Sunday, 29 April 2012

Courtesies & Confused Responsibility

Responsibility & Liability

I'm going to try and not sound like a grumpy old man in talking about this.

I had a chat with a friend the other week who is teaching in a private school in the GTA.  He had an interesting observation around how students do (and mostly don't) accept responsibility for their actions.  He argued that the libelous nature of the adult world has placed everyone in the position of not being able to own up to honest errors.  Rather than being able to apologize and move on, we must instead deny any wrong doing, even when it becomes absurd.

A clear example of this happened in class the other week.  Three students were filming, and in the process of setting up the green screen studio they found Nerf guns and began fooling around with them.  This resulted in the camera they set up on the tripod getting knocked over and broken; a $400 new camera.  The response?  "It's not our fault, we didn't mean to break it."  These two ideas are tied together in a student's mind.  You can't be held responsible for your actions if your actions weren't intentionally about breaking the camera.  I tried to explain that it wasn't ill-intent that led to the camera, it was incompetence, and they are responsible for their incompetence, especially when they willfully engaged in it.

This caused a great deal of confusion.  Students don't feel responsible for their actions unless they are willfully vindictive, and even then, they won't admit to wrong doing because they never see adults doing it for fear of liability.  Because of this poisoned moral environment, students also don't understand what an accident is and how they can still be complicit in it without ill intent.  Fooling around with Nerf guns is not why you were in the studio; your choice to do this led to grievous damage, for which you are responsible.

Slogging through the muddy moral world of our schools can get tiresome quickly.  Incompetence cannot be considered a factor in student performance any more.  I have a number of students with weeks of absences and we are only just at the half way mark of the semester.  Many students will finish this semester in our school with over a month of absences, and they will still be expected to earn a credit.  In many cases these absences involve family holidays during classes.  Parental competence must also never be called into question either.  When those students are in class, they tend to do nothing anyway, but once again, the pressure is on the teacher to 'find a way' to ignore incompetence, even if it is simply willful neglect, and pass students.  Our idea of success has become one of pass-rates rather than teaching humans how to be responsible people.

What Manners Do For You

In the past week I've had a series of senior students walking into the media arts lab and asking to use equipment during class - while the students in the class needed to use it.  Whenever possible I try to accommodate these requests; media arts fluency leads to greater technological fluency.

I became less willing to accommodate these requests when the students involved ignored directions, started using student computers without permission and interrupted class to demand more equipment or space.  Offering open access to expensive equipment and resources is a nice thing to do, demanding it without so much as a please or thank you won't get you very far.

This sense of belligerence isn't unique to this generation of digital natives, though their constant split attention between the world around them and the insinuated cyber-world they also inhabit doesn't help.  Teens have always been known for socially awkward, often rude, behavior; it's a fun part of their stereotype.  The ironic thing is that in my experience this is human nature, not just a teen one.  People in general tend toward rudeness, a mannered response is usually a pleasant surprise.

The post modern view of courtesy or manners is one of an anachronistic, inefficient time waster.  Just look at our modern success stories (Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates, Eminem) for an idea of how we value individualized competitiveness, intellectual superiority and financial success as mutually exclusive from polite, collaborative interaction; we love despotism and see the rudeness inherent in it as a strength.

What politeness does is make explicit what is happening between people.  When you inconvenience someone by putting your own needs first, you can say things like "excuse me" or "sorry to bother you, but...", and everyone involved knows that you are aware of the interruption you have caused.  When you thank someone for their efforts, you're acknowledging how they put your interests before their own.  Courtesies are focused on verbalizing the necessity of supporting each other in a collaborative manner.

Polite Responsibility

We throw all that out when we start to mix the nasty habits developed around liability law with how we interact with each other.  For fear of financial penalty, those students couldn't simply say the truth: "we're sorry, we should have known better than to screw around under those circumstances."  They don't enjoy the release of pent up guilt that comes with apologizing honestly for an unintended outcome.  They also haven't verbalized wrong action and have missed out on the meta-cognitive reinforcement that happens when you describe what you've done in honest terms.  They carry all that negativity forward.

I was watching soccer yesterday and an obvious handball occurred inside the goalie crease.  In my perfect world the offender it happened to would go to the ref and opposing player and say, "yes, it hit my arm.  It was a sudden, hard shot and I couldn't have gotten my arm out of the way in time anyway."  The shooter would then be given the penalty shot and he would have kicked it wide on purpose.  Instead, the player stood there stony faced, and said nothing as he knew the rules of the game had been broken, but could not afford the liability of admitting truth.

