Sunday, 17 March 2019

Agility Dies As Ontario Stiffens

While I was attending the Future of Work Summit with ICTC at the MaRS Centre in Toronto, just down the street Ontario's teacher unions were having their yearly meetings.  The social media runoff from those meetings, and from Ontario Education in general, has been increasingly and overwhelmingly negative.  As I'm listening to talks about how to increase our flexibility and reduce institutional lag, the education system around me is going into a state of rigour mortis as it stiffens up to the point where nothing is acceptable and everything is rebuked out of hand.

In my time teaching in Ontario I've watched the provincial government break the law and end up paying millions in reparations as a result.  That mess was treated like a blip compared to what has been happening recently.  Before this new government even did anything we were warned that it was all going to hell.  Things went to hell with the previous government too, but that seemed to be ok because, ultimately, our unions had ongoing relationships with that government.  This is the first time I've seen Ontario education operating under a non-Liberal government and it isn't pretty.  There was always some flexibility of approach previously, even when what has happening to us was ridiculous.  That flexibility is gone now.

Rae and the NDP pushed up our debt, but so did Harris
and the PCs. Interesting that McGinty and the Liberals
were actually more fiscally conservative than the PCs
until it all went to hell in 2008. Ontario is as in debt as
it is because it spent billions bailing out private corporations
that were playing silly buggers with the economy.
I'm well aware of what happened the last time a 'progressive' conservative government ran Ontario education into the ground.  At that point it was described as a needed financial correction from the previous NDP government, but the Financial Times doesn't graph it like that.  Mike Harris and his government sold off money makers like the 407 to balance a single year and look fiscally tight.  It's that kind of self serving short sightedness in our elected officials that frustrates me.  What I find strange is that Ontario defaulted to conservative leadership for many years, and in that time could depend on governance that wasn't populist and myopic, but recent attempts seem to be all about violent correction catering to special interests without any long term intentions.

Ontario needs to get a handle on its debt and we need a capable leader who is willing to lead by example to do it.  The problem with Ontarians is that they won't vote for someone like that.  Instead they are swayed by buck a beer huxtering.

Frankly, I don't care whether they are liberal, conservative or NDP, but I do care that it happens.  We're paying billions servicing debts we can't afford.  If it has to be austerity, then it needs to be austerity for all.  I'd be willing to buckle down and do my best with larger classes and lower budgets if I felt that everyone else wasn't voting themselves higher living allowances and inventing redundant jobs for friends.

Squeezing the system generally won't yield the kind of savings we need, and it damages learning conditions for students as well as teachers.  Ontario students are some of the best in the world.  If we're willing to sacrifice that excellence to protect a UN sanctioned publicly funded semi-private religious school system, or a questionable standardized testing regime brought to us by an under-performing US model of education, then we're damaging our excellence to protect inequity and keep ourselves buried in debt.  There are plenty of places we could save billions in Ontario education by making systemic change while protecting the learning conditions of students.  It is only because we are trapped by our history and our selfish, short-sighted, tail-chasing political system that we can't make the changes needed to make Ontario more sustainable.

Attending that summit once again got me thinking about how relentlessly and aggressively the best private enterprises chase efficiency.  There is nothing sacred in that environment, it's eat or be eaten.  That kind of focus really appeals to the technician in me who builds technology based on efficiency and efficacy, but it's short sighted when dealing with public education.  

Working for a system that is ultimately led by politicians who are in turn being led by the short-sightedness of our electorate has never been anything but frustrating.  Watching this government shore up the money-sinks while at the same time hurting learners and damaging our performance isn't new.  Previous governments did the exact same thing.  There is nothing revolutionary or different about what's happening now, other than the mass centralization of opposition against it.

Ontario continues to sink deeper into debt even as we're catering to special interests as we've always done.  Things could be better, but the system we have does nothing to encourage intelligent decision making.  If you're looking for change in Ontario any time soon, you're not going to see it.  In the meantime, Ontario will drag Canada out of the top 10 worldwide as we intentionally damage one of Ontario's most popular exports.

The Future of Work: the purpose of public education

The idea of online echo-chambers where you only ever see ideas that imitate your own bias has been a recent topic of concern.  Since battling my way through a philosophy degree at the University of Guelph, I've made it a point of trying on difficult ideas even if my first reflex is to disagree with them.  I was once again testing myself like this at ICTC's Future of Work Summit this week.

One of the main themes that kept popping up in this summit was people from private for-profit sectors suggesting that we completely rejig the public education system to serve up graduates who integrate with their employment needs more effectively. Ontario's new government has a similarly reductive view of public education's role.  I teach technology and have always encouraged my students to discover and cultivate pathways that will lead them to a meaningful and financially effective careers, it's one of my go-tos, but this subsuming of public education into the needs of private business pushed me further down that path than I care to tread.

I usually tweet my responses to ideas that come up in conferences in order to document them.  It helps me remember what happened when I'm reflecting on them later.  My initial response to a number of for-profit businesses asking that the entire public education system get rejigged for their benefit was to try and point out the difference between what public education does and what they think it does.  Contrary to popular belief, our sole function isn't to crank out employees whose only function is to make profit.

There was a strange tension, for me at least, between the aboriginal opening prayer song and talk of inclusion with the profit driven interest that kept bubbling up in various presentations.  Perry McLeod-Shabogesic's thoughts on the wisdom of honouring everyone's contribution and his careful wording around being a helper regardless of profit or personal benefit felt sharply at odds with the keynote by Cheryl Cran, whose lean, aggressive management strategies produce small but exceedingly efficient profit driven teams.  Part of me likes that vicious efficiency.  Drop the dead weight and maximize your effectiveness.  I continue to participate in competition because of that drive, but I can't let it motivate my teaching as a whole because my function is to serve the whole.  I couldn't help but think, "all business speaks from a place of privilege but has no idea that it does."  The idea of profit only exists as an option when fundamental needs are met.  For many of the people in the world (and it's the majority) who are still battling with fundamental needs, profit is a privilege they can't afford.

In a public classroom I teach students who will never earn profit for someone else in their lives.  Some will choose to work in the public sector helping society as a whole in healthcare, education or support services.  Others will want to push back against the profit driven economy that is putting the fate of humanity in jeopardy.  Others still may want to focus on meaningful work that is ignored by the private sector, like raising children or volunteerism, and some of them simply aren't capable of working in the exclusivity of a for-profit workplace.  I think Perry would think laterally and find ways to value all of those contributions.  That indigenous philosophy based around the health of the community over the wealth of an individual is very helpful for a teacher considering their clientele.  In the privileged world of business, all those people in my classroom don't exist.  Business focused speakers would want to ensure you never hired any of that sizable chunk of the population in the first place.

The changing Canadian job market: between public sector and NGO employees, a sizable chunk of Canada's working population doesn't operate in for-profit business.  There is much more to society than business need.

If a sizable portion of Canada's population doesn't work in for-profit business, rejigging public education to serve that single sector demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how society works.  From a social justice point of view, you could argue that public education should focus on producing engaged and socially aware citizens.  From an aboriginal point of view, we should be speaking to people from a place of community.  From a special needs point of view, we should be working toward greater compassion and understanding of everyone's contribution.  An environmental point of view might also be a driver in public education.  Environmentalism is increasingly diametrically opposed to globalized business and an ever-expanding economy in a world that is fraying under the weight of this unsustainable philosophy.  Public education needs to address all of these perspectives of human society.

During the 2008 market collapse, one of those periodic moments in history when profit driven people lose their minds and fictionalize the world we all live in to such a degree that it becomes obviously unsustainable and collapses in on itself, I saw an online comment that said, "you don't feed profit driven business steak, you let it feed off society's waste, like the cockroach that it is."  That's a harsh thing to say but people were pretty mad in 2008, though most seem to have forgotten all about it now, though we're still paying for it.

