Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A Quiet Mind

A conversation a colleague tole me about a while back:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I photoboarded that :p

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

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

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

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

Post note:

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

Turns out he didn't.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a couple of difficulties with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Remember What We Write

Memory & Writing

What is learning?

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

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Technology As Distraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 December 2011

What You Don't Know Makes You Smarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Most Underused Resource In Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Future of Tech IS Education!



An open source, education focused OS based on Linux, LinED was used around the world and developed continuously by legions of users.  You couldn't access the school internet without installing LinED.  Students installed it as a second OS on their computers and many ended up using it as their primary system because of all the free/subsidized software they could get on it.  A student could outfit a LinEd machine with a full suite of media, gaming and productivity software for less than the cost of a single corporate production suite.

When on a school network designed for it, LinED feeds a continuous stream of activity to your school profile.  Percentages of time with certain web pages open, applications running, even data on eye movement when reading a screen.  Students have continual access to their own data, allowing them to self-evaluate around productive use of time.  This feed back loop was one of the key events that broke the cycle of digital irrelevancy in schools and prompted students to use digital tools effectively, rather than having website designers using them as business interests saw fit.  Using LinED encourages digital citizenship, and digital learning, keeping the massive distraction engine of the internet at bay while still offering students access to resources.  This could only happen in an open source environment; users have to own their thought space online.


Within the LinED environment, students have quick and easy access to cloud based tools for learning.  But as a redundancy, these cloud based systems also install on-machine apps that allow students to minimize bandwidth use while maximizing productivity.  Network failure no longer means a loss of access to information. Students often fail to notice long return times on network/cloud apps because the work is balanced between their desktop machine and the cloud in such a way as to make bandwidth issues irrelevant.

An intelligent and responsive network enables much more efficient use of network resources.  Web access uses a complex algorithm to prioritize traffic, thus affecting loading times.  A student with a high social media activity and low performance in learning metrics find social media pages being deprioritized and loading more slowly, eventually stopping if they continued to allow themselves to be distracted.  Students who develop a balance between personal web use and learning never notice a slow down.  Students who prioritize learning on the network were rewarded by stunningly fast bandwidth.

Teacher grading is automatically synced with the student data and can be continuously checked by all interested parties.  Success not only means greater resource availability, but also offers support staff an opportunity to see class activity in a live environment, and intervene earlier in order to help students achieve an effective balance.

Any student with a LinED system is able to access apps and software at reduced rates, often free.  Students find that their LinED app ecosystem is rich with resources when compared to the private sector.  Even game companies buy into the system, offering reduced cost or free access to gaming environments tied to educational success.  Good students found themselves with free VirtuWoW and other game accounts on Learning+ servers, where they were able to socially network with other like-minded students, often leading to enrichment and collaboration that further supports them in the classroom and beyond.

This has greatly served to change the definition of student.

By developing a coherent feed-back system between education and technology, students (and teachers) find themselves in a blossoming ecosystem of applications, games and social networks that all benefit and spring from learning focus.  The subtext of learning colours all other opportunities, allowing the idea of continuous erudition to flourish within technology.

Developers quickly find that Learning+ communities online contain highly motivated, engaged and creative individuals, who make ideal Beta communities for developing new media and ideas.  They were willing to test and develop where most vanilla, private users merely wanted to use.  The resource begins to feed itself.

Identifying and rewarding life-long learners goes well beyond what is happening in schools, and has prompted a digital renaissance, eventually outpacing the "limited, short-attention-span, internet for quick gain and empty use" model that preceded it.  Developing interrogative digital citizens was key to this Web3.0 revolution.


The mobilization of technology had already begun prior to the network catching up.  With advances in nano-technology which prompted leaps in quantum computing, mobilization went through a brief period of hyper-miniaturization.  Most computers now consist of small, hands-free devices that linked to interactive holographic displays.  A smartphone sized device now represents the computing power of a typical desktop machine from 2015.  With projected keyboards and screens, the smartphone evolves into the nexus for digital contact without having to carry energy and space intensive peripherals.

All of this was conceptualized prior to the takeoff in nano-technology.  Post nano-tech, manufacture has become a relatively straightforward process and the computer, finally, has become truly personal.  Modern computers act symbiotically with their users, recharging from their activity and enhancing their experiences.  The internet is no longer in cyberspace, cyberspace is now all around us.