We do this in our games, our businesses are founded on this concept of non-admittance of wrong doing, and our governments don't know how to operate any other way.  It's no wonder that we should do it in our schools if we're going to get our students ready for the adult world waiting for them.

The moral order of operations we need to train our students in to prepare for adulthood:

  • It's best to say nothing than admit wrong doing or incompetence. 
  • It's best to lie than to admit wrong doing or incompetence.  
  • It's best to accept punishment but still admit to no wrong doing, or incompetence.
  • Ignore courtesies, they are a sign of dependence and weakness.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Speaking With Dead Voices

I'm still mulling over the discussion we had around what teaching is at EdCamp Waterloo the other week.

In teacher's college what seems like a long time ago, one of our profs tried to get us to explain what the process of learning was in a typical classroom.  He asked, "is what  you're doing more difficult than surgery?"  The general answer was, "no, surgery requires precision, great expertise and can kill people if done wrong; it's more difficult (and important)."

Our prof went on to try and describe what happens in a classroom as we teach people new ideas in a way that allows them to retain the knowledge and make it their own.  It's complicated in social, psychological and physical ways, and you don't get to focus on one person at a time, like that surgeon does, you typically have 90 students in circulation each semester and you're dealing with 30 at a time.  Considering the circumstances, it's amazing that teaching and learning happen as well as they do.

At Edcamp a discussion wandered into focus on this, and the complexity of the process is quite staggering.  If you truly care to understand how we teach and learn from each other, you've got to recognize the uniqueness of this ability (#11) in humans.

"Children expect to be taught, a vital difference (between humans and apes).  While most apes can copy, they do not teach each other."

Teaching isn't purely a learned behavior as many would have you believe... we're hard wired to learn!  This begins to explain why classrooms are able to teach as well as they do; it wouldn't work as well in a room full of chimpanzees.

It also helps explain why teaching is such a personalized set of skills.  Many teacher's colleges, educational experts and administration would love to develop that perfect teaching algorithm that allows them to streamline the process, make it cost effective and minimize differences in education.  This approach fails to recognize the complexity of the process.

When I became a teacher, I was surprised at how much I was imitating those teachers who had a positive effect on me when I was young.  The job is challenging, overwhelmingly so for many people.  Those who stick it out and begin to develop some mastery in this very slippery (psychological, sociological) profession might have used the same process.  

When I was a student, long before I thought of becoming a teacher, I was subconsciously apprenticing.  From Mr Rattray in grade four to Mrs Thomas in grade six, Mrs Fraser in grade seven, Mr Stern in grade 13, I was seeing what worked in master teachers, and then subconsciously imitating it when I suddenly found myself in front of a class years later.

I find it strangely comforting to sometimes find myself speaking with those voices, some of which are long gone from the Earth.  It's one of those ways that teaching reaches deep into what we are.  But if you're unlucky enough to be in a college that doesn't help you understand how vital you are to the process (by over-emphasizing curriculum, or administration, or control), you will end up a cardboard cutout, someone not being human in this most human of activities.

You might try to approach teaching as a science.  If you do, I suspect you are either not going last in the profession long, or you're going to get out of classroom teaching as soon as  you possibly can and administrate.  There is something unique and personal to every successful classroom teacher.  Some can be the stern disciplinarian and be very effective as that teacher, others can be personable and relaxed with their students and approach the same level of effectiveness as a teacher from a completely different path.  Whatever it is that they do, if it's 'put on', disingenuous, then students won't do what they have a predisposition for: learn.

Those that try and distill this most complex of professions, one that actually defines us as a species, into a statistically, standardized process fail to grasp that teaching and learning, more than medicine, science or even religion, is what makes us uniquely, and powerfully human; it has been the single most important defining factor in our evolution as a technologically advanced species.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Secondary Like We Mean It

We're getting squeezed for sections this year because bankers and multi-nationals wanted to play silly buggers with the world economy.  Watching my school cut English sections down to the bone is making me question the validity of requiring mandatory English throughout high school.

Academic English is very university focused with the almighty essay as the be-all and end-all of high school writing.  I'm an English major, I love essays, but I recognize that the vast majority of our students, even the university bound ones, will never write another essay in their lives after high school.  Asking senior academic English teachers to consider reports, or labs, or articles, or any other writing output is an uphill battle.  They don't want to water down their subject; the essay is sacred.