The idea of inclusivity was a recurring theme at the summit.  One example given was was how remote communities don't have digital connectivity yet and this was held up as an example of a lack of equity.  It is indeed a lack of equity, but you can bet that no profit driven business is going to provide that infrastructure.  The infrastructure we build in society, especially the stuff to address remote communities where profit isn't going to motivate action, is always done with public money.  Roads are built not by the corporations that ruin them with transport trucks, but by governments supported by taxpayers.  ICT infrastructure is no different.  Corporations make their profits on the backs of infrastructure built with public funds.  In this way, there is no real private company - they all rest on the back of publicly funded infrastructure.  This is neither good nor bad, it's just the way it is.  Business is too fragile to make profit without support - fragility is the underbelly of that business privilege.  That many business people wave their profit focus around with pride is always baffling to me.  There isn't a single billionaire who hasn't made their wealth on the back of publicly funded infrastructure.  To make that fragility the primary focus of public education is absurd.

This isn't to say that private, profit-driven business does not have a function in our society, but it isn't the heart and it certainly shouldn't be the brain.  At best, profit driven business is an appendage, like the arms or legs.  Important, no doubt, but it can as often injure the body politic as it does help.  Healthy, supported private business is important, but it isn't the beall and endall of human society, and tailoring public education to cater to it is, at best, myopic and self serving.


Over this past weekend in Toronto I've had a strange breadth of experience.  On the Saturday night we went to the Tiff Lightbox to see Apollo 11, incredibly restored and rendered footage of the Apollo 11 Moon mission...

I was born two months before that happened and spent my early years in love with the US space program.  I was in tears watching this film.  I consider it a pinnacle of human achievement that points to a possible, sustainable future.  My love of technology was fostered by NASA's work around Apollo.  I fear we've lost anything like the vision and drive needed to get back to this summit.  Watching the film, I couldn't help but remind myself that this wasn't a public or private enterprise, but a brilliant combination of what we are capable of when we combine our various talents and work together.

The next afternoon I was at Sting's The Last Ship, a heart wrenching and de-humanizing tale of conservative globalization in 1970s England.  I have family from Tyneside where this takes place and it rocked me.  As a pro-union story valuing humanity over the economic forces that diminish us, it amazed me that it was playing in the capital of Fordnation.  That the theatre was full of one percenters who daily throw people on the heap for their own profit was a disconnect, but that's Toronto for you.  As we stepped over homeless people laying on the sidewalks on our way back to the hotel, I wondered how Torontonians can keep it all straight.  Perhaps seeing Sting is all that matters and the story doesn't, but it should.

The next day I was sitting in this summit on the future of work where well dressed business experts talked about how we should rejig the public education system to better serve their profit margin.  The Last Ship part of me was struggling with a rising anger, but there is more to this than just dismissing the needs of business.  The purpose of public education isn't to serve business elitism, but there are a number of situations where what we do in public education aligns with business need.  A literate, numerate and digitally fluent population helps everyone regardless of the sector of society they go on to participate in.  The digital divide we contribute to by graduating students with little or no digital fluency is hurting much more than business's bottom line.  From that point of view, business and the rest of society are in alignment.

If you're digitally illiterate in the Twenty-First Century, you're in real trouble whether you're working in the public sector, the private sector or at an NGO.  It even hurts you if you're not working at all.  Canada as a whole would benefit from a more digitally fluent society.  ICTC may have aimed this summit at the needs of private enterprise, but addressing that new literacy goes well beyond the needs of business.

ICTC's drive for a digital skills continuum jibes with my expanded view of public education as much more than human resources training for business.  Our country and our planet would benefit from more digitally effective citizens.  How to make changes to Canada's complex ecosystem of educational organizations was also a concern at the summit.  Canada is the only leading OECD country without a federal ministry of education or a centralized idea of education, yet Canada performs astonishingly well in the world.  Could it be that our mozaic of often competing education systems has protecting it from gross simplification by other social interests?  A central system would be much easier to manipulate.

