Friday, 6 October 2017

Reflections on Reflections: mastery & expertise and long standing inequalities

The revive old post plugin on Wordpress is great (and
random) , and gets you re-reading old reflections.
Learning Expert and the Skilled Master shone a light on the
PD I was about to walk into that morning.
Things keep happening at work that I've just had surface online.  The resonance between ideas from years ago and now always make me wonder about the progression of education.  The more things change the more they stay the same, I suppose.

Last week before our first PD day of the year I was re-reading a three year old post comparing learning experts with skilled mastery (when you've been blogging for six years you get to see a lot of old ideas remembered).  

Learning experts are like chameleons, perfectly camouflaged by their quick minds.  They're able to effectively consume large amounts of information and present it effectively in an academic setting.  They are very proficient in communication and embedding themselves in organizational structures.  They're who you want to explain to you how an internal combustion engine works, but they aren't who you want fixing one.  Learning experts tend to have a finger in a lot of pies.  They don't focus on developing a single set of skills because they prefer the rarefied air of pure learning; they tend to be informational creatures.

By contrast the skilled master is someone who has spent a lot of time honing stochastic skills though trial and error in the real world; their's is a situated intelligence.  They might have an encyclopedic knowledge of their specialty but they tend to shy away from theoretical recitation in favour of relying on personal experience.  Their expertise is in the particular, not the general.  They are able to demonstrate that expertise concretely.  Learning experts shy away from that sort of tangible skills demonstration.

High school teachers are expected to have mastery of their subject area, but you'd be amazed at how many English teachers don't write and how few science teachers do science.  In fact, in my experience, the vast majority of high school academic specialists don't practice their specialty in any discernible way.  They come dangerously close to making that annoying Shaw quote look accurate.  One of the exceptions I've found is in the technology department where our chefs chef, our technicians repair and our materials experts do carpentry and metal work, every day.  Constant examples of their expertise pop up all over the school.

We spent PD last week doing the learning expert thing as we always do.  We began by being given statistics so laughably incomplete as to be essentially useless and were then asked to suggest sweeping changes to our school based on them.   After being handed a Ministry document so dense in edu-speak as to be practically incomprehensible (which isn't a problem if tangible results aren't a requirement), we were asked to apply whatever it was to how our department teaches.  We then spent time touching so lightly on mental health as to barely register our presence before ending the session blasting off into the school as the resident experts on it, ready to develop deep personal connections with all the students who least want that.  In the afternoon we learned how to make our own statistics to justify any course of action we choose.  At the end of the day all the learning experts felt like they'd done many things, I felt like I'd been desperately treading water for eight hours.  

I'd suggested the tech department head over to the wood shop and learn how to use the new laser engraver.  By the end of the day we'd have all been able to make effective use of a tool that would have offered immediate benefits to all our specialists.  It would have been a day of specified training leading to a clear learning outcome.  The benefits would have been demonstrable by everyone in our department.

Tangibles from our day of learning expertise?  Nooooo.  We don't do tangibles.

The sub-text of our data driven morning was that our school doesn't do enough to support our essential and applied students.  Seeing as we're not sectioned to run those courses and have to squeeze them into existing classes, it's little wonder they aren't being served well.  Rather than trying to pry this open with insufficient statistics why not talk to the actual problem (our essential sections are given away to a school miles away)?

Since then there has been some top down pressure on making open courses easier.  Essential and applied students don't need easier, they need curriculum delivered to their needs.  It's hard to do that when we prioritize running a dozen half empty grade 12 university bound science courses but barely any non-stacked essential classes.  I'm guessing because these stats weren't given, but we spend more than half our class sectioning to satisfy university bound academic students who compose less than 30% of our student population.

consumerist learning: less challenging classes aren't what students are looking for.
proliferation of fifties:  we already pass students we shouldn't.  How low should we go?
situated intelligence:  it's the only real kind we have. Everything else is politics.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Does Applied Mean Easy?
Today I was told that my grade nine classes are too difficult and I should make them less so.  I'd never heard this before and this one time it was mentioned in passing while on another topic of conversation so I was kind of stunned by the comment.  Seeing as I have a perfect pass rate in an open grade nine course, 'too hard' doesn't seem very accurate.  Do I push my students to do their best work, certainly.  Is it challenging?  Absolutely.  Do I expect a lot from them?  You bet.  But too hard?  I have some thoughts on that...

My classes are hands-on and reality is pretty demanding.  I can't tell a student they have great ideas like I used to in English when I was handed a grammar abysmal paper.  If the circuit they built doesn't work, their work is obviously inferior.  I can't tell a student that they're brilliant at coding if their code doesn't run, because it doesn't run.  Unlike slippery academic courses where students are producing abstractions within abstractions, I'm facing reality with my students head on, so being stringent with them isn't an option, it's a necessity.

