Sunday
Jun092013

Reprint: I Walk To School: Observations from the streets of Guatemala City

License: Creative Commons, Some rights reserved by lastbeats, Flickr.

Note: This was originally written in Guatemala City in March 2011. I've made a few small edits since then. I'm reposting it over here just to add it to the portfolio. I still like it. Enjoy.

One foot in front of another, the throbbing of techno bass drives me forward at 129 beats per minute. The early morning sunshine is beginning to crest over the distant volcanoes.  The streets are still slightly damp from an overnight shower.  Noisy birds flit through the palms, and the air is thick with the fragrance of tropical blooms. Another day in Guatemala. Another day in paradise.

Walking the streets of Guatemala City has become almost an obsession for me. Daytime. Nighttime.  Pushing the limits of my personal comfort and good sense.  One of the most dirty, violent and dangerous cities in the world is a particular setting for a walk. In the last few years, more civilians have been killed here than in cities like Bagdad or Kabul.

Almost no one walks here, at least no one with any choice in the matter. Guatemala City is also home to the most dangerous city bus system in the world, and taxi cabs that leave trails of victims like smoke-belching serial killers.

And yet, virtually every day I face the incredulous, "You walked to school? Really?"

Really.

This daily ritual has become my most important political statement. I refuse (so goes the internal monologue) to give into fear, no matter how well-founded that fear may be.  I won't let the criminals and thugs steal that most basic freedom: the ability to move from one place to another on my own two feet. 

To hell with freedom of speech, I'll settle for simple locomotion. 

In the United States and Canada, it has become popular in dangerous city environments to "take back the streets". Citizens walk together after dark, candles lit, arms linked, through the darkest corners of the urban jungle, declaring ownership of their neighborhoods, daring the criminal element to face the collective strength of good and decent people.

I am not aware of any such movement in Guatemala, although it desperately needs and deserves it. The streets will never be safe, I try to explain to people, as long as only the criminals walk there. 

Initially, my morning route takes me twisting and turning through my relatively affluent neighborhood.  Patrolled by a crew of paid motorcycle vigilantes, it seems to be fairly safe, on the surface. 

And yet, within these three blocks I have cringed at the sound of not-so-distant shots, I have seen blood and bodies, and I know more than a handful of people who have personally looked down a barrel of a gun.

I lived for 34 years in Canada, most of my adult life in a city of comparable size and density to the Guatemalan capital. I never encountered a lifeless body in the street.  I've been here for 18 months and I am already numb to the violence. And yet I continue to walk to school, really? 

Really.

Emerging from my neighborhood, I am faced with Vista Hermosa Boulevard. Somewhat ironically named for a busy urban commuter street, it is perpetually shrouded in diesel fumes and lined with fast food outlets and strip malls pedaling surplus from local sweat shops.

Crossing directly across the surface of the road involves a Frogger-esque feat of agility, so every so often the powers-that-be have installed las passerellas - elevated staircases allowing pedestrians to climb up and over the busy traffic below.

This is the point of my morning journey where I feel the most exposed.  One staircase up. One staircase down. In between the only escape route involves a long drop to the busy traffic below.  Puffing slightly as I reach the top, I usually pause for a moment in the middle of the bridge, gazing down at the chaotic Central American traffic.

Pickup trucks loaded with gravity-defying pyramids of pineapples dance with motorcycles carrying families of four, sharing a single helmet. Old school buses, painted red, the anchors of the public transit system, crawl by with riders hanging out of the doors and windows. "Dios es mi salvador", the bright metallic decals declare hopefully.  Honking. Squealing. Swerving. Stinking. Above it all, watching, traveling by foot doesn't seem quite so irrational.

 

Until a shadowy figure appears at the top of the opposite staircase and slowly begins to make his way towards me.

Let's be honest; to a gringo walking alone, the definition of "shadowy" expands somewhat. A heavy, paint-stained hoodie is worn despite the heat.  Frayed jeans. Black baseball cap pulled low, obscuring his face. Perhaps just a guy, lucky enough to have a job, heading to work in the morning.