In a typical classroom students walk into class with their PCs fully powered (recharged from the compression motion on shoes while walking).  The room's holographic projector links to each device, bringing the student online and showing them their own enhanced reality.  The card-like smartphone descendants students carry now are resilient, networked and self contained, redundant, self-charging and intuitively designed to enhance and focus, rather than distract and commoditize, their user's attention.  An app that distracts a user at a critical moment causing injury or damage is legally liable for their distraction.

It has taken many years of intensive reworking to make laws relevant to a cusp-of-a-singularity world.  In most cases, people prepared to step into the singularity do, though many stay behind to shepherd the lost and confused toward the light.

This was almost disastrous initially.  Until the networks and software became individually serving rather than serving marketing interests, the internet was a very dangerous place to be jacked into all the time.  The push for computer control on the roads came after a sharp upspike in accidents when personal holographics first appeared.

It wasn't until systems like LinED, and the vetted software it allowed, and other systems like VirtuOS that recognized that digital permanency meant that marketing couldn't be continuous and distraction was libelous.

Wearing a computer is now akin to putting on trousers, everyone does it one leg at a time, but everyone does it.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Saving Us From Ourselves

When I see the vast majority of digital natives (something I've raged against previously) attempt to make constructive use of a computer in class, they are constantly sideswiped by how little they know.  Watching my students struggle with their own urge to pointlessness in a blended learning career studies pilot last year was very enlightening.  If you hand them a computer, for the vast majority, the first thing they do is open Facebook, no matter what the reason for working on the computer was, it's like a digital tether, 90% of their digital self is stored in that one place (the other 10 is on youtube).  College humor hits the digital natives where they live with this.

When a student whose primary relationship with computers is one of entertainment, they have great difficulty thinking of it as anything other than a gaming console for asinine videos and Facebook.

One of Carr's angles in The Shallows is the loss of deep reading in a digital format.  Our memories can very efficiently manage the linear data stream we generate when we read deeply, but not if we're continuously interrupted (by links, navbars, hypertext, incoming social media etc).  Interrupted reading (or any kind of interrupted focused attention) results in substantially lower understanding and retention.  This isn't an opinion, it's a fact of our biology.

The 'wild' (read: increasingly monetized and corporately directed) internet caters to this.  Google thrives on page views and the internet thrives on Google, so the medium has continually evolved into a distraction engine that encourages disrupted thinking and rapid, trivial surfing of web pages.  This isn't the fault of digital technology, it's the fault of human beings intent on squeezing wealth from it.

The technology itself could as easily be adapted to protect its users and encourage and engage a focused mind.  Off the top of my head, THIS would be a good start.  We could as easily create deep research apps and other digital tools that encourage and reward focused attention online (we do all the time, they're games).  The feedback loops I recently read about in WIRED would serve this well.  People wouldn't be so reckless on the web if their recklessness was quantified.

One of the ways we try to deal with this as educators is to validate fractured thinking.  We start to think that skills like multi-tasking should be assessed and graded.  Multi-tasking isn't a skill, it's a series of single tasks we do in a much less effective way.  Rather than encouraging it, we should be angling students toward short term intense focus if they have to deal with multiple tasks.  A quote from M*A*S*H has always stayed with me.  "I do one thing at a time, I do it very well and then I move on."  It's from Charles who won't adopt a meatball surgery approach to his work, he won't be rushed into doing many things poorly.

If we're going to be technologically inspired and effective educators (and I desperately think that all teachers must be), then we need to train a very clear eye on what the internet does and how it (dangerously) simplifies our thinking.

In the meantime, herds of edtech educators get giddy about a new app with many flashing buttons on it.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

If you don't use the tools, the tools will use you

@GlblCanuck posted this on our school email today: 

I especially found the last paragraph interesting - a Silicon Valley execs reasons for sending his kids to a school where computers are not allowed in the classrooms.

I'm most of the way through The Shallows and thinking about this as well.

At teacher's college one of the science guys was making a fake website based on elementary science curriculum that had all wrong content in it (so kids would use it to copy out assignments and then fail).  He was very angry that everyone was so focused on content (which can be easily fabricated) rather than building critical analysis and understanding... it was all about the whats and nothing about the hows and whys.  He thought the righteous digital natives who copy and paste as if they had made it had it coming.  Perhaps we need a Doug Couplandism here, "copying and pasting isn't writing."  

