Technology vs Creativity

I am stumped.  We have shopped over most of this city and it has been impossible to find a simple xylophone for our daughter.  Shopping for toys for her, I’ve noticed a troubling trend:  the vast majority of toys for young kids really don’t challenge them to do anything.  Most of what we have seen in the chain stores, like Toys ‘R Us, have a terrible thing in common.  You push a button and a million things happen, songs play, lights go off, etc.  She loves hearing the music and seeing the flashing lights, moving objects.  The technology is astounding compared to what I grew up with but a big, troubling question comes to mind:  what has she actually done to achieve all of this?

As I mentioned about in the previous post, in the last few years I’ve noticed two things about the students I teach:

1/ They are more comfortable with and better understand the technology I teach than students five years ago.  Doing some quick math, that doesn’t surprise me because in the last few years we have finally been seeing this “computer generation” that everyone has been talking about.  These kids are the first ones to truly grow up not knowing anything but this technology.  They seem to be so much more intuitive and understand the software so much faster than before.  What they accomplished with a completely unknown 3D modelling software in two weeks was incredible.  And it was done without me giving them any kind of a lesson on what to do.  They learned and taught themselves as individuals and as a group.  I was merely there to help them over a rough spot or challenge them to challenge themselves.

2/  Students do not have the same kind of creative spark that students did five or so years ago.  They can learn the software by themselves incredibly fast but really have no idea what to do with it.  What I see is a lot of mimicry and imitation, and very little individuality or risk taking.  With the 3D modelling, until they saw what I was creating (spaceships, a motorcycle with moving parts, a crazy-ass submersible vehicle), what I was getting was almost the exact, same, identical car.  There was maybe one out of the twenty students who was even trying anything that involved effort, thought or creativity.  Most, after making the car, would hit a wall essentially because they were required to think and do something themselves.  Merely pushing a button or assembling/repeating what someone else had already done would not be enough and it tremendously frustrated them.

This is something I have noticed over the last three years or so.  It kind of stumped me until we shopped for toys.  Some much of the “learning” young children do seems to be push a button and everything will be done for you.  As I tell my students, it’s the equivalent of a monkey in a cage pushing a button and getting a banana.  The monkey probably thinks it has actually done something to produce the banana and thus it is his work.  But what has he really done?  He didn’t build the machine, grow the banana, transport it, etc. but he thinks that the banana is there because of his work and thus it is his accomplishment when it is not.

Technology is a great tool but it seems to have become a cage.  Much is accomplished  with so little work by pushing a button but they think that the result is all because of and done solely by them.  And it is becoming more of a fight to make them understand that they have accomplished very little, that they are taking credit for the work of many other people.  No individual thought or effort is required and the results reflect this.  At a time when so much emphasis is placed on the individual we seem to be creating fewer of them.  When critical and creative thinking is what we want it is the last thing being required or encouraged.

Thus the xylophone for our daughter: if she wants to make music, she should be the one who actually makes it.

A Better Learner

So I haven’t posted in a while but for a good reason.  My wife and I adopted a baby girl in June and she has become the focus of our time.  She is happy, healthy and we feel very lucky to have her in our lives.  I’d always been told being a parent makes you a better teacher.  I can see how that is true.  She is also a great example of a better learner.  Watching her learn is fascinating.  Man, have I started reflecting on what and how I do things.  At 70 million new connections a day, I want to make sure she is making the right ones.  You can see her processing so much while she watches and listens to what goes on around her.  And the imitation part drives my wife crazy sometimes as she already picks up some of my “bad” habits at 15 months old (no matter how much fun they may be).

By far though, the most important thing she does is Be Fearless.  She is not afraid to try or do anything, oblivious to the danger or risk she is taking.  And that’s okay because that’s why I’m here.  She can push the limits of her learning and environment as much as she wants with me ready to step in when it does become too dangerous.

I wish it was that way in the classroom more.  In the last few years it seems students coming into my class are taking fewer and fewer risks.  They are just happy with what they see others do and imitating it.  My job has become more about challenging them to think as individuals and take risks rather than teaching them software and theory.  Not saying that wasn’t always a part of the class before but there was a balance between the two.  It didn’t take much of a spark to light that creative fuse.  Now, I’m getting scared to show or do examples because that’s exactly what I get back.  At a time in our society when so much of an emphasis is placed on being an individual, there seem to be fewer and fewer of them taking a seat in my room.  I don’t know when that risk-taking disappears in a child’s learning but it’s a terrible loss and we need to get it back.