Surely the sense of alarm is merely an artifact of my hypersensitive state of awareness.  In this way, a walking alone in the city takes on a meditative quality: every detail focused. High definition. Head on a swivel. 

Glancing in the other direction I notice with some alarm that, in this case, my heightened senses have failed me. My shadowy figure has an identical twin, approaching me from behind.  Another black ball cap. Temperature-defying hoodie.  The same torn jeans.  Their matching uniforms seem to confirm my worst suspicions.

At this point, it is important to note that I try to recognize my own prejudices. After all, in part, it is my fundamental sense of equality that drives me to walk every day. Why shouldn't I walk the same route as a "poor Guatemalan"?  I'm not a better person: no more deserving of safety and security than any other human being.  We are the same.

And yet, as they draw closer, all I can feel is suspicion. Does this make me a bad person? Does it render my political statement shallow and hollow? 

That is the cruelest part of living in a city like this: the way you find yourself suspecting everyone, even people who are supposed to be your allies. The other good people. Other victims. People just like you.

As they draw closer, hands concealed in the kangaroo pockets of their sweatshirts, politics fade away and basic survival is thrust to the forefront. All that high-minded bullshit dissolves and I'm forced to question my own motivations. 

Do I really place such a low value on my own life? What drives a person to purposefully engaging in this sort of risk-taking behavior?  If I die this morning on this bridge, will there even be a slight ripple in the force? Will I be missed? Will it matter?

Deep breath. A quick glance behind me checks the position of Thing #2.  Chin up, eyes forward, I meet the stare of Thing #1. Onward.

One foot in front on another. Proximity dissolves away. Closer. Closer. Our eyes lock.

"Buenos dias," he says, flashing me a cock-eyed grin as he steps aside to let me pass.

"Buenos dias," I reply, nodding slightly.

Yes, I walk to school. 

For one more day, at least.

 

March 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday
Jun032013

Turning Off The Calculator

 

Reflections on Configuring a Standards-based Gradebook

 

Next year my school is introducing standards-based grading in the Upper School, where I am the Digital Learning Specialist. One of my responsibilities is digging into the settings and configurations of our electronic grade book, preparing it for the transition.

In case you’re not familiar with these sorts of databases: collecting, calculating, storing and reporting scores from different teachers and classes, for hundreds of students, is a somewhat complicated technical process at the best of times, let alone trying to blend together the data from two philosophically-opposed systems.

Good times. I won’t bore you with the particulars.

Thoroughly testing a variety of different gradebook configurations, mindful of how those configurations will affect teachers workflow is an essential part of this process. In traditional grading, this involves some math, spreading the final grade over the semesters and exams, assigning point values, weighing the relative value of a “test” versus a “quiz” and details like that.

It can be deceptively complicated to set up, let alone explain to a parent or student about how that meaningfully relates to learning.

In setting up our new standards-based gradebook for the first cohort of teachers, it turns out one straightforward approach was to simply turn of the automatic calculations altogether, using the “manual override” button helpfully provided by the software.

It struck me that this was a perfect metaphor to explain the fundamental difference in philosophy between standards-based grading and more traditional approaches.

Let me be clear - our teachers will continue to be rigorous, collecting the same amount of evidence they were previously. Likely, there will be more grading, since lists of specific standards and benchmarks will require a broader range of assessments.  

But the philosophical difference truly reveals itself in the basic nature of the data collected in the two approaches.

Traditionally, assignment scores entered into teacher gradebooks are, on a basic level, data being fed into an equation.

Assessments go in, final grades get spit out. Of course student performance matters - but so do the underlying calculations. Sometimes they matter a lot. Believe me - troubleshooting teacher gradebooks has been a big part of my job for quite some time.

In this sort of system, the idea of “turning off the calculator” makes no sense, because it is fundamentally based on reducing learning to a calculation. 30 percent for tests and quizzes, 20 percent for the final exam, and whatnot, is usually how it goes.

In a standards-based system, grades are better thought of as snapshots of student learning. They are indications of where students are at that moment, measuring their progress towards achieving specific standards and benchmarks.  We are still using numbers - in our case a simple 1 - 7 scale representing different achievement levels.

Besides being reassuring for college applicants, I think numbers can be useful to help teachers to be objective and consistent in assessment practices and communicating with parents.

But numbers representing positions on a simple 1 - 7 scale is fundamentally different from the sorts of algebraic calculations you see in traditional gradebooks.

A standards-based grade doesn’t reduce a semester’s work to final grade through calculation. Instead, those individual assignment scores merely answer the same, simple question, asked repeatedly:  “Where is the student, against this standard?”  

With this in mind, I think it is perfectly appropriate, philosophically and pedagogically, to instruct teachers to manually override their automatic gradebook calculations.

When you think about it, it is in the minutia of these gradebook settings that assessment philosophy is made real.

Still, trying to convince a calculator not to be a calculator is deceptively difficult.

But hunched bleary-eyed amongst discarded coffee cups, combing through help files and spreadsheets full of standards and benchmarks, I know I’m in the privileged position of being on the front line of progressive education.

Good times.

Note: As per usual, this analysis is my own and doesn't necessarily reflect the opinions of my employers or colleagues.



 

Tuesday
May212013

Compliance and Empathy: What to do with bullies?

by Michael Peters

International School of Prague


No matter how much effort you put into education and prevention, eventually every school will be faced with a broad spectrum of bullying situations, cyber and otherwise. A range of responses will be required to support the victim, of course, but ultimately something must done with the aggressors.


The consequences that are set for this sort of behavior must both deal with the particular situation and those involved, but also must set an appropriate tone, and contribute to a school environment where victims feel protected and empowered. Aggressors must be punished, and deterred, while getting help and support of their own.


I think the best approach will consider the issue both in terms of building compliance, and also empathy.


Goals


Compliance with community norms and school rules, immediately and moving forward. Protection of the victim from continued abuse is paramount. Cessation of bullying behavior and the disruption it causes to the academic environment.


Empathy. Wherever possible, consequences should attempt to go beyond surface-level compliance and attempt to develop a deep awareness of the issues, and the possible negative consequences for everyone involved.  


Disciplining Bullies: Principles and Basic Understandings


1. To be successful, any intervention, or system of consequences must be part of larger, comprehensive anti-bullying strategy with includes components targeted at staff, parents, victims and bystanders.


2.  In addition to the negative impact on victims, and the larger school environment, it is well known that bullies are often victims in other situations.  Whether or not this is the case, studies show that bullies tend to be at higher risk of depression, addiction, criminality, and other sorts of antisocial behavior.  Therefore, our duty to protect must extend to bullies as well as victims.


3. Studies indicate that a system of firm discipline, characterized by clear, consistent and predictable consequences is one of the most important features of a successful anti-bullying strategy.  Dealing with situations in an ad hoc manner is not advisable, and tends to work  against its value as a deterrence.


4. Notwithstanding #3, there is little data which indicates a relationship between severity of punishment and its deterrent value.  Most studies suggest that overly-severe punishments and zero-tolerance policies can have a variety of negative consequences, including increasing bullying behavior by further alienating the aggressor.  


In criminology, researchers argue that increased severity does not increase deterrence because aggressors don’t believe they will be caught - punishment doesn’t even enter into the cost-benefit analysis. It is more effective to increase vigilance. Increasing the certainty of being caught has more deterrent value.


This speaks to the importance of creating a school environment where victims and witnesses feel empowered to come forward. To that end, of course, punishments ought to be severe enough for the victim to feel that their situation was taken seriously, and that “justice” was done.  


5. Punishments should be delivered in a reintegrative way (by shaming the action), not in a stigmatizing way (by shaming the actor) Re-integrative shaming is likely to reduce offending, whereas stigmatic shaming is likely to increase offending.


6. Overwhelmingly, studies recommend consequences with educational and social development components over solutions which are totally punitive in nature. Most children are not sociopaths - they have positive values to build on. Consequences should work to correct the “mechanisms for moral disengagement” that allow essentially good kids to justify mistreating others.


One researcher describes effective discipline as teachable consequences, with the following components:


Effective programs:


  • Create reflection and acknowledgement that bullying is wrong by the bully

  • Drive introspection by the bully to really understand why bullying is both hurtful for the victim and quite damaging to the bully himself

  • Include a learning exercise where the bully is allowed to realize how bullying is damaging to our society

  • Promotes alternatives to bullying to address their own issues


Reading / References / Resources


  1. Helping Both The Victim and the Bully New York Times, July 8, 2010

  2. A Case Study with an Identified Bully: Policy and Practice Implications Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, July 2011

  3. Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: a systematic and meta-analytic review  Journal of Experimental Criminology, March 2011

  4. Teachable Consequences Blog, 08/2011

  5. Deterrence: Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment The Sentencing Project, 2010

  6. The Psychological Effects Of Bullying Last Well Into Adulthood, Study Finds Forbes, 2/21/2013

  7. Punishment and Behaviour Change, Australian Psychological Society 1995

  8. Cyberbullying: Using Virtual Scenarios to Educate and Raise Awareness ISTE, 1999

  9. Influencing Positive Peer Interventions: A Synthesis of the Research Insight, EmbraceCivility.org, 08/2013

Tuesday
Apr092013

Can Learning Be Too Personalised?

Note: This is a piece I wrote for ITSE's Learning and Leading with Technology magazine. They have a Point-Counterpoint feature.  You can read the whole conversation on LinkedIn.


In today’s world, virtually all information we consume is customized for us. In his influential book and TED talk, Eli Pariser describes the phenomena of “The Filter Bubble”, where algorithms in search engines and social networks make judgements about our needs, our desires, and our beliefs; and deliver to us a totally individualized internet experience.

This is convenient, perhaps, when Google knows that we are planning a vacation and automatically delivers information about the very destination we are considering. But when our newsfeed delivers us only political perspectives we already agree with, editing out the opposing viewpoints, this becomes problematic.

Education can fall into a very similar trap. Today, the usual suspects in “big education”, as well as disruptive interlopers like Khan Academy, are lining up to provide sophisticated technological tools to assess our students and deliver highly individualized solutions to their learning needs. On the surface, this notion is difficult to argue against. Of course, teachers ought to take the individualized needs of students into account. Of course, education is best served by tapping into every student’s unique interests and perspectives.

But this total focus on the individual can create another sort of filter bubble, one that emphasizes the things that make us different, rather than those things we have in common. It minimizes the value of working together, and sharing a common experience.

We seem to have lost touch with a basic truth: we may all be unique individuals, but fundamentally humans are social creatures. It is the way we live and work, and learn.

Perhaps, technologically speaking, we are approaching the point where technology can do a decent job assessing a student’s skill gaps and delivering a program to address them. But this doesn’t really authentically simulate an environment where real world problems are solved. Most often we solve problems collectively; in groups, teams, communities and societies.

So, education is only truly successful insofar as it can prepare us for applying our individual talents while working with others. This often means putting aside our individual needs. We don’t usually get to choose our colleagues, preferred learning style, schedule, or how our work is assessed.

Clearly, educators should care about the individual needs of our students. We may wish to nurture individual talent, creativity - even genius. To that end, some individualized education is appropriate. But as a technology focused educator, I am most excited about teaching tools that enable us to work together and collaborate in new and innovative ways.

Monday
Feb112013

Reprint: Brand Loyalty is the enemy of education

Note: This article was originally published on February 7, 2012 on Technology Integration in Education, where I am Blogs Editor and Featured Blogger.

Technology people tend to be brand loyalists.  It comes with the territory.  We simply love our devices more, we are more addicted to them, and we tend to anthropomorphize them, elevating them to a status beyond what is probably healthy when considering inanimate objects.

