Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Centre Cannot Hold

I stumbled across this interesting article on curiosity and the neuroscience associated with  it:

"Encourage students to chase their own interests, cultivate curiosity.  It fires up brains and makes them better at remembering new information.  It also engages students in the best possible way."

"When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes."

If you're not a teacher and are a big fan of the new Ontario government's 'teach 'em like we used ta' approach to learning, this is what we call pedagogy.  There is a lot of neuroscience that directs modern pedagogy in the classroom.  Put in simple terms, we don't just make this stuff up; the education system spends a lot of time and effort understanding how learning works best and then training teachers to work with that.  Scientific research guides modern curriculum building, at least until right wing populist ideology dislodges it in Ontario.

Showing a teacher how curiosity can be used to amplify retention and encourage a focused approach to new knowledge acquisition is pure gold.  I fear the 'take it back to basics' stance of our new government means this neuroscientific research is ignored in favour of the conservative reductive approach of rote memorization and zero differentiation of instruction.  It's a common conservative belief that everyone (especially in the public sector) needs to suffer in order to show they are trying, but don't expect anyone to learn anything in an environment like that.  Contrary to this grossly simplified view of education (in that case advocated by an American with no teaching experience), we're not in it to punish anyone.  You don't learn well when you're being subdued.  You don't teach particularly well in those circumstances either.

Some other gems in from that article:
"teachers can be models of how to be comfortable with uncertainty"

"When we’re hungry for answers, our brain activity changes in ways that help us retain new information. For one, the curious mind engages processes and brain regions associated with anticipating a reward. We want to learn more because the answers are satisfying. In addition, the hippocampus, a memory hub, ramps up activity, preparing to store information. The more we want to know an answer, research suggests, the more memorable it becomes."


An interesting connection with that piece on curiosity and information retention was this article in The Guardian about the age of skim reading. The author draws some interesting connections between Western society's rise of populist regimes and the new lack of empathy and critical analysis in the population:

"The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery."

If you're wondering why we're suddenly faced with these shocking politicians who seem out  of sync with the world around them, it isn't them that's out of sync, it's you (if you're reading this you aren't the new normal).  The conservative 'you must suffer to pay the private sector's bills' thinking plays nicely with the lack of patience, empathy and curiosity we've been cooking for the past fifteen years in the incessant digital noise of the attention economy.  It's easy to blame this on information and communication technology, but the tech itself has allowed us to make enormous scientific and technical advances.  Smart people have leveraged it to great advantage  It's the attention economy that grew out of it that is causing problems for everyone else.

I'm a big fan of digital tools, but we've done almost nothing to actually learn how they work so we can use them effectively and without compromise.  In the past decade education systems around world have handed off control of our online learning environments to advertising companies like Google who have monetized everyone's attention.  You don't get the same return on investment if you don't keep your users in a permanent state of data churn.   You do that by designing systems that encourage short attention data churn.  Every time we accustom a student to that environment we're training the attention economy's future users, whether they're actively advertising to them or not.  As education systems become complicit in preparing our children for the vapid attention economy, many of their parents don't notice because their noses are in a phone too.  Our political circumstances are a direct result of us all being immersed in this nasty mess.

One of the first casualties of new media has been long form reading:

“We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.” 

Alanna is teaching a senior creative writing class for the first time in a long time and she is shocked by what the new normal is.  You can expect grade twelves, even academically focused ones intent on university, to have never read a book for pleasure.  In some cases they've never read a book at all.  Their days are spent in the bite sized, simplistic cesspool of the internet.  They don't have the patience to let a narrative develop.  The building of suspense frustrates them.  They live in a world of fleeting introductions immediately followed by puerile climaxes designed to hold on to them for a moment before their attention wanders to the next distraction.

Many students can't even sit through a film anymore, let alone read a book.  Watch current high school students sneaking out their phones the minute a film starts and squirming if can't find their digital churn fix; see if I'm not wrong.

Long form reading isn't impossibly difficult, but it isn't a natural human skill, we have to learn it.  In doing so we enjoy a richness of shared experience impossible to get any other way.  This leads to the empathy we're struggling to keep alive in modern society.  It also leads to a richer internal world where you have the vocabulary and shared experience to express yourself succinctly.  If you're reduced to expressing your deepest thoughts in internet memes, what a sad and dimensionless mind you must feel trapped in.  How much curiosity can you generate if you live in a world of instant, short term satisfaction?