D2L@DSBN Part 2

At the second day of training, Chris Freure (one of the course leaders) started us off with an article, “E” Is For Embarrassing.  In it a retired teacher criticizes the eLearning going on in Ontario.  As pointed out in the class, what their experience, background, etc is no one knew so who can say how true or valid the points are.  The bigger point brought about is that eLearning is only as good as the teacher.

eLearning is a potentially fantastic tool for the classroom.  Note, FOR the classroom NOT THE classroom.  Whatever else it is, it is only a tool.  When a house falls down you don’t blame the hammer and nails, you blame the builder.  eLearning isn’t failing our students.  A system that doesn’t understand what it is or how to use it is failing our students.  A system that is looking for an easy out is failing our students.  A teaching federation that does not have any kind of strategy for eLearning is failing our students.  That is a tremendous threat to the teaching profession in Ontario.  If OSSTF does not start acting on eLearning, eLearning will be used to replace us.

An article in this month’s Forum magazine Paths To Prosperity or Privatization? (pg 30) talks about the neo-liberal agenda of turning public schools into a for-money, private business.  eLearning will be part of this discussion.  Free-trade and technological advancement killed the manufacturing industry in this country.  Why?  You can either outsource manual labour jobs to cheaper countries or replacement them with new technologies like robots and computers.  The only jobs left are those that require a highly skilled or educated labour force.  Even those can be questionable.  In education, teachers who deliver content are the manual labourers.  And technology will replace them entirely.  You do not need a teacher to deliver content.  You can find out who won WWII with a five second google search rather than taking a five month high school course.  What you can’t google is someone to challenge you to question and understand.  That’s where a professional teacher comes in.

D2L can be the resource that gives us the flexibility to address the variety of individual student learning styles and needs we are expected to accommodate everyday.  By allowing the student to take more responsibility for their learning, we can take more time addressing their personalized needs.  Will this miraculous event happen overnight?  No.  It is going to take time for everyone (students, parents, teachers, educational assistants, administrators, etc) to understand and adapt but it will happen.  Correction: it is happening.

As said before, you do not need to be in Ontario to teach an Ontario curriculum.  All you need is a government or school board willing to approve the process.  An uneducated public will allow this to happen.  Expecting OSSTF, EFTO or other education unions to just automatically protect us is foolish: unions are only as strong as the support they have from within and without.  We need to build support by educating our members, parents and the public about the new role of teachers in education and the place of new technologies in that role.  If we don’t speak up for ourselves no one else will.

The Professionals Finally Recognized?

Way to go York!  D16 ratified an agreement with their school board yesterday.  The three local issues highlighted in the agreement are:

• increased involvement and responsibility of the union in the planning of the OSSTF professional activity day,;
• the board and district will form a committee to support school principals in staffing schools to best meet the needs of students and;
• an agreement to form a regional group of autism program teachers in support of students.

All three have an important theme: involving teachers in the decision process.  What a great step for the York Region.  Hopefully it is one that will be followed around the province.  The fact that they were able to do this with little bargaining power under an imposed agreement says a lot for D16 and their board.  Kudos, folks for being the professionals.

This is exactly what we need to see in D22 and across Ontario.  It’s about time the province and the education system recognized the professionals they are working with and involve them in the decision process.  While it’s a small step, it is a step.  You would think it is pretty obvious that if you want to know what students need to succeed the folks with the university degrees, specialized training, daily contact and wealth of education experience would automatically be one group involved.  While other provinces (eg. BC, Alberta) have recognized this for sometime, Ontario has not.  Instead an, at times combative, employee-employer relationship has existed where little consultation takes place between the two.  I heard speakers at Connect 2013 remark about the ‘backwards’ system we have in place here (Ontario).  Time for partnership rather than partisanship.  Maybe this is a start of a change and a beautiful relationship.

