Saturday, 30 March 2019

What's In a Name?

Last year we drove across Canada.  We were having breakfast in Drumheller, Alberta when a big family came in.  The grandfather/patriarch of the family was talking to a granddaughter he obviously dotes over.  She was going into high school the next fall and he asked her what she was looking forward to and she said, "wood shop!"  He immediately responded, "why would a pretty girl like you want to do that?"  She did the only thing she could think to do without causing a scene and laughed.  I didn't laugh, I was staggered by that exchange.  Welcome to the world of #girlsinSTEM.


We're taking our second run at the CyberTitan cybersecurity competition this year.  Last year's success suddenly meant a surge of interest, so I was able to quickly put together two teams.  When none of them were female (again), I started asking the keenest girls from my junior classes if they would be interested in forming an all-female team.

Cyberpatriot, the competition that Canada's CyberTitan works out of, has also recognized how few women there are in STEM in general and information technology / cybersecurity in particular, so offered to waive the application fee for all-female teams this year.  At national finals last year an ICTC organizer noted how few girls were in the competition.  With that observation and support I was encouraged to convince six of my strongest former grade 9 girls to give it a go.

Early on I noticed how differently they approached the intensity of the competition from the two all-male teams.  Where the boys tended to specialize and generally work independently, the girls were constantly conscious of how everyone on the team was contributing and were always finding ways to integrate each other into what they were doing.  In some cases, members of the male teams did very little, but none of the girls were so relegated.

All three teams were new to this (all of last year's team graduated), so no one had previous experience of the competition, but the sense of ownership was much more absolute with the male teams.  That sense of male ownership and dominance has been an ongoing theme in teaching technology - I've been writing about it for years.

One of my standard team building approaches is to encourage the teams to name themselves to help bring them together.  Both male teams took names that were almost an afterthought because they were only loosely teams and didn't feel like it mattered, because it didn't - they all feel empowered and capable.  The female team came back to me with something that spoke to their experience, charged them up and created a sense of identification and belonging vital to survival in such a difficult circumstance.

I have to admit, the name did cause me to pause, but my first reflex was to support this sense of edgy self-identification, especially when I saw how it unified the girls and helped them deal with the pressures on them.  I passed on the name to admin and it was ok'd for competition with no discussion, which surprised me a bit, but also delighted me because it meant (I thought) that the the difficult circumstances of this team were being recognized.

A byte is 8 bits of information - typically a byte is used to denote a character in a computer using ASCII code, so each letter you see in this blog is a byte of information.  A terabyte is an almost inconceivable number of bytes - about a trillion of them.  How big is a trillion?  If you spent a million dollars a day since year zero to now in 2019, you still wouldn't have spent a trillion dollars.  It's a powerfully big number used in the male dominated field of computer technology to denote massive amounts of memory.

The girls' team came upon the idea of combining terabyte with bitches into the Terabytches.  I doubt the grandpa telling his granddaughter to do girl-appropriate things would approve, but anyone with any degree of feminist sympathy would recognize the power in combining a traditionally derogatory term used to limit and belittle women (especially smart, vocal ones) with a powerful technology term from deep within tech-bro culture.

The Terabytches put up with the condescension (most of it unconsciously delivered without malice) of their male colleagues throughout the competition by looking after each other and generally ignoring it.  In our conservative, rural school, the idea that tech is for boys is firmly entrenched in spite of my ongoing best efforts.  At one point one of my seniors who is also an engineering lead (and a genuinely nice kid) said, "why are there so many girls in here?" at lunch one day.  There were two girls in a room of 20+ people.  I immediately called him on it and said, "you mean the two girls in here are too many?" and he quickly backpedaled, but the assumptions implicit in the comment still echoed around the room.

My male teams both did very well in this competition, but at no point did they ever feel like they shouldn't be there, the girls frequently questioned their presence in it.  This was a subject that boys did in a room almost always full of boys.  Even in my most gender diverse class I'm lucky to approach a 20/80 gender split, most are much less.  Many of these culturally enabled boys will go on to successful careers in digital technology while being told, 'atta boy' by family and friends.  Meanwhile, girls are being asked why they are wasting their prettiness on technology... and that's the nicest kind of negativity they'll get.  More often it's outright dismissive chauvinism.  The fact that they had each other to lean on allowed them to battle on in a chauvinistic field of fierce competition.

I had a female teacher tell me last week in Ottawa that she won't run all-female teams because it's unfair unless all of her students can participate.  That kind of pick-and-choose-equity when it comes to fairness is very frustrating to hear, especially from a female colleague.  When we don't live in a remotely equal society, saying that everyone should get the same supports is really code for maintaining status-quo prejudices.

The chauvinism the Terabytches face hasn't been limited to passive aggressive face to face situations.  When we discovered that they had gotten through to nationals and neither of the male teams had, the first thing out of most of the boys was, 'they only got through because they are girls.'  My response would be, 'they got as far as they did in a workspace and field of study that they were continually alienated and dismissed by."  That included barbed comments from anonymous people online and having to study material written almost entirely by men for men while competing in a contest created almost entirely by men for men.  A better question would be, with all of those advantages, why didn't you boys do better?  The Terabytches finished right behind our senior all-male team in points and beat them in some aspects of the contest.

