EduTech AU 2015, Day 2, Higher Ed Leaders, “Innovation + Technology = great change to higher education”, #edutechau

Big session today. We’re starting with Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), an initiative to create/provide affordable educational devices for children in the developing world. (Nicholas is coming to us via video conference, hooray, 21st Century, so this may or not work well in translation to blogging. Please bear with me if it’s a little disjointed.)

Nicholas would rather be here but he’s bravely working through his first presentation of this type! It’s going to be a presentation with some radical ideas so he’s hoping for conversation and debate. The presentation is broken into five parts:

  1. Learning learning. (Teaching and learning as separate entities.)
  2. What normal market forces will not do. (No real surprise that standard market forces won’t work well here.)
  3. Education without curricula. (Learning comes from many places and situations. Understanding and establishing credibility.)
  4. Where do new ideas come from? (How do we get them, how do we not get in the way.)
  5. Connectivity as a human right. (Is connectivity a human right or a means to rights such as education and healthcare? Human rights are free so that raises a lot of issues.

Nicholas then drilled down in “Learning learning”, starting with a reference to Seymour Papert, and Nicholas reflected on the sadness of the serious accident of Seymour’s health from a personal perspective. Nicholas referred to Papert’s and Minsky’s work on trying to understand how children and machines learned respectively. In 1968, Seymour started thinking about it and on April, 9, 1970, he gave a talk on his thoughts. Seymour realised that thinking about programs gave insight into thinking, relating to the deconstruction and stepwise solution building (algorithmic thinking) that novice programmers, such as children, had to go through.

These points were up on the screen as Nicholas spoke:

  1. Construction versus instruction
  2. Why reinventing the wheel is good
  3. Coding as thinking about thinking

How do we write code? Write it, see if it works, see which behaviours we have that aren’t considered working, change the code (in an informed way, with any luck) and try again. (It’s a little more complicated than that but that’s the core.) We’re now into the area of transferable skills – it appeared that children writing computer programs learned a skill that transferred over into their ability to spell, potentially from the methodical application of debugging techniques.

Nicholas talked about a spelling bee system where you would focus on the 8 out of 10 you got right and ignore the 2 you didn’t get. The ‘debugging’ kids would talk about the ones that they didn’t get right because they were analsysing their mistakes, as a peer group and as individual reflection.

Nicholas then moved on to the failure of market forces. Why does Finland do so well when they don’t have tests, homework and the shortest number of school hours per day and school days per year. One reason? No competition between children. No movement of core resources into the private sector (education as poorly functioning profit machine). Nicholas identified the core difference between the mission and the market, which beautifully summarises my thinking.

The OLPC program started in Cambodia for a variety of reasons, including someone associated with the lab being a friend of the King. OLPC laptops could go into areas where the government wasn’t providing schools for safety reasons, as it needed minesweepers and the like. Nicholas’ son came to Cambodia from Italy to connect up the school to the Internet. What would the normal market not do? Telecoms would come and get cheaper. Power would come and get cheaper. Laptops? Hmm. The software companies were pushing the hardware companies, so they were both caught in a spiral of increasing power consumption for utility. Where was the point where we could build a simple laptop, as a mission of learning, that could have a smaller energy footprint and bring laptops and connectivity to billions of people.

This is one of the reasons why OLPC is a non-profit – you don’t have to sell laptops to support the system, you’re supporting a mission. You didn’t need to sell or push to justify staying in a market, as the production volume was already at a good price. Why did this work well? You can make partnerships that weren’t possible otherwise. It derails the “ah, you need food and shelter first” argument because you can change the “why do we need a laptop” argument to “why do we need education?” at which point education leads to increased societal conditions. Why laptops? Tablets are more consumer-focused than construction-focused. (Certainly true of how I use my tech.)

(When we launched the first of the Digital Technologies MOOCs, the deal we agreed upon with Google was that it wasn’t a profit-making venture at all. It never will be. Neither we nor Google make money from the support of teachers across Australia so we can have all of the same advantages as they mention above: open partnerships, no profit motive, working for the common good as a mission of learning and collegial respect. Highly recommended approach, if someone is paying you enough to make your rent and eat. The secret truth of academia is that they give you money to keep you housed, clothed and fed while you think. )

Nicholas told a story of kids changing from being scared or bored of school to using an approach that brings kids flocking in. A great measure of success.

Now, onto Education without curricula, starting by talking public versus private. This is a sensitive subject for many people. The biggest problem for public education in many cases is the private educational system, dragging out caring educators to a closed system. Remember Finland? There are no public schools and their educational system is astoundingly good. Nicholas’ points were:

  1. Public versus private
  2. Age segregation
  3. Stop testing. (Yay!)

The public sector is losing the imperative of the civic responsibility for education. Nicholas thinks it doesn’t make sense that we still segregate by ages as a hard limit. He thinks we should get away from breaking it into age groups, as it doesn’t clearly reflect where students are at.

Oh, testing. Nicholas correctly labelled the parental complicity in the production of the testing pressure cooker. “You have to get good grades if you’re going to Princeton!” The testing mania is dominating institutions and we do a lot of testing to measure and rank children, rather than determining competency. Oh, so much here. Testing leads to destructive behaviour.

So where do new ideas come from? (A more positive note.) Nicholas is interested in Higher Ed as sources of new ideas. Why does HE exist, especially if we can do things remotely or off campus? What is the role of the Uni in the future? Ha! Apparently, when Nicholas started the MIT media lab, he was accused of starting a sissy lab with artists and soft science… oh dear, that’s about as wrong as someone can get. His use of creatives was seen as soft when, of course, using creative users addressed two issues to drive new ideas: a creative approach to thinking and consulting with the people who used the technology. Who really invented photography? Photographers. Three points from this section.

  1. Children: our most precious natural resource
  2. Incrementalism is the enemy of creativity
  3. Brain drain

On the brain drain, we lose many, many students to other places. Uni are a place to solve huge problems rather than small, profit-oriented problems. The entrepreneurial focus leads to small problem solution, which is sucking a lot of big thinking out of the system. The app model is leading to a human resource deficit because the start-up phenomenon is ripping away some of our best problem solvers.

Finally, to connectivity as a human right. This is something that Nicholas is very, very passionate about. Not content. Not laptops. Being connected.  Learning, education, and access to these, from early in life to the end of life – connectivity is the end of isolation. Isolation comes in many forms and can be physical, geographical and social. Here are Nicholas’ points:

  1. The end of isolation.
  2. Nationalism is a disease (oh, so much yes.) Nations are the wrong taxonomy for the world.
  3. Fried eggs and omelettes.

Fried eggs and omelettes? In general, the world had crisp boundaries, yolk versus white. At work/at home. At school/not at school. We are moving to a more blended, less dichotomous approach because we are mixing our lives together. This is both bad (you’re getting work in my homelife) and good (I’m getting learning in my day).

