Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Subtle Art Of Learning

The transmission of knowledge between people has always been predicated on personal relationships.  We come pre-wired to learn, and the way we've always done this is through a mentoring process be it master and apprentice or teacher and student.  This deep human experience goes well beyond cultural norms.  No matter where you are in the world or in human history, the art of learning is founded on this relationship between people.

Schooling systems look to standardize education so they can more easily assess their management of it, it has little to do with effective learning.  In an educational world of standardized marking, testing and curriculum building, the goal is to remove personal connections in favour of more easily quantifiable and  less effective teaching tools.

On top of the system pressuring education from a data collection/ease of management perspective, we also find ourselves in a surge of technological advancement that seems determined to insert itself into every aspect of human behavior, including that most sacred of human endeavours: learning.  This digitization of human relationships can offer a wider range of connection, but it also tends to flatten those connections.  Online relationships lack the dimensions of personal relationships.  Anyone who has met online acquaintances in person has experienced this sudden deepening of previously shallow online connection.

I've seen technology do magical things in teaching, and I've long be a proponent of pushing technologically assisted experimentation as far and as fast as it will go, but I've never thought to swap technology for the personalized process of teaching and learning, yet that is what I see many people suggesting.

Whether it's a rabid excitement (usually managerial or worse, financial in scope) over MOOCs or the latest gadget that will 'revolutionize' how we do things, or simply the drive to make students the centre of all things and reduce teachers to facilitators, there seems a constant pressure to depersonalize and grossly simplify the relationships that are the ecosystem for the art of deep, human learning.

If you see learning as the transmission of information then all these gadgets and systemic processes must seem like magic bullets that will solve all problems, that belief is probably selling your books.  With good management, letting students learn whatever strikes them as interesting, and enough money for toys, you'll be able to educate everyone for almost nothing!  Oh, the efficiency.

The problem with learning is that it tends to be very non-linear.  A good teacher calls this a teachable moment - adapting to an unexpected circumstance in order to teach a memorable lesson.  These lessons often appear to have nothing to do with the curriculum or even the subject you're teaching.  A good teacher will bend to the needs of the moment, giving the learning momentum, and keeping in mind the development of bigger ideas in a context lost on students.

A couple of years ago we made a Minecraft server in our computer engineering class.  One of the students quietly spent his lunches over the semester building up enough dynamite in the game to equal the Hiroshima bomb - he'd learned about it in his history class.  At the end of the semester he announced that he was going to set it off.  Everyone was freaked out, they'd spent a lot of time building things on that server and were afraid the virtual world would be destroyed, or worse, the server would crash.  He set it off, the class watched the server churn through the processing, and finally it rendered a massive crater.  We spent some time in a computer engineering class quietly looking at historical websites of Hiroshima after that.  We eventually got to examining what happened with the server trying to process the blast, but not at the cost of the obvious historical and human context in front of us.

In my second year of teaching I was doing Macbeth with some grade 11s.  I happened to mention that my parents were in the middle of a divorce, which prompted an impromptu round table by the distressingly high number of kids in the class who were either going through something similar or already had.  Learning about how to deal with being a child of a divorce by more experienced people (who happened to be my students) demonstrates the two way nature of that teacher/student relationship.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be some structure to our school system, and I'm not saying that technology and addressing student directed learning isn't important.  What I am saying is that learning is a complex process that develops most effectively through meaningful human relationships.  The more dimensionally complex that relationship is, the better the learning.  It is often non-linear, and at its best, it is predicated on a level of trust between teacher and student that allows for exploration and development in unexpected directions.  The artistic nature of learning must drive (North American) education managers around the bend.

Human learning, this effective use of relationships we've evolved to teach and learn from each other, is best served by setting high standards for teachers and then giving them discretion in teaching.  Micromanagement is a sure way to kill the teachable moment.  Standardized testing offers simple lies to a complex truth.  Ontario has also found new and interesting ways to damage this relationship in the last year. It's remarkably easy to interfere with and poison the learning relationship.

Technology isn't a solution, it's, at its best, an aid, and one that should be used to support rather than replace proven pedagogy.  When combined with the hard capitalist bent of most educational technology companies (themselves happy partners with US driven for profit charter schools), effective learning takes a back seat to profit margins, market gain, fictionalized standardized testing scores and quarterly statements.  Technology offers some interesting opportunities in education, but it should never be at the cost of learning.

Systemic micro-management only serves accountants.  If you're managing education you need to consider how best to improve the quality of your teachers on a macro scale, and that quality isn't based on their student's standardized test scores.

If you recall your moments of deepest learning you'll recognize how subtle and profound the circumstances around your eureka moments are.  A good teacher is more like a gardener than a source of information, creating the circumstances that lead everyone involved in the learning process to greater realizations.  We recall the teachers who create and share these fecund moments fondly because we recognize, on a fundamental level, how they are helping us realize our own potential in a uniquely personal and human way.

Some other philosophy of learning entries:

Elearning & the student/teacher relationship: personal contact in an increasingly edtech isolated world
What is learning?: what we are pre-wired to do
Speaking with dead voices: how your best teachers taught you to teach

Monday, 11 February 2013

Rumour & Innuendo In The Age of Information

TVO's Agenda did a diligent job this week of fact checking following the round table discussion they had with teachers.  In retrospect, what this discussion did was bypass the political spin of teacher unions and the government and give Ontarians an insight into how teachers themselves are seeing this on-going mess.  What I found unnerving was how insular and, in some cases, inaccurate our thinking is.

In post-show fact checking it was shown that some of the commonly held beliefs by teachers were not exactly true.  The bankruptcy lawyer story had been circulated out of the union all year.  Paikin seemed surprised that all the teachers there knew of it, but it was loudly repeated by our unions as a way of framing this disagreement prior to 115 coming in.  In fairness, these lawyers do deal with bankruptcies and they were unfamiliar with education negotiations and were aggressive in their demands, but to call them bankruptcy lawyers shows a use of absolutist language aimed at polarizing union members in order to make them feel victimized.  It's this kind of manipulation that makes me uneasy.

That the KW bi-election was a reason for the ridiculous piece of legislation called Bill 115 appears  to be a matter of record.  That Kathleen Wynn can say it was a cynical, Machiavellian move to win a bi-election while having voted for it still makes me question her credibility and these 'social justice' values she seems to have branded herself with.  In the meantime our unions are still funding the OLP, even as they encourage us to demonstrate in front of their leadership convention.  I'm not sure who is on what side any more.  With four parties involved in this (the provincial government, grassroots union members, union provincial executive who seem out of touch with the members they've tried to direct, and school boards), it's murky at best.

The followup research on the sick days/leave issue indicates just how deeply the political spin of this has cut teachers.  

"'s strange that they would seem to think the province would just leave them in the lurch in terms of short-term disability. It either shows a colossal failure of communication on behalf of the government or on behalf of the union to its members. It certainly illustrates that the level of distrust of teachers with the government is extremely high, which is just very, very sad."

The negativity itself around 115 created such momentum that the provincial executives who were pushing it suddenly found their members turning down contracts they wanted passed.  Executive was building up this fervor as a bargaining tool, but the anger was genuine, and now the rifts between teachers, the government and internally in their unions are deeper than ever.  There hasn't been a lot of honesty with how this has been managed.  How a teacher couldn't feel manipulated in this by all the parties involved is beyond me.  Trying to get a clear eye on the issues is almost impossible with all of these giants hurling boulders at each other.

I was ardently against Bill 115, I'm still astonished that it got passed - it is one of the most offensive pieces of 'law' ever put into the books.  I was more than willing to go to the wall over fighting it, I still believe we should have walked immediately when it was passed.  As one of the wiser heads in my school said in a staff meeting, "it's a bad law, you fight bad laws or we lose everything."  

Watching those teachers on the Agenda line up behind the vitriolic rhetoric of our unions when I find union interests focused on the political self interest of certain (older) members makes me question much of what I'm hearing.  I certainly no longer feel represented by the people who lead us, and while I don't agree with all of the fact checking done, it does make me question the accuracy of what I'm being told.

I find myself a teacher who is very uncomfortable with how this has been handled, the mess in my own district aside.  The Agenda's round table only emphasized for me how insulated and groomed our thinking around the turbulence in Ontario education is.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Refresh 2

@banana29 got me thinking about the computer refresh going on at her school last week.  We're in the same  process at my school.

In my case I'm the head of computers and trying to focus on keeping as many computers as possible in student hands. We waste a lot of machines at teacher desks to do online attendance and check email, work that could easily happen on an alternate, much cheaper and efficient device than a full desktop system, but even those changes would resolve into a desperate attempt to keep things the same.

I had a couple of my seniors do an inventory of the school.  We have over 300 desktops.  Each costs about $1500 when you factor in purchasing and insurance on them.  We have close to half a million dollars of desktop computers in our building, and every year we squirm to keep as many as we can as we are refreshed down.  If we were to drop the cost of those desktops, radically reduce the number of printers in the building (and the subsequent tens of thousands of dollars we spend each year on printing), and remove local server storage, we could easily produce over $500 for every staff member and student in the building; more than enough for a device per person, even if those devices aren't attached to specific people. Some classes with Chromebooks, some with Windows, some with Macs, some on Linux, some tablets, some laptops, some BYOD.  A startlingly wide ecosystem of technology that encourages broad familiarity with many digital tools.

Broad Based Digital Skills Development
We status quo our edtech because change is hard, and we've borrowed an educationally uncomplimentary business model of I.T..  We fight to keep antiquated desktops because many teachers barely know how to use a ready made lab, let alone what to do with a variety of hardware with various operating systems and software on them. With digital fluency removed from them by board I.T., many teachers have learned helplessness. Those that struggle against this forced ignorance often disappear into the cloud in order to avoid the stifling local computer environment... a choking environment that should be founded on learning, not on ease of management or paranoia.

I'd love to spring us free from the nineties corporate I.T. model we've been slavishly following and begin pushing widespread familiarity and fluency on digital tools of all shapes and sizes.  I dream of an experimental, curiosity driven access to technology that encourages timely, relevant learning for our students.

I fear we'll end up finishing another year still running Windows XP on five year old desktops with an increasingly irrelevant OSAPAC software image.  I suspect I'm going to escape into the cloud again to escape that choking simplicity, all while playing the keep-the-desktop-game on the management side.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Refresh 1

Computer refreshes approach!  An ideal opportunity to reconsider all the bad habits we have in educational technology!  @banana29 had the following questions for her admin which might help frame a discussion around where we might go with our edtech:

What are the conditions under which students in 2013 learn best?
How will these conditions change by 2033?
How does the way we organize our school computers resemble/support those learning conditions?
What are the competencies/values that we want our students to learn?
How does the way we organize our school computers affect those competencies/values?

Some interesting ideas there. What can we do to present relevant learning situations to our students (how can we begin to join the disparities between the information rich world in which they live outside with the information poor one we present them with in class? What trends are we following into the future? How to we develop useful learning habits in digitally swamped students? How can we organize our digital tools to that optimize learning? 

These questions lead to some other questions around digitized pedagogy: how can digitization assist in learning? How can it hurt learning? What does good pedagogy look like in a digitally enhanced learning environment? Between the 'gee-wiz ipad' crowd and the 'it's paper and lectures or nothing' crowd, there has been precious little consideration of how the digital revolution we're in the middle of is affecting learning. The forces trying to monetize the process further muddy these waters.

These big questions lead to some awkward realizations.  What occurs to me first is that we have adopted educational technology following a business I.T. model rather than pushing for an educational focus. The private businesses that circle education hoping for a quick sale are quick to fill educational CTO positions in school boards.  Put another way, find a CTO in Ontario who was ever a teacher.  Education has different goals than business.  Modelling our I.T. on a business model has created foundations that lead educational technology as a whole in the wrong direction.

A good place to start would be to introduce Chief Technology Officers in school boards who are actually educators.  Another good place to start is to begin building educational technology in terms of skills development in a broad sense across many platforms with a focus on general literacy and responsibility of access rather than the paranoid, closed model that has been adopted from private business I.T..  Without a continuum of digital learning that produces students familiar with a variety of tools and responsible for their own access to and presentation of information baked into curriculum, we'll continue to graduate digital serfs instead of citizens capable of working effectively in digitally networked workplaces.

Alanna asks some good questions that need serious consideration by edtech managers.  I consider my side of things in Refresh 2