Aside: My New York Story

I’m a story-teller. It infuses my work. I share the stories and realities of my life in order to explain points that I think other people could appreciate. Today, I’m telling you my New York story. It’s not rags-to-riches and I’m only triumphing over my own stupidity rather than terrible obstacles. I fight to give opportunity to others but my own tales are infused with my own levels of privilege. If that bothers you, probably best to stop reading now.

Like many New York stories, this one is all about how I never lived in New York. Losing both Bowie and Alan Rickman in a few days has made me think about that city again. This is the story of how I loved a city but we never ended up together.

Aerial perspective photo of a lot of tall buildings in midtown Manhattan, facing north to Central Park.

Oh, Oh! New York!

Even in the home counties towns in the UK, the adults spoke about New York as if it were Olympus, Shangri-La and a wild west town all rolled into one. You could be incredibly cool in Hampshire just by having been to America. If you had been to New York, and survived, you were some kind of god. They had different music, different cars, different money. In a Britain collapsing under the 1970s, America was a golden place.

I grew up in the 70s and was fortunate enough to hear Bowie hit the UK scene hard, to see early Doctor Who, to be mentally invigorated by very demanding progressive UK kids’ TV, to hear a Police album when they were just starting out and then, even more fortunately, we left the home counties and, because my Mum was amazingly brave and strong, we made it across the sea to Australia, where a better life awaited us.

I shrugged off Britain in weeks but New York never left me.

I continued to grow up in one of the Australian state capitals (Australian population is mostly concentrated into cities on the ocean) and it was nice, but it was no New York. I’m not sure I’ve told anyone this but, in my head, I was always going to America. That’s what success was defined as when I was a boy: you were a traveller, you did interesting things and that meant America. When every other Brit was going to the Costa del Sol and baking their skin, the interesting people were pale, thin and had walked around in magical places like Central Park, Times Square and along Broadway. They knew about music and understood what the Tarkus artwork meant on that ELP album. They even knew what “prog-rock” meant. They were art, life and wonder.

When I finished University, I started to think seriously about America. I had visited by then, and that is a story in itself, and finally seen New York. Mid-winter. Just after Christmas. Quiet and grey, on the cusp of 1995 and 1996. It did not quite amaze but it do not disappoint, even though I was walking around with a bung knee after slipping in unfamiliar snow. I began to think about how I could get there.

But one thing became clear as I thought about it. I didn’t know how to get to the New York that I wanted to be part of. I was creative but I wasn’t an amazing artist or musician and the New York I wanted to be part of was the bubbling, creative, amazing community of 1970s. I was a middling rhythm guitarist, a karaoke-tolerable singer, an abstract artist (I still can’t draw very well), an enthusiastic poet, but, mostly, I was a computer guy. I could go and get a job but all I would be doing would be living in (or near, most likely) New York and never becoming part of my vision of NYC. Tech support in Shangri-La was not what I wanted.

I had kept an idea of where I wanted to go in my head but I had never turned that into an intention to actually go there. A goal with no plans had turned into a life without much direction. (I was lucky enough to fall in love and start a real journey and adventure locally, just as I realised that I had never set my cap for New York, but that’s another story.)

There’s a poem I love, Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy, and it talks of setting out on a magnificent journey, full of adventures and monsters, in search of the island of Ithaka as part of a glorious ancient Greek adventure. But the most important part of the poem, for me, is the end:

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

As Cavafy and all of the Greek authors of myth before him note, the journey is the thing. When you arrive at your goal, if you have thought about it for long enough, then you may find it was not as good as you thought it would be. Memory may have tricked you, things may have changed. But if it caused you to start a wonderful journey, then it was worthwhile. No, not just worthwhile, it was magical. It was transcendence and enlightenment.

But, by not seeing New York as a goal and leaving it as a dream, I never set myself upon the journey and thus I deprived myself of both the adventure and the chance of achieving my dream one day.

Let’s be realistic, I was never going to live in the 1970s New York that I idolised, unless I found a time machine, but if I had actually made some career and life choices that would have seen me head to America in the 90s, I still would have made it there. It would have seen me experiencing a New York that, while not the one I thought of, would have been a capstone to an amazing journey. But, because I didn’t align myself to realise my New York dream, it didn’t happen.

My long-time love affair with New York was a fantasy and we’re both lucky that we never moved it beyond that point. I would have ended up being bitter and resentful, New York didn’t need another tech support person pretending to be an artist. You need more than attraction and the frisson of distance to have a relationship.

