Sunday, 28 October 2018

Forcing An Apple To Become An Orange

We emigrated to Canada in 1977.  Unfortunately, my parents weren't really paying attention and moved us (an English speaking family from England) into Lasalle in Montreal, Quebec.  If you don't know what was going on in Quebec in 1977, it wasn't good for an eight year old English kid.  While we were struggling to adapt to a new country we'd also wandered into a nationalist revolution.  Bill 101 made it illegal for immigrants to learn in English.  Since that was my native language and I had no background in French, the provincial government told my parents I'd have to attend a french school and get dropped back two grades to accommodate my lack of language skills.

While that was going on, the kids in our predominantly French neighborhood had overheard me talking with my lovely Norfolk accent while walking home from school and had decided that I would be a great opportunity to express their Quebecois pride. Getting beaten up by half a dozen kids at once wasn't any fun, but when they started bringing their german shepherd along to help, it was even less fun.  You'll have to excuse me if I'm not enthusiastic about Quebec's very singular approach to immigration.

Government letters arrived telling my parents that they had to move me out of English school or they would be charged and jailed.  My dad's new job did backflips, opened up a branch office in Toronto and we escaped to free Canada in 1980.  I've had a soft spot for Ontario's open arms approach to immigrants ever since.

@dougpete shared an article on Quebec's math prowess this morning.  I have some strongly held beliefs about how they've managed this result that the article itself goes to great lengths to ignore.  While Ontario has what is described by many people as too many public school systems, Quebec has one, and it's one that caters aggressively and exclusively to a single language supporting a single culture.  They don't enjoy immigration and their provincial politics have backed that up since I was an eight year old way back in 1977.  If you're looking  for a province that struggles to embrace multiculturalism, Quebec's a fine example:

"Among the provinces, the greatest increase in the absolute number of police-reported hate crimes was observed in Quebec, where incidents rose from 270 in 2015 to 327 in 2016. This increase was mostly attributable to more hate crimes targeting Arabs and West Asians, the Jewish population and sexual orientation."  
- Stats Canada Daily: Police reported hate crime, 2016

With the exception of New Zealand (which is significantly less
multi-cultural than Canada
anyway), there are few other countries
in the top 20 that sport a significant immigrant population.
I would argue that if you're dealing with a less diverse population you're dealing with an easier education process.  In addition to removing hard barriers like language and the various qualities of education in home countries, you're also bypassing many of the less tangible complexities like cultural expectations around gender and religion.  These benefits are clearly seen in international education rankings where monocultural societies are much more willing and able to force compliance and efficiently produce results for standardized tests; standardized populations feed strong standardized results.  With no language barriers or cultural confusion, it pays to be monocultural in standardized testing.  Canada is exceptional in those results, especially considering how it's a country built on immigration.  That we are able to produce these results even while working with diverse often ELL populations is astonishing.  Statistics show just how challenging trying to cover curriculum while also teaching the language of instruction is.  Stretching your education system to provide support for such a diverse population means you aren't going to score as well on a standardized test because your students aren't standard.

Quebec students pay a third what Ontario university students do.
They can afford to stay in four year programs for teacher training
while Ontario teachers would end up paying tens of thousands of dollars
more for that privilege.  You can encourage extended teacher
training when you know it isn't going to bankrupt your citizens.
In addition to the diversity of their students, there are a number of assumptions made in that article that ignore the cultural landscape that has allowed Quebec to produce this outstanding mathematical outcome that is out of step with the rest of the country.  Under more extensive teacher training is this:

Teacher preparation programs in Quebec universities are four years long, providing students with double the amount of time to master mathematics as part of their teaching repertoire, a particular advantage for elementary teachers. In Quebec faculties of education, elementary school math teachers must take as many as 225 hours of university courses in math education; in some provinces, the instructional time can be as little as 39 hours.

That Quebec students receive much more support for post secondary than Ontario students is a matter of fact.  Quebec looks after its teachers in training by not financially crippling them with this long term training.  Expecting Ontario teachers in training to foot an Ontario sized bill for their Quebec length training only goes to highlight the fundamental differences between the provinces.  Quebec students pay more than a third less what Ontario students do for that university training, and so they are able to extend their training.  It's little wonder that they are producing better results on this standardized test.

The article kicks off rather hyperbolically sounding an alarm for Ontario's math's results:  
"That populist election cry resonated with Ontarians because Ontario students continue to lag in mathematics and were the only ones in the country to show no significant improvement on national tests from 2010 to 2016."
Saskatchewan also has a dip in results and most of the other provinces were all within a couple of percentage points of their previous scores.  More importantly, Ontario led the results for English speaking Canada in 2010, 2013 and 2016, and even managed to slightly improve on it.  So this emergency in Ontario is based on the fact that we've always been leading in mathematics scores in multicultural Canada?  I hope everyone else catches up with us one day, but with the provincial government about to pull one of the top performing English Canada education systems to bits, I wouldn't bet on it.

In researching this I came across some evidence that the Quebec of today isn't as totalitarian as the Quebec I emigrated to in 1977.  This research on current Quebec schools summarized it this way:

"Quebec’s traditionally homogeneous French-language education system has undergone some radical changes over the past 30 years and continues to be shaped by public policies geared toward promoting French and openness to ethno-cultural diversity. The province has come a long way and now compares favourably with other immigrant-receiving societies. Nevertheless, many challenges lie ahead. Among other things, the marginalization of some ethnic groups, and most especially that of the Black community, must be better understood and actively prevented."

Perhaps Quebec is a bit less mono-cultural than I remember, but it still enjoys all the benefits of encouraging only primary language speakers into their system.  With that language of instruction time and energy freed up and with government subsidized education that allows their teachers to enjoy extended training without financially crippling them, Quebec is enjoying the results it deserves.  I'd rather Ontario didn't try to copy them though.  As an immigrant myself, Ontario made me feel welcome in a way that Quebec didn't, and I hope we'll continue to do that for the people across the world, regardless of the language they speak, who come here to find a home.

The article ends up questioning its own bias on Quebecois superiority in math as it wraps up:

Quebec is markedly different when it comes to mathematics. Immersed in a French educational milieu, the Quebec mathematics curriculum has been, and continues to be, more driven by mastery of subject knowledge, didactic pedagogy and a more focused, less fragmented approach to student intellectual development. Socio-historical and cultural factors weigh heavily in explaining why Quebec continues to set the pace in mathematics achievement. A challenging curriculum produces higher math scores, but it also means living with lower graduation rates.

Perhaps the Ontario panic over mathematics could do with a bit of context, but I fear that won't happen in the populist, reactionist times we live in.  It's better to invent an emergency, compare ourselves to a system that couldn't be more different and then try to imitate their results than it is to continue to lead English speaking Canada in mathematics?  I sincerely hope not.

Other Research For This Piece:

Visble minority population by urban centre:   Montreal barely makes the top 5 and is similar to Winnipeg in terms of immigration.  I couldn't find language details, but Quebec's focus on french is absolute.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The End of Google Plus

I was an early adopter into G+.  I was already getting the willies about Facebook back in 2011 and was looking for a way to curate links to thinkers and artists that wasn't designed around monetizing my existing relationships.  Facebook serves a purpose - keeping you in touch with extended friends and family, but that echo-chamber doesn't help you develop new ideas and perspectives, it tends to be a pretty insular place... even a petri dish for spreading fake news.  I know a number of people who have since radically diminished or backed right out of the increasingly caustic environment on Facebook, but I was looking for ways out way back in 2011.

That Facebook is an advertising company built around monetizing my personal relationships has always bothered me, so into G+ I leapt.  G+ allowed me to curate connections that Facebook wouldn't.  Over the years I've developed links to thousands of people, almost none of them based on personal relationships.  Those links exist because these people are not mainstream (most celebrities don't use G+, there's no money in it).  G+ was my go to for intelligent, curated content that I wasn't seeing anywhere else on the internet.  