Reality is all about mastery, not learning expertise; it's a boots on the ground situation, not a generals talking around a table kind of thing.  The students who often struggle with my class the most are the A+ academic types who are have figured out how to game school and get great grades; they aren't used to this kind of non-linear struggle against such an implacable foe (reality).  The people considered the 'middle' of our learning continuum ('applied' students) are my main audience.  My top students tend to be college bound applied students, though I try to tend to the academic and essential needs as well.  These students tell me they enjoy the demands I place on them because most other teachers take applied to mean just do less (ie: make it easier?), which I've never done.  Maybe that's why this passing comment stuck in my craw so much.  If the entire system assumes non-academic courses mean make it easy and fun then I think we have failed a large portion of our student population.  Education shouldn't be easy and fun, it should be challenging and satisfying in a way that easy and fun never is.

My grade 9 classes are hands-on computer technology classes that have students race across a wide variety of curriculum because computer technology, in spite of being an emerging kind of literacy, is treated as a dumping ground for any related material.  Electrical engineering has less to do with programming or information technology than physics does with chemistry or biology, but the sciences are logically separated.  Computer technology curriculum in Ontario is like taking SCIENCE (all of it, at once), and yes, it's a lot to do.

In TEJ10 I'm covering all sorts of not really related specialties at once, but I'm still able to effectively operate an open level course that delivers me everything from grade 9s who can't read to grade 9s who will one day become nuclear physicists, and I'm able to challenge and engage them all.  The only ones who might complain that it was too hard were also the ones that took a couple of weeks off each semester for a family holiday and then missed a pile of other days for reasons.  When they are in class they are looking for reasons not to be.  Anyone who is there regularly is engaged by the hands on and collaborative nature of the course.  I'm not going to dumb it down because it's an applied course and I'm not going to cater to the students (and parents) who want to treat school like a sometimes daycare by demanding lower expectations.

I feel better about this already.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Leadership is Exhausting #1: headships & heirarchies

Some people make leadership their life's work, but I'm not one of them.  I find managing other people tiresome and tedious.  The only time I pursue leadership is if I feel it's the only way to get things done.  Getting things done is what I'm all about and with a few exceptions I prefer to do it without management hierarchy.  I greatly enjoy collaborating and find few things more satisfying than a team working well together, but those teams are best when populated with experts pursuing their expertise, not when dictated to by a hands-off management expert.

I just completed a two year term as co-head of technology at my school.  The only thing worse than leading is having to go to committee every time a decision has to be made, which is what the co-head structure was designed to do.  Rather than get tangled up in that nonsense I focused on the things my co-head wasn't conversant in, like communication and encouraging department improving extracurriculars.  At no point was I embroiled in co-head who's-the-boss arguments (as others were) or telling anyone what to do, though this approached baffled many of the other people on the leadership team.  My co-head took care of safety and hard-tech shop requirements, I did the other things.  We collaborated on things like sectioning, though even here there was sometimes friction.  I wouldn't recommend co-headships.  At their best they are a compromise.

At the end of my tenure our department had re-established itself as one of the leaders in the board in Skills Canada participation, re-connected with board funding for technology and had become used to actually knowing what happens in leadership team meetings thanks to my detailed, live and often colourful note taking.  I think I left the department in a more aware and positively engaged extracurricular place than I found it.

I've been a drill sergeant, I know how to bark orders and expect them to be obeyed.  It is only in very hierarchical situations that a dominating leader can operate effectively.  The punishments have to be immediate and the focus razor sharp.  Everybody involved is usually willing to do this because you're training for a life and death situation so you need to have your shit together.  I enjoyed operating in an environment like that because expectations were clear and the efficiencies were obvious, but leadership in education is anything but clear on objectives and expectations (it's managed by politicians).

It is such a relief to put that headship down.  The lack of focus or clarity of purpose makes for a very murky operating environment.  Everyone's opinion is carefully listened to and then decisions happen seemingly of their own accord.  Having to listen to people who think everyone should do what they tell them for hours at a time in Head's meetings is one of my least favourite things to do.  Trying to find quorum in a crowded room of conflicting self interests led to never ending discussions that never produced conclusions.  A room where less was said for longer amounts of time I don't think I've ever sat in.

Now that I'm free from the yoke of leadership I'm doing what I do best and doubling down my energy on research and development.  I voluntarily took on too many sections of teaching again just to give my students opportunities to explore the technology they want to make their life's work.  We're taking a run at cyber-security competition for the first time with ICTC's Cyber Titan program.  We've already put together a powerful roster of Skills Ontario competitors, and I'm pursuing half a dozen emerging technology initiatives.  My seniors are building VR ready computers for schools across the board and we're developing ipad based software for DD students to better understand emotional expression.  We've repaired dozens of Chromebooks and other school hardware, installed software and enabled technology across the school.  We're also in the process of working out how to create immersive 360° video as an introduction to the school so that students can become familiar with the layout before they arrive.  All that's happening while I'm teaching five sections in three classes.