D2L@DSBN

What a great tool and resource for teaching.  I’m taking the D2L training and there is a ton of potential for what this system can do.  It is the same stuff that was demonstrated by George Couros at Connect 2013 in Blogs as Portfolios.  It can be a great way not only to deliver content but make students more responsive and responsible.  It could also be an excellent resource to involve and inform parents.

Now, I say a great tool for teaching and not a great teacher for a good reason.  There can be an evil side to this technology where the uninformed can be convinced that this replaces the teacher.  It doesn’t.  It gives the student the opportunity to be responsible and become a self-regulated learner by working through content at their own pace.  It does not teach them how to think.  It has the potential to cover two of the 4Cs, Communication and Collaboration, but fails to address Creativity and Critical Thinking.  That’s where the teacher steps in to explain, challenge and model these learning skills.  It will give us less talk time and more listening/one-on-one time.  Students can progress at their own level.  It allows an incredible mixing of media to hit all types of learners.  It allows them to be an active part of the process and so much more.  But the heart of it is still a professional teacher.

The training we receive is great but parents need to know and understand this as well.  Teachers do not deliver content.  We teach learning and encourage creativity.  Professional teachers offer a human element that the technology cannot replace.  That’s the message that needs to get out and fast before someone starts convincing people they don’t need a $95,000/year teacher if they have a computer program that can deliver the same thing.

The Day After

Well It’s the day after and I didn’t win.  Congratulations to those that did:  President Dan Peat, VP Protective Services Lisa Etienne, VP Council Services Shannon Smith, Treasurer Chris Prest and Recording Secretary John-Paul Cote (me).  Yes, I did rundown to become Recording Secretary so I would have a larger say in things with District 22 because RS is a voting, executive member.

Thank you to Darren Moore and Mike Breaton for running and taking the time and effort to bring their vision of D22 forward.  It is an exhausting process having to teach, campaign and continue with everything else in life.

As you can see, the blog still lives and has been renamed Teaching In Twenty Years.  This is now the focus: getting ready for what is coming or, for that matter, catching up to what is happening.

It’s tough trying to change a system.  Systems are designed to do one very important thing: continue the system.  Once inside it is difficult to see out and understand that you are a part of it.  My biggest concern will be moving this system.  What is coming will require a lot of change in teachers, OSSTF and D22.  I hope we are ready for it.

“If I had of asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” – Henry Ford.  It’s tough to recognize what is the future.  I hope we can before too long.

Stopping Declining Enrollments

The biggest issue facing us right now could be declining enrollments. It, along with our extra-curricular blunders, has caused chaos. It has closed schools, threaten jobs and moved teachers regardless of your seniority. We can slow this or stop this through two advantages: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and our school system.

MOOCs are becoming the future of post-secondary institutes (here and here). While some do see the limits or failings of them, online courses can be a boon for enrollment. If we can’t get more kids into the classroom, then expand the classroom. A school board in Michigan recently went bankrupt, fired all of its staff and ended the school year. This is opportunity knocking on our door. As I have stated before, you do not need to be in Ontario to deliver an Ontario curriculum. The same can be said of anywhere else in the world. A local student in a DSBN classroom is worth $1200 of funding. A foreign student $1600. What is stopping us from offering that school board in Michigan (or anywhere else) an online alternative to save money? Online courses run by Ontario teachers offered to anyone in the world. If the DSBN doesn’t see the value then OSSTF can do it.

We have a top four education system. If this was private industry and I had a top four world product, my first thought would be how to sell this everywhere. Here, they try to demoralize, minimize and remove the people who make it world class. If education was a business, we would have been bought up or bankrupt a long time ago.

Our second opportunity is the planned Niagara GO Station. Once built it will open up Niagara to everyone working in Toronto, Mississauga, Oakville, Burlington, Hamilton and probably more. Our lower priced properties can be a huge incentive to turn the Niagara region into a bedroom community for those trying to get away from the hustle and bustle. And the great thing about bedrooms is that they either have children in them or are quick to produce them. Why not offer a modern, world class education system to entice families to move here? Why can’t we, OSSTF D22, be the impetus to make it happen? How much this will benefit someone teaching in Fort Erie, I don’t know but we can come up with other equally strong ideas to help there if we work together.