I get that, so perhaps it's time to water down their population.  Instead of dragging all senior students through years of mostly irrelevant English skills development, why not separate the vital from the overly specific?  Literacy is a vital skill the general population needs to have, regardless of whether they major in English in university or work at a cash register.

One of the biggest challenges in English is facing an always packed class (never off the cap) full of an astonishing range of students.  A typical academic English class will contain barely literate non-readers whose parents don't want them to give up academic options (and who may be more than capable in numeracy, science or technology).  Academic English bludgeons them with essays and Shakespeare.  The solution is to pare off literacy from what is really a specific skill set needed only by advanced students of the arts and humanities.

The idea for mandatory grade 9 and 10 literacy and numeracy courses comes from this logic.  The grade 10 course is a survey/review course that works to assess students literacy skills in a granular and meaningful way.  The opposite of a standardized test, these courses challenge students in order to accurately assess their skills in numeracy and literacy in detail.  The end result would be a certification in two important foundational skills.

Students who are able to demonstrate these foundational skills are able to continue in high school in which ever direction they choose with a clear idea of their strengths or weaknesses in fundamentally skills, or move beyond the building and into apprenticeships or the work place knowing that they have displayed an appropriate level of literacy and numeracy.  Their proven ability in these two vital skill sets will resolve many of the fears surrounding letting students leave school early.  Those that stay in high school are offered a plethora of courses, local, remote or a hybrid of the two, that allow them to develop interests and abilities that are flexible, encourage their strengths and change with the times.

Those interested in post-secondary can still take advanced English and mathematics courses, but these are entirely optional.  They may also be specific to future needs.  Science and technology students may take English that focuses on report writing and presenting analysis in clear and concise ways.  Arts and humanities students may focus on more traditional English, such as literature and essays.

If we're not going to do literacy and numeracy properly by underfunding it into oblivion, perhaps it's time to separate the vital skills from overly specialized, academic English and mathematics and reconfigure for flexibility in our curriculum.

Monday, 2 April 2012

EdCamp Waterloo

My second EdCamp in the past six months, I guess I'm hooked.  EdCamp Waterloo Region was, like EdCamp Toronto, a chance to break the mold on how PD is done to us.

I volunteered before hand to do a first round session mainly because, after seeing the nerves and reticence at EdCampTO, I thought I could bring some experience to it and help it start a bit smoother.  I started off with an excerpt from a TEDtalk looking at how future technology could become more interactive and intuitive in the class room, and how we could access and present data more seamlessly while teaching.  Everyone seemed content enough to be lectured at, so I made it difficult for them.

Being an edcamper means being a good listener too, something else we've learned not to do in PD.  I made a point of listening closely to comments from the audience, and tried to reply with a question that refocused the discussion on them rather than trying to get them back to what I want them to know (standard PD protocol).  It took about 20 minutes, but they started to realize that EdCamp was all about the US, not the 'expert'.  A few of the bolder people spoke up, but by the end I think everyone in the room had said something at some point, and we went 15 minutes over.  That doesn't happen too often in PD, but then PD doesn't happen on Saturday mornings too often either (unless you've got a PLN).

About half an hour in I said, "there are no rules in EdCamp, but I'm going to make one anyway, no more hands."  It became a running joke, but the conversation began to flow after we got that nineteenth century convention of teacher control put behind us.


As a survival mechanism, many of us have developed the habit of, at best, being passive in PD in order to make it end sooner, or worse, have found ways to wander off in our minds while it's happening so the condescension, repetitiveness and/or latest poorly performing American EduFad which we have no interest in, doesn't make us angry.

Edcamp throws all that on its ear.  It's all about you being there.  It assumes your experiences in your profession, which are current and unique, are as valuable as an entrepreneurial guest speaker's (who hasn't been in a classroom in decades and when they were tried to get out of it as soon as they could to become a paid speaker and sell their latest book on a fad they've invented).  It assumes that teachers talking to teachers and valuing each others experiences are what professionalism and developing it are all about.


For me this EdCamp started with teachers showing and telling what they are doing to make the future in technology available to their students.  I then wandered into a group talk on the nature of professional development that evolved into a deeply nuanced philosophical discussion about the subtle, individually powered profession of teaching.  After lunch I watched a bit on Edmodo then finished listening to a talk on technology use across k-12 curriculum.  The last one was on how to continue EdCamp ideas beyond EdCamp.  By that point I was intellectually fried; something that doesn't happen too often in PD.  I found the focus on how to cater to the disinterested tedious, but if you don't get where it's going, you can leave!