Can we drop kids into a reading environment and hope that they’ll learn to read? Reading is only 3,500 years old, versus our language skills, so it has to be learned. But do we have to do it the way that we did it? Hmm. Interesting questions. This is where the tablets were dropped into illiterate villages without any support. (Does this require a seed autodidact in the group? There’s a lot to unpack it.) Nicholas says he made a huge mistake in naming the village in Ethiopia which has corrupted the experiment but at least the kids are getting to give press conferences!

Another massive amount of interesting information – sadly, no question time!


Ending the Milling Mindset

This is the second in a set of posts that are critical of current approaches to education. In this post, I’m going to extend the idea of rejecting an industrial revolutionary model of student production and match our new model for manufacturing, additive processes, to a new way to produce students. (I note that this is already happening in a number of places, so I’m not claiming some sort of amazing vision here, but I wanted to share the idea more widely.)

Traditional statistics is often taught with an example where you try to estimate how well a manufacturing machine is performing by measuring its outputs. You determine the mean and variation of the output and then use some solid calculations to then determine if the machine is going to produce a sufficient number of accurately produced widgets to keep your employers at WidgetCo happy. This is an important measure for things such as getting the weight right across a number of bags of rice or correctly producing bottles that hold the correct volume of wine. (Consumers get cranky if some bags are relatively empty or they have lost a glass of wine due to fill variations.)

If we are measuring this ‘fill’ variation, then we are going to expect deviation from the mean in two directions: too empty and too full. Very few customers are going to complain about too much but the size of the variation can rarely be constrained in just one direction, so we need to limit how widely that fill needle swings. Obviously, it is better to be slightly too full (on average) than too empty (on average) although if we are too generous then the producer loses money. Oh, money, how you make us think in such scrubby, little ways.

When it comes to producing items, rather than filling, we often use a machine milling approach, where a block of something is etched away through mechanical or chemical processes until we are left with what we want. Here, our tolerance for variation will be set based on the accuracy of our mill to reproduce the template.

In both the fill and the mill cases, imagine a production line that travels on a single pass through loading, activity (fill/mill) and then measurement to determine how well this unit conforms to the desired level. What happens to those items that don’t meet requirements? Well, if we catch them early enough then, if it’s cost effective, we can empty the filled items back into a central store and pass them through again – but this is wasteful in terms of cost and energy, not to mention that contents may not be able to be removed and then put back in again. In the milling case, the most likely deviance is that we’ve got the milling process wrong and taken away things in the wrong place or to the wrong extent. Realistically, while some cases of recycling the rejects can occur, a lot of rejected product is thrown away.

If we run our students as if they are on a production line along these lines then, totally unsurprisingly, we start to set up a nice little reject pile of our own. The students have a single pass through a set of assignments, often without the ability to go and retake a particular learning activity. If they fail sufficient of these tests, then they don’t meet our requirements and they are rejected from that course. Now some students will over perform against our expectations and, one small positive, they will then be recognised as students of distinction and not rejected. However, if we consider our student failure rate to reflect our production wastage, then failure rates of 20% or higher start to look a little… inefficient. These failure rates are only economically manageable (let us switch off our ethical brains for a moment) if we have enough students or they are considered sufficiently cheap that we can produce at 80% and still make money. (While some production lines would be crippled by a 10% failure rate, for something like electric drive trains for cars, there are some small and cheap items where there is a high failure rate but the costing model allows the business to stay economical.) Let us be honest – every University in the world is now concerned with their retention and progression rates, which is the official way of saying that we want students to stay in our degrees and pass our courses. Maybe the single pass industrial line model is not the best one.

Why carve back to try to reveal people, when we could build people up instead?

Why carve back to try to reveal people, when we could build people up instead?

Enter the additive model, via the world of 3D printing. 3D printing works by laying down the material from scratch and producing something where there is no wastage of material. Each item is produced as a single item, from the ground up. In this case, problems can still occur. The initial track of plastic/metal/material may not adhere to the plate and this means that the item doesn’t have a solid base. However, we can observe this and stop printing as soon as we realise this is occurring. Then we try again, perhaps using a slightly different approach to get the base to stick. In student terms, this is poor transition from the school environment, because nothing is sticking to the established base! Perhaps the most important idea, especially as we develop 3D printing techniques that don’t require us to deposit in sequential layers but instead allows us to create points in space, is that we can identify those areas where a student is incomplete and then build up that area.

In an additive model, we identify a deficiency in order to correct rather than to reject. The growing area of learning analytics gives us the ability to more closely monitor where a student has a deficiency of knowledge or practice. However, such identification is useless unless we then act to address it. Here, a small failure has become something that we use to make things better, rather than a small indicator of the inescapable fate of failure later on. We can still identify those students who are excelling but, now, instead of just patting them on the back, we can build them up in additional interesting ways, should they wish to engage. We can stop them getting bored by altering the challenge as, if we can target knowledge deficiency and address that, then we must be able to identify extension areas as well – using the same analytics and response techniques.

Additive manufacturing is going to change the way the world works because we no longer need to carve out what we want, we can build what we want, on demand, and stop when it’s done, rather than lamenting a big pile of wood shavings that never amounted to a table leg. A constructive educational focus rejects high failure rates as being indicative of missed opportunities to address knowledge deficiencies and focuses on a deep knowledge of the student to help the student to build themselves up. This does not make a course simpler or drop the quality, it merely reduces unnecessary (and uneconomical) wastage. There is as much room for excellence in an additive educational framework – if anything, you should get more out of your high achievers.

We stand at a very interesting point in history. It is time to revisit what we are doing and think about what we can learn from the other changes going on in the world, especially if it is going to lead to better educational results.

Thanks for the exam – now I can’t help you.

I have just finished marking a pile of examinations from a course that I co-taught recently. I haven’t finalised the marks but, overall, I’m not unhappy with the majority of the results. Interestingly, and not overly surprisingly, one of the best answered sections of the exam was based on a challenging essay question I set as an assignment. The question spans many aspects of the course and requires the student to think about their answer and link the knowledge – which most did very well. As I said, not a surprise but a good reinforcement that you don’t have to drill students in what to say in the exam, but covering the requisite knowledge and practising the right skills is often helpful.

However, I don’t much like marking exams and it doesn’t come down to the time involved, the generally dull nature of the task or the repetitive strain injury from wielding a red pen in anger, it comes down to the fact that, most of the time, I am marking the student’s work at a time when I can no longer help him or her. Like most exams at my Uni, this was the terminal examination for the course, worth a substantial amount of the final marks, and was taken some weeks after teaching finished. So what this means is that any areas I identify for a given student cannot now be corrected, unless the student chooses to read my notes in the exam paper or come to see me. (Given that this campus is international, that’s trickier but not impossible thanks to the Wonders of Skypenology.) It took me a long time to work out exactly why I didn’t like marking, but when I did, the answer was obvious.