In our ongoing social experiment I'm curious to see how this all plays out.  We introduced digital technologies that have revolutionized science, education, finance and communications, allowing us to take huge steps forward in terms of efficiency and collaboration.  A small group of sociopaths then used this technology to create an attention economy that has actually damaged our democratic institutions and the minds of the general public itself.  We find ourselves in a place where improbable governments suddenly have power and the people who voted them there have neither the ability nor the inclination to actually learn about why this is a bad idea.  We've weakened our ability to empathize and connect with each other, all ironically under the name of social media.  It seems this reductive process isn't finished yet.  With short sighted apathetic government being put into power by an increasingly illiterate, distracted and stressed populace, I'm left wondering just how low we can go.

LINKS skim reading an american with no teaching experience tells us how to teach curiosity
discovery math - isn't a thing, back to basics means what? what are basics?  perhaps code for an excuse to eviscerate a successful system? teachers arguing pedagogy online.
math wars - see below, Canada is top ten in the world in maths.


Just a reminder, Ontario is Canada's largest education system and Canada is consistently near the top of the world in terms of reading, science and maths.

But don't let those facts get in the way of your politics:
Ignore all the single-party authoritarian countries at the tops of those lists - they only put forward their top students for assessment. Western systems put their whole populations forward.
"In Ontario, which educates 40% of Canada’s students, nearly 30% of the province’s population are immigrants. According to the 2015 Pisa exam results, Ontario scored fifth in the world in reading. Children of immigrants perform compatibility with their peers with Canadian-born parents in educational achievement."

Ontario's education systems is one of our most successful exports, but you wouldn't know that from listening to the new government. Private schools around the world use the Ontario Curriculum that they just started dismantling. Ontario trained teachers are teaching across the planet because they are Ontario qualified. If our education system were a private enterprise it would be held up as a paragon of success. Remember that in the coming months.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Media Literacy: Technical Challenges & Digital Ignorance

Last year I attended the FITC digital creatives conference in Toronto for the first time.  I teach a senior high school software engineering class where we focus on project management in terms of game design.  We use Unity to develop interactive 3d games, sometimes in virtual reality.  We use Blender to learn how to 3d model.  I attended FITC to try and get some perspective on how we can use current industry standards in our work, but this conference did much more than that.

I thought I was up at the pointy end of 3d computer generated imaging know-how, we do some exceptional work in class and many of our grads have gone on to work in the industry, but FITC floored me with how CGI 3d modelling has insinuated itself into marketing.  The first presentation that made me question everything I thought I knew was by The Mill and their Blackbird car.  This digital studio has revolutionized how automakers advertise.  The next time you're watching a car advertisement, ask yourself if you're actually seeing the car:

From a media literacy perspective, if you aren't aware that what you're watching isn't real, are you really media literate?  This can lead to all sorts of strange situations where all of us are media illiterate and at the mercy of the people who aren't:

Made this week by one of our new grade 11s.  Watching an
already talented artist take these digital tools and run with
them is one of the best parts of my job.
I'd originally attended FITC to make sure we were current on 3d technology.  I think we're doing a remarkably good job of that in our high school program, but what I was unaware of was just how many 3d modelling jobs there are beyond the film and video game industries.  There are a number of companies now that focus entirely on the very lucrative marketing industry with this technology.  I was able to bring that back to my students and offer up a new avenue for our talented digital artists to consider when they graduate.

I haven't touched on many of the other surprises from FITC.  Relatively new jobs like computer animation that I thought were secure are in doubt.  Other skills that I never considered (traditional visual arts skills, mime and creative thinking) might be much more valuable in our digital future than I thought they might.  This kind of information makes me want to diversify my software class and encourage greater artistic influence and experimentation.  Ideally, we should be learning these digital tools in order to amplify and express the creativity and complex thinking my students are capable of.  Technically proficiency isn't an end in itself, we learn the tools to make our thoughts tangible.

We've got one of the top 2d animators in Ontario in our
grade 12 software engineering class.  He's pretty handy
in 3d as well!
The media literacy side of it still bothers me.  I'm teaching computer engineering so my focus is there, but so few people are interested in learning how this technology works.  I have a pretty healthy program and I work with less than ten percent of our school population.  Many schools in Ontario don't offer any digital technologies at all.  In my senior programs I'm lucky to have one or two females in the class.  Tech tends to be male heavy and digital tech is no different.  That gender disparity means a digital literacy disparity too.

I see every person in the school using digital technology every day, yet its a curriculum afterthought.   I've long argued for digital technology to be a required fluency, especially if we're going to use it in every classroom and throughout our days.  If you don't understand the technology it will influence you in ways you won't even notice.  You'll also waste a lot of time not doing it properly.  My experiences at FITC this year have opened yet another angle on digital fluency in terms of media literacy.  If you're watching something you think is real but isn't, you're the sucker that PT Barnum and modern marketing dreams about.

If you're at ECOO #BIT18 this year I'll be presenting on the many surprises I found at FITC and how you might start to bring 3d modelling or at least an understanding of it into your classroom.  Hope to see you there.

Here's the presentation: