Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Emotionally Charged Engagement

Pettis' manifesto demands the freedom needed
to make things work. Educators might get
excited about Maker philosophy like this,
but it isn't what they want in classrooms.
This talk of Making at ECOO had me thinking about my own process of building, repairing and creating.

My engineering process is closely related to my creative process.  Creativity came first as a toddler mainly because I found visual art intuitive to step into.  Engineering followed shortly thereafter (about 6 years old?) when I found myself dismantling bicycles and toys, sometimes for creative purposes but mainly driven an intense desire for understanding how things work.  My mother was an artist, my father is an engineer; my behaviour wasn't a happy accident.

Both my processes have evolved and entwined, and both demand absolute ownership.  I find myself fully committed to my process which makes the idea of going to committee abhorrent.  If what I'm doing ends up not working it's on me and me alone.  That focus and responsibility is what allows me to work through frustrating, stochastic, non-linear builds and repairs that would cause most people to shrug and give up.

I prefer to work alone.  If I'm going to seek help, I will initiate it.  Being forced to accommodate collaboration prevents me from doing what needs to be done to make the thing work.  Lateral thinking never works well when you've have to constantly explain every intuition, it breaks your flow.

How much faith do I have in my process?  I drove my wife and newborn son home in a car I rebuilt the brakes on.  I ride a motorcycle (with my son on the back) that I rebuilt from scrap.  If I did it, it's done properly, I regularly bet my life on it.  This is what competency looks like when making something work is the priority; mechanical mastery can't exist in any other circumstance.

intuition works best
in silence

When I'm working on an engineering problem or a creative project I am radically engaged (fixated?) with what I am doing.  This isn't the kind of directed, controlled engagement that teachers encourage in classrooms.  Being interrupted by a well-meaning teacher who wants to make my process transparent antagonizes the hell out of me.

Teacher interruptions in my process are vexing.  I don't seek an expert to do it for me, that doesn't teach me anything.  I'd prefer to ask another capable student who is struggling with similar issues and figure it out with them rather than ask a teacher who has done it a hundred times before.  

This comes from my first post-secondary learning experience as a millwright apprentice.  I left high school before graduation because it felt like a holding tank rather than a learning opportunity.  In that apprenticeship I didn't have teachers assessing my learning, I had people who were invested in it because it meant less work for them.  That we were all doing the same work went a long way toward me valuing their expertise.

Collaboration isn't the point of any engineering activity.  It shouldn't remove the focus from a project, it should amplify it.  When teachers say things like, "we're going to be makers, but what the kids are really learning is collaboration!" I would expect to see a group of frustrated students and a pile of newly purchased Arduinos and Raspberry Pis gathering dust in boxes.  You've got to respect the skill and focus needed to make things work first.

My favourite kind of teacher is the one I try to be.  I encourage skills development and provide expertise if asked (though I am reluctant).  I provide materials and offer multiple avenues into how to get it done, but then I get the hell out of the way.  What I hope to see is a student lose themselves in their process and improve as a result of this intensive engagement.  You learn more in the doing of a thing than you ever do in the theory of it.

I observe, I offer help if it's asked for, but I also allow students to fail if they refuse to take risks and engage in a meaningful engineering process.  In the best cases I'm able to look at a finished prototype that shows resiliency, creativity, and works.  That last bit is important, I'm not grading how hard they tried, or how well they get along with each other, I'm grading engineering.  The student who built a working prototype feels a genuine sense of achievement because they went through real struggle to resolve complex, non-linear (non-textbook) problems.  They seldom worry about what kind of mark they got, the value is self-evident.

Assumptions and cultural influences won't get you far
in mechanics -  you need to be stringent and respect
reality because it doesn't care about your perceptions.
A highlight of a recent unit was watching a student who found the process of building Arduino circuits very challenging.  In his presentation of a partially working prototype he angrily said, "... and it didn't work again, until I realized, like a n00b, that I hadn't plugged the power wire into the rail."  He was absolutely right, he is no longer n00b, and he should be frustrated with having made such a rudimentary mistake.  His emotional engagement with his failure was telling - he is beginning to take pride in his skills.