I was frustrated that I couldn’t actually do my job at one of the most important points: when lack of comprehension is clearly identified. If I ask someone a question in the classroom, on-line or wherever, and they give me an answer that’s not quite right, or right off base, then we can talk about it and I can correct the misunderstanding. My job, after all, is not actually passing or failing students – it’s about knowledge, the conveyance, construction and quality management thereof. My frustration during exam marking increases with every incomplete or incorrect answer I read, which illustrates that there is a section of the course that someone didn’t get. I get up in the morning with the clear intention of being helpful towards students and, when it really matters, all I can do is mark up bits of paper in red ink.

Quickly, Jones! Construct a valid knowledge framework! You're in a group environment! Vygotsky, man, Vygotsky!

Quickly, Jones! Construct a valid knowledge framework! You’re in a group environment! Vygotsky, man, Vygotsky!

A student who, despite my sweeping, and seeping, liquid red ink of doom, manages to get a 50 Passing grade will not do the course again – yet this mark pretty clearly indicates that roughly half of the comprehension or participation required was not carried out to the required standard. Miraculously, it doesn’t matter which half of the course the student ‘gets’, they are still deemed to have attained the knowledge. (An interesting point to ponder, especially when you consider that my colleagues in Medicine define a Pass at a much higher level and in far more complicated ways than a numerical 50%, to my eternal peace of mind when I visit a doctor!) Yet their exam will still probably have caused me at least some gnashing of teeth because of points missed, pointless misstatement of the question text, obscure song lyrics, apologies for lack of preparation and the occasional actual fact that has peregrinated from the place where it could have attained marks to a place where it will be left out in the desert to die, bereft of the life-giving context that would save it from such an awful fate.

Should we move the exams earlier and then use this to guide the focus areas for assessment in order to determine the most improvement and develop knowledge in the areas in most need? Should we abandon exams entirely and move to a continuous-assessment competency based system, where there are skills and knowledge that must be demonstrated correctly and are practised until this is achieved? We are suffering, as so many people have observed before, from overloading the requirement to grade and classify our students into neatly discretised performance boxes onto a system that ultimately seeks to identify whether these students have achieved the knowledge levels necessary to be deemed to have achieved the course objectives. Should we separate competency and performance completely? I have sketchy ideas as to how this might work but none that survive under the blow-torches of GPA requirements and resource constraints.

Obviously, continuous assessment (practicals, reports, quizzes and so on) throughout the semester provide a very valuable way to identify problems but this requires good, and thorough, course design and an awareness that this is your intent. Are we premature in treating the exam as a closing-off line on the course? Do we work on that the same way that we do any assignment? You get feedback, a mark and then more work to follow-up? If we threw resourcing to the wind, could we have a 1-2 week intensive pre-semester program that specifically addressed those issues that students failed to grasp on their first pass? Congratulations, you got 80%, but that means that there’s 20% of the course that we need to clarify? (Those who got 100% I’ll pay to come back and tutor, because I like to keep cohorts together and I doubt I’ll need to do that very often.)

There are no easy answers here and shooting down these situations is very much in the fish/barrel plane, I realise, but it is a very deeply felt form of frustration that I am seeing the most work that any student is likely to put in but I cannot now fix the problems that I see. All I can do is mark it in red ink with an annotation that the vast majority will never see (unless they receive the grade of 44, 49, 64, 74 or 84, which are all threshold-1 markers for us).

Ah well, I hope to have more time in 2013 so maybe I can mull on this some more and come up with something that is better but still workable.

Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle 2012: “It’s all about the people”

acec 2012 was designed to be a cross-University event (that’s the whole point of the conventicles, they bring together people from a region) and we had a paper from the University of South Australia:  ‘”It’s all about the people”; building cultural competence in IT graduates’ by Andrew Duff, Kathy Darzanos and Mark Osborne. Andrew and Kathy came along to present and the paper was very well received, because it dealt with an important need and a solid solution to address that need, which was inclusive, insightful and respectful.

For those who are not Australians, it is very important to remember that the original inhabitants of Australia have not fared very well since white settlement and that the apology for what happened under many white governments, up until very recently, was only given in the past decade. There is still a distance between the communities and the overall process of bringing our communities together is referred to as reconciliation. Our University has a reconciliation statement and certain goals in terms of representation in our staff and student bodies that reflect percentages in the community, to reduce the underrepresentation of indigenous Australians and to offer them the same opportunities. There are many challenges facing Australia, and the health and social issues in our indigenous communities are often exacerbated by years of poverty and a range of other issues, but some of the communities have a highly vested interest in some large-scale technical, ICT and engineering solutions, areas where indigenous Australians are generally not students. Professor Lester Irabinna Rigney, the Dean of Aboriginal Education, identified the problem succinctly at a recent meeting: when your people live on land that is 0.7m above sea level, a 0.9m sea-level rise starts to become of concern and he would really like students from his community to be involved in building the sea walls that address this, while we look for other solutions!

Andrea, Kathy and Mark’s aim was to share out the commitment to reconciliation across the student body, making this a whole of community participation rather than a heavy burden for a few, under the guiding statement that they wanted to be doing things with the indigenous community, rather than doing things to them. There’s always a risk of premature claiming of expertise, where instead of working with a group to find out what they want, you walk in and tell them what they need. For a whole range of very good and often heartbreaking reasons, the Australian indigenous communities are exceedingly wary when people start ordering them about. This was the first thing I liked about this approach: let’s not make the same mistakes again. The authors were looking for a way to embed cultural awareness and the process of reconciliation into the curriculum as part of an IT program, sharing it so that other people could do it and making it practical.

Their key tenets were:

  1. It’s all about the diverse people. They developed a program to introduce students to culture, to give them more than one world view of the dominant culture and to introduce knowledge of the original Australians. It’s an important note that many Australians have no idea how to use certain terms or cultural items from indigenous culture, which of course hampers communication and interaction.

    For the students, they were required to put together an IT proposal, working with the indigenous community, that they would implement in the later years of their degree. Thus, it became part of the backbone of their entire program.

  2. Doing with [people], not to [people]. As discussed, there are many good reasons for this. Reduce the urge to be the expert and, instead, look at existing statements of right and how to work with other peplum, such as the UN rights of indigenous people and the UniSA graduate attributes. This all comes together in the ICUP – Indigenous Content in Undergraduate Program

How do we deal with information management in another culture? I’ve discussed before the (to many) quite alien idea that knowledge can reside with one person and, until that person chooses or needs to hand on that knowledge, that is the person that you need. Now, instead of demanding knowledge and conformity to some documentary standard, you have to work with people. Talking rather than imposing, getting the client’s genuine understanding of the project and their need – how does the client feel about this?

