Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A Quiet Mind

A conversation a colleague tole me about a while back:

Teacher to student:  "You look pensive"
Student: "No, I'm just thinking..."


Before the break we were discussing reflective reading practices in a senior English class.

Students had a real hate on for journal writing while reading.  The argument, when it wasn't that it was too much work, was that it wasn't reflective but merely make-work.

Even when journal writing was on the table I had to keep emphasizing that there was to be NO retelling of the story (I've read far to many poorly retold stories and they aren't reflective).  With journal writing off the table, I asked for suggestions and got none whatsoever.

So, students didn't want to do the standard journal writing assignment for reflecting on their ISU reading, but they didn't have any other ideas either.  I took a moment and threw out some ideas on our class online discussion board:
  • a prezi mind-map of the story looking at plot/narrative, character, themes, setting and how they interact in the novel over time (a timeline of plot with other idea structures interacting with it might prove interesting and instructive)
  • a series of key moment symbolic representations of the novel, graphic in nature with short written explanations of specific elements in the images and how they relate to the novel
  • a film adaptation pitch, complete with actor, costume, set and prop suggestions linked to specifics (quotes) in the novel.
  • author biographical research review: based on author research, an 4-6 paragraph explanation of how the author's background plays into specifics in the novel
  • non-journal, but reflective reading notes from when you read the novel (can't be done after the fact). If you have an extensive set of notes based on the novel as you read it, these might work.
  • Script (or scripted video) of an interview with the author (you have to play the author if you're videoing it), speculation on themes you're curious about based on your close reading of the novel.

Even with this many suggestions (and open to others) the class felt that reflecting on their ISU novels was something being done to them.  Unfortunately reflection doesn't work very well as a forced exercise.

What followed was a brainstorming session about what a meditative, reflective mind looks like:

Yes, I photoboarded that :p

Students found the ideas behind the discussion foreign.  School was something done at them; idea transmission, skill development, habits and bells.  The goals behind reflecting on reading assume many things that most students simply don't do in school because schools aren't designed for that kind of thinking.

Meditative response relies on deep reading.  Only an uninterrupted, contemplative reading of a text can get you to a reflective, contextual, personal response.  The hacknied, piece-meal approach to reading that the majority of students undertook (because the assigned reading was 'done' to them, and they are in a state of constant digital distraction anyway) precludes reflection.

Even the idea of reflection was foreign.  Students kept asking for clarification on exactly what it was they were supposed to be doing.  What specifically should they write about?  Can they offer opinion?  Do they have to quote the text?  What they were digging for was an 'A-B-C', 'this then that' set of instructions.  Something easily gradable and fill in the blankable - exactly what school has taught them to expect from learning.

Meditative reading, reflective response, and deep study in general is a dying art.  Artists create using it, scientists invent using it, but students seldom come close to it in school.  Standardization kills it, digitization simplifies it and the marks hungry university bound English student is less interested in developing a quiet, meditative mind that offers deeply connective thinking than they are in keeping it simple, direct and easily achievable.

Post note:

While in teacher's college I had a senior English student, desperate to squeeze marks out of an assignment begging me for details on his Hamlet grade.  He'd done a good job analyzing the text, though he had made a couple of errors in his explanations of quotes, and didn't always demonstrate consistent knowledge of the narrative.  He begged for a higher grade than his 93%.  I told him about the errors, but he wanted more grades anyway, so I asked him a harder question: "Years from now you'll be able to go to Stratford and immerse yourself in a piece of Shakespeare and really enjoy it.  Isn't that a wonderful thought?  So many people will never get it, but you do, and your understanding will only deepen over the years.  It's exceptional now, and I don't doubt it will get better.  Do you really need more numbers on this paper?"  

Turns out he didn't.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Thanks to @fitfatman I now have a working term for an emergent student behavior:

PHOTOBOARDING: an emerging student response of taking pictures of in-class notes from overheads or the board, rather than writing notes.

In a senior academic English class we began a unit on short stories.  The instructions were complex and specific (across several pages) and involved creating a lesson on the short story of their choice, and then teaching the class that lesson (good prep for university seminar work).

Pretty much every student looked over the paper without reading it, made no effort to create a plan based on the criteria and then talked about their weekend with each other (while occasionally complaining about how much reading was involved with this unit).  It's a week before the holiday break, they weren't particularly motivated to be there.  Fortunately universities never set exams or anything important right before the holiday break.

One of the sharp ones came up and asked for clarification.  I spent 20 minutes sketching out a timeline/chart based on the criteria in the assignment with him on the board (in other words, I made notes).  By the end of our chat he had a clear idea of what to do on this specific assignment (I didn't suggest anything, I simply wrote down what he found in the handout).  He also had a useful means of organizing himself for future assignments.

When we were done half a dozen students came up and took photos of the board with their phone cameras.  There were maybe 50 words in the chart.  In talking to other teachers, this appears to be an emerging student habit, taking pictures of notes written in class.

There are a couple of difficulties with this.

It turns out that writing by hand creates all sorts of interesting neurological connections between the sense experience of hearing and seeing, and the development of memory structures around new ideas.  I'm guessing that the 'push a button' approach doesn't create the same linkages, and doesn't allow you to work through the material a piece at a time so much as simply grab it up all at once, and they aren't even the ones doing the grabbing.

The other difficulty lies in what this approach says about what happens in a classroom.  Students often come in after missing a class and ask what they missed.  They expect access to information, easily handed over, often online.  If information transmission is all that happens in the classroom, then you really don't need a teacher to do that.  If information transmission is the point of education, then we really don't need many people at all.

In the moment that I modeled, experimented and tried to demonstrate a self-sufficient way for a motivated student to get a handle on complex instructions, I wasn't merely transmitting information, I was trying to create a memorable moment using written and verbal cues that would give him the tools to deal with this situation in the future.  The notes were an expression of this, but the goal was a change in his behavior that allows him to be more self sufficient and effective in dealing with complex tasks.

Taking a picture of the notes, reducing that moment of teaching to a few pieces of information on the board, fails to recognize the importance of internalizing learning.  If we develop digital habits that limit our ability to effectively remember what happens, and in the process reduce the complex internalization of ideas by simplifying teaching and learning into information transmission, we're one of the main components in the creation of digital natives who wallow in the shallow end of learning.

Many teachers speak of their students' horrific memory.  Without the process of deep reading and writing to gradually introduce ideas into our minds, we become surface dwellers, never considering ideas in deep, contextual ways.  Our brains are able to consume great amounts of detail if the information is streamed in (reading and writing happen to do this wonderfully well); snapping a picture does not allow for that.

The mechanics of reading and writing aside, my real concern is in the externalization of ideas.  It is going to become increasingly difficult to teach (encourage growth in understanding and resultant behavior change) if the process of learning is simplified into data transference.  In courses of study that develop complex curriculum over long periods of time (ie: all of them), we are displacing complex neurological actions that develop deep, contextual understanding and provoke personal growth with the click of a button.

As long as technology is seen and sold as a means of simplification and way of reducing effort, we're doing our students a disservice by pushing it, and ultimately creating imbeciles.  Until we begin to advocate for technology that doesn't dumb us down, for technology that allows us to effectively complicate and empower our thought processes, we're part of a major societal problem.

In the meantime, students take photos of notes, replacing a cognitively engaging means of remembering and internalizing new ideas in a personal, contextual manner with the push of a button jpeg.  Most digitally interested teachers would call this efficiency, but we seem to be constantly confusing efficiency with gross simplification.

Why We Remember What We Write

Memory & Writing

What is learning?

Deep Reading & Memory: A professor's guide to integrating writing...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Technology As Distraction

We have more computer access now than we've ever had before, both in and out of school.  We have more internet access now than ever before, both in and out of school.  This is all simple fact...

The full non-twitterized quote was, "Great, I couldn't find a computer lab to book, now I won't get my marking done."  Implication?  You book a computer lab so the kids have something to do while you catch up on work.  You don't teach using computers, they are a way to keep students amused, distracted.