This year, I have reassessed my goals and dreams. I am deciding which of these will define my journey and give my life structure for the next decade or two. Where can I find new wisdom? Where can I find the experiences that will take me to new and amazing places, physically or mentally? I have been successful in a number of things but I really need to focus on the goal to make sure that I get the most out of the journey.

I’m not the same person I was back in the 90s. A lot of thinking has happened, a lot of growing has happened, a lot of love has happened. I’m more comfortable with the softer definition of myself as a communicator, an educator, an artist and even a philosopher. This small journey was triggered by the realisation that I had never chosen what to do or where to go. There’s a natural pause at this stage and it’s time to set a new heading. Where do I go from here?

The point of my New York Story is a simple one: assuming that nothing else gets in the way, you’re unlikely to get somewhere unless you actually set out for it. We often mistake what we’re doing with what we want to do, the necessary aims of our work with our real goals in life. We do something today because we did it yesterday and that means we’ll do it again tomorrow. Perhaps we should only do it tomorrow if it’s the best thing to do.

There are many things in my life that I don’t want (and don’t need) to change. But I look at Cavafy’s poem and I can smell the sea winds, hear the sails fill, and the helm is asking me where to go next.

 


A good goal

I set out to make this year an amazing year. A beautiful year for education. But it’s already challenging in some ways and I knew it was going to be.

cropped-dscn00371.jpg

You know what it feels like, sometimes.

What a great time to find this quote from President Obama. It’s one that I think everyone in education should try to remember and apply to what we’re doing because every time we have new students in our classes, we will never again get the chance to start well with them.

“I want us to be able when we walk out this door to say we couldn’t think of anything else that we didn’t try to do—that we didn’t shy away from a challenge because it was hard. That we weren’t timid, or got tired, or somehow were thinking about the next thing because there is no next thing. This is it. Never in our lives again will we have the chance to do as much good as we do right now. I want to make sure that we maximize it.”

State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama, 2016.


This is not a good day (Vale #Bowie)

David_Bowie_1976

The Thin White Duke persona, 1976.

We all have heroes. One of mine was David Bowie. Innovator. Musician. Technologist. Visionary. Bowie took Burrough’s analogue techniques and brought them into the 20th, then 21st Century. But he did so much more. His (now) last album is wonderful. I listened to his previous album and it made my transition to middle-age easier, because I could hear him exploring the same issues. Now I have the album he recorded in the face of death. Undimmed. Unafraid. Strong.

Whatever I do, I want to help people to see things as they are. Truth, in the classical Greek sense of revelation of reality, is what I’ve been talking about. I have been a Bowie fan, follower, and later scholar, for decades. I have no doubt that when David Bowie looked at the world, he saw what it was, what it could be and what he could do with it.

He certainly influenced me and made me think about what could be, if I saw it truly and pursued it with passion.

A moment’s silence for the passing of a unique and important element of our culture.


A quick note on direction

Wind vane

I’m getting some great comments, on and off the blog, about possible solutions to the problems I’m putting up, as well as thoughts on some of my examples.

Firstly, thank you, everyone! Secondly, I am deliberately starting slowly and building up, to reframe all of these arguments in terms of aesthetics, fitness for purpose and clarity. (Beauty, goodness and truth, again.) I am not trying to make anything appear worse than it is but I’m teasing out some points to show why we should be seeking to change practice that is both widespread and ingrained.

I will make a quick note that Raymond Lister raised about my thought experiment with the two students who split the knowledge, in that I don’t differentiate between skills and knowledge (true) and I am talking about an educational design where no work has been done to identify which areas have to be mastered in order to progress (also true). This is totally deliberate on my part, because it reflects a lot of current practice, not because I think it’s what we should be doing. I will be returning to, and extending this, example over time.

(Raymond does great work in a lot of areas dear to my heart and we will be returning to some of his work in our peregrinations, especially the SOLO taxonomy and Bloom’s mappings. Until then, here is his Google Scholar link for you to read some very interesting papers. And I could not agree more that there is no programming gene!)


A Year of Beauty

Plato: Unifying key cosmic values of Greek culture to a useful conceptual trinity.

Plato: Unifying key cosmic values of Greek culture to a useful conceptual trinity.