At the end of three days in Toronto, I'm stretched between being excited about the ideas of agility and efficiency advocated in the Future of Work Summit and worried about the dehumanizing effects that globalization and business efficiency tend to bring with them.  In a more perfect world I'd hope we could chase efficiency for something other than profit.

Canadian statistics on employment by sector:

Canada's non-profit and charity sectors:
"The Canadian registered charity sector alone (not even including non-profits that are not charities) is bigger than the following industries (as a percentage of GDP):

Real estate and rental and leasing (13.04%), Manufacturing (10.36%), Mining, quarrying and oil or gas extraction (8.14%), Finance and insurance (7.1%), Public administration (6.33%), Wholesale trade (5.66%), Retail trade (5.41%), Transportation and warehousing (4.44%), Utilities (2.27%), Accommodation and food services (2.17%) and Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (1.65%)"

Downward pressure on wages - we have more and more people and less need for them...

Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Future of Work: Bridging The Digital Skills Divide

Bridging the digital skills divide
Once again I seem to have found my way into an upper management summit.  I imagine I'll be the only classroom teacher in there, but that's no bad thing.  If more front line people were directly connected to decision makers, our policy decisions wouldn't seem as fictional as they sometimes do.  The other nice thing about a summit like this is that I get to dust off and exercise the philosophy degree, which in a computer technology classroom sometimes lays dormant for too long.

The keynote for this summit is Cheryl Cran, an author and speaker on the future of work.  Her approach seems to be very human resources based, which is appealing to a teacher who works with those humans every day.  Digital transformation tends to diminish a company's need for human resources since it's really just another form of automation/mechanization.  Can digital disruption actually lead to better relationships with the humans in your organization?  Perhaps for the few that are left.  If digital disruption is going to lead to mass unemployment, then how effective our companies run is going to be the least of our problems.  Making too much of the human population redundant never ends well for the society that does it.  This is a very difficult path to tread, so I'm very curious to hear how Cheryl presents it.

Cheryl sent out a pre-summit Q&A on where attendees think the future of work lies.  Here are the questions and my responses:

1. In your opinion what does the future of work look like? 

The social contract between employers and employees will continue to deteriorate.  Private employment will be limited to short term as needed contract work for the vast majority.  This is dressed up in "always be retraining/adapting" corporate speak, but the end result is usually downward pressure on everyone's work/life balance.  The 'try harder' language of private business can get hard to believe when you've retrained (paying for your own training) multiple times only to be be made redundant again.  Meanwhile wealth is being concentrated into an ever decreasing class of ultra-wealthy entities.

Only the management class will still consider themselves employees of a single company. A universal wage may be instituted to stabilize and pacify a large under-employed working class. Even specialized skills will increasingly become redundant under more advanced automation.  This is less about profit than it is about control.  Machines are much less demanding than people.

2. What do you think are the current challenge for employers right now in regards to attracting youth to work for their companies?

Companies tend to approach employee relations in a conservative fashion with little change in approach from previous years.  GenZ expectations around work have been formed by evolving educational experiences.  With the school system no longer holding students to deadlines and graduation standards much more flexible than they used to be, employers find dealing with young employees who have never had to work to deadlines challenging.  Attracting youth to a company successfully would have a lot to do with clarifying expectations in the workplace and training to cover that gap between an employer's expectations and the young employee's experience.

3. What do you think needs to happen to prepare today's youth for the future of work? 

Our education system (in Ontario at least) has already started moving towards a universal pay standard by moving from graduation by proven skill to graduation as a general expectation.  This was largely motivated by Ontario's learning to 18 legislation.  As education has reorientated on a graduation for all approach, there has been increasing friction between graduates and workplace expectations.  If k-12 is an experience everyone is expected to graduate from, then it will fall to post-secondary education to provide support for students as they transition into the workplace.  That support is vital as students are not being taught that deadlines nor even attendance are mandatory.  If we can't train to bridge that gap, then the workplace itself will have to evolve to expect employees who may or may not be there and may or may not meet deadlines.  From a social efficiency point of view, that obviously isn't the way forward.

4. What inspires you about today's youth? Why? 

They are as bright and capable as any other generation.  Only lowered expectations create a social perception of laziness and lack of focus.  One need only attend Skills Canada Nationals or CyberTitan to see just how capable this generation can be of mastery learning.  Whenever I hear someone slagging young people I remind myself of all the great students I've seen graduate who have produced world-class results in spite of a system that did not encourage it.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Stretched Thin

I need to reflect my way out of a dark corner.  Yesterday I got some surprise PD on students I have with profound hearing loss.  The PD was quality.  The person presenting it was not only very knowledgeable, but she was also wearing two cochlear implants, so could speak from experience.  By the end of it we had a very tangible idea of just how difficult and exhausting it is for hearing impaired students to function in a standard classroom, and yet a standard classroom is where we expect them to thrive.

How do we expect them to thrive?  By depending on the teacher to differentiate instruction, use technology and modify their lesson delivery to reach those students.  Why that?  Because any other alternative is much more expensive and downloading onto teachers is the default approach to any problem from a cost-effectiveness point of view (that's the dark corner talking).

Empathy is my superpower when it comes to teaching.  It's a reflex I can't stop, but it's also exhausting me.  By the end of that PD I was emotional about the difficulties these HH students experience all day every day and wanted to do all I could to help, but I'm not sure how much of me there is left to do it.

In a capped-at-27 students open technology class where we are working hands on with 400° soldering irons, sharp edges and live electricity, I have two students who are hard of hearing to such a degree that we are legally required to address it.  I have 9 students, or a third of the class, who have learning impairments ranging from autism to ADHD that I'm legally required to address individually.  The entire class is also in the throes of puberty.  As an open class it contains students who range from gifted/academic and on track to becoming engineers to essential students who are functionally illiterate.  Some students are living in luxury and are about to take a three week March Break on holiday (I'm supposed to plan for that too), while others aren't getting fed before coming to school in the morning.  I'm supposed to engage all 27 of them equally and consistently no matter where they are using differentiation while also ensuring their safety.  Feel overwhelmed yet?  I do.  And that's just one class of three.  The other two have similar expectations around size and diversity.

A long time ago now in Teacher's College we did a day on assistive technology and I couldn't help but think that this technology would help everyone learn more effectively regardless of where they were.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching technology is for how it can functionally improve us.  People who use technology to waste time and distract have missed a golden opportunity in my eyes.

At our HH PD the instructor ended with this cartoon.  It speaks to that feeling I had years ago at the assistive tech day.  The sound-field system that I now have not only assists my HH students, but also my students who have signal processing problems with background noise.  If everyone can hear better, everyone will learn better.  It also saves my battered vocal cords, which is no bad thing.  It begs the question, why we don't have sound field systems in every classroom?  But we all know the answer to that, don't we?

In the PD it was also suggested that we have acoustically effective rooms by covering walls and floors with soft surfaces that don't create hard, echoey soundscapes.  It was suggested that we bring in carpets and wall hangings, but based on health and safety responses to other brought in furniture, I doubt that would be allowed.  Having soft materials on the concrete blocks and industrial linoleum floors of our classroom would be great, but I doubt money exists for any of that.  It sure would be nice to work in a typical office environment, but we're not that lucky.  Plastic floors, plastic chairs and cinder block walls are where learning happens in Ontario.

We were also encouraged to remove ambient noise as it has a deleterious effect on signal processing and requires everyone to be louder to overcome it.  That increased volume wears out voices and ears and makes for a less effective learning environment.  That's why lawyers, bankers and politicians all have nice carpets and soft walls in their offices.

There is a lot of ambient noise in our computer technology shop.  We happen to be next to the heat exchanger in my relatively new school,, so when the HVAC system spins up background noise thrumming out of the ceiling  jumps by 15 decibels.  The 30+ fan cooled PCs in our lab add to the din, as do the dozens of adolescents sitting at them.  A typical student needs a 5-10 decibel volume bump to clearly understand instruction.  Hard of hearing students need even more.  How do we make quieter learning environments?  By not building schools as cheaply as we can, but that isn't going to stop.  Well it is, because we're just going to stop building schools.

So, rather than provide technology and acoustically healthy environments in reasonably sized classes for everyone, including HH students, to more effectively learn, the answer is to download the problem on teachers.  At least then it can be said that we're doing something about it.  That's assuming things stay as they are, but they won't.

All this is happening in an environment of anxious uncertainty.  The general feeling is that Ontario education will be cut to the bone and what we're expected to do will only become more absurd in the next few months.  It isn't just in education either.  As the new Ontario cuts programs to support children with special needs, guess who will pick up the slack on that?  Yep, the education system, and it'll be expected to do it with less.  Fortunately they have a free escape valve, just ask teachers to do more with less, probably for less.

There are numerous places we could find efficiencies in education in Ontario, but thanks to trickle down economics you can bet that the majority of those cuts will land on frontline classroom teachers and negatively impact student experience.  Those higher up the food chain will make sure their jobs are secure.  The Heinlein Starship Troopers part of me wishes we ran things like the mobile infantry: everyone drops, everyone is on the front line.  Too many people find ways out of teaching and yet get paid more for it.  In my efficient Ontario education system everyone keeps a toe in the classroom and teaches.  No one gets to opt out into a support role with zero instructional responsibility.

I get a lot of satisfaction out of my job and have no wish to leave the classroom.  Launching my students into meaningful careers in much-needed ICT roles from workplace to university streams isn't easy but it is a real thrill.  It's important work for Canada's future and I want to keep doing it.  All I ask is that we be supported in that effort and not have the system punish us for its own shortcomings.  What got me down about this PD was that it boiled down to yet another level of differentiation I'm expected to deliver with little or no support.  That the system thinks this somehow resolves the problem is really aggravating; these kids deserve better.

I don't only cater to easy to teach academics (though my classroom is capped the same way) and want to see my full spectrum of students find success, that includes special needs students like my HH kids.  My goal is to maximize their learning and help them find their best selves.  Because we're working in ICT I hope this means they will find satisfying and challenging careers that will enable them to support themselves and their families in a very changeable future.

With all that in mind, I'm already stretched thin trying to teach with and around various special needs in a hands-on technology environment that is designed around thrift and the biggest caps in the province rather than effective learning.  That we're as good as we are now (and that's in national competition) in spite of all that is great, but the thought of things only getting worse is wearing me down.  If we're going to up the ante to 35+ students and cut budgets so that we can pay for increased housing allowances and make new jobs at EQAO, I'm going to have to start putting the things down that I don't get paid for in order to manage a punishing work load designed with generic production lines in mind.

Lowering my efficiency and not pushing us all to be our best in a constantly changing technology subject is the last thing I want to do, but needs must.  That HH PD on Friday only underlined for me how complex and multifaceted what I do is.  All I want to do is try and fulfill that difficult role as well as I possibly can, but I can't do it if the system is intent on being less for less.  Special needs seem to be the first thing ignored in the drive for a lower bottom line in the new Ontario.

If what's got me down are the dark headlines and ominous future of Ontario education, then I'm falling into the old trap that J.K. warns of.  What I should be doing is what I've always done, make best use of what I've got and try and reach as many students as I can.  Thanks to Friday's PD I now have some tech in my room that should help me do that.  On Monday I'll be speaking a bit softer but being heard better.  I'll deal with what happens later this year when it happens.

It happened.