Friday, 25 March 2016

The DIY Computer Lab

Teaching computer technology has me expanding and
enhancing our program to make it as current and
relevant as possible - the DIY lab is a key to that.
My ECOO16 presentation suggestion:

We're used to being handed locked down, turn key computer labs by our school boards, but this approach doesn't teach technological understanding.  The future of technology is diverse and individualized and we should be striving to encourage a deeper understanding so that students can find the devices and software that suit their needs.  Many boards have suggested BYOD as a solution, but this amplifies socio-economic differences that public schools should be trying to mitigate.  There is another way.

I'm a teacher who gave back the lab that was given to me.  Over the past two years I've developed a digital learning space that is made by students at the beginning of each semester.  Students build PCs, upgrade parts and install and maintain software.  In doing so they learn how to build current and relevant technology to suit their own needs.

In this presentation I'll explain the process, costs (and free things!) as well as how the lab works on a day to day basis.  DIY computer access offers students a chance to become authors of their technology use instead of being mere users.

Interested?  I'll be presenting on this at ECOO in November.  This whole post is pasted out of my application to present.

Learning Goals
- how to make DIY technology work in the classroom
- using current (like, made THIS YEAR!) software in a classroom
- learning technology by building it rather than just using it
- developing technological fluency in students and staff
- exploring educational freeware
- exploring beta software available for free use
- how to source hardware (suggestions based on experience)
- changing students & staff from users to authors of technology

Windows 10, the latest in graphics and processor technology and twice the memory of your typical school PC.  What do we
do with all that horsepower?  We run Unity (professional license given freely by Unity for our educational needs), and
build 3d models in Blender.  None of this would be possible on existing school board basic Dell PCs.
With flexibility in how we build a lab, we can pursue advanced technology, giving our
students authorship over their technological fluency.
Agility is key if you want to keep up with technology - you'll never develop it if you're kept as a pet user.

A Blender model made by one of our grade 12s last year - this kind of experience allowed her to build the kind of portfolio
that got her into the heavily contested Sheridan College video game design program

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Professional

When an under funded amateur produces better results than professionals,
it calls into question the idea of where we find excellence.
I recently watched an interesting film on the Dakar Rally. In this film a skilled amateur takes on the most challenging endurance race in the world. Most competitors in this race are corporately funded professionals with teams of mechanics and loads of extra equipment, all designed to mitigate failure and ensure the success of the brand they represent. By contrast this guy struggled to find enough money to go, found a second hand motorcycle and proceeded to complete a race that many of those funded, enabled professionals did not. It got me thinking about where we find human excellence. I suspect it isn't behind a professional pay-cheque.

The Blanchard quote in the picture above notes the difference between curiosity driven experience and results driven experience.  Curiosity might get you started, but at some point you're probably going to want to judge your skills by harsher criteria than merely whether or not you feel like doing it.  Competition does this, but it does it in a very binary fashion producing as many winners as it does losers, especially in sports.

The professional athletes who perform in that binary competitive environment are often trotted out as examples of excellence.  When someone has a certain inclination everyone else gets quite excited by their talent, more so if it appears easy for them.  When a particularly coordinated young person shows an affinity for a sport they tend to get an awful lot of support even though the vast majority of them will never earn a penny playing it.

The few who break into the moneyed world of professional athletics tend to be so specialized, supported and hyped that their being there is more a matter of investment than it is of skill.  Moneyball does a good job of revealing this hype.  A draft pick with buzz can leverage ridiculous sums of money even though their fundamental skills (as show in statistics) are suspect.  Like most human activities, it's what others think about you rather than what you are that matters.

I often wonder where professional athletes fell in society at any other time in history.  Within the confines of a carefully constructed game that they are ridiculously compensated for they are highly motivated and virtually infallible, but in more open ended, rigorous situations without the support and confined success criteria where would they be?

Games themselves are crafted to reduce chance and focus on very specific skills.  The less chance the better, really. Professional athletes are the people with natural reflexes and strength who are best able to thrive in that very restricted and focused environment.  We admire their commitment, but it's a very blinkered existence that they live.

You hang on, no matter what, even when you shouldn't
Watching something like the Dakar Rally puts the limited nature of most professional sports into context.  It is typical for more than half the competitors not to finish the race at all.  An average of two people die in the event each time it is run.  Attempting to do this race, even with full sponsorship, the latest equipment and years of training, is dangerous.  Trying to complete the race on a shoestring budget, alone, with second hand parts seems mad, but Dream Racer points to an aspect of human excellence we really don't see in professional athletes.

At the end of the film the rider is in tears.  He is exhausted, battered and elated.  He has finished this gruelling race, but he has done something that dozens of fully supported professionals could not.  I find something like this a much better example of human potential than a win by a group of wickedly overpaid specialists versus another group of wickedly overpaid, myopic specialists.

Our societal love of professional athletes has wormed its way into the classroom as well.  We limit learning to clearly defined criteria and limit chance whenever possible.  We praise those students who find school easy whether it be through socio-economic advantage, family circumstance or natural ability.  With BYOD we encourage sponsorship of advantaged students and then praise their superiority over others (attend any graduation ceremony and enjoy the litany of awards all going to the same students).  We don't value effort or imagination over defined results and we glorify instruction that emphasizes clarity and limited outcomes over non-linear, discovery based, often unexpected learning.  Bafflingly, we don't rate learning itself, we rate static achievement.  The student who learns more and improves the most is inferior to the student who already knew the material and put in half an effort but scored higher on tests.

The professional student, like the professional athlete, is a myopic specialist who excels at a very limited set of skills.  Beyond the walls of a classroom those good-student habits won't get them far in a world that demands resiliency, creativity and agility.  The most successful student is what we are trying to produce, and that student, like a professional athlete, trains exclusively in a specific set of skills in order to hit restricted, carefully defined outcomes.

Maybe that's why watching something like Dream Racer resonated with me.  It was a man battling real-world limitations to enter a challenging competition that offers failure as the likely outcome.  When he achieves success in spite of everything against him, I got teary too.  Too bad we can't offer failure as a likely option any more in the classroom.  It would make success that much sweeter and produce students who are genuinely proud of their accomplishments.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Everyone Deserves Respect

Bullies are cruel, but demanding respect
from everyone is the worst kind of bullying
According to our newly created mission statement we're supposed to be producing students who are respectful.  I was advocating for responsible but respect got the nod.

Respectful students serve order.  Their docility allows a system to exist beyond reproach.  If students are respectful they obey authority without questioning it.  Respectful students are easy to manage.  Any adult in the building doesn't have to be respectable, they are automatically entitled to it.  It's a good way to ensure that students do what they're told while the system can do what it likes.

Misuse of respect doesn't end in organizations, it has also crept out into society as a whole.  We're all supposed to give it to everyone all the time, but you earn respect don't you?  I've been told, and it's printed on the wall of the school to be seen every time I walk in the door, that everyone deserves respect.  I find this not only untrue but pathologically wrong headed.

The temptation is to go straight to serial killers and death camp commandants in proving that not everyone deserves respect, but respect isn't easy to earn even for the mediocre.  Anyone who respects mediocrity is probably simple minded, or so desperate to not offend anyone that they appear simple minded.  The motivation behind respecting everyone is to not offend anyone, but in the process of putting everyone up on a pedestal, individual effort and excellence is rendered meaningless.

There is a confusion of language around the word respect.  People use it to mean being civil or polite, but that isn't what being respectful means.  Being respectful arises from you holding something in high regard.  Using respect as a demand instead of a recognition of excellence is manipulative, usually done by an organization that doesn't want to be held accountable.

Respecting a person comes from you holding their thoughts and actions in high esteem.  It doesn't come from valuing everything they do because they do it   Blind fandom or faith is dangerous.  Any organization that enshrines respect as a demand should do some soul searching.  I can respect a system that strives for respectability.  I can't respect a system that demands it... it's disrespectful!

The idea that everyone's opinion matters is at the root of the
vapid everyone deserves respect belief.
People toss around statements like 'respect your elders', perhaps this is where schools get the idea to enshrine it in their mission statements.  Respecting someone because they are old strikes me as quite irrational.  The eighty year old draft dodger who ran away is hardly as respectable as the twenty year old who did his duty.  One of the first realizations I had as an adult was that age is a poor indicator of respectability.  We demand it in children to make them manageable, but that kind of ageism is little different than racism.  We should value people based upon their thoughts and deeds, not on their social status.

Everyone deserves to be treated civilly.  Everyone deserves compassion, but everyone does not deserve respect.  We like to enshrine it in school language in order to subjugate children into an unquestioning relationship with authority, but that isn't particularly flattering.  Teachers do not deserve respect.  They deserve to be treated civilly, and compassionately, but they don't deserve respect, no one does.  I would hope that they earn it with their students, but many don't, and then issues of classroom management arise.  We might try to stamp out the individual assessment of respect, but it's always there between people regardless of their age or job.

Respect plays an important role in how human beings interact with each other.  We should all strive to be respectable and earn the admiration of our fellows, but making respect an expectation belittles us all and encourages, at best, mediocrity.  When everyone is automatically assigned respect individual effort becomes pointless.  

We should be aiming for more than misdirection and ease of control as educators.  We should be encouraging individual excellence in our students, not hammering them all down with false demands of universal respect.