If you don't really grok what you're presenting as your own work, you're going to look like a fool.

In relation to the article, digital literacy doesn't replace the traditional kind.  Computers are never going to replace reading, especially deep reading.  But according to The Shallows, the internet might supplant them, which results in shallow, confused, constantly distracted people with no ability to parse complex thought.  Digital literacy should be trying to prevent that outcome, which I fear is inevitable without intervention.

From a Darwinian perspective, if digitization really does turn much of the population into mentally limited stimulus response monkeys with no ability to parse complex ideas, then the rest of us get to take over in a mighty Geniocractic revolution.

If we don't learn how to use the tools, the tools will use us.

I'm ok with that as a social Darwinist and a technologist.  I'm not OK with that as a teacher though, and the kickback I keep seeing through The Shallows and now this article make me wonder if this isn't just the latest in a series of Luddite pushes that rival intelligent design in terms of trying to scare people away from some hard facts.

Computers aren't here to make your life easier, they're here to amplify whatever you do, and if that's sheer stupidity, then you'll only get stupider in front of one.  Using something without considering how it's affecting you is not only ignorant, it's dangerous.

Hence, digital literacy.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Do you ride the horse, or does the horse ride you?

The idea that technology will somehow make teaching easier (or superfluous) makes me sad... and angry. The idea that it might be making us inferior to previous generations drives me right over the edge.

I've been reading Nick Carr's The Shallows.  If you're a techie-educator, you might disagree with him, but the Pulitzer prize panel didn't.  Neither did the Laptops & Learning research which demonstrated that students retain less information about a lecture when they have a digital distraction on their laps.  Carr's argument that digital tools teach a plastic brain to reorganize in simplistic ways has resonated with many people, usually people that didn't like digital options in the first place.

There is a big backlash against this single minded approach, which I think was addressed at the recent ECOO conference.  If students aren't able to recall details from a lecture, I think I have to start with the sage and the stage.  The idea of passive learning is rapidly losing traction as the most effective way to teach.  Countries that cling to the idea (usually as a cost saving measure and to try and adhere to standardized tests) are tumbling down world rankings in education.

A teacher who talks at their students for an hour will view laptops in their class as an invader who fights them for their (not so) captive audience's attention.  If you want to accept digital tools into a uni-directional, passive classroom environment, they are going to disrupt the learning.

Several of my students came up to me today and asked me how to perform a function in imovie (we're editing videos we've been working on for three weeks).  I told them both that I wouldn't show them.  Following the sage logic, I should have given them an in-depth 20 minute lecture on how to add pictures to credits, and then chastised them if their attention ever seemed to wander to the imacs in front of them.  Instead, I suggested they look at the help information, and then go out into the wild west of the internet if they were still lost.  I not only wanted them to resolve their own (relatively simple) learning dilemmas, I wanted them to feel like they had solved them themselves.  Within ten minutes they both had figured out what to do without being spoon fed the details; they owned that information.  For the rest of the period they were showing other interested parties how to do it.

If I had saged that whole thing, digital tools would have appeared to be a detriment to thinking and learning; nothing but a distraction.

The other side of this is the idea that teachers no longer teach, they simply facilitate, like trainers on a bench.  This usually plays to the 'technology will make my life simple' crowd, and it isn't remotely true.  To begin with, many students haven't learned to use digital tools in productive ways.  When they turn on a computer it means hours of mindless, narcissistic navel gazing on Facebook.  Students in my class are expected to use the computer as a source of information, a communication tool and a vehicle for artistic expression.  They aren't going to be the players if they don't even know the game.  I have to model and learn along side them, I have to demonstrate expertise on the equipment, and more importantly, expertise as an effective, self-directed learner.  If I do this well enough, I can eventually step back, but I'm more the weathered veteran on the bench good for a few more pinch shifts when I'm really needed, than I am a towel jockey.

A good teacher challenges, and  then is able to recede, but even that recession is a carefully modulated choice that balances student ability with student independence.  This is never going to be anything but a challenging dance that you will always be leading, even if you're not necessarily in front.  We CANNOT assume that students know how to use digital tools effectively, any more than we can assume they will intuitively grasp band-saws, or nail guns.