Picking a sharp name that counters stereotypes is not only a smart move from a competitive point of view, it also highlights all of those assumptions people make around gender and technology.  Male teams can name themselves after historically white rapists and murderers, using names that glamourize violence.  They can be raiders with creepy viking logos and (white) crusaders battling (brown) infidels, they can be marauders and pirates, cavaliers and knights.  Pick your strong male historical context and there's your team name.  The male culture of team naming also likes to identify with violent animals and revel in that association with male predators.  If you see a bird logo it's a male-centric one.  The cardinals are red, the blue jays are blue, the orioles are orange and the falcons are big and burley and aggressively male in appearance.  If you want to go mythical, you'll see all sorts of griffins, dragons and argonauts, but medusas, sirens and harpies?  Not so much, because the connotation is different.  History and culture aren't kind to strong female stereotypes.  When 'babe bunch', 'daisy dukes' and 'fembots' are in your list of 'top powerful female team names', you know we have a long way to go on this.

With media attention ramping up now that the Terabytches are the top all-female team in Canada, concerns have arisen around the name.  Worries about how the media will spin this to create sensationalism are fair, but my first reflex is still one I'm comfortable with, especially knowing how intelligent and outspoken these Terabytches are.  Having any male tell these young women that they can't create a strong, edgy team name that speaks to their experience in facing obvious and open sexism while outperforming all-male teams from all over the country is something I'm going to dig my heels in about.  Should they face reductive, sensationalist press in the process of being national finalists, I have no doubt that everyone on the team will be a spectacular ambassador for girls in STEM.

Jaime, the reporter at out local paper, had a great interview with the girls the other week.  She has written a newspaper article about it, but it's only the tip of a thirty minute interview that had the Terabytches talking so frankly about the challenges of competing as girls in such a male dominated contest that I was tearing up.  The fact that they are an all-female team has allowed them to weather the negativity and succeed in spite of it.  Though several of them are very competitive by nature, they all want to reform the team again next year and aim even higher.  This is about so much more than where you place in a competition.

Competitive teams tend to double down on the male stereotypes when identifying themselves.  If a female team attempts to do the same thing from their own lived experience, there are questions around appropriateness that start to feel like status quo sexism.  Competing in the bro culture of technology in the male dominated world of cybersecurity in a conservative, rural community was always going to be an uphill struggle.  I know the Terabytches are up for it.  I need to lean on the strength of my convictions and back them through the continuous and sometimes overwhelming static.  If every educator approached the sexism systemic in our subject areas with the same zeal, we could eventually level the playing field and let everyone participate on equal terms.

In the meanwhile, I'm proud to be a Terabytch!

Think I'm over stating male dominance in cybersecurity? As one of the most conservative specialties in a male dominated industry, women in cybersecurity face challenges a lot more perilous than an edgy team name. If you're an ally, be an ally:
Are you a woman in technology? Help ICTC advocate for a more gender balanced field!

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Class "Caps" are a Low Resolution Solution to a High Resolution Problem

I'm going to do what I do best and annoy everyone by not agreeing with anyone.  I'm  so perverse, sometimes what I don't necessarily believe what I write, but if it serves to push my thinking, then I leave it in.  Come down the rabbit hole with me to the magic land of Ontario Education where everything and nothing is data driven and very little of it makes sense... unless you're a politician.


I'm just spitballing here, but after reading dozens of articles on the impending loggerheads between Fordnation and every public school teachers' union in Ontario over class size averages ("caps" if you're using inaccurate Minister of Ed lingo), I thought it might be a good idea to think outside the box seeing as no one else is willing to.

Education minister Lisa Thompson seems to be getting deeper and deeper into the doublespeak as she tries to justify increasing class sizes for high school students by over twenty percent, offering up such nuggets as, it'll make them tougher and more resilient, or, students can teach each other.  If we don't dehumanize our kids in school, how are they ever going to make it in the world of work isn't a great selling point when justifying this approach to parents.

On the other side the hyperbole is coming on song with teachers and unions talking about how class sizes are what saves students, but as someone who has been working in a classroom in Ontario since 2004 (and not in a union office or support role out of the classroom), I'm here to tell you that our current process doesn't work very well at all.  All this noise about it in the media means we're going to claim this as the hill we die on as Fordnation gleefully turns up the heat until we're locked out or on strike.  These violent delights will have violent ends, but I sincerely hope the people and organizations involved are looking for a solution rather than a fight.

I don't see any of this as a winnable scenario.  If the unions somehow find a way to win, all we get is the same inflexible and stratified system we currently have that produces a lot of people supporting already overfilled classrooms.  If we lose we get that system made worse.

The idea of an average class size of 22 means that we're funded at that level per teacher.  For every 22 students in the system, we get money from the Ministry to hire someone.  Funding at that level means we have lots of people in support roles at school, board and ministry levels.  For every one of those people not teaching, we have a classroom with over 22 students in it to justify their existence.  I'd love to see the data on the number of teachers we have in the system that aren't teaching, but that sort of thing doesn't get out.  When they say we'll have classes of 35 or 40 if the class average is raised to 28, they're talking about how we currently have classes with up to 31 while working off a 22 average.  Small classes and teachers not teaching result in many larger classes to get us back down to that 22 average.  Lots of people in the general public haven't wrapped their heads around this, but they should.  Bigger classes don't help students or teachers, and we already have them.

What's strange is that any talk of raising averages doesn't seem to impact the people in supporting roles and just trickles down directly to classroom teachers who are already over that average to support those secondary roles.  There are many people who do those supporting roles exceedingly well, but there are also a number who are doing them because they don't like teaching in a classroom and are looking for an out.  Still others are doing jobs that require nothing teacher related, but are still getting paid as a teacher.  If you're doing health and safety or shuffling paper in an office, I'd suggest you should be getting paid accordingly, and not as a teacher.  If we reviewed all those seconded teacher jobs and actually paid them inline with what the job was, there would be many more teachers in the system who, you know, teach.