Anecdotally speaking, the vast majority of labs I walk by on any given day contain a teacher studiously ignoring their students, either on a computer themselves or frantically marking, while their students wander the internet looking for entertainment, the room aglow with the moderate cobalt blue of Facebook.

Last week we had a teacher angrily emailing because the labs he'd booked while he was absent had been double booked.  Implication?  I can book a lab while I'm away so the students have something to do.  Presumably there was work attached to the lab booking, but once again there was no teaching involved in it.  You book a lab so a supply teacher doesn't have to teach either.

This does a couple of damaging things.  First of all, it reinforces in student's minds that computers are only for entertainment.  If the teacher isn't actively involved in the use of computers in the class, if computer access isn't intrinsic to what students are learning, then we only reinforce the idea of technology as an entertainment/time waster.

I teach media arts in an Apple lab.  It seems like a dream technical teaching situation, but the difficulty in trying to get students cultured to vegetate in front of a screen to recognize all that they don't know, and use a computer for productive and/or creative purposes is agonizing.  It's like trying to get a morphine addict to recognize how small measured doses can actually help someone manage pain; they don't care, they just want to keep overusing it for their own amusement.

I want to thank all those teachers who use school computer labs as a distraction that encourages these bad habits.

Another problem is teacher computer literacy.  This is a major problem in the general public, and in teachers as well; people generally know how to do only a few things, and have no idea how what they use works, they certainly aren't experimental with their usage.  Teacher lack of familiarity with computer and internet use makes them poor facilitators in digital learning environments, and they aren't going to get much better at it if they treat computer lab time as an excuse to do work irrelevant to what students are doing.

If we're going to develop digital pedagogy, we need to be recognizing how digital tools can become vital components in learning and not merely a replacement for analogue options (ie: poster board/PowerPoint, pen & paper/word processor) that you can leave students with in a lab while you catch up on marking.

Left to their own devices (and they almost always are), students on a computer revert to simplistic habits: Facebook lurking, Youtube staring or the dreaded pointless online game/time-waster.  This disconnect also produces the vast majority of school computer vandalism, something that actively prevents us from buying more computers (because we have to keep repairing the under supervised labs we have instead of having cash on hand to develop diverse educational technology).

These are usually the first teachers who complain about lack of access, because they can't find themselves a period off.  As a teacher that has technology baked into their curriculum, these people make my job that much harder than it already is.

Friday, 16 December 2011

What You Don't Know Makes You Smarter

How do you show someone what something really is when they already think they know?

Building digital competency is made harder by the fact that students believe that they already know what they're doing.  Students who think the our networked world consists of facebook, youtube and Google think they know it all, because it's all they know.

If we're going to develop meaningful skill sets in students, we need to break down some long standing habits around believing that computers exist only for recreational use, and show students just how world wide the world wide web really is.

If we can break them out of their habits, and their very limited idea of what computers can do for them, we might be able to break the curse of the digital zombie, and develop some technology savvy students who are able to use technology instead of having technology using them

Operating a computer is like driving a car.  In both cases the technology enhances our natural abilities, and in both cases there is virtually nothing in the way of real understanding of what the technology is doing on the part of most users.  The vast majority of drivers are habitual creatures with little idea of the physics and mechanics behind what they are doing.  The majority of computer users are unimaginative, habitual users of their machines who stay away from experimentation in favour of what they know, mostly for fear of breaking what they know they can't fix.

I used to think I was a dynamite driver, then I took a performance driving course at Shannonville, and realized how little I knew.  Following this up with a couple of years of cart racing in Japan, and I started to develop the craft of driving, rather than reinforcing the habit.

The defeat of habit in developing skill is the key to mastery.  If you can create a sense of perspective and experimentation with what you know, and what you don't, you can learn to develop a set of skills beyond what you've already habitualized.  If your ignorance restricts you to the idea that you know everything, you are unlikely to ever move beyond that false sense of security and ignorance.

Many of our students live in this cave, watching the flickering lights, thinking that the flicking lights are all there are.  Pulling them out of their habitual ignorance is difficult, and I've often found that it's best served by a drop in the deep end.  I've gotten more traction daring students to do something they thought they couldn't than I ever have doing it for them (again and again).

As long as you can hang in the Zone of Proximal Development, you'll be able to make them aware of their ignorance while offering them the tools to overcome it; the real heart of the teachable moment.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Most Underused Resource In Education

*** in Ontario teachers have to undergo an in-class review every five years by one of the school administration ***

The other day our six month pregnant one contract/LTO teacher was running around in a panic trying to get dodgey board laptops to work with dodgey board projectors on the dodgey board network.  Her panic was the result of a VP coming into her class for her review.  I've seen this happen with many teachers, young and old; the panic over admin coming in to review their teaching practices.

The stress of poor board technology practices aside, this review of teaching practices by admins bothers me on a couple of levels.

Back in the day, when I was in millwright training, my old Jamaican mentor told me the story of our department boss.  He had a mechanical background, but he was incredibly lazy.  His fame came from being able to slide under a truck and fall asleep on night shift for hours at a time.  He was so bad at the work that the company had no choice but to promote him into management.  I've since come to realize that this was a pretty pessimistic view of how managers become managers, but as an impressionable nineteen year old listening to a man who never told me a lie, it seemed the truth.  I've always been cautious about management as a result, never assuming that they are somehow superior because of their title.

There is no doubt that leadership in education is a vital component, and we all hope that the people playing those administrative parts do it for all the right reasons (and not because they were such a disaster in the classroom that it was better for them to manage).  What I don't understand is why admin are mandated to come into a teacher's class and somehow assess their ability to teach.  What makes an administrator qualified to meaningfully review classroom teaching?  Whether an administrator opted out of the classroom because they found it tedious, difficult or simply wanted a change, the simple truth is that they aren't teaching, and in many cases didn't for very long before they stepped into a management role. Asking them to review something they dropped after a short period of time seems... odd.  Administrators are generally not master teachers.

I have no trouble with sharing my practice and would encourage teachers to experience each other's classrooms at every possible opportunity, this isn't about advocating for a closed classroom, and I'm not advocating for the removal of teacher in-class review, just who is doing it.

In most cases vice principals and principals take on these roles not because they were expert teachers, but because their interests lie elsewhere.  This would suggest that teaching was never their strong suit.  Taking on school leadership roles is a very heavy load, and I can appreciate the fact that some teachers want to put the classroom behind them and take that on; it's important work and a great challenge.  What I can't understand is why those same people are now mandated to sit in on a teacher's classes and review their teaching skills.

In the case of a new teacher, it seems like it might help and offer them a bit of mentorship in the process, but what about the case of the twenty five year veteran of the classroom?  The master teacher who has not only survived but thrived in the role of teacher?  How does a VP with five years in-class experience assess that?  Do they even know what they're looking at?

Those same veteran teachers are the most underused resource in education.  Department headships, like VP and principal positions, are administrative, they offer little in the way of teaching focused career enhancement.  Telling a senior teacher that this should be their focus isn't honouring the expertise they have developed from years working with students actually teaching.

It might seem like a rather simple idea, but why don't those senior teachers take on this role of in-class review and mentorship?  Having a senior teacher from my own department drop in for a lesson and a talk would be instructive for me, demonstrate respect for their skills and allow expert teachers to express their mastery.  It would also create a continuous sense of valid professional development within departments.  Instead of a fairly pointless and closely monitored five year review by people who don't even want to work in a classroom any more, how about an ongoing senior teacher review (20+ years in the classroom in order to take on that role).

The administrative arm of things does important work, but to say they have the experience and skill to determine what a front line teacher is doing right or wrong in a classroom is ridiculous.  Instead of driving our senior teachers into administration as if that is the only opportunity for 'advancement', why not recognize mastery in a very challenging environment, and encourage those with that expertise to share what they know?