If you're into tech in education because you think it's an easy way out, it's time to realize that there are no short cuts, and that your job will constantly change, and you better be mentally lithe enough to keep up with it, or else the digital natives will use the tech in the most simplistic, asinine ways imaginable, and Nick Carr's Shallows will become the truth.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

You Say You Want A Revolution?

... well you know, we all wanna save the world.

Thoughts from ECOO 2011

You say you want a digital revolution in education?  Is your perfect classroom a one screen per child?  Do you rage against the bureaucracy and hate that this isn't happening fast enough?

There is a lot of excitement and optimism around this, much of it centered on the idea that technology will somehow make our jobs as teachers easier.  If you honestly believe that then your optimism is blind.

Technology will give you access to information, and offer you opportunities to differentiate learning and even assess student abilities in much more minute and specific ways, but it won't make your job easier, it will make it much more challenging, especially if teaching for you is a matter of working out a lesson and then repeating it for twenty years until you retire.

If you knew how to direct a plough team of horses in the field, did you really think that a modern machine makes things simpler?  Easier to operate?  Do you have to know less to operate the machine than you did the horse?

At the Ecoo Conference this year, many people focused on specific apps that would replace a specific classroom related paper based piece of work.  This is the equivalent of creating a steam powered horse, rather than designing a train that more appropriately uses the new technology.  Using google docs to replace individual writing is this kind of thinking.  Using prezi to replace a poster presentation is this kind of thinking.  Using Diigo to replace making notes out of an encyclopedia is this kind of thinking. The real power of these tools lies in how they are different, not in how the replace an existing process, and especially in how they create collaborative opportunities.

We are trapped by our preconceptions...

Those preconceptions also feed into fears.

The collaborative nature of online tools freaked out many people at ECOO.  The heel digging around using social media (twitter and others) to expand personal learning networks was consistent across many of the seminars I attended.  Many educators still accept group work in class, but believe online collaboration is a form of plagiarism and cheating, or even worse, it somehow causes children to be preyed on by making them public.

If the classroom is really going to bleed out of the factory inspired buildings we call schools and infect a student's life in a more permanent way (ultimately creating curious life long learners), then we need to continue to develop access to collaborative online tools that don't frighten people, and act assertively to clarify new media and calm down the analogue population.

I had a knee jerk response from an invite I sent out on school email this weekend asking if anyone who hadn't PLN built before might be interested.  The teacher (a self described dinosaur) said, "I don't want to be tweeting or any of that other social media stuff.  If I want PD, I'll read a book."  I pointed out to her that most of the discussion online revolves around books we've read.  The key difference between her enriching her own teaching and the PLN doing it online is that more than one person benefits; collaboration is what super charges it.

The foundation of all this anxiety is the spectacular example our digital native students make of social media, which is usually displayed as the most asinine waste of time ever devised.  Older teachers who are techno-phobic find the idea of using digital tools for productivity as foreign as clueless fourteen year olds do.  The blind leading the blind.

I keep trying to shed some light on this, but people get very cranky about it.

Friday, 21 October 2011

ECOO germination

Whole responses on each to follow, but right now here's what the ECOO 2011 Conference germinated for me:

  • thanks to a question during my Dancing in the Datasphere presentation (which almost 500 people have viewed now!): "has anyone thought though this from a how it harms the students perspective?  Or are we all just rushing to ipad up each child?"
I'm now going to research into how tablet displays affect people, especially children, after long term use...

If using these devices is physiologically hurting children, then people need to settle down on the 'ipad is our savior' angle and start pushing for a healthier alternative; I know Apple (and others) will deliver.

The ipad at high magnification:

ereader at high magnification:
Late night screen time with children.

We need to pay attention to what long term screen use does to children... especially if we're going to push for it on a one screen per child basis, which most people at ECOO seemed to be longing for.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge screen geek, we have no less than... 9 screens in our house, but some intelligent analysis can guide us to best use policies with this stuff.

There is a solution to this, but not if we think the ipad is the second coming. A tablet with a screen that can alternate between the benefits of a tablet touch screen and an e-ink screen for ease of reading on the eyes is what we should be demanding in education; if we care about the health of our students.