Not only were students working with indigenous people in developing their IT projects, they were learning how to work with other peoples, not just other people, and were required to come up with technologically appropriate solutions that met the client need. Not everyone has infinite power and 4G LTE to run their systems, nor can everyone stump up the cash to buy an iPhone or download apps. Much as programming in embedded systems shakes students out of the ‘infinite memory, disk and power’ illusion, working with other communities in Australia shakes them out of the single worldview and from the, often disrespectful, way that we deal with each other. The core here is thinking about different communities and the fact that different people have different requirements. Sometimes you have to wait to speak to the right person, rather than the available person.

The online forum has four questions that students have to find a solution to, where the forum is overseen by an indigenous tutor. The four questions are:

  1. What does culture mean to you?
  2. Post a cultural artefact that describes your culture?
  3. I came here to study Computer Science – not Aboriginal Australians?
  4. What are some of the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians?

The first two are amazing questions – what is your answer to question number 2? The second pair of questions are more challenging and illustrate the bold and head-on approach of this participative approach to reconciliation. Reconciliation between all of the Australian communities requires everyone to be involved and, being honest, questions 3 and 4 are going to open up some wounds, drag some silly thinking out into the open but, most importantly, allow us to talk through issues of concern and confusion.

I suspect that many people can’t really answer question 4 without referring back to mid-50s archetypal depictions of Australian Aborigines standing on one leg, looking out over cliffs, and there’s an excellent ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) exhibit in Melbourne that discusses this cultural misappropriation and stereotyping. One of the things that resonated with me is that asking these questions forces people to think about these things, rather than repeating old mind grooves and received nonsense overheard in pubs, seen on TV and heard in racist jokes.

I was delighted that this paper was able to be presented, not least because the goal of the team is to share this approach in the hope of achieving even greater strides in the reconciliation process. I hope to be able to bring some of it to my Uni over the next couple of years.


John Henry Died

Every culture has its myths and legends, especially surrounding those incredible individuals who stand out or tower over the rest of the society. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had their gods, demigods, heroes and, many times, cautionary tales of the mortals who got caught in the middle. Australia has the stories of pre- and post-federation mateship, often anti-authoritarian or highlighting the role of the larrikin. We have a lot of bushrangers (with suspiciously good hearts or reacting against terrible police oppression), Simpson and his donkey (a first world war hero who transported men to an aid station using his donkey, ultimately dying on the battlefield) and a Prime Minister who goes on YouTube to announce that she’s now convinced that the Mayans were right and we’re all doomed – tongue firmly in cheek. Is this the totality of the real Australia? No, but the stylised notion of ‘mateship’, the gentle knock and the “come off the grass, you officious … person” attitude are as much a part of how many Australians see themselves as shrimp on a barbie is to many US folk looking at us. In any Australian war story, you are probably more likely to hear about the terrible hangover the Gunner Suggs had and how he dragged his friend a kilometre over rough stones to keep him safe, than you are to hear about how many people he killed. (I note that this mateship is often strongly delineated over gender and racial lines, but it’s still a big part of the Australian story.)

The stores that we tell and those that we pass on as part of our culture strongly shape our culture. Look at Greek mythology and you see stern warnings against hubris – don’t rate yourself too highly or the gods will cut you down. Set yourself up too high in Australian culture and you’re going to get knocked down as well: a ‘tall poppies’ syndrome that is part cultural cringe, inherited from colonial attitudes to the Antipodes, part hubris and part cultural confusion as Anglo, Euro, Asian, African and… well, everyone, come to terms with a country that took the original inhabitants, the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, quite a while to adapt to. As someone who wasn’t born in Australia, like so many others who live here and now call themselves Australia, I’ve spent a long time looking at my adopted homeland’s stories to see how to fit. Along the way, because of travel, I’ve had the opportunity to look at other cultures as well: the UK, obviously as it’s drummed into you at school, and the US, because it interests me.

The stories of Horatio Alger, from the US, fascinate me, because of their repeated statement of the rags to riches story. While most of Alger’s protagonists never become amazingly wealthy, they rise, through their own merits, to take the opportunities presented to them and, because of this, a good man will always rise. This is, fundamentally, the American Dream – that any person can become President, effectively, through the skills that they have and through rolling up their sleeves. We see this Dream become ugly when any of the three principles no longer hold, in a framing I first read from Professor Harlon Dalton:

  1. The notion that we are judged solely on our merits:For this to be true, we must not have any bias, racist, gendered, religious, ageist or other. Given the recent ruling that an attractive person can be sacked, purely for being attractive and for providing an irresistible attraction for their boss, we have evidence that not only is this point not holding in many places, it’s not holding in ways that beggar belief.
  2. We will each have a fair opportunity to develop these merits:This assumes equal opportunity in terms of education, in terms of jobs, which promptly ignores things like school districts, differing property tax levels, teacher training approaches and (because of the way that teacher districts work) just living in a given state or country because your parents live there (and can’t move) can make the distance between a great education and a sub-standard child minding service. So this doesn’t hold either.
  3. Merit will out:Look around. Is the best, smartest, most talented person running your organisation or making up all of the key positions? Can you locate anyone in the “important people above me” who is holding that job for reasons other than true, relevant merit?

Australia’s myths are beneficial in some ways and destructive in others. For my students, the notion that we help each other, we question but we try to get things done is a positive interpretation of the mild anti-authoritarian mateship focus. The downside is drinking buddies going on a rampage and covering up for each other, fighting the police when the police are actually acting reasonably and public vandalism because of a desire to act up. The mateship myth hides a lot of racism, especially towards our indigenous community, and we can probably salvage a notion of community and collaboration from mateship, while losing some of the ugly and dumb things.

The tunnel went through.

The tunnel went through.

Horatio Alger myths would give hope, except for the bleak reality that many people face which is that it is three giant pieces of boloney that people get hit about the head with. If you’re not succeeding, then Horatio Alger reasoning lets us call you lazy or stupid or just not taking the opportunities. You’re not trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps hard enough. Worse still, trying to meet up to this, sometimes impossible, guideline leads us into John Henryism. John Henry was a steel driver, who hammered and chiseled the rock through the mountains to build tunnels for the railroad. One day the boss brought in a steam driven hammer and John Henry bet that he could beat it, to show that he and his crew should not be replaced. After a mammoth battle between man and machine, John Henry won, only to die with the hammer in his hand.

