Friday, 18 December 2015

Drowning In Christmas

It's that time of year again.  Guidance has sent out the annual email imploring for teachers to keep an eye out for students who are being crushed under the weight of Christmas.  Students aren't the only ones.

The people giddiest about Christmas seem to be the ones who least need it.  The giant family Christmases enjoyed by big happy families do a great job of emphasizing what many others don't have.  The kids most excited about presents are the ones most likely to receive them.  As a socio-economic division, Christmas does a wonderful job of reminding many people of what they don't have.

When you see students getting more and more brittle and tense about the oncoming holiday, you have to wonder what they are looking forward to when that last bell rings and they are 'on holiday' for two weeks.

The manic happiness that a seeming majority feel at this time of year drives many of us who are just hoping to survive Christmas underground.

I received a lifeline in an unexpected place this year.  At yoga on Monday after Shavasana our instructor talked about the kind of 'radical self love' that comes from taking a moment for yourself during this highly pressurized holiday season to find calmness.  In looking after yourself you end up looking after those around you.

Christmas is all about giving, but sometimes the best thing you can give is taking a moment to restore your own sanity.  Everyone around you will thank you for it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Professionalism: it's more than skin deep

Head's meetings give me a chance to think without constantly having to juggle the needs of dozens of students at once.  Our most recent one had us developing a school mission statement.  The idea was that if staff develop the mission they'll be more likely to back it.  It was an agonizing process of planning by committee, but we got it done.

In the process of developing this statement one of the more golden heads suggested that focusing on the dress code would reinvigorate a sense of professionalism in the staff.  I don't entirely disagree, dressing appropriately does help present a sense of professionalism, but thinking that an enforced dress code will somehow improve professionalism in staff had me thinking about what is involved in a teacher's sense of professionalism.

Visual cues like dress codes felt like the crust of something much more complicated, so I went to work on an orange.

If you want a sense of a teacher's professionalism start with their qualifications.  Do they have advanced qualifications (honours, post-graduate, master-technical, etc) in the subject areas that they teach?  

Have they expanded their teacher training from what they graduated teacher's college with?  Do they demonstrate the kind of life long learning they claim is so important in their students?

Are they attending subject specific PD to improve their ability to teach this material in the most current and comprehensive manner possible?  Do they create curriculum?  Serve on their subject council?  Work to improve learning in their subject area in other ways?

Have they developed a diverse personal learning network (this doesn't necessarily have to be digital).  Are they known in their school, in their board, in their province, in their country, in their world, as a collaborative and supportive colleague?  Do they encourage growth in learning?  Do they interact with other educators to improve their craft?

Have they taken on school leadership roles?  Are they known in the school as a dependable fixer?  A colleague who puts the needs of the school before their own?   Do they work in other aspects of the school?  Student competitions?  Sports?  Clubs?  School events?  Academic initiatives?

Have they ever supported the organization that protects their profession?  Volunteering for union work says a lot about how much a professional is willing to put themselves out to protect their profession.  It also demonstrates a sense of belonging to that profession.

There is probably much more you could put into the orange, but these many things are what feed the skin of the orange (the appearance of the teacher).  Dress codes and appearance do matter, but professionalism is much more than skin deep.


At its root professionalism is a self driven desire to improve one's field of work.  Being self driven is the key to professionalism and the major difference between an employee and a professional.  The professional takes their work to heart and self-identifies with how they are doing it, an employee just does what they are paid for and no more.   Employees require direction.  Professionals are self directed. Unfortunately, I know a fair number of teachers who approach teaching as an employee.  If you want to resurrect teacher professionalism it doesn't mean ties for all, it means getting those disaffected employees to approach their profession with a sense of authorship.

... unless you play for Newcastle
The other morning I was watching Premier League Football and heard about how Newcastle has hired an motivational speaker for its players.  The millionaire players who never had to grow up and get paid more per week to play a game than I make in a year need motivation?  This speaks to professionalism in a big way.  Having been coddled and paid ludicrous sums of money since they were teenagers, many of these players have no idea how good they have it playing a game that the rest of us pay to play for leisure.  Can you be a professional without a profound appreciation of the importance of the work that you do?  This situation does point to a key element of professionalism:  an unwavering commitment to your profession and a willingness to seek constant improvement.  You're not a professional unless you're always on the clock, always ready to perform beyond minimal expectations.

A doctor doesn't get to say she's on holiday when someone has a heart attack on the beach where they happen to be vacationing.  It is professionalism that drives her to say that she is a doctor and perform her duty.  When you see Mike Holmes losing his mind about poor craftsmanship in a home reno you're seeing a man railing against a lack of professionalism.  When Newcastle has to hire a motivational speaker to convince its millionaire players to do their job, you're looking at a deep lack of professionalism.

Professionalism seems to germinate in people where the work they are doing is valued, valuable and challenging.  The professional becomes attached to their profession, self-identifying with it and authoring their approach to it.

Professionalism isn't conformity, it's empowerment.  Many workplaces use the word professionalism while offering staff no opportunity to critically assess and improve their process.  In such dictated working environments professionalism is a catch phrase for doing what you're told promptly and without question (ie: being manageable).  These workplaces have a strange democratic flatness to them - we're all professionals here at Xmart!  Perhaps this is why professionalism is so confused in the modern mind - we have a misplaced idea of what it is.

Out of high school I became I millwright's apprentice.  One of my mentors, Leo, was an older Caribbean gentleman who was incapable of sugar coating things, though his honesty was presented with a Jamaican easy-goingness that made it easy to listen to.  One day he told me the story of our department supervisor.  This was the guy who used to take night shifts and then roll himself under a truck and fall asleep for hours.  He had one of the worst work records in the shop and was known for being the guy you shouldn't go to see if you were having technical problems.  He got promoted off the floor to minimize the damage he was doing there.  Leo looked me in the eye and said, 'that's what most management is.  If they were good at something, they'd still be doing it.'  I've tended to approach management with a suspect eye ever since.

Leo was proud of his mechanical skills, he was a master of his trade.  He took great pains to perform his job at the highest level and continually looked for challenges to grow his skill and knowledge.  That one of the most impactful mentors I've ever had wore coveralls while the clown running the department showed up in shirt and tie every day has meant I've always preferred to see what people do rather than what they look like before I start to form an opinion about their sense of professionalism.

Between the smoke and mirrors business-appearance sense of professionalism and the demonstrated excellence of the true professional there is a lot of social static.  Things are further complicated by organizations eager to use the term professionalism as an adjective to encourage compliance and conformity to corporate norms, but for professionalism to germinate the person doing the work has to have control over their approach to the work - and germination is indeed the process.  You can't force professionalism with a dress code.  What you can do is create a fertile environment where people are engaged in their work.  Where the work is challenging and complex enough that it makes demands on the worker to continuously develop their own approaches to it rather than being managed into a conformed response.  Systematized work environments are the death of professionalism.

In spite of the business blah blah that greets you when you look up professionalism, there isn't a single, regimented pathway to it unless you're in business where your can-do attitude and proper attire matters more than any specialized skills you may have.  Professionalism blooms out of expertise and works in service to it.  Some of the best teachers I've ever had wore overalls, many of the worst wore suits.  Appearance can be as much a distraction as it can be an indicator of professionalism (unless you're in business).


True Colours offers some real insights into personality types.  Being a green / blue I'm not beholden to social expectations or image.  The Gold who suggested adhering to dress codes is though.  Where she thinks that professionalism can be generated by dressing nicely, I've experienced the opposite.  I try to keep this in mind when I hear someone suggest something that I have an immediate negative reaction to.  What works for them might work for them...

Friday, 4 December 2015

Risk And Danger In Play? In Learning?

Should play always be safe?  Does risky/dangerous play offer opportunities that our helicopter-parent/granny society play doesn't?

Mathias Poulsen got me thinking about this on Twitter.  The related educational question is: does safe learning lead to limited chances to improve your knowledge and skill?  Are there advantages to risky and dangerous learning?

In most circumstances learning is a risky proposition.  A friend of ours, Heather Durnin, said how her farmer husband was a sink or swim kind of teacher when he said he wasn't a teacher at all.  He expected your attention and then threw you into the work directly, expecting you to get a handle on it.  Most jobs I've had are the same way.  For that matter teaching itself is pretty much a sink or swim proposition.  Most of the world makes hard demands on learners.  Ironically, it's only in education that learner engagement is so tenuous, dare I say optional?

I was struck a couple of years ago with how rigorous and unapologetic my introduction to motorcycle training was.  Students who could not manage the physical, mental or emotional requirements were failed, students who slept in on Sunday morning were cut.  It seemed a stark contrast to the fifty-is-a-pass/attendance optional approach that drives learning in school classrooms.  You can't have stringent, risky experiential learning when you're more focused on anything other than that learning.

The implication of risk is failure.  If we remove failure from learning we end up with what we have in Ontario education today: students lacking in resiliency with a poor metacognitive idea of what they are capable of.  The grades they earn reflect the political will of the current government rather than what the student is capable of.

Risk taking shows us where the edges of our skills are.  We risk failure when we overreach, but this isn't a bad thing.  Fear of failure creates a false sense of our limitations which is why overly coddled students have no idea of what they are capable of.  Students who never have the opportunity to take real risks turn into self-oblivious narcissists who think they know everything but can do nothing.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching tech is because my subject matter doesn't coddle students.  If it doesn't work you need to buck up and figure it out; opinions matter little to reality.

The only time in life you'll find the padded learning/guaranteed success formula is in today's classroom.  The rest of the world isn't geared to make you feel good about whether you feel like trying or not.  Fortunately, for those of us who want to learn in a more realistic way, the world is full of risk and danger, and reward.


A Possible Computer Technology Project?

It's basically a how-to guide for online hacking...
At the moment Anonymous is counter trolling some of the biggest trolls on the internet.  This feels like an opportunity for students to exercise their skills and take action based on real world issues.  But I've always had doubts about directing student political action, it feels a bit too much like indoctrination when someone in a position of institutionalized power tells the people beholden to them what they should believe and do about it.

Internet activism aside, the Noob Guide offers insight into the various tools needed to hack online.  From a purely technical point of view this offers students a chance to comprehend the nature of online communication by looking at the frailties of its architecture.

It's happening right now in the real world.  It's potentially risky.  Sounds like a real world learning opportunity.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Emotionally Charged Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

intuition works best
in silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 7 November 2015

ECOO15 1: Making Frustrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and directed engagement teachers are looking for.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Proliferation of Fifties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Re: school busing children...

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

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

Monday, 12 October 2015

Instructional Leadership: the comeback

Our new admin just arranged our first head's retreat.  As a forum for clarifying what the department heads in the school want, I'd call it a resounding success.  Toward the end of the day we had a small group discussion on instructional leadership.  The idea was to define it and clarify what we need to do it.

I've had a long and complicated relationship with leadership and leaders.  Much of my time in air cadets as a teen was spent studying leadership techniques.  My experiences there suggest I'm an atypical team member.  At one point we were playing a massive capture the flag game in the woods at Camp Borden.  My Flight Sergeant picked out myself and a few other NCOs.  We were told to locate the flag and harass the enemy, that's it.  The vast majority of our flight were younger cadets in their first exercise.  The Flight Sergeant kept them all with him and they moved in a large group (like locusts), capturing everyone they saw by sheer force of numbers.

I eventually found the flag after working loosely with the other rangers, but mainly on my own.  I had someone relay back to the large group where the flag was and we ended up winning with this very unorthodox approach.  The other team did what was normally done - everyone had similar jobs in squads.  Afterwards my Flight Sergeant said, "I knew if I kept the keeners in the big group they wouldn't enjoy it, so I set you all loose and looked after the young ones."

That lesson in differentiating how you lead has always stuck with me, but my focus when leadership lands on me (I seldom go seeking it) goes beyond catering to helplessness.  I want self determination and personal empowerment in my team, and I expect team members to acknowledge that empowerment with engagement.  I don't want them to ever feel like they are being dictated to, or are being forced to accept ideas that run contrary to their own best practices.  The leadership structure should exist to empower and encourage self determination in the professionals it manages.

It's a tough, results orientated  job (like pro baseball),
and you've got to find ways to handle the pressure.
Leading people who do this everyday is a challenge.
Talking down to them doesn't work.
Of course, this assumes that you're dealing with professionals.  If you've got teachers who aren't willing or able to be competent professionals then I would be looking to teacher training and board hiring practices to weed them, not detuning the entire educational leadership apparatus to cater to a tiny percentage of incompetents. 

In discussing leadership with other department heads at my school I was struck with just how different their idea of leadership is from my own.  I not only step lightly around teachers who don't like or need to be told what to think, but I also expect competence when it comes to internal communication.  After saying this I was told by another head (in front of many others) that my department has terrible communication.  She said we need to have many meetings where I drill home information, but I should also present it in a way that makes them accept it.  My job isn't just to inform, it's to indoctrinate.

Absolutist thinking feels lazy to me, the result of trying to
look for an easy way out of a complex situation.
I couldn't imagine criticizing another leader like this, let alone in front of a large number of colleagues.  I became angry at her ignorant and callous disregard for my place in this group, so I walked away rather than firing back.  That someone would have this approach to management in my building makes me uneasy (it also explains why the iconoclastic tech teachers in my department would take great pleasure in telling her exactly what she wouldn't want to hear just to make her angry).  It took me a few days to realize that those comments say much more about her approach to management than it does about the colleagues I speak for at heads.

I was having Costanza moments after this altercation.
Instead of not being able to think of something
I tend to be overly vicious in my comebacks. 
Walking away is a learned response.
In my mind a micro manager is the worst kind of leader.  They constantly interfere and demand consistency with inane details rather than focusing on a goal; they want conformity to process rather than results orientated flexibility.  Some people need that kind of micromanagement but I'm not interested in managing them, or being one, or having much to do with that process.  If you want to alienate the most capable people in your organization, this is a great way to do it.

Another head who had overheard all of this had a chat with me and went back with this idea, "leaders should also include outliers who question and prompt revision in leadership practices."   The head with whom I seem diametrically opposed thought this a ridiculous idea.  Leadership is about forcing compliance.  Meetings are about beating down resistance and creating that compliance.  Ever hear teachers complain about meetings and wonder why they are so negative about them?  I don't, anymore.

True Colors helps clarify your social approach to leadership.
I'm a strong green/bit of blue - I've got no sense of gold...
There are many different types of leaders all with their own strengths and weaknesses.  My thing is exploring the edges, and I look for highly capable people to share that project with.  If experimentation with pedagogy or learning tools is your thing, then I'm your department head.  It's why technological change and the social upheaval it causes interest me.

My ideal department is staffed with people who need me to support them without constantly questioning them as they improve the state of the art of teaching.  Put me in an administrative role where I'm supposed to enforce conformity and I'm a disaster.  If that's what we're looking for in instructional leadership, I'm ready to step down immediately.  You're also going to find it difficult to get me into lockstep with everyone around me whether I'm a leader or a follower.

Consensus building is something that I'm terrible at but greatly admire.  Those leaders who can create a sense of direction in a group without alienating anyone are magic.  Whereas I get passionately angry about the asinine people I'm supposed to direct, these patient consensus builders are able to gently take them in hand and find a way through to them. I can appreciate the efficiency they bring to group work and admire them for a skill I lack.

The bureaucratic pencil pusher who holds the-way-it's-always-been as sacred is the antithesis of everything I consider important, but those people play a vital role in creating consistency and order in an organization.  As leaders I can't really see the value in them, but I'm sure a consensus builder somewhere could help me with that.

A good bit of reflection here, I think.  I'm no longer angry about the altercation we had and I'm trying to see the value of diverse voices in leadership positions.  If the goal is all of us in lockstep as we produce the same narrow goals in the same way then I'm in the wrong place.  I only hope that people higher up the org-chart recognize the value of diversification in instructional leadership or, as an outlier, I'm in real trouble.

Monday, 28 September 2015

When the Pupil is Ready, The Master Will Appear

From a Zen Koan, anyone who has attempted to gain mastery
in something has probably experienced this to some degree,

but it doesn't usually happen in the education system.
I always have my ear to the ground, waiting to hear from a student who wants something more than curriculum.  On a good year I'm lucky to find one or two students who are looking for a career rather than a credit.

I came across this saying the other week and it got me thinking about that hope I hold out for ready pupils.  Teachers are paid to deliver curriculum whether students are ready or not (though the good ones try to minimize this friction); students are mandated to be there.  The option to be formally uneducated isn't available in Ontario nowadays, we've institutionalized education into a mandatory process.  This regimented system reduces student readiness to engagement and throws the concept of patiently waiting for student readiness out the window.  That patience suggests a process where student learning is the main focus.  Have we lost the freedom to patiently wait for student readiness to the systemic efficiencies of regimented grading?

That a teacher will appear when you need them to advance your learning is a wonderful thought.  It suggests that teaching is implied in mastery, which isn't the case nowadays.  In a time before mastery was monetized, keeping it alive by passing on skills rather than maximizing personal income was a big part of mastery.  Waiting on student readiness also places great value on the student, making their preparedness the priority in learning.  Engagement isn't an issue with the student who seeks a teacher.  Perhaps the issue is that we're buried in teachers nowadays.

That the teacher-student relationship has been subverted by the education system is old news.  Historically, learning was an experience unique to each individual, usually prompted by innate skill and desire.  Systematizing education might mean more people get educated, but not in with the same rigour and certainly not for the same reasons.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of systemic education is the externalization and abstraction of learning criteria.  By setting standards and holding students to them we create a system that has measurable criteria for curriculum, teacher and standards effectiveness.  We do this to create the appearance of academic credibility, so learning is not the focus of this kind of education, system integrity is.  This modern approach to learning creates a strange distance in the classroom from learning which has led to such insightful comments as, "Those who can do, those who can't teach."

When the Zen koan that kicked this off was written a thousand years ago people who taught did so from their own mastery and were driven to do it to keep their expertise alive. Students were driven to learn from a radical sense of self preservation; their learning was central to their lives and livelihood.  Teaching wasn't considered a skill in itself, but was an important tool to keep mastery alive.  When we separate teaching from mastery, as helpful as that is for school systems to generate curriculum, qualify teachers and graduate students, it leads us to a strange place where teaching and learning have little to do personally with the people in the classroom.  Education has only evolved into this odd system in the past two centuries. 

For the vast majority of human history education has been a bespoke experience, unique to the individual.  It didn't happen on a rigid timeline overseen by bureaucrats, and it often didn't happen at all.  When it did happen it was focused on mastery learning, which couldn't happen until the student was ready for it.  That kind of patience is missing from our classrooms and is one of the main reasons it feels so forced, and fake.

Imagining that pre-industrial intensely personal world of learning from our perspective way up here in the regimented twenty-first Century is difficult, yet it is how human beings learned for millennia.  In that long ago world many people were left behind, but for the few who were driven to achieve excellence the master would appear when needed.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Ebb & Flow of Pedagogy in Education

The intention of Dusty World is to work through ideas I'm having around teaching.  Since I'm a technology teacher, a lot of those ideas are tech-focused.  This week, after years of forced contracts and an unbelievably rough round of negotiation, my union has voted to accept an austerity contract that was bargained virtually at gun-point.  Since our last bargained contract we've been wage reduced, had benefits striped and work load increased.  By the end of this contract we'll be looking at more than a 10% reduction in take home income when inflation is considered.

The politics of the agreement aside, what does something like this do to my work environment?  Instead of focusing on pedagogy and excellence in learning, I find myself performing damage limitation.  Knowing that my employer focuses on finances rather than pedagogy is difficult to hear, but when the school board association walks into negotiations demanding dictatorial control over teacher time, stripped benefits and wage reductions, you can't help but come to that conclusion.

Teaching is a human activity, and I am the human face at the end of a large, faceless, increasingly politically driven bureaucracy.  I'm supposed to be teaching my students how to manage digital technology so it doesn't manage them, but increasingly I find my time being spent trying to protect my students from a system intent on doing less for less.  When I'm cobbling together 8 year old computers just to give students a chance at hands on learning, or trying to calm agoraphobic students in overcrowded spaces, or sourcing fans to keep the classroom temperature from boiling because we have thirty two old machines huffing away in there, quality of instruction is obviously not the goal.

The education system goes through changes in focus all the time, and the effectiveness of learning waxes and wanes depending on the political climate. I began teaching in Ontario in 2004 and my early years were in a system in recovery from Mike Harris' "unprecedented disinvestment in public education, which destroyed a historical competitive advantage in the space of a decade."

Ontario's public education system, under reasonable management, saw huge steps forward in terms of effectiveness.  Before the cuts began in 2012, Ontario's education system was top 5... in the world, and, with BC, led Canada up the charts.  You can imagine how satisfying it must have been to work in an environment like that.  I'd often find myself developing lessons or reading about teaching techniques on a Saturday night.  I didn't take a summer off in my first eight years of teaching, taking many additional qualifications (at my own expense) and teaching online to expand my skills.  With the amount of time I spent at it, I was probably dancing with minimal hourly wage, but I didn't care because I threw myself into my profession and my profession looked after and encouraged me.

That sort of intensity appeals to me, I enjoy the challenge and get a lot of satisfaction out of doing a difficult thing well, but it depends on support.  Anyone doing anything well does it because they have good support around them.  If you don't believe me watch any professional sport.  When you suddenly find yourself losing common sense arguments around class sizes based on safety and access to tools, you start to wonder whether going all in is that productive, or healthy for you.
One of the best bits of advice I got at teacher's college was,
"always be ready to go to work again tomorrow."  I didn't
used to get frazzled running hard, but now I do.

It was nice to start my career in a time of such positive pedagogically driven education.  I got to do that because the teachers before me suffered through a decade of cheap nastiness.  We've swung back to the cheap nastiness now, but rather than fight it we vote for it.  I was willing to fight for better, but the vast majority of secondary public teachers are ok with less.  How will that translate to their work in the classroom?

I'm going to have to reconsider my survival strategies.  If I throw myself all in and then get slew footed by a lack of support, I tend to get emotional about it.  Rather than do that, perhaps a little distance is the better way; a less passionate, more circumspect approach to the classroom.  How do you think that will play with students?

If I want to test myself by finding excellence in what I do, the Ontario classroom isn't where that's going to happen.  In 2015 it has become a political wasteland of compromise and an excuse to do things cheaply for political gain.  I'll do what I can to protect the students I am given, but the goal isn't excellence in learning any more, it's do less with less.

Fortunately, I have a lot of hobbies.  I'll find other aspects of my life to throw myself into with abandon.