As far as teachers in supporting roles go, those roles should be have expectations at least as stringent as the work a classroom teacher has if we're expecting a teacher to do it.  If a support role is being used diligently (and by diligently I mean with the same rigour that your classroom teacher works while preparing hours of daily instruction and then delivering it in a live, dynamic and differentiated manner to 70+ students every day), then I'm all for it.  I've met 'teachers' who haven't taught a class in Ontario in over a decade.  They're often considered to be experts in teaching.  Some of them appear in my classroom periodically and proceed to assess me on my ability to teach, something they themselves haven't done in years, and didn't do for very long when they did (I've had a bee in my bonnet about this since 2011).

There are other supporting roles that get calcified into a permanent job.  This should never happen.  Any seconded teacher should be a short term contract with specific goals to be met and then they return to the classroom.  Not only would this stop nepotism, but it would also mean more cross training and wider experiences as more people cycle through seconded opportunities.  Instead of seeing the same old seconded crew at the board, it would be fresh faces all the time.  Pushing that further, I'd like to see anyone involved in assessing teachers actually, um, teach.  VPs and principals should dip a toe in the classroom every few years  just to remember what the job is and help create a leaner, more teaching focused system.  Class sizes drop even with a higher average if more people in the system are teaching.

All of this would require flexibility in the system and a management team that is lean, agile, and adaptable.  It's totally doable.  We have the talent, we just don't have the culture.  If changes are coming, knocking the stratified, hardened nature of support roles loose may not be a bad thing.  The only reason teachers would be wary of this is because usually change is focused on cheap, not better, and usually any changes land hardest on the people on the front line.

I assume there are ever so smart people in the Ministry and boards across the province who have been seconded from teaching who should be doing this sort of thinking, but that's ok, I'll take my weekend to iron it out for you all so I can be back in the classroom next week doing what I do  - ignore that link, and all of these, and these ones - all of those conferences I've presented at, or learning fairs I've attended in the summer, or additional qualifications I've done in the summer, or Ed-camps on weekends or competitions I've taken days away from my family for, that's all volunteer work.  What I get paid to do is teach students in class every day - all that extracurricular work is done on my own time for no pay, but I think that's what being a professional means, doing extra work to ensure my effectiveness - I'm responsible for making my teaching practice better.  Having never been paid to do the array of work I do beyond the classroom while still being in class (with the highest class cap sizes in the province), I can't help but wonder about seconded teachers and what it is they do when it isn't obviously apparent.  It always should be, otherwise they should be teaching.  For those of them that would do anything to not be teaching (and I've met a few), perhaps it's time to find another industry to work in?

Here's how we can fix this no-win mess in Ontario Education that our government and unions are walking us into:

The 28 student average sized class (aka cap that isn't a cap) is now a talking point for this government and they can't back off it.  The 22 student average sized class is where our unions are going to hold the hill to the last of us.  Getting rid of these averages entirely isn't going to happen, too many people have a stake in that thinking, so why not create a system that is actually reflective of student need in each classroom while retaining the cap fixation?

This government has surely realized by this point that throwing special needs students under the bus isn't just mean spirited and hurtful, but also has terrible optics.  They need a win with the special needs community, and increasing class averages of 28 with no other changes to the system ain't going to do it.

How about this:  actually give Individual Education Plan (IEP) students with special needs some weight when it comes to the classes they'll be in.  This should be data driven and transparent.  All students are considered a 1 in the low-res class average system we have right now, but anyone who has taught a class knows that not all students = 1.  Off hand, my IEPed students can range from a 1.1 (barely needing any more than non-IEPed students), to a student I have right now that I'd rate at 4+.  Some IEPs suggest small supports that don't ask too much of a teacher.  Other IEPs make many demands on a teacher's time and ability to support both that one student and everyone else in the room simultaneously.  Don't forget, every time an IEP demands extras, like one on one instruction and differentiated delivery of material, that's an expectation that requires time spent away from everyone else both in class and in extra preparation time out of it.  The current system does nothing to acknowledge or support that.

I have an open junior high school class at the moment which is capped at 27, but over half of the students in this class have IEPs, and in several cases they have exceptional needs beyond what I'm able to do in a class of 27.  Using this individually weighted system to generate averages based on where I think my time is spent in that class (I finish each period in there sweating and exhausted because I'm trying to be in four places at once), this class is the equivalent of 38.3 non-special needs students, which I think is about right.  I'd be just as frazzled and wrung out trying to serve the learning needs of 38 non-special needs students in the same circumstance.  Ontario risks damaging good teachers (and then paying for their absences) by running the whole system into the ground with massive class sizes.

Had I 27 students with no special needs (IEP special needs are dictated by psychological analysis by professionals, these aren't arbitrary decisions), then I think I could manage this class effectively and be everywhere a student needs me when they need me.  If I take half of that class of 27, let's say 14 of the most high needs students, one of whom is the most challenging student I've dealt with in the last ten years, the needs-adjusted cap equals 24.3 students.  In that class, two more students with lighter special needs loads would bring it to the current cap of 27.  I would find that class of say, 16 students just as difficult to manage and provide effective learning as I would the class of 27 non-special needs students.

We say students have special needs in Ontario Education and then ignore the workload that comes from it.  If the PC government wants to place 28 student average sized classes on us, this special needs weighting would go some way toward making that a viable possibility for the teachers actually working with those students in the classroom.  In a strange way, smaller class sizes would give a teacher a heads up on what's coming.  How I approach a smaller, high-needs class would be very different to how I approach a larger, non-special needs class.  Differentiation of instruction to promote positive outcomes for everyone is the goal, isn't it?