It's my kind of work; it's wide ranging, there are no right answers, there are no instructions because no one really knows how to do a lot of it, and it demands a real sense of discovery.  Isn't this just another form of leadership you ask?  I'm certainly managing a lot of activity, but I'm back to my flat hierarchy where I work to develop expertise in my students so that they can self-govern their work (an expert is defined by how they design their work space in order to display their expertise).  I don't want a production line, or even submission to hierarchy, I want experts I can collaborate with in pursuing solutions to challenging, non-linear, real-world engineering problems.  That might be the worst definition of leadership ever devised, but it's what I value, and it's the opposite of exhausting.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Management Expertise


This is a WIRED story about tech software startups in the Denver area.  In it a man who has an idea about buying insurance online has become a 'TECH CEO' even though he has no idea of what it is he is actually building.  With no background in technology hardware or software development, this guy is trying to launch a tech-startup with an idea and little else.

The quotes below are from the article.  The bolding is mine...

ROSS DIEDRICH HAD gone pale and raw-boned. The CEO of a year-old startup in Denver, he’d stay at his office until the middle of the night, go home and sleep for about five hours, then chug a spinach smoothie and start again. He was just 27 years old, but he felt wrung out.

He still didn’t have even a basic version of the software that he could demo—an “MVP” in coder parlance, for minimum viable product. Chris was still holding down his full-time job; he didn’t want to quit until Covered had some funding in hand. The lead development engineer that Ross had brought on, a big, quiet nerd named Jonathan Baughn, was juggling a bunch of projects and wasn’t as available as Ross had expected. But Ross didn’t want to put too much pressure on Baughn. As a contractor, he was within his rights to work for others. A junior software engineer Baughn had brought to the project, Reyna DeLogĂ©, tried to manage on her own, but they kept blowing past their self-imposed deadlines.

He navigated to the demo site, typed in his password, and tapped on the mousepad. Then he tapped again. Nothing happened. The demo was broken. “What the heck is going on here?” he murmured.

I'd feel wrung out too if I was building something that I had no idea of how it works and kept blowing through deadlines.  Demoing it and having it fail to launch and then having no idea why would be exhausting.

I would posit that you need at least a passing acquaintance with the technology you're pedalling before you try to claim ownership over it.  An automotive executive who has no idea what is under the hood would be a poor manager.  A head chef who doesn't know how to cook would be a poor manager.  A general who has never stepped foot on a battlefield would be a poor general.  A principal who was a disaster in the classroom would be a poor principal.

The film Steve Jobs does a good job of examining the contradiction of a manager who has no engineering skill:

Where Jobs diverges from the disaster described in the WIRED article above is that he surrounds himself with the most knowledgeable engineers - an orchestra of expertise, and then focuses on having them produce their best possible work.  An argument could be made for a manager like this, but not at the expense of engineering, never at the expense of engineering.

Your ideal manager must have some technical background if they are to work with skilled labour.  In the clip above Woz tells Jobs that he can't do anything, which isn't really true; they met and bonded over their shared knowledge of electronics.  Jobs may not have been able to engineer the devices he helped create, but he was very aware of the technology and how it worked.  With that knowledge he was able to gather experts because he could appreciate their expertise.

A manager who is only an expert in management is best when not managing people who perform skilled work, whether that be engineering or teaching or any other complex, skills based process.  Matt Crawford does a great job of examining this in The World Beyond Your Head.  In the book Crawford distinguishes between the skilled labourer who modifies or 'jigs' their environment to better perform their profession and the unskilled script follower who does what they're told in a prefabricated production line.  Being free to manipulate the physical environment in order to perform your expertise is a foundation stone of professionalism in Crawford's mind.  A lot of the downward pressure you see on worker valuation in education and employment in general is because of the Taylorism of workplaces into script following routines.  Making the end goal of education a result in a standardized test plays to this thinking perfectly.  In those prefabricated and abstracted workplaces skill isn't a requirement, obedience is.

An effective manager of skilled labour acknowledges and cultivates expertise in their people.  You can't do that without having some kind of handle on that skillset.  Being oblivious to how reality works and managing complex, skilled labourers who work in that demanding environment like they are a production line is the single greatest point of failure in management, unless your goal is to chase out skilled labour and turn your organization into a mechanical process where the people in it are little more that scripted robots.  There are financial arguments for that, but they aren't very humane.  We might not perform as many repetitive job tasks in the future, but if we remove human expertise from the workplace it will damage us as a species, and any financial gain from it would be short lived.

Related Readings:

Shopclass as Soulcraft: IT Idiocy, Management Speak & Skills Abstraction
Taylorism in Edtech
Implications of a Situated Intelligence in Education
A Thin and Fragile Pretense
How We've Situated Ourselves