Ever since education became something we discussed, teachers and learners alike have had strong opinions regarding the quality of education and how it can be improved. What is surprising, as you look at these discussions over time, is how often we seem to come back to the same ideas. We read Dewey and we hear echoes of Rousseau. So many echoes and so much careful thought, found as we built new modern frames with Vygotsky, Piaget, Montessori, Papert and so many more. But little of this should really be a surprise because we can go back to the writings of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (Quinitilian) and his twelve books of The Orator’s Education and we find discussion of small class sizes, constructive student-focused discussions, and that more people were capable of thought and far-reaching intellectual pursuits than was popularly believed.

… as birds are born for flying, horses for speed, beasts of prey for ferocity, so are [humans] for mental activity and resourcefulness.” Quintilian, Book I, page 65.

I used to say that it was stunning how contemporary education seems to be slow in moving in directions first suggested by Dewey a hundred years ago, then I discovered that Rousseau had said it 150 years before that. Now I find that Quntilian wrote things such as this nearly 2,000 years ago. And Marcus Aurelius, among other stoics, made much of approaches to thinking that, somehow, were put to one side as we industrialised education much as we had industrialised everything else.

This year I have accepted that we have had 2,000 years of thinking (and as much evidence when we are bold enough to experiment) and yet we just have not seen enough change. Dewey’s critique of the University is still valid. Rousseau’s lament on attaining true mastery of knowledge stands. Quintilian’s distrust of mere imitation would not be quieted when looking at much of repetitive modern examination practice.

What stops us from changing? We have more than enough evidence of discussion and thought, from some of the greatest philosophers we have seen. When we start looking at education, in varying forms, we wander across Plato, Hypatia, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, in addition to all of those I have already mentioned. But evidence, as it stands, does not appear to be enough, especially in the face of personal perception of achievement, contribution and outcomes, whether supported by facts or not.

Evidence of uncertainty is not enough. Evidence of the lack of efficacy of techniques, now that we can and do measure them, is not enough. Evidence that students fail who then, under other tutors or approaches, mysteriously flourish elsewhere, is not enough.

Authority, by itself, is not enough. We can be told to do more or to do things differently but the research we have suggests that an externally applied control mechanism just doesn’t work very well for areas where thinking is required. And thinking is, most definitely, required for education.

I have already commented elsewhere on Mark Guzdial’s post that attracted so much attention and, yet, all he was saying was what we have seen repeated throughout history and is now supported in this ‘gilt age’ of measurement of efficacy. It still took local authority to stop people piling onto him (even under the rather shabby cloak of ‘scientific enquiry’ that masks so much negative activity). Mark is repeating the words of educators throughout the ages who have stepped back and asked “Is what we are doing the best thing we could be doing?” It is human to say “But, if I know that this is the evidence, why am I acting as if it were not true?” But it is quite clear that this is still challenging and, amazingly, heretical to an extent, despite these (apparently controversial) ideas pre-dating most of what we know as the trappings and establishments of education. Here is our evidence that evidence is not enough. This experience is the authority that, while authority can halt a debate, authority cannot force people to alter such a deeply complex and cognitive practice in a useful manner. Nobody is necessarily agreeing with Mark, they’re just no longer arguing. That’s not helpful.

So, where to from here?

We should not throw out everything old simply because it is old, as that is meaningless without evidence to do so and it is wrong as autocratically rejecting everything new because it is new.

The challenge is to find a way of explaining how things could change without forcing conflict between evidence and personal experience and without having to resort to an argument by authority, whether moral or experiential. And this is a massive challenge.

This year, I looked back to find other ways forward. I looked back to the three values of Ancient Greece, brought together as a trinity through Socrates and Plato.

These three values are: beauty, goodness and truth. Here, truth means seeing things as they are (non-concealment). Goodness denotes the excellence of something and often refers to a purpose of meaning for existence, in the sense of a good life. Beauty? Beauty is an aesthetic delight; pleasing to those senses that value certain criteria. It does not merely mean pretty, as we can have many ways that something is aesthetically pleasing. For Dewey, equality of access was an essential criterion of education; education could only be beautiful to Dewey if it was free and easily available. For Plato, the revelation of knowledge was good and beauty could arose a love for this knowledge that would lead to such a good. By revealing good, reality, to our selves and our world, we are ultimately seeking truth: seeing the world as it really is.

In the Platonic ideal, a beautiful education leads us to fall in love with learning and gives us momentum to strive for good, which will lead us to truth. Is there any better expression of what we all would really want to see in our classrooms?

I can speak of efficiencies of education, of retention rates and average grades. Or I can ask you if something is beautiful. We may not all agree on details of constructivist theory but if we can discuss those characteristics that we can maximise to lead towards a beautiful outcome, aesthetics, perhaps we can understand where we differ and, even more optimistically, move towards agreement. Towards beautiful educational practice. Towards a system and methodology that makes our students as excited about learning as we are about teaching. Let me illustrate.

A teacher stands in front of a class, delivering the same lecture that has been delivered for the last ten years. From the same book. The classroom is half-empty. There’s an assignment due tomorrow morning. Same assignment as the last three years. The teacher knows roughly how many people will ask for an extension an hour beforehand, how many will hand up and how many will cheat.

I can talk about evidence, about pedagogy, about political and class theory, about all forms of authority, or I can ask you, in the privacy of your head, to think about these questions.

  • Is this beautiful? Which of the aesthetics of education are really being satisfied here?
  • Is it good? Is this going to lead to the outcomes that you want for all of the students in the class?
  • Is it true? Is this really the way that your students will be applying this knowledge, developing it, exploring it and taking it further, to hand on to other people?
  • And now, having thought about yourself, what do you think your students would say? Would they think this was beautiful, once you explained what you meant?

Over the coming year, I will be writing a lot more on this. I know that this idea is not unique (Dewey wrote on this, to an extent, and, more recently, several books in the dramatic arts have taken up the case of beauty and education) but it is one that we do not often address in science and engineering.

My challenge, for 2016, is to try to provide a year of beautiful education. Succeed or fail, I will document it here.


Learning Analytics: Far away, so close.

I’ve been thinking about learning analytics and, while some Unis have managed to solve parts of the problem, I think that we need to confront the complexity of the problem, to explain why it’s so challenging. I break it into five key problems.

  1. Data. We don’t currently collect enough of it to analyse, what we do collect is of questionable value and isn’t clearly tied to mechanisms, and we have not confronted the spectre of what we do with this data when we get it.
  2. Mechanisms linking learning and what is produced. The mechanisms are complex. Students could be failing for any number of reasons, not the least of which is crap staff.  Trying to work out what has happened by looking at outputs is unlikely to help.
  3. Focus. Generally, we measure things to evaluate people. This means that students do tests to get marked and, even where we mix this up with formative work, they tend to focus on the things that get them marks. That’s because it’s how we’ve trained them. This focus warps measurement into an enforcement and judgment mechanism, rather than a supportive and constructive mechanism.
  4. Community. We often mandate or apply analytics as an extension of the evaluation focus above. This means that we don’t have a community who are supported by analytics, we have a community of evaluators and the evaluated. This is what we would usually label as a Panopticon, because of the asymmetrical application of this kind of visibility. And it’s not a great environment for education. Without a strong community, why should staff go to the extra effort to produce the things required to generate more data if they can’t see a need for it? This is a terribly destructive loop as it requires learning analytics to work and be seen as effective before you have the data to make learning analytics work!
  5. Support. When we actually have the data, understand the mechanism, have the right focus and are linked in to the community, we still need the money, time and other resources to provide remediation, to encourage development, to pay for the technology, to send people to places where they can learn. For students and staff. We just don’t have that.

I think almost all Unis are suffering from the same problems. This is a terribly complex problem and it cannot be solved by technology alone.

It’s certainly not as easy as driving car. You know that you make the car go faster by pushing on one pedal and you make it go slower by pushing on another.  You look at your speedometer. This measures how often your wheels are rotating and, by simple arithmetic, gives you your speed across the road. Now you can work out the speed you want to travel at, taking into account signs, conditions and things like that. Simple. But this simple, everyday, action and its outcomes are the result of many, many technological, social and personal systems interacting.

The speedometer in the car is giving you continuously available, and reasonably reliable, data on your performance. You know how to influence that performance through the use of simple and direct controls (mechanism). There exists a culture of driver training, road signage and engineering, and car design that provides you with information that ties your personal performance to external achievement (These are all part of support, focus and community). Finally, there are extrinsic mechanisms that function as checks and balances but, importantly, they are not directly tied to what you are doing in the car, although there are strong causative connections to certain outcomes (And we can see elements of support and community in this as we all want to drive on safe roads, hence state support for this is essential).

