared values.

I first attended ECOO in 2010.  I joined Twitter, began meeting other technology interested teachers, started blogging and became part of a vibrant online PLN as a result of attendingOver the years ECOO has given me ideas and offered me a platform to present my own.  What I'd always hoped was an evolution towards greater understanding of the digital revolution we are all living through has faltered now.  We don't want to learn how the world we've built works.  Pro-edtech educators want to keep the curtain firmly in place and leave the understanding and management of technology to others while the increasingly noisy anti-tech crowd are advocating receding from it entirely.  Our only contact with digital technology is through the lens of vapid consumerism and the only response we can have to that other than participating is to run and hide.

I'm frustrated, tired and losing hope in our ability to manage an understanding of the digital revolution that surrounds us.  Education seems particularly incapable of seeing their way out of this digital hole we've dug for ourselves.  The answer has always been to teach technological fluency, but ironically, I'm finding it harder and harder to find an educator who wants to.