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. (lies debunked about gaming) 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) an interesting summary of the gamer generation 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:

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:

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.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Mediocrity Virus

So I'm sitting there with a room full of people who have just won the bronze medal world-wide in the most recent round of 'who's got the best education system'. After years of diligent effort and insightful leadership, Canada is ranked third worldwide in educational performance, and is very close to toppling the two leaders. In every metric you care to apply, we are awesome.

We've applied differentiated instruction, we push technology as far as our budgets will let us, we professionally consider every angle that we can to improve student achievement, from student centred learning to expanding non-academic stream programming in order to meaningfully serve our entire student base.

Are there still problems? Certainly. We still have to work to get every member of our team to produce a peak performance, but this too is happening. Our professionalism, our dedication and our society's values allow us to compete at the highest level.

Into our victory celebration comes a guy from a team that didn't even make the olympics. They've suffered a precipitous drop in performance, dropping from the mid-teens (the highest they've ever been) to thirty-third over all in terms of student performance. Their teaching profession is in shambles, and their society generally views educators as over paid loafers who take summers off. Their public education system (like their prison system or their military) is being taken over by private contractors who are more focused on simplistic metrics, like their own profitability.

He tells us that we have to drastically simplify what we're doing, go back to drilling students on facts, strictly limit teachers to curriculum and install discipline back into education; this is the only way we will get them all back on a college track.  He exemplified teachers who drill their students and run their classes with a simple, military efficiency. He floated odd statistics like, students who already know a lesson will learn 400% better if they are made to repeat what they already know over again, rather than differentiating and enriching their specific learning.

He was statistics driven and awash in his country's educational expertise (almost exclusively driven from privatized schools). He suggested that we might be 'a bit ahead'.

The coach in me suggests that if your team is performing well, you keep doing what you're doing. Certainly you tweak it here or there, but when you turn in a world class performance, you don't bring in a coach from a team that didn't even make the show to give suggestions, but we did, because we're Canadian, and the one thing we have even more than an awesome education system is a giant inferiority complex with our big cousins to the south.