  • The mini-lab still has a lot of interest behind it.  If we're going to de-centralize school board IT access, this is a great first step that puts digital literacy back in the hands on teachers.  We need to reclaim digital literacy if we're going to own and direct it in the future.

  • Diana M's digital footprint seminar provoked a great deal of discussion.  Someone said that they aren't going to give the internet to lunatics and perverts in Royan and Zoe's seminar on a similar subject, and I'm all in with her.  Fear will not guide us in developing coherent digital pedagogy; something I think we need to seriously develop if we're going to meaningfully adopt social media in a useful manner.

  • The idea of decentralizing school teaching and using technology to adopt student focused and driven learning is divine.  But we're never going to have it mean anything if the ministry keeps mandating standardized testing and the strictly adhered to curriculums that feed into that testing.  Finland, the number one school system in the world, doesn't use standardized testing but sets very high standards for its teachers.  Until we do the same, we're going to stay stuck in third place looking for ways to cheat test results rather than teach students meaningfully.
I've still got a lot of ideas swirling around.  More will pop free as the weekend opens up my mind.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Cutting Cookies

CBC radio was playing a phone call from parent with a child diagnosed with ADHD yesterday afternoon and I'm having a knee jerk reaction to it.  The responses were based on THIS story.

The parent described her child as "energetic, creative and wonderful" but then said, "but he was falling behind in writing and maths, so we had to medicate him".

I'm a parent in the process of going through a psych assessment on my own child because he didn't  get stellar grades in grade one.  He is a shy, active, thoughtful, sensitive, creative boy who loves to dance and can solve puzzle games designed for kids three grades ahead of him.  He can use a computer like a pro and loves media, especially if it has music in it.  He gets perfect on his spelling tests, but still has trouble writing and staying on-task in the classroom.  He almost failed music last year (stern parental intervention deflected the well-meaning but paralytic school system into passing him).  They seemed to confuse lack of participation by a chronically shy boy in a Christmas Concert in front of a thousand people with the subject of 'music'.

When we went to see the psychiatrist, I was adamant about him not getting labelled.  The psychiatrist said a label, if properly applied, will help him.  I was adamant about him not getting medicated, they seemed more willing to accept that, though, of course, whole industries revolve around making these diagnoses, applying labels and following up with expensive, brand named drugs.

Oh how we love to systematize our children.  Achievement in that limited, disciplined, standardized setting is just so easy to assess and statiscize.  We can set them up in rows, itemize them and then compare them, all in a spreadsheet!  Oh, the convenience.

And that poor woman on the radio?  She, in a panic over how an incredibly myopic education system determine writing and math skills in a specific instance, is now paying a multi-national to drug her child so that it can enjoy 'success'.

Great job everybody.

Monday, 17 October 2011

I Hope They Realize Where They Are

Having just been to my first unconference, I'm still buzzing with the energy, collaboration, disagreement and accord.  It wasn't easy, or comfortable, but it was relevant, and it was VERY ENERGIZING.

This week I head to one of my favourite not un-conferences, ECOO.  This is the conference that got me onto twitter, got me building pln, got me blogging, got me into so many different ideas around technology in the classroom that it has changed my practice, it's a fantastic piece of work.  It's also the first conference I ever presented at, and I'm presenting there again this year.  ECOO works for me on so many levels, but this year I'm worried about the linchpin to the whole thing: the keynote addresses.

This year, as in other years, they've trotted up American presenters who, for the most part, present a consistent polemic of fear, anxiety and need for radical change.  It's all very exciting, and radical, and urgent, and necessary, if you're in America.  In the U.S. they've demonized the teaching profession (and public service jobs in general), gutted public education (and services in general) and done everything in their power to privatize what's left.  In the process they are astonished that they've  become uncompetitive.

What I fear is going to happen at ECOO is that two Americans are going to stand up and quote American statistics at us (again), while urging us to throw out everything we're doing and radically revise our failing education system.  Ah, the polemics of fear and upheaval; what happens when you let short term business interests (there are no other) run your society.

Except, of course, the Canadian education system isn't failing, it's fantastic.  We graduate more students, reach more with special needs and do it at a higher rate than almost any other human society on earth.  We have to keep working at it as hard as we have to keep it at the front, but throwing out everything we've done only works for a system that's in tatters, like the U.S. system.