Let me recap: John Henry died – and the boss still got a full day’s work that was equal to two steam-hammers. (One of my objections to “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that the rich man gets away with stealing the money – that’s not a fairy tale, it’s a nightmare!) John Henryism occurs when people work so hard to lift themselves up by their bootstraps that they nearly (or do) kill themselves. Men in their 50s with incredibly high blood pressure, ulcers and arthritis know what I’m talking about here. The mantra of the John Henryist is:

“When things don’t go the way that I want them to, that just makes me work even harder.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this when your goal is actually achievable and you apply this maxim in moderation. At its extreme, and for those people who have people standing on their boot caps, this is a recipe to achieve a great deal for whoever is benefiting from your labour.

And then dying.

As John Henry observes in the ballad (Springsteen version), “I’ll hammer my fool self to death”, and the ballad of John Henry is actually a cautionary tale to set your pace carefully because if you’re going to swing a hammer all day, every day, then you have to do it at a pace that won’t kill you. This is the natural constraint on Horatio Alger and balances all of the issues with merit and access to opportunity: don’t kill your “fool self” striving for something that you can’t achieve. It’s a shame, however, that the stories line up like this because there’s a lot of hopelessness sitting in that junction.

Dealing with students always makes me think very carefully about the stories I tell and the stories I live. Over the next few days, I hope to put together some thoughts on a 21st century myth form that inspires without demanding this level of sacrifice, and that encourages without forcing people into despair if existing obstacles block them – and it’s beyond their current control to shift. However, on that last point, what I’d really like to come up with is a story that encourages people to talk about obstacles and then work together to lift them out of the way. I do like a challenge, after all. 🙂

Two Tier: Already Here

Hah! I look down on you, you apples!

Hah! I look down on you, you apples!

I was reading a Chronicle of Higher Ed article “For Whom is College Being Reinvented” and it was sobering reading. While I was writing yesterday about Oxford and Cambridge wanting to maintain their conventional University stance, Robert Archibald, an Economics Professor from the College of William and Mary, points out that the two tier system is already here in terms of good conventional and bad conventional – so that we would see an even larger disparity between luxury and economy courses. Getting into the “good” colleges will be a matter of money and prior preparation, much as it is many areas where the choice of school available to parents is increasingly driving residential moves in the early years of a child’s life. But it doesn’t end there because the ‘quality’ measure may be as much about the employability of the students after they’ve completed their studies – and, as the article says, now we start have to think about whether a “low-level” degree is then preferable to an “industry recognised” apprenticeship or trade training program. Now, our two tiers are as separate as radiographer and radiology but, as Robert Reich also observes in the same article, this is completely against what we should be doing: how can we do all this and maintain real equality between degrees and programs?

Of course, if you didn’t go to a great elementary and senior school, then, despite being on the path to the ‘second-tier’ school, which might be one that naturally migrates to a full electronic delivery for a number of perfectly reasonable economic reasons, you are probably someone who needs a more customised experience than a ‘boilerplate’ MOOC could offer: you actually need face-to-face. When we talk about disruption of the existing college system, we always assume that this is a positive thing, something that will lead to a better result for our students, so these potential issues with where these new technologies may get focused start to become very important.

For whom will these new systems work? Everyone or just the people that we’re happy to expose them to?

It’s perhaps the best question we have to frame the discussion – it’s not about whether the technology works, we know that it works well for certain things and it’s now matter of making sure that our pedagogical systems are correctly married to our computer systems to make the educational experience work. But, obviously, and as many much better writers than I have been saying, it has to work and be at least as good as the systems that it’s replacing – only now we realise that existing systems are not the same for everyone and that one person’s working system is someone else’s diabolically bad teaching experience. So the entire discussion about whether MOOCs work now have to be framed in the context of ‘compared to what‘?

It’s an interesting article that poses more questions than it answers, but it’s certainly part of the overall area we have to think about.

Legitimisation and Agency: I Believe That’s My Ox on Your Bridge

There’s an infamous newspaper advertisement that never ran, which reflected the entry of IBM into the minicomputer market. A number of companies, Data General principal among them, but including such (historically) powerful players as Digital Equipment Corporation, Prime and Hewlett Packard, were quite successful in the minicomputer market, growing rapidly and stealing market share from IBM’s mainframe market. (For an excellent account of these times, I recommend “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder.) IBM finally decided to enter the minicomputer market and, as analysts remarked at the time, IBM’s move into minicomputers legitimised the market.

Ed DeCastro, CEO of Data General, had a full-page news paper advertisement prepared, which I reproduce (mildly bowdlerised to keep my all ages posting status):

“They Say IBM’s Entry Into the Minicomputer Market Will Legitimize the Industry. The B***ards Say, Welcome.”

The ad never actually ran but was framed and put on Ed’s wall. The point, however, was well and precisely made: IBM’s approval was neither required nor desired, and nobody had set a goal of being legitimised.

The Nova, the first Data General minicomputer, with Ed DeCastro in the background.

The Nova, the first Data General minicomputer, with Ed DeCastro in the background.

Over on Mark’s blog, we see that a large number of UK universities are banding together to launch an on-line project, including the highly successful existing player in the analogous space, the Open University, but also some high power players such as Southampton and the disturbingly successful St Andrews. As Mark notes in the title, this is a serious change in terms of allying a UK effort that will produce a competitor (or competitors) to the existing US dominance. As Mark also notes:

Hmm — OxBridge isn’t throwing hats into the rings yet.

And this is a very thoughtful Hmm, because the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are the impossible-to-ignore legitimising agencies because of their sheer weight on the rubber sheet of UK Academy Spacetime. When it comes to talking about groups of Universities in the UK, and believe me there are quite a few, the Russell Group awards the lion’s share of PhDs, with 78% of the most highly graded research staff as well, across the 24 Universities. One of its stated goals is to lead the research efforts of the UK, with another being to attract the best staff and students to its member institutions. However, the group of participants in the new on-line project involve Russell Group Universities and those outside, which makes the non-participation of Oxford and Cambridge even more interesting. How can a trans-group on-line proposal bring the best students in – or is this why we aren’t seeing involvement from Oxbridge, because of the two-tier perception between traditional and on-line? One can easily argue that Oxford and Cambridge have no need to participate because they are so entrenched in their roles and their success that, as I’ve noted on a different post, any ranking system that rates them out of, say, the top 5 in the UK has made itself suspect as a ranking, rather than a reflection of dropping quality. Oxbridge is at the heart of the UK’s tertiary system and competition will continue to be fierce to gain entry for the foreseeable future. They have no need to get together with the others in their group or beyond, although it’s not from protecting themselves from competitors, as they are not really in competition with most of the other Russell Group members – because they are Oxford and Cambridge.

It’s worth noting that Cambridge’s vice-chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz did think that this consortium was exciting, and I quote from the THE article:

“Online education is becoming an important approach which may open substantial opportunities to those without access to conventional universities,” he said.

And that pretty much confirms why Cambridge is happy to stand back – because they are almost the definition of a conventional university, catering to a well-established market for whom attending a bricks-and-mortar University is as (if not more) important than the course content or delivery mechanisms. The “Gentleman’s Third”, receiving the lowest possible passing grade for your degree examinations, indicates a dedication to many things at the University that are, most likely, of a less-than-scholarly nature but it is precisely for these activities that some people go to Oxford and Cambridge and it is also precisely these non-scholarly activities that we will have great difficulty transferring into a MOOC. There will be no Oxford-Cambridge boat race carried out on a browser-based Flash game, with distributed participants hooked up to rowing machines across the globe, nor will the Footlights be conducted as a Google Hangout (except, of course, highly ironically).

Over time, we’ll find out more about the role of tradition and convention in the composition and participation, but let me return to my opening anecdote. We are already dealing with issues of legitimacy in the on-line learning space, whether from pedagogical fatigue, academic cultural inertia, xenophobia, or the fact that some highly vaunted previous efforts have not been very good. The absence of two of the top three Universities in the UK in this fascinating and potentially quite fruitful collaboration makes me think a lot about IBM. I think of someone sitting back, watching things happen, certain in the knowledge that what they do is what the market needs and it is, oh happy day, what they are currently doing. When Oxford and Cambridge come in and anoint the MOOC, if they every do or if we ever can, then we have the same antique avuncular approach to patting an entire sector on the head and saying “oh, well done, but the grownups are here now”, and this is unlikely to result in anything good in terms of fellow feeling or transferability and accreditation of students, key challenges in MOOCs being taken more seriously. Right now, Oxford and Cambridge are choosing not to step in, and there is no doubt that they will continue to be excellent Universities for their traditional attendees – but is this a sensible long term survival strategy? Could they be contributing to the exploration of the space in a productive manner by putting their legitimising weight in sooner rather than later, at a time when they are saying “Let’s all look at this to see if it’s any good”, rather than going “Oh, hell. Now we have to do something”? Would there be much greater benefit in bringing in their considerable expertise, teaching and research excellence, and resources now, when there is so much room for ground level innovation?

This is certainly something I’m fearful of in my own system, where the Group of 8 Universities has most of the research funding, most of the higher degree granting and, as a goal at least, targets the best staff and students. Our size and tradition can be barriers to agility and innovation, although our recent strategy is obviously trying to set our University on a more innovative and more agile course. A number of recent local projects are embracing the legitimacy of new learning and teaching approaches. It is, however, very important to remember the example of IBM and how the holders of tradition may not necessarily be welcomed as a legitimising influence when other have been highly successful innovating in a new space, which the tradition holder has deemed beneath them until reality finally intruded.

It’s easy to stand back and say “Well, that’s fine for people who can’t afford mainframes” but such a stance must be balanced with looking to see whether people still need or want to afford mainframes. I think the future of education is heavily blended – MOOC + face-to-face is somewhere where I think we can do great things – but for now it’s very interesting to see how we develop as we start to take more and more steps down this path.

When Does Failing Turn You Into a Failure?

The threat of failure is very different from the threat of being a failure. At the Creative Innovations conference I was just at, one of the strongest messages there was that we learn more from failure than we do from success, and that failure is inevitable if you are actually trying to be innovative. If you learn from your failures and your failure is the genuine result of something that didn’t work, rather than you sat around and watched it burn, then this is just something that happens, was the message from CI, and any other culture makes us overly-cautious and risk averse. As most of us know, however, we are more strongly encouraged to cover up our failures than to celebrate them – and we are frequently better off not trying in certain circumstances than failing.

At the recent Adelaide Conventicle, which I promise to write up very, very soon, Dr Raymond Lister presented an excellent talk on applying Neo-Piagetian concepts and framing to the challenges students face in learning programming. This is a great talk (which I’ve had the good fortune to see twice and it’s a mark of the work that I enjoyed it as much the second time) because it allows us to talk about failure to comprehend, or failure to put into practice, in terms of a lack of the underlying mechanism required to comprehend – at this point in the student’s development. As part of the steps of development, we would expect students to have these head-scratching moments where they are currently incapable of making any progress but, framing it within developmental stages, allows us to talk about moving students to the next stage, getting them out of this current failure mode and into something where they will achieve more. Once again, failure in this case is inevitable for most people until we and they manage to achieve the level of conceptual understanding where we can build and develop. More importantly, if we track how they fail, then we start to get an insight into which developmental stage they’re at.

One thing that struck me with Raymond’s talk, was that he starts off talking about “what ruined Raymond” and discussing the dire outcomes promised to him if he watched too much television, as it was to me for playing too many games, and it is to our children for whatever high tech diversion is the current ‘finger wagging’ harbinger of doom. In this case, ruination is quite clearly the threat of becoming a failure. However, this puts us in a strange position, because if failure is almost inevitable but highly valuable if managed properly and understood, what is it about being a failure that is so terrible? It’s like threatening someone that they’ll become too enthusiastic and unrestrained in their innovation!

I am, quelle surprise, playing with words here because to be a failure is to be classed as someone for whom success is no longer an option. If we were being precise, then we would class someone as a perpetual failure or, more simply, unsuccessful. This is, quite usually, the point at which it is acceptable to give up on someone – after all, goes the reasoning, we’re just pouring good money after bad, wasting our time, possibly even moving the deck chairs on the Titanic, and all those other expressions that allow us to draw that good old categorical line between us and others and put our failures into the “Hey, I was trying something new” basket and their failures into the “Well, he’s just so dumb he’d try something like that.” The only problem with this is that I’m really not sure that a lifetime of failure is a guaranteed predictor of future failure. Likely? Yeah, probably. So likely we can gamble someone’s life on it? No, I don’t believe so.

When I was failing courses in my first degree, it took me a surprisingly long time to work out how to fix it, most of which was down to the fact that (a) I had no idea how to study but (b) no-one around me was vaguely interested in the fact that I was failing. I was well on my way to becoming a perpetual failure, someone who had no chance of holding down a job let alone having a career, and it was a kind and fortuitous intervention that helped me. Now, with a degree of experience and knowledge, I can look back into my own patterns and see pretty much what was wrong with me – although, boy, would I have been a difficult cuss to work with. However, failing, which I have done since then and I will (no doubt) do again, has not appeared to have turned me into a failure. I have more failings than I care to count but my wife still loves me, my friends are happy to be seen with me and no-one sticks threats on my door at work so these are obviously in the manageable range. However, managing failure has been a challenging thing for me and I was pondering this recently – how people deal with being told that they’re wrong is very important to how they deal with failing to achieve something.

I’m reading a rather interesting, challenging and confronting, article on, and I cannot believe there’s a phrase for this, rage murders in American schools and workplaces, which claims that these horrifying acts are, effectively, failed revolts, which is with Mark Ames, the author of “Going Postal” (2005). Ames seems to believe that everything stems from Ronald Reagan (and I offer no opinion either way, I hasten to add) but he identifies repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions as taking ordinary people, who would not usually have committed such actions, and turning them into monstrous killing machines. Ames’ thesis is that this is not the rise of psychopathy but a rebellion against breaking spirit and the metaphorical enslavement of many of the working and middle class that leads to such a dire outcome. If the dominant fable of life is that success is all, failure is bad, and that you are entitled to success, then it should be, as Ames says in the article, exactly those people who are most invested in these cultural fables who would be the most likely to break when the lies become untenable. In the language that I used earlier, this is the most awful way to handle the failure of the fabric of your world – a cold and rational journey that looks like madness but is far worse for being a pre-meditated attempt to destroy the things that lied to you. However, this is only one type of person who commits these acts. The Monash University gunman, for example, was obviously delusional and, while he carried out a rational set of steps to eliminate his main rival, his thinking as to why this needed to happen makes very little sense. The truth is, as always, difficult and muddy and my first impression is that Ames may be oversimplifying in order to advance a relatively narrow and politicised view. But his language strikes me: the notion of the “repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions”, which appears to be a common language among the older, workplace-focused, and otherwise apparently sane humans who carry out such terrible acts.

One of the complaints made against the radio network at the heart of the recent Royal Hoax, 2DayFM, is that they are serial humiliators of human beings and show no regard for the general well-being of the people involved in their pranks – humiliation, inhumanity and bullying. Sound familiar? Here I am, as an educator, knowing that failure is going to happen for my students and working out how to bring them up into success and achievement when, on one hand, I have a possible set of triggers where beating down people leads to apparent madness, and at least part of our entertainment culture appears to delight in finding the lowest bar and crawling through the filth underneath it. Is telling someone that they’re a failure, and rubbing it in for public enjoyment, of any vague benefit to anyone or is it really, as I firmly believe, the best way to start someone down a genuinely dark path to ruination and resentment.

Returning to my point at the start of this (rather long) piece, I have met Raymond several times and he doesn’t appear even vaguely ruined to me, despite all of the radio, television and Neo-Piagetian contextual framing he employs. The message from Raymond and CI paints failure as something to be monitored and something that is often just a part of life – a stepping stone to future success – but this is most definitely not the message that generally comes down from our society and, for some people, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that their inability to handle the crushing burden of permanent classification as a failure is something that can have catastrophic results. I think we need to get better at genuinely accepting failure as part of trying, and to really, seriously, try to lose the classification of people as failures just because they haven’t yet succeeded at some arbitrary thing that we’ve defined to be important.

Taught for a Result or Developing a Passion

According to a story in the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC, website, Australian school children are now ranked 27th out of 48 countries in reading, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, and that a quarter of Australia’s year 4 students had failed to meet the minimum standard defined for reading at their age. As expected, the Australian government  has said “something must be done” and the Australian Federal Opposition has said “you did the wrong thing”. Ho hum. Reading the document itself is fascinating because our fourth graders apparently struggle once we move into the area of interpretation and integration of ideas and information, but do quite well on simple inference. There is a lot of scope for thought about how we are teaching, given that we appear to have a reasonably Bloom-like breakdown on the data but I’ll leave that to the (other) professionals. Another international test, the Program for International School Assessment (PISA) which is applied to 15 year olds, is something that we rank relatively highly in, which measures reading, mathematics and science. (And, for the record, we’re top 10 on the PISA rankings after a Year 4 ranking of 27th. Either someone has gone dramatically wrong in the last 7 years of Australian Education, or Year 4 results on PIRLS doesn’t have as much influence as we might have expected on the PISA).We don’t yet have the results for this but we expect it out soon.

The PISA report front cover (C) OECD.

The PISA report front cover (C) OECD.

What is of greatest interest to me from the linked article on the ABC is the Oslo University professor, Svein Sjoberg, who points out the comparing educational systems around the globe is potentially too difficult to be meaningful – which is a refreshingly honest assessment in these performance-ridden and leaderboard-focused days. As he says:

“I think that is a trap. The PISA test does not address the curricular test or the syllabus that is set in each country.

Like all of these tests, PIRLS and PISA measure a student’s ability to perform on a particular test and, regrettably, we’re all pretty much aware, or should be by now, that using a test like this will give you the results that you built the test to give you. But one thing that really struck me from his analysis of the PISA was that the countries who perform better on the PISA Science ranking generally had a lower measure of interest in science. Professor Sjoberg noted that this might be because the students had been encouraged to become result-focused rather than encouraging them to develop a passion.

If Professor Sjoberg is right, then is not just a tragedy, it’s an educational catastrophe – we have now started optimising our students to do well in tests but be less likely to go and pursue the subjects in which they can get these ‘good’ marks. If this nasty little correlation holds, then will have an educational system that dominates in the performance of science in the classroom, but turns out fewer actual scientists – our assessment is no longer aligned to our desired outcomes. Of course, what it is important to remember is that the vast majority of these rankings are relative rather than absolute. We are not saying that one group is competent or incompetent, we are saying that one group can perform better or worse on a given test.

Like anything, to excel at a particular task, you need to focus on it, practise it, and (most likely) prioritise it above something else. What Professor Sjoberg’s analysis might indicate, and I realise that I am making some pretty wild conjecture on shaky evidence, is that certain schools have focused the effort on test taking, rather than actual science. (I know, I know, shock, horror) Science is not always going to fit into neat multiple choice questions or simple automatically marked answers to questions. Science is one of the areas where the viva comes into its own because we wish to explore someone’s answer to determine exactly how much they understand. The questions in PISA theoretically fall into roughly the same categories (MCQ, short answer) as the PIRLS so we would expect to see similar problems in dealing with these questions, if students were actually having a fundamental problem with the questions. But, despite this, the questions in PISA are never going to be capable of gauging the depth of scientific knowledge, the passion for science or the degree to which a student already thinks within the discipline. A bigger problem is the one which always dogs standardised testing of any sort, and that is the risk that answering the question correctly and getting the question right may actually be two different things.

Years ago, I looked at the examination for a large company’s offering in a certain area, I have no wish to get sued so I’m being deliberately vague, and it became rapidly apparent that on occasion there was a company answer that was not the same as the technically correct answer. The best way to prepare for the test was not to study the established base of the discipline but it was to read the corporate tracts and practise the skills on the approved training platforms, which often involved a non-trivial fee for training attendance. This was something that was tangential to my role and I was neither of a sufficiently impressionable age nor strongly bothered enough by it for it to affect me. Time was a factor and incorrect answers cost you marks – so I sat down and learned the ‘right way’ so that I could achieve the correct results in the right time and then go on to do the work using the actual knowledge in my head.