This loyalty can veer dangerously close to religious fervor: Apple vs. PC is to the current century what Ford vs. Chevy was to the last.  

For an individual, this is simply a harmless matter of personal preference. However, educators need to be concerned with the bigger picture. The major players in technology are now jostling be anointed the saviors of the modern education system, aggressively staking out and defending their territories.

I believe it is essential for educators at all levels to avoid picking a horse in this race. In both how we approach teaching technology skills, as well as in how we source equipment for our schools, it is essential that we rise above our personal preferences and critically examine the available options.

All private companies are concerned, first and foremost, with their own business model. This is true for textbooks, cafeteria food, and technology. I don't intend this to be a criticism, merely a recognition of their basic reason for being. One must expect these companies to operate in the best interests of their shareholders. Despite what their marketing divisions might say, they don't have a moral imperative to improve education, or anything else, besides their bottom line. 


The Google Example

 

Google has been at it for a while, offering up a bounty for educators. Their business model of providing tools at no-cost, and making their money on advertising has obvious appeal for teachers and cash-strapped schools around the world.

Especially since the tools are great: the search engine, of course, but also Google Earth/Sky/Ocean/Mars, Sketchup, Youtube, Google Body (now spun off into an open source project), and dozens of others:  all either groundbreaking, or at least extremely useful in the classroom.

Google Apps for Education is being adopted by all sorts of institutions and systems, all over the world, replacing expensive email systems and providing a free alternative to expensive software licences for Office-type software.

Recent announcements like Open Class (a complete, free, learning management system) as well as opening up Google Plus to young people are clear attempts to carve a larger piece of the educational market.

Ultimately, however, all of this innovation is designed to build loyalty to the Google brand and keep a stranglehold on their advertising revenue.  

Although not directly related to education, offering their Android operating system free to all device makers is an expression of this basic strategy - create something useful that people would otherwise have to pay for and give it away, seemingly for free.  In reality, we pay with our personal information, exposure to advertising, and by allowing Google to entrench itself deeper into our lives.

 

The Apple Example

Apple, of course, is another obvious example. Like Google, it offers truly great products that have the potential to change the very nature of education.  But like Google, they do so for their own purposes.

Apple has always aggressively pursued educational marketshare, but the full-court press to sell schools on iPads before a comparable tablet was developed was obvious even to casual observers.  Even before his death, the word of Steve Jobs took on a messianic quality. The recent expansion of iBooks and iTunes U, and the release of an iBooks authoring system, prompted the masses of acolytes to declare that, finally, Apple was here to "save education".  Thank goodness!

Their business model differs from Google's, obviously. They play on brand identification and loyalty more successfully than probably any other modern company. They like to run a closed system.  Despite the fact that they make the majority of their revenue on premium-priced hardware, their devices really don't play well with others, and they try to keep a tight reign over software and the app marketplace, jail-breakers notwithstanding.

This business model is extremely successful for Apple, but wasn't  designed with education in mind. For example, Apple likes their devices associated and personalized to a particular individual and their cloud, iTunes, and app store account. To configure a set of 25 iPads to be shared as a common resource at a school, a class set to be signed out by a teacher for example, is more problematic. Not impossible (I hear the Apple enthusiasts wailing), but clearly they were not designed to be used in that way, even though this is how disruptive technology is typically introduced into the system.

 

The Problem With Loyalty

My point here is this: companies like Google and Apple, and host of others, offer us a wide range of software and hardware solutions which can be used to be improve the quality of the education we deliver.  But they are not purely benevolent actors, like the family dog, deserving of trust and loyalty. They are in the self-serving business of selling you something.  

Both business models raise important questions for educators - should we trade away our students' surfing habits, personal information and attention to the Google advertising machine?  Should we be investing in fashionable and expensive Apple gear, when more affordable alternatives exist that could stretch education budgets further?  What are the implications for our students? Educators are the ones who ought to have the best interests of the students in mind. To do so, we need to think critically before being sold.