If done right, this system would automatically size streamed classes based on the learners in them.  I teach open level classes so get the full gamut of learning needs all at once, and suffer that lack of resolution our vague system provides now.  Academic, applied and essential classes have lower caps as student needs increase, but that wouldn't be necessary if we had weighted students tied to their individual needs.  Most essential classes are IEP heavy and would automatically get downsized to make them more effective (smaller class sizes work more effectively with high-needs students).

A weighted IEP system that acknowledges students with special needs would make a 28 cap tenable.  Making teachers seconded from the system short term, contract specific and then getting them back to teaching would be another way to make a higher cap possible.  For jobs that aren't at all teaching based (health and safety, office work at the board), don't pay them as teachers because they aren't.

Debt went up with all three parties at the helm - even
during Mike Harris's legendarily fiscally focused years.
The liberals were doing well until the US dragged the
world into a financial crisis orchestrated by private business.
I'm OK with seeking efficiencies in Ontario education, but
not at the expense of student achievement and not while
the government is paying friends and voting themselves raises.
Is fiscal balance a high urgency goal or not?
Ontario has the highest sub-national debt load of any jurisdiction in the world.  We pay billions in debt management every year.  Creating a leaner education system focused on putting teachers in front of reasonable numbers of students would protect our excellent education reputation.   Ensuring that everyone who is paid as a teacher directly impacts the classroom would be a good way to get sag out of the system while doing our part to make Ontario more economically sustainable.  That leaner system would still be able to support those teachers in special education, student success and learning commons who enrich learning for all both with and without special needs (students can suddenly become special need because of changing circumstances, having experts in the school to assist with that is vital).  You'll notice flexibility and responsiveness to individual student need is a driving force here.

Our education system would need to be more fluid, flexible and less stratified than what we have now.  That agile system would be focused on classroom resources first and foremost.  In doing so we might be able to manage a higher class averages while still retaining the excellence Ontario's education system has become known for.  Higher class averages could help create a more lean but equally effective system that still looks after special needs, but that doesn't appear to be Doug Ford's conservative mandate.

If we're just looking for a fight, then that's what this will turn into, but for the sake of our students and the already stretched teachers working in classrooms all over the province, I sincerely hope we're looking for better and not to burn it down.  Lockouts, strikes and impending doom aren't doing anyone any good.  If nothing else, consider this a search for better solutions to what I hope is a commonly shared goal:  the best possible outcome for every student in our system.


  • weight IEPed students when calculating class caps so high needs students are able to find success in classes better suited for them.  In classes with low IEP counts, higher numbers mean more students moving more efficiently through the system
  • Destratisfy seconded teaching and make these jobs short term contracts that seldom have a teacher out of the classroom for more than a year.  Set specific, high expectations for seconded teachers, encourage more teachers to cross train and experience secondment in a short term way (this would reduce burnout and improve the system understanding of more classroom teachers)
  • Don't pay teachers doing non-teaching seconded jobs as if they are teachers (health and safety, office administration, etc).  In some boards this is already the case, but not in all.  No teacher should be driving up class average sizes doing a job that isn't teaching related.
  • Set high, specific expectations for support role teachers in schools.  Make those supporting roles contract based and short term, so more teachers experience the role.  This cross training would improve school communication and effectiveness.
  • Encourage excellence in support roles by removing people who can't or won't demonstrate beyond expectation work in the role.
  • Anyone who is looking to avoid teaching in a classroom at all costs should be assisted into another profession.
  • Administration should keep a toe in the water and teach a class every few years.
  • Instead of suggesting that increased caps are going to land on classrooms, look at rejigging the system to put more teachers in classrooms so increased caps don't hurt us where the rubber hits the road.
  • Board and Ministry jobs are constantly evolving and are team based as new people come and go through existing initiatives.  This is the end of lifers in those jobs.  If you're an Ontario teacher you've taught in a classroom in the past three years.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Agility Dies As Ontario Stiffens

While I was attending the Future of Work Summit with ICTC at the MaRS Centre in Toronto, just down the street Ontario's teacher unions were having their yearly meetings.  The social media runoff from those meetings, and from Ontario Education in general, has been increasingly and overwhelmingly negative.  As I'm listening to talks about how to increase our flexibility and reduce institutional lag, the education system around me is going into a state of rigour mortis as it stiffens up to the point where nothing is acceptable and everything is rebuked out of hand.

In my time teaching in Ontario I've watched the provincial government break the law and end up paying millions in reparations as a result.  That mess was treated like a blip compared to what has been happening recently.  Before this new government even did anything we were warned that it was all going to hell.  Things went to hell with the previous government too, but that seemed to be ok because, ultimately, our unions had ongoing relationships with that government.  This is the first time I've seen Ontario education operating under a non-Liberal government and it isn't pretty.  There was always some flexibility of approach previously, even when what has happening to us was ridiculous.  That flexibility is gone now.

Rae and the NDP pushed up our debt, but so did Harris
and the PCs. Interesting that McGinty and the Liberals
were actually more fiscally conservative than the PCs
until it all went to hell in 2008. Ontario is as in debt as
it is because it spent billions bailing out private corporations
that were playing silly buggers with the economy.
I'm well aware of what happened the last time a 'progressive' conservative government ran Ontario education into the ground.  At that point it was described as a needed financial correction from the previous NDP government, but the Financial Times doesn't graph it like that.  Mike Harris and his government sold off money makers like the 407 to balance a single year and look fiscally tight.  It's that kind of self serving short sightedness in our elected officials that frustrates me.  What I find strange is that Ontario defaulted to conservative leadership for many years, and in that time could depend on governance that wasn't populist and myopic, but recent attempts seem to be all about violent correction catering to special interests without any long term intentions.