However, let us imagine someone who is 14 or 15 and, on doing the practice tests for ‘test X’ discovers that what is important is in hitting precisely the right answer in the shortest time – thinking about the problem in depth is not really on the table for a two-hour exam, unless it’s highly constrained and students are very well prepared. How does this hypothetical student retain respect for teachers who talk about what science is, the purity of mathematics, or the importance of scholarship, when the correct optimising behaviour is to rote-learn the right answers, or the safe and acceptable answers, and reproduce those on demand. (Looking at some of the tables in the PISA document, we see that the best performing nations in the top band of mathematical thinking are those with amazing educational systems – the desired range – and those who reputedly place great value in high power-distance classrooms with large volumes of memorisation and received wisdom – which is probably not the desired range.)

Professor Sjoberg makes an excellent point, which is that trying to work out what is in need of fixing, and what is good, about the Australian education system is not going to be solved by looking at single figure representations of our international rankings, especially when the rankings contradict each other on occasion! Not all countries are the same, pedagogically, in terms of their educational processes or their power distances, and adjacency of rank is no guarantee that the two educational systems are the same (Finland, next to Shanghai-China for instance). What is needed is reflection upon what we think constitutes a good education and then we provide meaningful local measures that allow us to work out how we are doing with our educational system. If we get the educational system right then,  if we keep a bleary eye on the tests we use, we should then test well. Optimising for the tests takes the effort off the education and puts it all onto the implementation of the test – if that is the case, then no wonder people are less interested in a career of learning the right phrase for a short answer or the correct multiple-choice answer.

“You Will Never Amount to Anything!”

I am currently reading “When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin” by Mick Wall. I won’t go into much of the detail of the book but the message presented around the four members of the group is that most of them did not have the best experiences in school and that, in at least two cases, the statements written on their reports by their teachers were profoundly dismissive. Now, it is of course entirely possible the that the Led Zep lads were, at time of leaving school, incapable of achieving anything – except that this is a total nonsense as it is quite obvious that they achieved a degree of musical and professional success that few contemplate, let alone reach.

You’ll often read this kind of line in celebrity biographies – that semi-mythical reforging of the self after having been judged and found wanting. (From a narrative perspective, it’s not all that surprising as it’s an easy way to increase the tension.) But one of the reasons that it pops up is that such a statement is so damning that it is not surprising that a successful person might want to wander back to the person who said it and say “Really?” But to claim that such a statement is a challenge (as famously mocked in the Simpsons where Principal Skinner says that these children have not future and is forced to mutter, with false bonhomie, ‘Prove me wrong, kids, prove me wrong.’) is confused at best, disingenuous and misdirecting at worst. If you want someone to achieve something, provide a clear description of the task, the means to achieve that task and then set about educating and training. No-one has ever learned brain surgery by someone yelling “Don’t open that skull” so pretending that an entire life’s worth of motivation can be achieved by telling something that they have no worth is piffle. Possibly even balderdash.

You! Prove me wrong!

You! Prove me wrong!

The phrase “You Will Never Amount To Anything” is, in whatever form it is uttered, a truly useless sentiment. It barely has any meaning (isn’t just being alive being something and hence amounting to a small sort of anything?) but, of course, it is not stated in order to achieve an outcome other than to place the blame for the lack of engagement with a given system squarely at the feet of the accused. You have failed to take advantage of the educational opportunities that we have provided and this is such a terminal fault, that the remaining 90% of your life will be spent in a mobile block of amber, where you will be unable to affect any worthwhile interaction with the universe.

I note that, with some near misses, I have been spared this kind of statement but I do feel very strongly that it is really not anything that you can with any credibility or useful purpose. If you happen to be Death, the Grim Reaper, then you can stand at the end of someone’s life and say “Gosh, you didn’t do a great deal did you” (although, again, what does it mean to do anything anyway?) but saying it when someone is between the ages of 16 and 20? You might be able to depend upon the statistical reliability that, if rampant success in our society is only given to 1%, 99% of the time, everyone you say “You will not be a success” will accidentally fall into that category. It’s quite obvious that any number of the characteristics that are worthy of praise in school contribute nothing to the spectacular success enjoyed by some people, where these characteristics are “sitting quietly”, “wearing the correct uniform” or “not chewing gum”. These are excellent facets of compliance and will make for citizens who may be of great utility to the successful, but it’s hard to see many business leaders whose first piece of advice to desperate imitators is “always wear shiny shoes”.

If we are talking about perceived academic ability then we run into another problem, in that there is a great deal of difference between school and University, let along school and work. There is no doubt that the preparation offered by a good schooling system is invaluable. Reading, writing, general knowledge, science, mathematics, biology, the classics… all of these parts of our knowledge and our society can be introduced to students very usefully. But to say that your ability to focus on long division problems when you are 14 is actually going to be the grand limiting factor on your future contribution to the world? Nonsense.

Were you to look at my original degree, you might think “How on Earth did this man end up with a PhD? He appears to have no real grasp of study, or pathway through his learning.” and, at the time of the degree, you’d be right. But I thought about what had happened, learned from it, and decided to go back and study again in order to improve my level of knowledge and my academic record. I then went back and did this again. And again. Because I persevered, because I received good advice on how to improve and, most importantly, because a lot of people took the time to help me, I learned a great deal and I became a better student. I developed my knowledge. I learned how to learn and, because of that, I started to learn how to think about teaching, as well.

If you were to look at Nick Falkner at 14, you may have seen some potential but a worry lack of diligence and effort. At 16, you would have seen him blow an entire year of school exams because he didn’t pay attention. At 17 he made it into Uni, just, but it wasn’t until the wheels really started to fall off that he realised that being loquacious and friendly wasn’t enough. Scurrying out of Uni with a third-grade degree into a workforce that looked at the evidence of my learning drove home that improvements were to be made. Being unemployed for most of a year cemented it – I had set myself up for a difficult life and had squandered a lot of opportunities. And that is when serendipity intervened, because the man who has the office next to me now, and with whom I coffee almost every morning, suggested that I could come back and pursue a Masters degree to make up for the poor original degree, and that I would not have to pay for it upfront because it was available as a government deferred-payment option. (Thank you, again, Kevin!)

That simple piece of advice changed my life completely. Instead of not saying anything or being dismissive of a poor student, someone actually took the time to say “Well, here’s something you could do and here’s how you do it.” And now, nearly 20 years down the track, I have a PhD, a solid career in which I am respected as an educator and as a researcher and I get to inspire and help other students. There’s no guarantee that good advice will always lead to good outcomes (and we all know about the paving on the road to Hell) but it’s increasingly obvious to me that dismissive statements, unpleasant utterances and “cut you loose” curtness are far more likely to do nothing positive at all.

If the most that you can say to a student is “You’re never going to amount to anything”, it might be worth looking in a mirror to see exactly what you’ve amounted to yourself…