Blind loyalty obscures your true range of choices. Affordable choices. Innovative choices.

"Apple people" are typically willing to pay a high financial premium to use an Apple device. Mac computers can be many hundreds of dollars more than a PC with precisely the same specs. Many iPad users will steadfastly refuse to even look at an Android tablet, even though there are now some on the market which can compete performance-wise, and a whole category of devices designed to beat them on price.

Apple enthusiasts will argue that there is all kinds of added value to using their products, the quality of the equipment and customer service, and whatnot. There may even be something to that. 

However, I defy anyone to give an example of an educational task using an Apple product that couldn't also be achieved with a more moderately priced PC device. The true differences between the hardware are, increasingly, small ones.

Individuals certainly have the right to spend their hard-earned money however they want, following whatever whim of fashion they desire. But those representing the school system in some way ought to carefully consider the cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps, in the final analysis, schools receive enough value to justify Apple's premium-priced services. Perhaps not.

But I'm willing to bet that there are a lot of schools who purchased iPads this year simply because they were the cool new trend, without carefully thinking through what they would even be used for. I happen to work at such a school.

I don't intend to pick on Apple alone. The same phenomenon is happening with Microsoft software, and has been for some time. Schools still devote vast amounts of money paying licences for "industry-standard" Office software, even though OpenOffice and Google Docs perform essentially the same functions for free. PowerPoint devotees are not always open to trying the dozens of free web-based alternatives, from Prezi and beyond.

The explosion of open-source and ad-sourced applications mean that there is a good chance that there is a "free" alternative to any expensive software package you can name. Are there sound arguments for teaching "industry-standard" applications over the free alternatives? Perhaps.

But any time you are reject those alternatives out-of-hand, in favor of expensive established brands, there is a good chance you are being overcharged, and missing where the real innovation is happening besides.

Why try to pick a winner? What winner?  

Three years ago, you might be excused for thinking RIM's Blackberry was the final word in portable computing. Today, not so much. Once upon a time, Windows was far-and-away the dominant operating system. Today, the post-operating system world is right around the corner. Apple has transformed itself from a boutique brand and is now dominating the device market. But that is already changing as the market evolves. In technology, especially, no company finds itself on the top of the heap for long. Things can change more quickly than the typical purchasing cycle. Committing to one technology, financially or psychologically, might leave schools playing catch up later.

Skills shouldn't be platform specific.  

Both students and teachers should be taught the skills necessary to take advantage of technology, regardless of the name on the box. 

A quick example: as you might have gathered, I have never been an Apple guy, really. I've got an iPod, but I've never owned a Apple computer. I grew up using PC's, and since I am of "a certain age", I only ever encountered PC's in my own schooling.  

My current employer has both Apple and PC gear, but next year I'm headed to dedicated Apple school. I recognize that my PC-centric background is something of a disadvantage, and there will be a learning curve as I adjust to my new iLife. I suspect that the teachers and students I'll meet next year, exposed exclusively to the Mac workflow will face similar issues when transitioning to new schools or workplaces.

I posit that from a purely educational and training perspective, it would be an advantage to expose people to the gambit of available technologies and adopt a more generic approach to IT education.

It certainly helps that many applications these days are web-based, cross-platform tools. Of course, with more and more schools adopting the bring-your-own-device model, schools will look to create infrastructure that can accommodate different sorts of devices. These are all positive steps, as far as I'm concerned. 

I am no enemy of capitalism. Please do not read this as a diatribe against private business, who offer us no end of interesting and useful products to enjoy and exploit. But they are what they are - and defenders of the sacred trust of education they most certainly are not.

Fundamentally, they have no interest in improving education, except insofar as innovative and useful products are easier to sell. Being anointed the "savior of education" is certainly great for business. But educators are better positioned to be selflessly looking out for the best interests of our students, and the system at large.

To do that, we need to be the kind of critical consumers that are antithetical to the idea of brand loyalty.