I live in hope that the keynotes will actually research what they are walking in to and not treat us like a 51st state (again).  If they don't, expect some snippy back channel comments come Thursday morning.  I'm prepared to defend what we have done and what we are doing, it's important.

I've already had to go through this once this year (at great cost to my board), I'm going to lose patience doing it again.

Note:  The speakers were fantastic, taking an audience participation approach, heavily using technology (when the hotel internet would work... I thought private business was supposed to be all masterful with this stuff), and emphasizing what we are doing right, rather than what the US is doing wrong.  Well done all.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Raging: how empowered learners respond to being outside the Zone

Getting a student into the zone of proximal development is a tricky business. If students don't have sufficient background knowledge and skill in what they're learning, they tend to switch off.  This often shows as distraction, disengagement and disinterest.  In extreme cases students become disruptive, knocking others who might be on the cusp of their ZPD out of a learning opportunity.  This seems to be happening more often in classrooms, I have an idea why...

That disruptive approach is common in online gaming.  It might be useful to look at how raging, trolling and 'Umad' online interaction points to a foreign set of values that many students are familiar and comfortable with.  The vast majority of educators have no experience or knowledge of gaming culture.  When a student in the class room acts on values they've learned while gaming, shock ensues.

In a player versus player game, game balance and the opportunity for everyone to participate in a maximal way (in their ZPD) depends on the players all having sufficient skill to make a game of it.  In a randomly generated game, it's common for a team of n00bs to get pwned by a more skilled team.  This is often accompanied by flaming with the intent to anger your opponents to such a degree that they quit (ideally vocally angry, allowing you to throw in a umad? before they storm off).  In gaming, 'schooling' your opponents is a vital part of the learning process.  It's the clearest way to state your superiority in skill over an opponent.  The goal is to make it so clear to a weaker player that they are out of their league (way outside their ZPD) that they give up in anger.  This is going to sound very foreign to the overly compassionate, no-bullying, we're all to be treated as equals approach found in education, but this is where many students spend hours of their time when not in the manufactured environment of their school.

A gamer who is forced out of a game in this fashion is very angry in the moment, and quits the game, usually to pick up another game immediately.  In this game, if they are within their ZPD in terms of their gaming skills (which involves knowledge of the game environment, hand eye coordination, strategy and cooperative play, among others), they are immediately re-engaged.  Their recent failure does not hurt them or follow them in any way, and the adrenaline burst of anger has prompted them to intensively refocus on the game.  I suspect the stats for a player in a post-rage situation improve due to the residual anger and energy released.  They increase their skill with this hyper focus and rage less often.

When you meet a master player, they tend to shy away from the trash talk and simply demonstrate their skill, rather than yapping about it.  This kind of mastery is every player's goal.  When they get there, they often adopt the degree of awesomeness Jane McGonigal talks about in her TEDtalk.  As nice as it is to see someone recognizing gaming awesomeness, it's also important to recognize that gaming intensity requires accessing a full range of emotional response in players.  These responses can often seem cruel or unusual to non-gamers.

Gaming's all-in philosophy is completely counter to the risk-averse, failure-follows you approach of education.  Rather than being allow to epically fail, suffer and re-engage, education does everything it can to ensure that epic failures (or failures of any kind) never occur.  Failure is increasingly impossible to achieve in the class room, and the result moves students further and further away from the culture of one of their richest learning environments.

If you want intense engagement then you need to offer access to a full spectrum of emotion, and a real and meaningful opportunity for failure, but you can't be an ass about it and hang that failure around a learner's neck forever.  Until we grasp this simple truth found in the forge of intense gaming, we're going to appear increasingly foreign to our students, and they are going to keep learning more from World of Warcraft than they ever will from a teacher.

http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html (lies debunked about gaming)
http://janemcgonigal.com/: a great look at the positive power gaming can produce (I'm arguing here about how it's negative aspects still offer useful truths too)
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.04/genX.html: an interesting summary of the gamer generation
http://www.avantgame.com/: recognizing the power of gaming

Monday, 12 September 2011

A teacher focused technology initiative

Email intercept: @tk1ng to school admin, 12/9/11

re: tech coaching and tech possies

Dear Administrator,

...I showed an interest in tech coaching, but my real intent lies in empowering the teachers we have in the school who have displayed persistent curiosity and tenacity in developing technology in the classroom.

I found that I was able to lob netbooks and other useful tools at tech-keen teachers last year to good effect.  One of the main reasons I considered tech-headship again was to retain that access to tools.

Is there anything board side or within school directions that allow us to create a group around technology use in teaching and try to spread the knowledge to our largely disassociated colleagues?  The tech-coach position seems like it heads in this direction, but it seems  librarian and online research focused exclusively.

With a wee budget and some keen hands we'd be able to show various digital tools at staff meetings, perhaps even during PD days or rotating around PLCs.

We had a tech-council a few years ago, but it never really met or did anything.  I'm thinking of more of a grass-roots, teacher focused support group with this, perhaps with shared PLC time and some access to online tools and hardware in order to develop some intelligent digital pedagogy.

Whatcha think?

Think I can get a tech-posse going?  

A teacher based, grass roots group who are into tech and are willing to take some risks to implement it in class and diversify the monoculture of school board computer access?

A group that can get access to non-standard equipment and try out its use in classroom situations?

A group that could expand our almost non-existent digital pedagogy? Perhaps even in a coherent manner?

With no budget we could beg and borrow board equipment that is otherwise relatively unused. With a tiny budget and some freedom to try the incredible variation in technology available beyond the walls of the school, we could experiment hands on with various tools and examine their application in real learning situations.


Alas, the board doesn't have any kind of initiative like that, but our VP is keen to get the tech-posse together and see if we can't begin to organize a little bit of a digital renaissance within our walls.

Why oh why don't boards and ministries fund micro-initiatives like this, looking to find and develop potential hot groups, and build PD from the ground up instead of top down?

Perhaps this kind of genuine seed change doesn't earn you enough political points, demonstrate senior management reach or spend enough of the budget in one place.

In the meantime, I'm going to see if I can't get the grass burning just a little bit where we are.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Decentralizing 20th Century School IT Infrastructure

From the Prezi brainstorming digital sandbox: http://prezi.com/h7ms3hw7jx7-/mini-lab/

30:1 student to computer ratios?  It's too expensive to have a 1:1 student to computer ratio?

This is a load of nonsense.  While the business world has moved on to individualized computing devices and cloud based software solutions, school boards still doggedly hang on to 20th Century thinking about centralized IT with massive, complex software images, difficult to manage intranetworks and remote maintenance of shared machines.

I've been on the ground, at class-level watching this fail again and again.  Equipment is vandalized and left inoperable for weeks at a time because no one local bears any responsibility for it.  Technicians are stretched thin between many schools, often not returning for weeks on end.  The already dismal student access to technology becomes even worse.

Labs that contain over-priced, years old hardware are kept under contracted repair long after they have given up every ounce of their residual value and are little more than landfill (and a heavy weight on network efficiency).  Those same labs contain the same, tedious software on the same, tedious hardware; a monotony of labs that offer nothing of the variety and opportunity available in the world beyond school.

The networks are overburdened with file sharing intranets that grind to a halt when many users begin to copy large files to network servers, or overfill limited on-site storage, causing the whole thing to simply stop.  So much focus is placed on intranet software and file sharing that access to the internet itself is through a tiny bit of bandwidth, making access to the largest collection of human knowledge ever assembled jerky, slow or utterly useless.

A modern business office uses task specific equipment to enable users continuous access to their data and their colleagues.  Phones are used when appropriate, but phones are never appropriate in school.  Tablets and ultralight laptops serve the mobile employee, allowing them to input information and communicate as though they are in the office when thousands of miles away.

Technology in education studiously ignores the needs of the student who must travel from home to school and class to class, carrying bags of massive, out of date textbooks.  Student to student communication is discouraged in most learning situations in favour of discipline and order.  If students do communicate in school (and I assure you, they do), they have to do it in underhanded, devious ways that violate whatever the latest technology-banishing rules dictate.

Information Technology in school is anything but.  Perhaps Lack of Information Technology would be a better title.