EdCamp is, by its nature, an experimental process.  After doing a couple, I still wonder at the blocking of time, like classes.  Some of the discussions still had a lot of steam, others were ready to end (or should have earlier).  A more flexible schedule might be interesting to try.  Perhaps having spill-off areas where groups that want to finish a discussion can go would offer an out there, or having enough rooms that they aren't booked one after the other might work; built in extra time if you need it.

The other trick is to ensure that it's easy for people to slip in and out of classes.  Regular classrooms are designed around the opposite idea (keep them contained and accountable).  There were a couple of times where rooms were full enough that getting out would have been overly disruptive.  The classroom seating arrangements of rows facing a central board also cater to the sage on the stage, something EdCamps ideals don't seem thrilled with.

If you've never done an EdCamp, I highly recommend the experience.  You'll find it personal, meaningful, intense and empowering.  You'll have to break through many of those learned PD habits, but it'll be nice to let your chained inner-professional out to see the sun for the first time in years.

The only PD experience I've ever had that came close was (is) ECOO conference, which is very teacher driven as well, and Barrie Bennett's Beyond Monet workshop, which was career changing.  The vast majority of the rest feel like an infomercial admin demands that you sit through.

The next time I'm grinding my teeth as another professional presenter with a new book to hawk is telling me how I have to revolutionize my practice by doing exactly what they suggest (and nothing else, until the next book comes out), and who has been flown up to us (business class), and paid thousands of dollars that could have gone into classrooms instead, I'll think back on EdCamp and wonder why administration is so afraid to trust us with our own PD.

EdCamp Waterloo Region Twitter Doc

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Lessons From Skills Canada

Friday I chaired the video creation Skills Canada regional competition in Guelph.  Ours was a competitive division with five teams who had to film, edit and post-produce a preplanned thirty second ad in four hours.  Only three teams could place and only the top team could move on to the provincial competition.

Some observations stood out:

  • The hard deadlines came as a shock to many of the students, who aren't used to them any more (we don't really require hard deadlines in class any more)
  • The competitive nature of the competition concerned a number of the teams, who couldn't comprehend being allowed to lose in school (we don't really integrate competitive winning and losing in class any more)
  • The sense of satisfaction that resulted from getting a quality piece of work done in the time given surprised many of the students (we don't really allow students to develop a sense of satisfaction from completing work on time - on the contrary, a number of students recently told me at parent teacher interviews that they are sick and tired of knocking themselves out to complete work by deadlines only to see slack and idle students hand in the same thing whenever they get around to it).
  • At the rewards ceremony many of the students were at a loss as to how to act when they'd won (stony faced and blankly indifferent were the norm, broken up by the odd grin).  They were also unable to recognize what losing gracefully looked like.
  • In the automotive technology section the announcer said, "congratulations gentlemen" only to realize that one of the gold medalist was female (from our school!) and back pedal.   If we're going to break the gender assumptions around skilled trades, it starts here (and is).
  • Skills Canada has reinforced for me (yet again) that media arts isn't an arts course so much as it's a technical skills course that includes artistic input (like carpentry).  We just got rather brutally cut for new students while being administered by the fine arts department, I think in great part because what we're teaching is being administered by a department that doesn't know how to present us or what to do with us.
Skills Canada is a wonderful program that empowers students to embrace their passions in the skilled trades.  Often looked down upon by the academically prejudiced teachers (all university grads deeply ingrained in academia), many of these students with smart hands and kinesthetically focused minds look like failures to the pen & paper classroom teacher.

Our school is fortunate to have a busy and wide ranging technology department with many course options.  Those hands-smart, kinesthetic thinkers must suffer in smaller schools full of class rooms and little else.

Having participated in Skills Canada for two years now, I'm a fan.  I plan to encourage our computer engineering students to put their names in for the IT competition, and our media arts students to jump into the crucible, they come out tempered by the experience.

As one of the grade 12s said at the end of the day, "I was put off by the competition and now I'm sorry I never tried this before.  It was a great experience, and a great challenge.  I wish I had a chance to do it again, now that I've tried it, I want to do it again better."  That is the greatest lesson of competition, it clarifies how you can improve in no uncertain terms, and then offers you another chance to show what you know.  Of course, as a senior he won't be here next year.

I've got to find ways to get younger students involved in taking this risk, the rewards are great, and by grade 12 they'll be weathered veterans who can take a competitive run at the medal stand.  Nothing they do in class helps prepare them for the world they are about to walk out into more.