We are nowhere near the car scenario with learning analytics right now. We have some measurements of learning in the classroom because we grade assignments and mark exams. But these are not continuous feedback, to be consulted wherever possible, and the mechanisms to cause positive change in these are not necessarily clear and direct. I would argue that most of what we currently do is much closer to police enforcement of speed. We ask students to drive a track and, periodically, we check to see if they’re doing the correct speed. We then, often irrevocably from a grading sense, assign a mark to how well they are driving the track and settle back to measure them again later.

Learning analytics faces huge problems before it reaches this stage. We need vast quantities of data that we are not currently generating. Many University courses lack opportunities to demonstrate prowess early on. Many courses offer only two or three measurements of performance to determine the final grade. This trying to guess our speed when the speedo only lights up every three to four weeks after we have pressed a combination of pedals.

The mechanisms for improvement and performance control in University education are not just murky, they’re opaque. If we identify a problem, what happens? In the case of detecting that we are speeding, most of us will slow down. If the police detect you are speeding, they may stop you or (more likely) issue you a fine and eventually you’ll use up your licence and have to stop driving. We just give people low marks or fail them. But, combine this with mechanism issues, and suddenly we need to ask if we’re even ready to try to take action if we had the analytics.

Let’s say we get all the data and it’s reliable and pedagogically sensible. We work out how to link things together. We build  community support and we focus it correctly. You run analytics over your data. After some digging, you discover that 70% of your teaching staff simply don’t know how to do their jobs. And, as far as you can see, have been performing at this standard for 20 years.

What do you do?

Until we are ready to listen to what analytics tell us, until we have had the discussion of how we deal with students (and staff) who may wish to opt out, and until we have looked at this as the monstrous, resource-hungry, incredibly complex problem that it is, we really have to ask if we’re ready to take learning analytics seriously. And, given how much money can be spent on this, it’s probably better to work out if we’re going to listen before we invest money into a solution that won’t work because it cannot work.


Why writing 50,000 words doesn’t matter as much as writing one.

Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? National Novel Writing Month has been around since 1999 and is now far more widespread than national boundaries and has become relatively large, with 325,142 participants on six continents in 2014. The idea is simple: over the 30 days of November, you write 50,000 words that are (notionally) all directed towards a fictional novel.

I’ve taken part twice in the past and produced two … rapidly written works of fiction. I have never claimed to be a good writer, I’m certainly not a published writer, but I can put a number of words down on the page in a day. They even make sense, most of the time, and I’ve ended up with stories that real people have actually read and enjoyed!

I like NaNoWriMo. I like it as a concept, because it demystifies the concept of writing that many words by saying “Hey! Don’t get caught up on perfect prose, just start by writing.” I like the community because, despite the large number of people who show up and have no intention of doing it, there are enough like minds to give you support when you need it. I like it personally, as it’s a great way to get down a long draft of a work, even if you don’t do anything else with it. It’s a bit of external structure (and scaffolding) for those of us who aren’t professional authors.

Being me, of course, I’m all about seeing if we can get people doing something that they didn’t think possible, so I look at NaNoWriMo as a success for anyone who writes one more word than they otherwise would have in November. Sure, getting down a whole novel would be awesome but any steps forward are good steps.

We could talk a lot about how this kind of constrained activity can work in a creative setting but, if you know my work, you’ll have a fairly good idea that I think that everyone taking part should have “enjoyment” as their primary goal, with a possible outcome of their first long-form work as a happy side-effect. 50K shouldn’t be a burden but a guide. 1,700 words a day can be more manageable than many people think and, at the end of November, you may have done something you never thought possible.

Whatever happens, you’ll be thinking creatively and that, in my book, is always awesome. “Almighty creativity”, as the late Bob Ross might say.

I’ll be doing NaNo again this year and, if you’re thinking about it, check out the web site or my shortish guide to speed writing (AntifreezePub) that I’ve written based on my own experiences over the years. As always, if you think there should be a better speed writing guide, feel free to write it/find it and link to it in the comments!

I decided to have an outrageous book cover to inspire me and get me into the right mood. (Currently a working copy with placeholder artwork, as I have no idea what will make it into the final draft.)

TipCover-Sml2

Almost all of us benefit from writing practice and this is an interesting way to get a lot of practice in a short time. If you do it, have fun, and feel free to buddy up with me under the username jnick.