Ontario needs to get a handle on its debt and we need a capable leader who is willing to lead by example to do it.  The problem with Ontarians is that they won't vote for someone like that.  Instead they are swayed by buck a beer huxtering.

Frankly, I don't care whether they are liberal, conservative or NDP, but I do care that it happens.  We're paying billions servicing debts we can't afford.  If it has to be austerity, then it needs to be austerity for all.  I'd be willing to buckle down and do my best with larger classes and lower budgets if I felt that everyone else wasn't voting themselves higher living allowances and inventing redundant jobs for friends.

Squeezing the system generally won't yield the kind of savings we need, and it damages learning conditions for students as well as teachers.  Ontario students are some of the best in the world.  If we're willing to sacrifice that excellence to protect a UN sanctioned publicly funded semi-private religious school system, or a questionable standardized testing regime brought to us by an under-performing US model of education, then we're damaging our excellence to protect inequity and keep ourselves buried in debt.  There are plenty of places we could save billions in Ontario education by making systemic change while protecting the learning conditions of students.  It is only because we are trapped by our history and our selfish, short-sighted, tail-chasing political system that we can't make the changes needed to make Ontario more sustainable.

Attending that summit once again got me thinking about how relentlessly and aggressively the best private enterprises chase efficiency.  There is nothing sacred in that environment, it's eat or be eaten.  That kind of focus really appeals to the technician in me who builds technology based on efficiency and efficacy, but it's short sighted when dealing with public education.  

Working for a system that is ultimately led by politicians who are in turn being led by the short-sightedness of our electorate has never been anything but frustrating.  Watching this government shore up the money-sinks while at the same time hurting learners and damaging our performance isn't new.  Previous governments did the exact same thing.  There is nothing revolutionary or different about what's happening now, other than the mass centralization of opposition against it.

Ontario continues to sink deeper into debt even as we're catering to special interests as we've always done.  Things could be better, but the system we have does nothing to encourage intelligent decision making.  If you're looking for change in Ontario any time soon, you're not going to see it.  In the meantime, Ontario will drag Canada out of the top 10 worldwide as we intentionally damage one of Ontario's most popular exports.

The Future of Work: the purpose of public education

The idea of online echo-chambers where you only ever see ideas that imitate your own bias has been a recent topic of concern.  Since battling my way through a philosophy degree at the University of Guelph, I've made it a point of trying on difficult ideas even if my first reflex is to disagree with them.  I was once again testing myself like this at ICTC's Future of Work Summit this week.

One of the main themes that kept popping up in this summit was people from private for-profit sectors suggesting that we completely rejig the public education system to serve up graduates who integrate with their employment needs more effectively. Ontario's new government has a similarly reductive view of public education's role.  I teach computer technology and have always encouraged my students to discover and cultivate pathways that will lead them to a meaningful and financially successful careers, it's one of my go-tos, but this subsuming of public education entirely into the myopic needs of private business pushed me further down that path than I care to tread.

I usually tweet my responses to ideas that come up in conferences in order to document them.  It helps me remember what happened when I'm reflecting on them later.  My initial response to a number of for-profit businesses asking that the entire public education system get rejigged for their benefit was to try and point out the difference between what public education does and what they think it does.  Contrary to popular belief, our sole function isn't to crank out employees whose only function is to make profit.

There was a strange tension, for me at least, between the aboriginal opening prayer song and talk of inclusion with the profit driven interest that kept bubbling up in various presentations.  Perry McLeod-Shabogesic's thoughts on the wisdom of honouring everyone's contribution and his careful wording around being a helper regardless of profit or personal benefit felt sharply at odds with the keynote by Cheryl Cran, whose lean, aggressive management strategies produce small but exceedingly efficient profit driven teams.  Part of me likes that vicious efficiency.  Drop the dead weight and maximize your effectiveness.  I continue to participate in competition because of that drive, but I can't let it motivate my teaching as a whole because my function is to serve the whole.  I couldn't help but think, "all business speaks from a place of privilege but has no idea that it does."  The idea of profit only exists as an option when fundamental needs are met.  For many of the people in the world (and it's the majority) who are still battling with fundamental needs, profit is a privilege they can't afford.

In a public classroom I teach students who will never earn profit for someone else in their lives.  Some will choose to work in the public sector helping society as a whole in healthcare, education or support services.  Others will want to push back against the profit driven economy that is putting the fate of humanity in jeopardy.  Others still may want to focus on meaningful work that is ignored by the private sector, like raising children or volunteerism, and some of them simply aren't capable of working in the exclusivity of a for-profit workplace.  I think Perry would think laterally and find ways to value all of those contributions.  That indigenous philosophy based around the health of the community over the wealth of an individual is very helpful for a teacher considering their clientele.  In the privileged world of business, all those people in my classroom don't exist.  Business focused speakers would want to ensure you never hired any of that sizable chunk of the population in the first place.

The changing Canadian job market: between public sector and NGO employees, a sizable chunk of Canada's working population doesn't operate in for-profit business.  There is much more to society than business need.

If a sizable portion of Canada's population doesn't work in for-profit business, rejigging public education to serve that single sector demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how society works.  From a social justice point of view, you could argue that public education should focus on producing engaged and socially aware citizens.  From an aboriginal point of view, we should be speaking to people from a place of community.  From a special needs point of view, we should be working toward greater compassion and understanding of everyone's contribution.  An environmental point of view might also be a driver in public education.  Environmentalism is increasingly diametrically opposed to globalized business and an ever-expanding economy in a world that is fraying under the weight of this unsustainable philosophy.  Public education needs to address all of these perspectives of human society.

During the 2008 market collapse, one of those periodic moments in history when profit driven people lose their minds and fictionalize the world we all live in to such a degree that it becomes obviously unsustainable and collapses in on itself, I saw an online comment that said, "you don't feed profit driven business steak, you let it feed off society's waste, like the cockroach that it is."  That's a harsh thing to say but people were pretty mad in 2008, though most seem to have forgotten all about it now, though we're still paying for it.

The idea of inclusivity was a recurring theme at the summit.  One example given was was how remote communities don't have digital connectivity yet and this was held up as an example of a lack of equity.  It is indeed a lack of equity, but you can bet that no profit driven business is going to provide that infrastructure.  The infrastructure we build in society, especially the stuff to address remote communities where profit isn't going to motivate action, is always done with public money.  Roads are built not by the corporations that ruin them with transport trucks, but by governments supported by taxpayers.  ICT infrastructure is no different.  Corporations make their profits on the backs of infrastructure built with public funds.  In this way, there is no real private company - they all rest on the back of publicly funded infrastructure.  This is neither good nor bad, it's just the way it is.  Business is too fragile to make profit without support.  That fragility is foundation of all business privilege.  That many business people wave their profit driven focus around with pride is always baffling to me.  There isn't a single billionaire who hasn't made their wealth on the back of publicly funded infrastructure.  To make that fragility the primary focus of public education is absurd.

This isn't to say that private, profit-driven business does not have a function in our society, but it isn't the heart and it certainly shouldn't be the brain.  At best, profit driven business is an appendage, like the arms or legs.  Important, no doubt, but it can as often injure the body politic as it does help.  Healthy, supported private business is important, but it isn't the beall and endall of human society, and tailoring public education to cater to it is myopic and self serving.


Over this past weekend in Toronto I've had a strange breadth of experience.  On the Saturday night we went to the Tiff Lightbox to see Apollo 11, incredibly restored and rendered footage of the Apollo 11 Moon mission...

I was born two months before that happened and spent my early years in love with the US space program.  I was in tears watching this film.  I consider it a pinnacle of human achievement that points to a possible, sustainable future.  My love of technology was fostered by NASA's work around Apollo.  I fear we've lost anything like the vision and drive needed to get back to this summit.  Watching the film, I couldn't help but remind myself that this wasn't a public or private enterprise, but a brilliant combination of what we are capable of when we combine our various talents and work together.

The next afternoon I was at Sting's The Last Ship, a heart wrenching and de-humanizing tale of conservative globalization in 1970s England.  I have family from Tyneside where this takes place and it rocked me - my parents emigrated from England because of Thatcherism and it nearly killed us.  As a pro-union story valuing humanity over the economic forces that diminish us, it amazed me that it was playing in the capital of Fordnation.  That the theatre was full of one percenters who daily throw people on the heap for their own profit was a disconnect, but that's Toronto for you.  As we stepped over homeless people laying on the sidewalks on our way back to the hotel I wondered how Torontonians can keep it all straight.  Perhaps seeing Sting is all that matters and the story doesn't, but it should.

The next day I was sitting in this summit on the future of work where well dressed business experts talked about how we should rejig the public education system to better serve their profit margin.  The Last Ship part of me was struggling with a rising anger, but there is more to this than just dismissing the needs of business.  There are a number of situations where what we do in public education aligns with business need.  A literate, numerate and digitally fluent population helps everyone regardless of the sector of society they participate in.  The digital divide we contribute to by graduating students with little or no digital fluency is hurting much more than business's bottom line.  From the point of view of digital fluency, business and the rest of society are in alignment.

If you're digitally illiterate in the Twenty-First Century you're in real trouble whether you're working in the public sector, the private sector or at an NGO.  It even hurts you if you're not working at all.  Canada as a whole would benefit from a more digitally fluent society.  ICTC may have aimed this summit at the needs of private enterprise, but addressing that new, digital literacy goes well beyond the myopic needs of the profit chasers.

ICTC's drive for a digital skills continuum jives with my expanded view of public education as much more than human resources for business.  Our country and our planet would benefit from more digitally effective citizens.

How to make changes to Canada's complex ecosystem of educational organizations was also a concern at the summit.  Canada was repeatedly criticized as the only leading OECD country without a federal ministry of education or a centralized idea of education, yet Canada performs astonishingly well in the world.  Could it be that our mosaic of often competing education systems protects us from the gross simplification forced on other countries by their profit driven businesses?  A centralized system would be much easier to manipulate and denigrate.

At the end of three days in Toronto I'm stretched between being excited about the ideas of agility and efficiency advocated in the Future of Work Summit and worried by the dehumanizing effects that globalization and business efficiency force on everyone.  In a more perfect world I'd hope we could chase efficiency for everyone, but it wouldn't be through profit, that only works for the fragile narcissists chasing profit.

Canadian statistics on employment by sector:

Canada's non-profit and charity sectors:
"The Canadian registered charity sector alone (not even including non-profits that are not charities) is bigger than the following industries (as a percentage of GDP):

Real estate and rental and leasing (13.04%), Manufacturing (10.36%), Mining, quarrying and oil or gas extraction (8.14%), Finance and insurance (7.1%), Public administration (6.33%), Wholesale trade (5.66%), Retail trade (5.41%), Transportation and warehousing (4.44%), Utilities (2.27%), Accommodation and food services (2.17%) and Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (1.65%)"

Downward pressure on wages - we have more and more people and less need for them...

Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Future of Work: Bridging The Digital Skills Divide

Bridging the digital skills divide
Once again I seem to have found my way into an upper management summit.  I imagine I'll be the only classroom teacher in there, but that's no bad thing.  If more front line people were directly connected to decision makers, our policy decisions wouldn't seem as fictional as they sometimes do.  The other nice thing about a summit like this is that I get to dust off and exercise the philosophy degree, which in a computer technology classroom sometimes lays dormant for too long.

The keynote for this summit is Cheryl Cran, an author and speaker on the future of work.  Her approach seems to be very human resources based, which is appealing to a teacher who works with those humans every day.  Digital transformation tends to diminish a company's need for human resources since it's really just another form of automation/mechanization.  Can digital disruption actually lead to better relationships with the humans in your organization?  Perhaps for the few that are left.  If digital disruption is going to lead to mass unemployment, then how effective our companies run is going to be the least of our problems.  Making too much of the human population redundant never ends well for the society that does it.  This is a very difficult path to tread, so I'm very curious to hear how Cheryl presents it.

Cheryl sent out a pre-summit Q&A on where attendees think the future of work lies.  Here are the questions and my responses:

1. In your opinion what does the future of work look like? 

The social contract between employers and employees will continue to deteriorate.  Private employment will be limited to short term as needed contract work for the vast majority.  This is dressed up in "always be retraining/adapting" corporate speak, but the end result is usually downward pressure on everyone's work/life balance.  The 'try harder' language of private business can get hard to believe when you've retrained (paying for your own training) multiple times only to be be made redundant again.  Meanwhile wealth is being concentrated into an ever decreasing class of ultra-wealthy entities.

Only the management class will still consider themselves employees of a single company. A universal wage may be instituted to stabilize and pacify a large under-employed working class. Even specialized skills will increasingly become redundant under more advanced automation.  This is less about profit than it is about control.  Machines are much less demanding than people.

2. What do you think are the current challenge for employers right now in regards to attracting youth to work for their companies?

Companies tend to approach employee relations in a conservative fashion with little change in approach from previous years.  GenZ expectations around work have been formed by evolving educational experiences.  With the school system no longer holding students to deadlines and graduation standards much more flexible than they used to be, employers find dealing with young employees who have never had to work to deadlines challenging.  Attracting youth to a company successfully would have a lot to do with clarifying expectations in the workplace and training to cover that gap between an employer's expectations and the young employee's experience.

3. What do you think needs to happen to prepare today's youth for the future of work? 

Our education system (in Ontario at least) has already started moving towards a universal pay standard by moving from graduation by proven skill to graduation as a general expectation.  This was largely motivated by Ontario's learning to 18 legislation.  As education has reorientated on a graduation for all approach, there has been increasing friction between graduates and workplace expectations.  If k-12 is an experience everyone is expected to graduate from, then it will fall to post-secondary education to provide support for students as they transition into the workplace.  That support is vital as students are not being taught that deadlines nor even attendance are mandatory.  If we can't train to bridge that gap, then the workplace itself will have to evolve to expect employees who may or may not be there and may or may not meet deadlines.  From a social efficiency point of view, that obviously isn't the way forward.

4. What inspires you about today's youth? Why? 

They are as bright and capable as any other generation.  Only lowered expectations create a social perception of laziness and lack of focus.  One need only attend Skills Canada Nationals or CyberTitan to see just how capable this generation can be of mastery learning.  Whenever I hear someone slagging young people I remind myself of all the great students I've seen graduate who have produced world-class results in spite of a system that did not encourage it.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Stretched Thin

I need to reflect my way out of a dark corner.  Yesterday I got some surprise PD on students I have with profound hearing loss.  The PD was quality.  The person presenting it was not only very knowledgeable, but she was also wearing two cochlear implants, so could speak from experience.  By the end of it we had a very tangible idea of just how difficult and exhausting it is for hearing impaired students to function in a standard classroom, and yet a standard classroom is where we expect them to thrive.

How do we expect them to thrive?  By depending on the teacher to differentiate instruction, use technology and modify their lesson delivery to reach those students.  Why that?  Because any other alternative is much more expensive and downloading onto teachers is the default approach to any problem from a cost-effectiveness point of view (that's the dark corner talking).

Empathy is my superpower when it comes to teaching.  It's a reflex I can't stop, but it's also exhausting me.  By the end of that PD I was emotional about the difficulties these HH students experience all day every day and wanted to do all I could to help, but I'm not sure how much of me there is left to do it.

In a capped-at-27 students open technology class where we are working hands on with 400° soldering irons, sharp edges and live electricity, I have two students who are hard of hearing to such a degree that we are legally required to address it.  I have 9 students, or a third of the class, who have learning impairments ranging from autism to ADHD that I'm legally required to address individually.  The entire class is also in the throes of puberty.  As an open class it contains students who range from gifted/academic and on track to becoming engineers to essential students who are functionally illiterate.  Some students are living in luxury and are about to take a three week March Break on holiday (I'm supposed to plan for that too), while others aren't getting fed before coming to school in the morning.  I'm supposed to engage all 27 of them equally and consistently no matter where they are using differentiation while also ensuring their safety.  Feel overwhelmed yet?  I do.  And that's just one class of three.  The other two have similar expectations around size and diversity.

I call nonsense on Lisa Thompson's assertion that teachers "have been handed control of the education system for the past fifteen years."  Illegal attacks on our profession aside, I wouldn't wish these learning conditions on anyone.

A long time ago now in Teacher's College we did a day on assistive technology and I couldn't help but think that this technology would help everyone learn more effectively regardless of where they were.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching technology is for how it can functionally improve us.  People who use technology to waste time and distract have missed a golden opportunity in my eyes.