The mini-lab idea returns technical literacy to teachers from the star chamber of board based IT.  It places local people in charge of local equipment and drastically reduces the costs of educational technology while dramatically boosting the student to digital tool ratio.  Instead of the monotony of labs of out of date, inefficient, over-priced desktops, staff and students would gain access to an eclectic mix of digital tools and begin to develop meaningful digital fluency in both hardware familiarity and data management.  It's a first, small step in a diaspora away from centralized board IT and toward differentiated technology access that truly serves our teacher's and student's needs in the evolving datasphere.

Dancing in the Datasphere

From the Prezi brainstorming graphical interface: http://prezi.com/mlmks5pq65dz/dancing-in-the-datasphere/

If we live in an increasingly data-rich, but resource poor world, what do we need to do as teachers to give our students a fighting chance?
There is no reason to assume that Eric Schmidt is blowing smoke.  If we really are generating this much information, and now have a means of saving, reviewing, organizing, and learning from it, we need to radically re-think how we educate our children.  Knowledge itself is now plentiful and accessible, teachers are no longer the font of knowledge.

Traditional classrooms work on a data-drip of information, out of the teacher's mouth.  Many of these teachers are willfully ignorant of the radical revolutions going on in their disciplines as information is no longer confined to the limits of human specialists.  Interdisciplinary studies are prompting radical changes in how we understand just about everything.  Teaching your twenty year out of date university experience out of a ten year out of date text book makes you about as pertinent as a dodo.  Many of our current teaching habits assume nothing is changing, but it is, radically, quickly, meaningfully, everywhere but in the classroom.

When I was a kid I was an astronomy nut.  I memorized the nine planets, the meaningful moons, I knew distances, sizes; the universe was a (relatively) small solar system with stars beyond.  We currently know of over 600 planets, and discover an average of a dozen a week, every week.  We are discovering solar systems so bizarre in nature that they beggar belief; but none of that is in the text book, and most teachers won't bother with it because accessing the datasphere is too difficult with limited technology access in school (fixable with this).

We are discovering these things with drastically improved sensing technology that has been accelerated by the information revolution.  We record this data in abundance using storage technology that has been accelerated by the information revolution.  We often fail to access it for years after the fact because we have not yet caught up with our ability to observe and record the universe around us.  Fortunately we're now developing systems that sort their own data, and make connections without human oversight - the data itself is beginning to self organize.  The future will be smarter than we can imagine as individuals.

This acceleration is happening in all fields of human endeavor.  We are teasing free nuances in archaeology, history, and science.  We understand in greater detail how the masters painted five centuries ago, we have seen to the edge of reality and felt the remnants of the explosive expansion that started everything.  What we haven't done is evolved education to prepare our students for this deluge of data.  We still mete out information because we define ourselves as holders of knowledge.  We're holding a cup of water as the dam breaks around us.

We drip feed students information in class and then complain that they are unfocused, disinterested.  We then agonize over how to make our lessons more engaging.  We wring our hands over outright lies and insinuations instead of letting the datasphere show the truth; we cater to myth, habit and tradition of paper based learning.

In the meantime a steady stream of data overwhelms our students from social networks that dwarf in size any their parents or grandparents had.  We belittle their circumstance by demeaning their means of communication, and overvaluing our traditional modes of contact.  Because they don't 'pick up a phone', they don't demonstrate meaningful relationships like people of a certain age do (oddly similar to what the phone-people's parents said about them when they couldn't be bothered to go and visit people face to face any more).  Kids nowadays, their social networks are empty things devoid of real meaning.

Worst of all, we don't teach them how to manage the avalanche of data that threatens to bury them; then we criticize them for not managing it well.  Many teachers manage it by ignoring it entirely

We spoon feed them vetted data in tiny amounts because we think that is credible, safe and real, but that isn't the world they are going to graduate into.  Being able to manage multiple, often conflicting data, organize information out of the noise and critically analyze material is far more relevant than memorizing the right answers to the same questions we've been asking for years.

Until we take our responsibility to prepare our students for the 21st Century seriously, we will continue to think that slowing them down, unplugging them and ignoring the datasphere that continues to grow around us at a prodigious rate is not only the easier (cheaper) thing to do, but it is the right thing to do too.

What we aren't doing is making them familiar with their likely future circumstances, and we do it because it's easier to ignore a revolution than recognize it, even if it's happening all around us.