Google recently announced that is was shutting down Google Plus under what everyone agrees are pretty flimsy circumstances.  While other social media giants are leaking data and monetizing fake news in tangible ways, Google is shutting down G+ because of a security vulnerability that never happened.  Why it's really shutting G+ down is because it isn't what social media is expected to be these days:  an efficient way to capture as many people's personal information as possible in order to monetize it.  The problem with G+ is that it's actually a social media network - people go on there to share ideas and often create long form discussions with each other.  G+ isn't mainstream, doesn't cater to idiots and doesn't produce easily monetizable lies that you can advertise from.

A G+ user recently posted this:  Educators, niche groups will miss Google+

"the people on G+ are just better at the ‘social’ part of networking" - true that.  I can expect a constant boil of political negativity and nonsense often based on outright lies on Facebook, which has established itself as the low bar for social media because it's the one everyone is on.  We underestimate how many stupid people there are in the world, but Facebook hasn't and it has become a giant catering to them.  It might have been smaller than other social media, but G+ was a carefully curated, rich source of content I wasn't seeing anywhere else.  I'll miss it.

The early 21st century attention economy feels a lot like robber baron capitalism of the 19th Century.  In that time industrialization was driving new economies in natural resource extraction and manufacturing in an entirely unsustainable way that produced obscene amounts of wealth for a small number of people.   Sound familiar?  The new resource these days is our attention.  If you've developed a low relative use (G+ had millions of active users, which isn't Facebook's billions) social media platform that encourages long form reading and benign, drama-free interaction between its users you're not churning through the resource as efficiently as you could be.  As a result you're not aggressively pursuing the marketing money like every other corporate social media platform is.

The upside of this is that the end of Google Plus has me looking for alternatives, and people like Tim Berners-Lee and others are trying to pry your personal data out of the tax dodging attention economy robber barons.  Think you could leave the Google mothership?  I'm trying.

Some alternate social media sites I'm trying:

GooglePlus users are pretty handy at self organizing (the best they could hope for from Google was benign neglect).  Many are working to organise the diaspora.

Engineered with privacy-by-design, MeWe turns the table on Facebook and other social media companies with a revolutionary service that emphasizes privacy and social sharing where people can be their true, uncensored selves. No Ads. No Spyware. No BS. MeWe members are #Not4Sale and enjoy the protection of MeWe’s Privacy Bill Of Rights.

A favourite landing spot of G+ users that offers strong user-focused privacy controls.

My next steps are to look into blockchain driven encrypted networks that offer adamant user protections from the powers that be...  here's a link to some early research on that.

Eventually this will mean pulling up stakes at Blogger (Google's blogging platform), but that's a tricky business.  I've migrated to WordPress with Mechanical Sympathy and import blog posts from my three Blogger blogs (Dusty World, Tim's Motorcycle Diaries and Kingfisher Imaging), but I've found blogging in Wordpress to be needlessly fussy.  Blogger's great advantage is it's simple to use which is vital when I'm concentrating on writing.  If I can get Wordpress to give me a WYSIWYG editing tool that isn't so annoying when formatting text and inputting digital media I'd be looking at migrating there too.

Just as a follow up - it appears I have more that 100 gigabytes of data stored in the Google cloud.  I imagine I'm fairly typical of any Android/Google based web user.  I've paid for the devices and the bandwidth needed to create that repository, and Google has then used it to advertise, all while making billions.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Death by Maintenance

One of the dangerous things about watching the shows my son likes to watch is that many of them aren't what they appear to be. He likes complexity, and there are few things on TV these days as complex as Rick & Morty (if it is ever on TV again...). Like a lot of other modern cartoons, Rick & Morty hides surprisingly complex narrative behind simplistic animation.

Rick is a scientist who has discovered interdimensional travel and so can exist in any timeline. As this 'infinite Rick' he has almost god like power and is constantly criticizing everyone else for not realizing how pointless and narcissistic their reality is - any ethical value they place anywhere is a result of their lack of perspective. This show goes to great lengths to force its viewers to question morality and how embedded it is in our personal circumstances. If you're looking for a show that makes you feel better about your circumstances, Rick & Morty is the opposite. It shows you a multiverse in which even your unique self isn't unique let alone special. This pan-dimensional multiverse is so vast and so overwhelmingly indifferent to your circumstances that it continually screams a central premise of the show: nothing matters. Yet even in this chaotic and indifferent multiverse, Rick and the other characters in the show stand out as prime movers; people who make their own meaning in spite of the alienating size and indifference of reality.

In one of the most popular episodes from the last season of the show, Rick turns himself into a pickle so that he doesn't have to go to family therapy:

He, of course, ends up in it anyway after he fights his way (as a pickle) through an impromptu action movie. The therapist (voiced by Susan Sarandon!) finally gets to judge this character who goes to great lengths to avoid judgement. Her monologue (which Rick immediately bashes as they're driving away from it) is another of those moments where Rick & Morty gets startlingly real:

I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I'm bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it's not an adventure. There's no way to do it so wrong you might die. It's just work. And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die.

Each of us gets to choose.

This is idea of death by maintenance has stayed with me. I turn fifty next year and I'm on my way to two decades in a career I'd never have guessed I'd be doing. Unlike many teachers, I've never been struck by the divine 'calling' of teaching. My early life of rolling over into a new career every few years as emerging technology caught my attention and encouraged me into learning something new is a distant memory while pensions, mortgages and stability drive most of my decisions these days. I imagine this is how most people age until they end up the typically habitual old person who is scared of everything and avoids risk at all costs until they are in a nursing home. It's a long battle to get to that point of declining mediocrity, and the win condition kinda sucks.
In my younger years, with very little guidance or support from home, I struggled through high school, college, apprenticeships and university, trying to find my way towards a life that made best use of my abilities. I walked away from stability and income many times in favour of those opportunities as a young man, and it's why I'm where I am now, but I'm not inclined to follow that trajectory and maintain myself into mediocrity. If I can't find satisfaction in teaching, I'll go elsewhere, but I'm hoping that teaching is one of those careers that can evolve with me.

The first ever blog post I did on Dusty World way back in 2010 was on Caution, Fear and Risk Aversion in students. Those students are long gone but the learning risks we took paid off for many of them. Taking risks and pushing learning has become my default setting in the classroom. If we can't reach for the potentially undoable then we're just maintaining ourselves into mediocrity. Whether it's dangling students out in competition or creating difficult courses that push them to deal with real world consequences, including failure, I've got to find my way past the learning as maintenance approach or teaching is going to get dangerously stale and abstract.

Speaking of real, with the return of school this year I've realized I've only got a decade left in teaching. I'm not sure how I'll be able to approach that in a way that will let me finish with alacrity, but whatever it is, it'll need to be something other than status quo maintenance teaching. I know a number of my colleagues find this approach tiresome, but it's the only way I'll be able to stick with the job. Some people love maintaining the status quo and ensuring continuity and conformity, they thrive on it! I'm not one of those people.

Some find Rick's lack of boundaries or context upsetting, but it's that kind of existential 
freedom that we all enjoy, we just hide it behind socially constructed barriers. Rick isn't special, he just realizes that his future is his to author and doesn't have to be determined by overly restrictive social norms. In that freedom he prizes adventure and risk as the only real way to live and grow. Testing boundaries and pushing limits is where we find ourselves. When I eventually retire I hope I can dedicate my remaining years to those same goals and not spend my time and energy hiding from life. If there is a better working definition of lifelong learning, I've yet to hear it.

If you've never watched Rick & Morty, give it a go. Many of your students are.