Emotional engagement is at the root of my work with machines.  Radical engagement makes my process an emotional one  (or is it the other way around?).  The sometimes stochastic, often non-linear and usually frustrating nature of building and repairing complex machinery requires an emotional edge.  That edge is what powers my resiliency.  I refuse to let a complication derail me, sometimes not giving up even when I should.  If it continues to not work, emotion not only powers my resiliency but also my imagination, driving me to think laterally around problems.

Class bells, rubrics, teachers showing you how and assigned groups are the antithesis of my kind of radical engagement.  Schools seem designed to prevent this kind of focus and break learning up into an arm's length, carefully managed chunks.  Learning is an organic process, until you see it diced up into curriculum and fed to students who have no idea what it is they are supposed to be learning or why.  The education system might work for basic skills but mastery isn't what its set to produce.  Education elbows its way between student curiosity and their natural tendency to learn in order to manage the process.

Radical emotional engagement is the antithesis of the clinical, rational engagement educators look to manage, but this emotional engagement is at the root of my empathy with machines,  Education spends a lot of energy encouraging collaboration, linear consumption of curriculum and a cold kind of empathy between students, but ignores (stamps out?) human emotional engagement in order to retain control.

The difference between how I and many others learn, and the mono-cultural, rationalist's philosophy of education is why you seldom see radical engagement in a classroom.  It's why you see outliers do poorly in school.  Education is designed to hit the medium, the comfortable middle class child who requires no emotional connection because they have it elsewhere.  Deviants, whether they are eccentrics who want radical engagement in something they are fixated on, or students who need more from a teacher than grades, aren't a good fit with the system.

The difference between applied and academic students has
a lot more to do with family dynamics and the need for
emotional engagement than it does with intelligence.
Education's discomfort with emotional engagement lies at the root of Ontario's high school streaming system.  Applied students tend to come to school from less stable home lives and look for more emotional engagement with their teachers.  This freaks out the academics who teach them.

Academic students (and the teachers they turn into) prefer to treat school at arm's reach - rationally and emotionally distancing themselves from it because information is all they require from a classroom.  To these academics school is a job, one they have figured out and are good at.  These are the students who get mad at you when you saddle them with a problem that may not have a solution.

This distance between student need and teacher approach is probably the single largest difference between academic and applied students.  Some of the smartest kids I've ever taught have been applied level students.  Teachers willing to support emotional engagement with learning often find these students are the ones who make the biggest leaps in high school, but they are challenging, and often emotionally exhausting.  Especially when the rationalists who run the system think 30+ students in a classroom is manageable (and it is if you don't treat students like people).

Ironically, all of those teacher movies that educators so love are the ones that emphasize this emotional learning connection, but it just doesn't happen that often in the real world.

At a recent Heads' meeting a rule was put up saying that people have to be rational and unemotional when making suggestions.  They can't be emotionally engaged in any debate.  That's how ed-quants like it in the classroom too.  What a sure way to make something tedious.

Radical engagement is powered by emotion.  It makes for a messy, demanding learning environment, but it also is a vital key to differentiating learning that the vast majority of educators don't just ignore, but actively seek to stamp out.  The doorway to mastery is one you have to walk through yourself, and you'll never manage it if you're dependant on the advice of others.  It takes resiliency, courage and a lot of work to become that kind of proficient.  Emotion is a powerful ally in getting there.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

ECOO15 1: Making Frustrations

Back from ECOO15 and, as usually, my head is full.  After a rough year of politics around Ontario Education it's nice to attend a conference made by teachers for teachers about... teaching!  Not a politician in sight, though attendance was wounded at this volunteer run conference by them.

ECOO may have been the site
of the first ever 3d photobomb!
I spent Wednesday with my robotics teacher showing people how to make 3d models using a Structure Sensor - a 3d laser scanner that is cheaper than the ipad it connects to.  It's one of those game changing bits of engineering that suddenly opens up the complex world of 3d modelling to pretty much anyone.

We put the scanner into hundreds of hands and Katy was on there to show them how our 3d printers took those models and made them tangible.  For many who have heard of the maker movement, 3d modelling and printing but had never seen it in action, it was a seminal moment.  I'm hoping it also means people start considering how we can move toward a maker mentality, because it's about as far removed from what we do in formal education as you can get.

Buddha Tim by tking on Sketchfab - @banana29's first 3d model, nicely done!

The next day, the opening keynote by Silvia Martinez was an overview of makerspaces and how they create a genuine learning environment.  Unfortunately, and like so many other educational books capitalizing on a trend, the keynote sold the concept of Making based on the fantastic contraptions shown at world class Maker Faires.  This is akin to saying everyone should play soccer like this, and then showing them the World Cup.

Education teaches students to expect success if they do what
they're told.  Engineering demands mastery, creativity and
resilience; reality is a demanding teacher.
As I said in the conference, making involves frustration and failure.  More often than not it results in a prototype that doesn't work.  I find that the grade nine students I am introducing this process to are greatly aggravated by the inflexible demands of reality.  They are quick to blame and even quicker to give up.  The most common comment is, "just tell me how to do it."  The sub-text is, 'I've learned to do what I'm told in order to show I'm learning.  Why aren't you doing that?'

Students are used to the education system jigging things to ensure success.  The process of invention doesn't do this and reality has no interest in modifying how it works so that students can feel good about their effort.  I don't teach 'I tried real hard' or 'guaranteed success'.  What I do teach is how computers and electronics work, and I expect students to develop skills sufficient to be able to work this these inflexible devices.  Once the mastery is managed, play can begin.  Shakespeare wasn't writing plays while he was still learning to write.

This was posted by Bre Pettis way back in 2009.
This kind of radical engagement isn't the managed

and directed engagement teachers are looking for.

If you want to build with electronics and digital technology (which are what are empowering much of the maker movement), you need to have something more than boundless enthusiasm.  Using digital technology isn't effortless despite the marketing.  There is mastery learning required before you are cranking out 3d prints of gears and building your own robot out of garbage.  Many of the people creating the things you see at a maker faire are trained engineers.  I'll bet that the kids shown at these Maker Faires are relying on some engineering expertise at home as well.  It's nice to see their creativity, but it isn't the only thing, or even the main thing, that is enabling these builds.  It's like watching the child of a scientist presenting a surprisingly fantastic science fair project.

My concern is that Ontario Education will rush into this exciting and trendy fad, buying stacks of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and 3d printers which will then gather dust when teachers realize that this equipment isn't Lego, it doesn't build itself with enthusiasm.  Your code has to be flawless and your wiring exact for even basic things to happen, and even when you've done everything right it might not work anyway because the LED you used happens to be defective.  You can't simply lower expectations and then see results.  These are complex systems being created.

I struggle each year to get high school students to develop resiliency and master skills in electronics and digital technology so I would ABSOLUTELY LOVE to see the maker movement and its attendant philosophies infect Ontario's classrooms.  The kids are more than capable of developing this resiliency and expertise, but I suspect that the vast majority of educators (many of which I help to plug in their desktops each day) aren't.

The maker movement pushes back against vapid consumerism.  I'm a big fan of intimately knowing the machines I use.  The motorcycle I ride I restored after finding it in a field, the computers I use I build from scratch, but it took me years to build my mechanical and digital skills to this level.  Most people aren't that patient, or curious.  Most people want immediate satisfaction, which is why they drive their cookie cutter SUVs to shopping malls.

Most teachers are no different.  If it isn't their curriculum, it's of no interest. Trying to push maker tools into that kind of classroom is a disaster waiting to happen.  If you've never used Linux, let alone installed an OS onto an SD card, what makes you think you will make magical use of Raspberry Pis?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Proliferation of Fifties

Our school is the only local high school in the area.  If students want Catholic or special education, they get on a school bus for over an hour a day of commuting down to Guelph.  I'm a big fan of choice so, while I think it mad, I don't have much to say about a student who wants to spend over 194 hours a year (that's over 8 full days of riding 24 hours a day) on a bus to Guelph and back for specialized education, as long as it's a choice they've made.

Ontario's high school streams seem pretty straightforward,
they are anything but in practice.
Our public board think it wise to ship our essential level students down to Guelph for special education.  This isn't a choice, it's a system driven process.  The Guelph school for this doesn't fill up with locals so the surrounding community schools are expected to ship their most at-need students out of their home communities every day.  This is an ongoing pressure in our community.

At our recent heads' meeting there seemed to be support for the idea of our school being a comprehensive, community school that serves everyone, but we struggle to run essential sections because parents resist putting their children into it, the board doesn't section us to run smaller essential classes and many teachers in our school would rather be teaching academic students.  It's an uphill struggle to create a comprehensive local school that supports everyone in our community.

Because we aren't sectioned for essential classes (those smaller sections are given to the specialist school in Guelph), we end up populating applied level classes with essential students.  It is so difficult to align parent perception, board support and student ability that we place all non-academic students into the same room.  This is where the proliferation of fifties comes in.

A teacher in our school recently said, and in retrospect I agree, that we place essential students into applied classes and lower course expectations to accommodate them.  This not only does the essential students no favours, it also dilutes applied curriculum goals.

The people running the education system tend to be successful professional educationalists; very experienced with the system having spent little time outside it.  These educators see kindred spirits in academically streamed students who are successful in school and make effective use of the system.  These teachers want to teach students like themselves.  Asking them to work with students who find school a challenging environment or aren't on the same academic trajectory they experienced is difficult for them.

The predisposition of teachers makes academic curriculum somewhat sacred, but applied classes aren't.  Applied students should be on apprenticeship and college skilled labour tracks that demand hands on (applied?) skills.  While less theoretical in approach, applied classes are supposed to be rigorously skills focused.  When you put students who lack basic literacy and numeracy into a grade 10 applied class you make grade appropriate learning nearly impossible.

How do teachers manage this?  If you fail a student, you get called into promotion meetings at the end of the semester where the grade you've given becomes the starting point for an inflationary process that floats fails up to passes.  The best way to avoid this is to simply award a 50%.  What is a fifty when it's really a 42?  At its best, a fifty means a student has not reached minimal expectations for a class.  Would you want the mechanic working on your brakes to have gotten there with fifties?

The teacher I was talking to suggested that the number of fifties being handed out has mushroomed in the past few years.  Those statistics aren't made available to us because they would make a travesty of curriculum expectations, but I suspect he is right.  A fifty means the government gets to say graduation rates are up.  A fifty means the ride ends at graduation because no secondary program would accept a student with a D average.  A fifty means you're not sitting in promotion meetings watching your semester of careful assessment being swept away to support policy.

The range of student skill in my classes is astonishing.  My current grade 9 classes range from students who could comfortable complete grade 11 computer engineering curriculum next to students who appear unable to read, yet I'm supposed to address that range of skills in a 50-100% range in a single course.

Perhaps we will find a way to reintegrate Ontario's carefully designed secondary school streaming system, but considering the various pressures on it in our area, it's going to be an uphill struggle.


Re: school busing children...

Time isn't the only resource being spent.  School buses get 6-8mpg, Guelph is about 15 miles away.  A (very conservative) 30 mile round trip (it's much higher if you want to consider all the pickups and drop-offs) is a (very conservative) 15 litres per day of diesel (probably double that for your typical start/stop run), per bus, and we have a number of buses making that trip 194 days per year.

Someone better than I can calculate the overall environmental impact (how many other vehicles are also held up burning fuel while these buses grind down to and back from Guelph every day?).  Making an economic (let alone moral) argument for shipping our essential students out of their home communities seems impossible.