At our HH PD the instructor ended with this cartoon.  It speaks to that feeling I had years ago at the assistive tech day.  The sound-field system that I now have not only assists my HH students, but also my students who have signal processing problems with background noise.  If everyone can hear better, everyone will learn better.  It also saves my battered vocal cords, which is no bad thing.  It begs the question, why we don't have sound field systems in every classroom?  But we all know the answer to that, don't we?

Of course, the first time I used the sound field system and got thumbs up from my two HH students, one of the four ASD diagnosed students in the room started to cry due to the overwhelming volume.  If I turn it down to the point where he is comfortable, my HH students can't hear it sufficiently.  When you cram 27 students into a room, all with differing needs, this is the sort of thing that happens, technology or not.

In the PD it was also suggested that we have acoustically effective rooms by covering walls and floors with soft surfaces that don't create hard, echoey soundscapes.  It was suggested that we bring in carpets and wall hangings, but based on health and safety responses to other brought in furniture, I doubt that would be allowed.  Having soft materials on the concrete blocks and industrial linoleum floors of our classroom would be great, but I doubt money exists for any of that.  It sure would be nice to work in a typical office environment, but we're not that lucky.  Plastic floors, plastic chairs and cinder block walls are where learning happens in Ontario.

We were also encouraged to remove ambient noise as it has a deleterious effect on signal processing and requires everyone to be louder to overcome it.  That increased volume wears out voices and ears and makes for a less effective learning environment.  That's why lawyers, bankers and politicians all have nice carpets and soft walls in their offices.

There is a lot of ambient noise in our computer technology shop, especially when you cram 31 students into it as my school does.  We happen to be next to the heat exchanger in my relatively new school,, so when the HVAC system spins up background noise thrumming out of the ceiling  jumps by 15 decibels.  The 30+ fan cooled PCs in our lab add to the din, as do the dozens of adolescents sitting at them.  A typical student needs a 5-10 decibel volume bump to clearly understand instruction.  Hard of hearing students need even more.  How do we make quieter learning environments?  By not building schools as cheaply as we can, but that isn't going to stop.  Well it is, because we're just going to stop building schools.

So, rather than provide technology and acoustically healthy environments in reasonably sized classes for everyone, including HH students, to more effectively learn, the answer is to download the problem on teachers.  At least then it can be said that we're doing something about it.  That's assuming things stay as they are, but they won't.

All this is happening in an environment of anxious uncertainty.  The general feeling is that Ontario education will be cut to the bone and what we're expected to do will only become more absurd in the next few months.  It isn't just in education either.  As the new Ontario cuts programs to support children with special needs, guess who will pick up the slack on that?  Yep, the education system, and it'll be expected to do it with less.  Fortunately they have a free escape valve, just ask teachers to do more with less, probably for less.

There are numerous places we could find efficiencies in education in Ontario, but thanks to trickle down economics you can bet that the majority of those cuts will land on frontline classroom teachers and negatively impact student experience.  Those higher up the food chain will make sure their jobs are secure.  The Heinlein Starship Troopers part of me wishes we ran things like the mobile infantry: everyone drops, everyone is on the front line.  Too many people find ways out of teaching and yet get paid more for it.  In my efficient Ontario education system everyone keeps a toe in the classroom and teaches.  No one gets to opt out into a support role for years on end with zero instructional responsibility.

I get a lot of satisfaction out of my job and have no wish to leave the classroom.  Launching my students into meaningful careers in much-needed ICT roles from workplace to university streams isn't easy but it is a real thrill.  It's important work for Canada's future and I want to keep doing it.  All I ask is that we be supported in that effort and not have the system punish us for its own shortcomings.  What got me down about this PD was that it boiled down to yet another level of differentiation I'm expected to deliver with little or no support.  That the system thinks this somehow resolves the problem is really aggravating; these kids deserve better.

I don't only cater to easy to teach academics (though my classroom is capped the same way) and want to see my full spectrum of students find success, that includes special needs students like my HH kids.  My goal is to maximize their learning and help them find their best selves.  Because we're working in ICT I hope this means they will find satisfying and challenging careers that will enable them to support themselves and their families in a very changeable future.

With all that in mind, I'm already stretched thin trying to teach with and around various special needs in a hands-on technology environment that is designed around thrift and the biggest caps in the province rather than effective learning.  That we're as good as we are now (and that's in national competition) in spite of all that is great, but the thought of things only getting worse is wearing me down.  If we're going to up the ante to 35+ students and cut budgets so that we can pay for increased housing allowances and make new jobs at EQAO, I'm going to have to start putting the things down that I don't get paid for in order to manage a punishing work load designed with generic production lines in mind.

Lowering my efficiency and not pushing us all to be our best in a constantly changing technology subject is the last thing I want to do, but needs must.  That HH PD on Friday only underlined for me how complex and multifaceted what I do is.  All I want to do is try and fulfill that difficult role as well as I possibly can, but I can't do it if the system is intent on being less for less.  Special needs seem to be the first thing ignored in the drive for a lower bottom line in the new Ontario.

If what's got me down are the dark headlines and ominous future of Ontario education, then I'm falling into the old trap that J.K. warns of.  What I should be doing is what I've always done, make best use of what I've got and try and reach as many students as I can.  Thanks to Friday's PD I now have some tech in my room that should help me do that.  On Monday I'll be speaking a bit softer but being heard better.  I'll deal with what happens later this year when it happens.

It happened.

#cutshurtkids #rallyforeducation #autism #Ontario #onpoli #onted #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA