Friday, 27 March 2020

Surviving First Contact With The Enemy

The wise, Jedi-like Colin Jagoe posted a link about how the COVID19 pandemic is very much like being at war.  This got me thinking about how our behind-closed-doors / business-as-usual approach to managing this crisis has been... minimalist.  This shouldn't be about maintaining the organizational status quo, it should be about building a resilient, transparent and responsive approach to dealing with an unprecedented social engineering challenge.

The following reflection highlights how a transparent, communicative, engaged leadership approach helps mitigate one of the truths of fighting a war:  "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy."     In the fluid and rapidly changing situation we find ourselves in, it might be wise to lean on some military wisdom in our response.


I was an air cadet in the 1980s in Mississauga.  One of the major pillars of that program is teaching leadership.  I took summer courses on it and spent at least dozen hours over and above school each week working through cadet syllabus on it.  It's safe to say air cadets was a seminal experience for me in that it not only showed me how I can best fit into an operational structure, but also how to run one effectively in a changeable environment.

When I was halfway through my cadet career we went up to Base Borden for a March Break training exercise.  Pete Rudin was my flight sergeant and as experienced as a cadet can get being only a couple of months away from retiring.  I was a very keen new corporal.  Our flight consisted of about 35 kids ranging in age from brand new 13 year old recruits up to savvy 18 year old veterans like Pete.  We got put into a capture the flag game against other flights, but Pete did something no one else did.

While all the other flight sergeants split their groups up into the standard squads (one experienced NCO leading 4-5 very excited and inexperienced younger cadets) and ran things top down, Pete differentiated his leadership approach based on the human resources he had at hand.  His plan was to create a massive group of all the new recruits who were anxious and a bit freaked out and move into the exercise with this slow moving but unstoppable unit.  He knew he had a few experienced and gung-ho junior NCOs who wanted to run, so rather than hold them back in the big group he told us to recon where the other teams were and report back.

You can imagine how that felt.  When a senior NCO who you look up to acknowledges your esprit de corps and gifts you with a special assignment, your already gung-ho approach steps up another gear.  Things went as you might imagine.  The other junior NCOs and I ran off into the woods full of adrenaline and immediately began finding those little homogeneous squads.  As soon as we made contact we'd run back to the hive, usually with that squad chasing us thinking we were an easy kill... then they'd come over a hill and find dozens of excited youngsters swarming around our flight sergeant, and get retired from the game.

We began hoovering up squads and about an hour in I stumbled across the other team's flag - the one we had to capture that would end the game.  I barely got out of there alive (if they pulled the flag off your arm you're considered retired), they had two of their most experienced squads on defence.  I managed to get away and ran back breathless to tell Rudin where the flag was.  Ten minutes later it was all over as our hive swarmed over the hill into the dell where their flag was hidden.  The two squads they'd put on defence couldn't believe what was coming at them.  Our youngest, tiniest new cadet took the flag and ended the game (I think Pete made a point of that).

Afterwards, I asked Flight Sergeant Rudin how he came up with this bizarre approach.  He said something I've never forgotten: "I figured if I tried to keep you guys back with the big group you'd be hard to manage and it wouldn't help things.  We'd perform better if I didn't have to micromanage when you wanted to be doing something else that would produce better results for all of us anyway.  The little ones looked terrified, so I wanted to keep them with me and build their confidence."

We were the  younger team in that capture the flag, with less experienced NCOs - the other team was cocky and confident because they had many ringers.  Rather than open up the rule-book and follow homogeneous protocols designed around top-down control that would have ended up with us losing, Pete differentiated his leadership approach and gave each of his people just what they needed to succeed.  He also arranged things so that everyone was in contact with everyone else and made communication easier by giving us a clear focus to return to, it really was a brilliant piece of planning beautifully executed.

I never forgot that lesson.  In retrospect, it was the centralization of resources, clarity of the planning (it was all done out loud with us all standing around Pete as he elicited ideas and worked out what we were going to do), and the focus on communication that allowed it to succeed like it did.  Everyone knew what we were doing, why we were doing it and how to let the group know if it was or wasn't working.  When we caught the fourth squad who had no idea that three others had been caught by our big hive, I began to realize what that lack of communication was doing to the other teams.  No battle plan may survive first contact with the enemy, but designing a plan transparently and reflexively with clear communications channels allows your organization to respond to surprises quickly and effectively.

I ended up retiring a sergeant in cadets.  Others have suggested that only making it half way up the command structure is somehow a failure, but I don't see it that way.  I finished my career as Rifle Guard Commander and Colour Party Commander and occupied a specialist role in our large organization.  The metacognitive awareness of how I can operate most effectively in a large organizational structure was another invaluable result of my time in cadets.  I'm very much a sergeant - good at dealing with tangible, immediate issues in small groups collaboratively and imaginatively (handy classroom teacher skills, eh?).  Given latitude I liked to exercise initiative and move quickly - did this sometimes get me into trouble?  Yep, but the leaders I had recognized those skills and made a point of leveraging them.  That made me feel like a valued member of the organization, rank wasn't the only thing that defined me.

I was good friends with many of the younger cadets who ended up in charge of our squadron - many of them attended my 50th birthday party last year (we're all old now, so those year or two differences don't matter any more - but then they didn't back then either).  They didn't make rank about exclusion, privilege and control and they acknowledged their cadets' expertise and experience by making productive use of them by differentiating the roles they assigned.

This collegial and transparent approach to leadership allowed us to execute the cadet syllabus with precision and flair.  It also allowed us to revise and respond to the unknown quickly and effectively when on exercises, contact with the enemy be damned.  I'm really proud of the things we learned and work we did.  This experience has aided us all in our professional lives as adults.  This transparent, communicative approach has informed much of my teaching practice.  If you asked my students what they find most compelling about my classes, I think many would say that sense of agency - I acknowledge their strengths and honour them by differentiating their work.

I'm missing that transparency, clarity of purpose and engagement now, even though not one of the teens I just described had a post graduate degree in leadership.  If we are indeed at war as Colin suggests, then we need to quickly engage and develop effective communications and a clarity of common purpose, or all of those secret plans being developed behind closed doors won't survive first contact with an enemy we've too often underestimated.  Initiative is lost, but it's never too late to try and get it back.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Metacognition In COVID19 Isolation

The mighty Peter McAsh shared a link to Yale's most popular course: The Science of Well Being, which is designed to address the psychological misconceptions we all labour under that have produced some of the worst depression in human historyLaurie Santos, the professor running the course, describes it as a necessary response to the plunging rates of happiness in her students.  It's free on Coursera right now.

I'm only a day in and it has already raised a number of interesting questions around how I approach things.  I'm currently watching Martin Seligman's TEDtalk on positive psychology:

It's worth your time.  Seligman was a pivotal researcher into applying psychology to finding happiness rather than just treating illness.  I've since been sucked into Dan Gilbert's The Surprising Science of Happiness.  Dan's book was suggested in the course.  In his TEDtalk he's hard pitching the idea that our reflexive over estimation of outcomes to our choices makes us select things that make us less happy - we overestimate the opportunities choice gives us and it seldom makes us happy.  He gives the example of Harvard students who select a course that gives them more choice, but those choices produced a lot of unhappy students.  This has some interesting ramifications in a world where choice is considered a sacred right, whether it's choice of government, partner or anything else.  We've designed our society around choice, but choice is a mechanism that defies happiness.

If we're pre-programmed to select for choice (which I suspect is another word for control, even if it's just a false sense of it), and more choice makes us less happy, then we're pre-set to make ourselves less happy.  Our consumerist economic system and our democratic systems are designed to make us less happy - and they're working.

That I'm looking at this at a time when everyone feels hard done by due to their individual freedoms being curtailed by the COVID19 pandemic is pretty ironic.  Perhaps people will find some happiness in their lack of choice, but soon enough that'll all be forgotten as we struggle to restart all the social systems that are strangling us.

Some followup from day 2:

Materialists in college were followed up on 20 years later - there was a strong correlation between materialism and lower life satisfaction and materialism and mental health disorders.  Materialism makes you sad and ill...

The desperate grab for money defies description - people spend more on lottery tickets than they do on media and activities that are much more likely to bring them genuine and immediate joy.  Longitudinal studies showed that lottery winning doesn't produce happiness.  The more people get, the more they want.  Statistics indicate that if you're making more than $75k US/a year in the US (that's $105k a year in Canada not counting higher taxes and cost of living, so maybe $120k/year in Canada?) you don't get a statistically relevant bump in happiness if you make more money.  Instead of chasing more money, once you're at that plateau where money isn't so much of an issue, it's better to find alternative benefits rather than just asking for more money. 

Some post apocalyptic music by Sturgill Simpson helps frame the situation...

Make Art Not Friends

Lookin' out the window
At a world on fire
Flames see the end is near
Seen all the sights
Tired of the lights
So you can let me off right here

This town's getting crowded
Truth's been shrouded
Think it's time to change up the sound

Yeah, the wheels keep turning
The flames get higher
Another cycle rolls around

Face in the mirror's all skin and bone
Bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone
Never again, I'd rather be alone
Think I'm gonna just stay home
And make art, not friends

I love saying "No" to all the "Yes" men
Just to see the look on their face
I love how everybody knows what's best
But nobody knows their place

Sucker every second, stack 'em up to the sky
For every winner there's a hundred that die
So you get yours, stay out of mine
Here's to the memories, where do I sign?

Face in the mirror's all skin and bone
Bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone
Never again, I'd rather be alone
Think I'm gonna just stay home
And make art, not friends

Oh it's getting hard to find a good friend
So close the door behind you
Falling when more come in
Nobody writes, nobody calls
Nobody bother 'cause I'm over it all

Face in the mirror's all skin and bone
Bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone
Never again, I'd rather be alone
Think I'm gonna just stay home
Think about my friends

Sunday, 22 March 2020

COVID19: Desperate Times Call for Tangible Measures

My first instinct is to show some initiative and begin solving problems when things get difficult.  I'm frustrated at the lack of transparency, communication and minimal focus on effective learning process going forward.  Had I any say in how things are going down I'd break this down into two approaches:

One unit would be working to immediately attempt to address digital divide issues and try and close the gap on the number of students without technology or connectivity at home to as close to zero as possible.  This would also have the benefit of connecting poor families as well as their children to the major source of communication the rest of us share these days.

The other unit would set up online learning officers at each school board who have the latitude to make agile changes to organize staff so that they are able to communicate with students and leverage existing digital communications to try and provide genuine alternative programming that will allow students to resume their face to face studies eventually without the time away being a complete loss.  Throwing out generic material online isn't going to do any of that.

Being an ex-IT technician I'm very interested in trying to quickly resolve the logistical and technical issues around the digital divide:  Dusty World: Exceptional Times: Using a Pandemic to Close the Digital Divide.  I'd leave the people management to others better suited to it.

At times like this the top heavy nature of Ontario Education with all the ministries, unions, boards, colleges and goodness knows what else, really comes into focus.  We're unable to put the focus where it should be (on enabling student learning, remember?) because they're all too busy getting in each other's way.

I was involved in a VoicED podcast yesterday on how student privacy could be compromised as we rapidly migrate online in response to the pandemic:  EP 06 – Special Pandemic Edition: Transforming Education Under Pressure | voicEd 

Student data privacy is already quite opaque and uncertain with boards all doing it differently, or not at all, with little ministry of government oversight and many questions around who has access to what.  A sudden shift online is only likely to make things worse, but it's also an opportunity.  An opportunity to begin seriously teaching digital skills in a coherent and meaningful way instead of the piecemeal curriculum we've cobbled together to date.  With better digital fluency will come a more responsive and effective online learning response to this pandemic.

If this situation has shown anything, it's that digital communications are vital in creating a coherent social response to this crisis.  Closing the digital divide would not only help those students on the wrong side of it, but would also create a more inclusive Canada.  We couldn't be bothered to do it when life was easy, but maybe we could do it now when life is hard.

I'll end this with the 3 suggestions I ended the podcast with:

1) Use existing board walled gardens (UGDSB's UGcloud is particularly well put together) - that's vetted material in a secure environment - all UGDSB students will know how to use it too. Whichever board your child is in, there will be an educational technology equivalent where they can work in a protected space... and communicate with classmates and teachers!
2) Parents shouldn't stress out because of all the 'we're giving you the tools to home-school' rhetoric coming out of the government. No one expects you do get a degree in teaching and begin doing it effectively. This piece from the NY Times might talk you down a bit:  Keep in mind that the 'anyone can teach' nonsense is recent Ontario government rhetoric and not true.  Putting that expectation on yourself at this difficult time isn't fair to you or your family.

3) Talk to your kids' teachers! If you're in my board you have online access on UGcloud to do this - most other boards have similar systems. The vast majority of us want to help and want to do something. We're generally frustrated at all the suits who keep telling us not to.  We should be signing out laptops to the students who need them and providing internet for those without, not doing PR and wringing our hands about liability.

What does UNICEF say?
“Children need structure. Full stop. And what we’re all having to do, very quickly, is invent entirely new structures to get every one of us through our days” - so 'look after yourselves for two weeks' isn't helpful according to psychologists...

Discussions about this are happening in many places:
... just not where they should be happening between ministry, boards and teachers.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Exceptional Times: Using a Pandemic to Close the Digital Divide

Thoughts from the depths of the COVID19 pandemic: Rather than give in to the digital divide in times of crisis, why not leverage this moment and make moves to resolve it?


It has been suggested that due to the inequity of access to technology and internet, our education system should shut down during the COVID19 pandemic.  Rather than surrender to this inequity why not attempt to address it directly?  We could leverage all the digital technology we have sitting fallow in closed schools and sign it out one to one for every student in need.  If this goes on longer then connecting with educational technology charities like Computers for Schools would allow us to quickly get technology permanently into the hands of students without it.  We could approach this crisis as an opportunity to do something we should have been doing when things were in better shape, working to close the digital divide for all our students on the wrong side of it.

At the same time we could offer limited access to our public school library learning commons where students would have access to internet.  With appropriate safety precautions (limited numbers allowed, strict hygiene practices, solo seating arrangements), we could take immediate steps to bridge the lack of connectivity and allow some form of education to continue for students across Canada.  At a time of isolation, our poorest students are doubly so because they can't get online  Simply turning off the education system for months at a time will cause lasting damage for millions of students.  In the meantime, the ones who have always suffered on the wrong side of the digital divide are in even worse shape.

This is a measured and logical approach to resolving the digital divide (a lack of educational technology access to all students)  that has long plagued education.  Rather than having this pandemic make it worse, why not leverage it to make it better?

Handing out one to one technology for students in need so we can keep moving everyone forward educationally wouldn't be as expensive as you might think and the alternative is significantly more costly.  Our public schools have developed the network infrastructure necessary to provide internet, so limited access to that infrastructure could still address the needs of social distancing while providing connectivity that is vital to us battling this pandemic as a collective.  Those students aren't the only ones who would benefit, their entire families would, and so would society itself.

Companies like LOON are already building last mile
like this.  Partnering with Ontario schools
would mean internet at home for almost every student.
If this pandemic has shown anything, it's that our ICT infrastructure is more vital than ever if we're going to move against this crisis in a coordinated manner; communication is key.  There are existing technologies we could apply to extend school and municipal wireless networking out into the communities that surround them.  With fundamental networking infrastructure in place, some innovative final mile solutions (like Blimpernet - an idea that my students and I came up with last year) could make the internet available to many more Canadians just when we need it.  Google is already well down this road with their #LOONproject, which works right now and could provide emergency connectivity for almost every Canadian for up to 100 days at a time.  We could eradicate a problem that has been plaguing us as a society since the majority of us went online; getting everyone connected.

Seems like a no brainer with so few planes in the sky, no?

Wouldn't it be something if one of the lasting legacies of this pandemic was that it helped us close the digital divide and improve equity through access to technology in our schools and society in general?  That it would also allow our education systems to continue in a limited capacity instead of shutting down is a consequence that would benefit all Canadians.


I sent this to a number of MPs as well as the PM.  I only hope a measured, reasonable response is still in the cards.  If you feel the same way, forward it to your elected representatives.