Time to Work and Time to Play

Now Print, Black, Linocut, (C) Nick Falkner, 2013

I do a lot of grounded theory research into student behaviour patterns. It’s a bit Indiana Jones in a rather dry way: hear a rumour of a giant cache of data, hack your way through impenetrable obfuscation and poor data alignment to find the jewel at the centre, hack your way out and try to get it to the community before you get killed by snakes, thrown into a propellor or eaten. (Perhaps the analogy isn’t perfect but how recently have you been through a research quality exercise?) Our students are all pretty similar, from the metrics  I have, and I’ve gone on at length about this in other posts: hyperbolic time-discounting and so on. Embarrassingly recently, however, I was introduced to the notion of instrumentality, the capability to see that achieving a task now will reduce the difficulty in completing a goal later. If we can’t see how important this is to getting students to do something, maybe it’s time to have a good sit-down and a think! Husman et al identify three associated but distinguishable aspects to a student’s appreciation of a task: how much they rate its value, their intrinsic level of motivation, and their appreciation of the instrumentality. From this study, we have a basis for the confusing and often paradoxical presentation of a student who is intelligent and highly motivated – but just not for the task we’ve given them, despite apparently and genuinely being aware of the value of the task. Without the ability to link this task to future goal success, the exponential approach of the deadline horizon can cause a student to artificially inflate the value of something of less final worth, because the actual important goal is out of sight. But rob a student of motivation and we have to put everything into a high-stakes, heavily temporally fixed into the almost immediate future and the present, often resorting to extrinsic motivating factors (bribes/threats) to impose value. This may be why everyone who uses a punishment/reward situation achieves compliance but then has to keep using this mechanism to continue to keep values artificially high. Have we stumbled across an Economy of Pedagogy? I hope not, because I can barely understand basic economics. But we can start to illustrate why the student has to be intrinsically connected to the task and the goal framework – without it, it’s carrot/stick time and, once we do that, it’s always carrot/stick time.

Like almost every teacher I know, all of my students are experts at something but mining that can be tricky. What quickly becomes apparent, and as McGonigall reflected on in “Reality is Broken”, is that people will put far more effort into an activity that they see as play than one which they see as work. I, for example, have taken up linocut printing and, for no good reason at all, have invested days into a painstaking activity where it can take four hours to achieve even a simple outcome of reasonable quality – and it will be years before I’m good at it. Yet the time I spend at the printing studio on Saturdays is joyful, recharging and, above all, playful. If I consumed 6 hours marking assignments, writing a single number out of 10 and restricting my comments to good/bad/try harder, then I would feel spent and I would dread starting, putting it off as long as possible. Making prints, I consumed about 6 hours of effort to scan, photoshop, trim, print, reverse, apply over carbon paper, trace, cut out of lino and then manually and press print about four pieces of paper – and I felt like a new man. No real surprises here. In both cases, I am highly motivated. One task has great value to my students and me because it provides useful feedback. The artistic task has value to me because I am exploring new forms of art and artistic thinking, which I find rewarding.

But what of the instrumentality? In the case of the marking, it has to be done at a time where students can get the feedback at a time where they can use it and, given we have a follow-up activity of the same type for more marks, they need to get that sooner rather than later. If I leave it all until the end of the semester, it makes my students’ lives harder and mine, too, because I can’t do everything at once and every single ‘when is it coming’ query consumes more time. In the case of the art, I have no deadline but I do have a goal – a triptych work to put on the wall in August. Every print I make makes this final production easier. The production of the lino master? Intricate, close work using sharp objects and it can take hours to get a good result. It should be dull and repetitive but it’s not – but ask me to cut out 10 of the same thing or very, very similar things and I think it would be, very quickly. So, even something that I really enjoy becomes mundane when we mess with the task enough or get to the point, in this case, where we start to say “Well, why can’t a machine do this?” Rephrasing this, we get the instrumentality focus back again: “What do I gain in the future from doing this ten times if I will only do this ten times once?” And this is a valid question for our students, too. Why should they write “Hello, World” – it has most definitely and definitively been written. It’s passed on. It is novel no more. Bereft of novelty, it rests on its laurels. If we didn’t force students to write it, there is no way that this particular phrase, which we ‘owe’ to Brian Kernighan, is introducing anyone to anything that could not have a modicum of creativity added to it by saying in the manual “Please type a sentence into this point in the program and it will display it back to you.” It is an ex-program.

I love lecturing. I love giving tutorials. I will happily provide feedback in pracs. Why don’t I like marking? It’s easy to say “Well, it’s dull and repetitive” but, if I wouldn’t ask a student to undertake a task like that so why am I doing it? Look, I’m not advocating that all marking is like this but, certainly, the manual marking of particular aspects of software does tend to be dull.

Unless, of course, you start enjoying it and we can do that if we have enough freedom and flexibility to explore playful aspects. When I marked a big group of student assignments recently, I tried to write something new for each student and, this doesn’t always succeed for small artefacts with limited variability, I did manage to complement a student on their spanish variable names, provide personalised feedback to some students who had excelled and, generally, turned a 10 mark program into a place where I thought about each student personally and then (more often than not) said something unique. Yes, sometimes the same errors cropped up and the copy/paste is handy – but by engaging with the task and thinking about how much my future interactions with the students would be helped with a little investment now, the task was still a slog, but I came out of it quite pleased with the overall achievement. The task became more enjoyable because I had more flexibility but I also was required to be there to be part of the process, I was necessary. It became possible to be (professionally and carefully) playful – which is often how I approach teaching.

Any of you who are required to use standardised tests with manual marking: you already know how desperately dull the grading is and it is a grindingly dull, rubric-bound, tick/flick scenario that does nothing except consume work. It’s valuable because it’s required and money is money. Motivating? No. Any instrumentality? No, unless giving the test raises the students to the point where you get improved circumstances (personal/school) or you reduce the amount of testing required for some reason. It is, sadly, as dull for your students to undertake them, in this scenario, because they will know how it’s marked and it is not going to trigger any of Husman’s three distinguished but associated variables.

I am never saying that everything has to fun or easy, because I doubt many areas would be able to convey enough knowledge under these strictures, but providing tasks that have room to encourage motivation, develop a personal sense of task value, and that allow students to play, potentially bringing in some of their own natural enthusiasm on other areas or channeling it here, solves two thirds of the problem in getting students involved. Intentionally grounding learning in play and carefully designing materials to make this work can make things better. It also makes it easier for staff. Right now, as we handle the assignment work of the course I’m currently teaching, other discussions on the student forums includes the History of Computing, Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, the significance of certain questions in the practical, complexity theory and we have only just stopped the spontaneous student comparison of performance at a simple genetic algorithms practical. My students are exploring, they are playing in the space of the discipline and, by doing so, are moving more deeply into a knowledge of taxonomy and lexicon within this space. I am moving from Lion Tamer to Ringmaster, which is the logical step to take as what I want is citizens who are participating because they can see value, have some level of motivation and are forming their instrumentality. If learning and exploration is fun now, then going further in this may lead to fun later – the future fun goal is enhanced by achieving tasks now. I’m not sure if this is necessarily the correct first demonstration of instrumentality, but it is a useful one!

However, it requires time for both the staff member to be able to construct and moderate such an environment, especially if you’re encouraging playful exploration of areas on public discussion forums, and the student must have enough time to be able to think about things, make plans and then to try again if they don’t pick it all up on the first go. Under strict and tight deadlines, we know the creativity can be impaired when we enforce the deadlines the wrong way, and we reduce the possibility of time for exploration and play – for students and staff.

Playing is serious business and our lives are better when we do more of it – the first enabling act of good play is scheduling that first play date and seeing how it goes. I’ve certainly found it to be helpful, to me and to my students.


The Blame Game: Things were done, mistakes were made.

Note: This is a re-post of something that I put up on a student discussion forum as part of one of my first-year teaching courses. I write a number of longer posts to the students to discuss some of the things that are not strictly Computer Science but can be good to know. One of my colleagues asked me to put it up in a place where he could refer to it even after the original forum was closed, so here it is.

The Irish Central Bank recently released a 10 Euro coin with a quote from James Joyce on it. Regrettably, they got the quote wrong by inserting a ‘that’ which was not in the original quote. While this is hardly newsworthy usually, I want to draw your attention to the way that the bank handled this error.

According to the bank, the coin was “an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation”. In fact, “the text on the Joyce coin does not correspond to the precise text as it appears in Ulysses” and “the error is regretted”.

The error is regretted? By whom? This is a delightful example of the passive voice, frequently used because people wish to avoid associating the problem with themselves. Before this coin hit the mint, people could see the graphic design and the mistake would have been there. Was the error with the original brief, the designer, the people who should have been proofing? (The actual ‘apology’ is even worse as it says “While the error is regretted” and then goes on to try and weasel out.)

Look, the blame game is seductive because people love to allocate blame and, frankly, blame assignation is not very productive because it doesn’t fix the existing problem and, worse, it rarely fixes the future problem. However, the error (in this case) did not leap into the printing presses at the mint due to run-away nanotechnology – in this case, the producing organisation (the bank) should have said “Argh, sorry. We made a mistake.” and then gone on with the offers of refunds – but more importantly, having accepted that it was their error, they would have the mental gears engaged to make changes to stop it happening again. Right now, the bank is trying to wriggle out of a mistake, which might fool people inside the bank into thinking that this is how you deal with errors – through “after the fact” passive apology, rather than taking responsibility and doing some proper proof-reading!

Years ago, I worked with a guy whose motto was “Don’t tell me that you knew it wasn’t going to work. Tell me when you think that and tell me how we’re going to fix it.” Don’t just play the blame and “I told you so” game, be active and try to fix things!

But let’s bring this closer to home. Running late for a lecture? What happened? Was the traffic really bad – or did you not allow enough time to get there, having expected really good traffic? “The traffic was awful” is a great excuse occasionally but all the time? “I didn’t allow enough time for the traffic.” What does this mean? Allow more time! Be active! Take control (if you can). If you’re on a dire bus route, then you may have to think about other ways to deal with it – perhaps you just can’t allow enough time for the awful traffic. In that case, what do you need to do in order to get the lecture content? What do you need to let the lecturer know so that we can help you?

See the difference? If “the traffic is awful” then we have no solutions because a million cars and the Adelaide City traffic computers are beyond your control. If “I have a problem with time” then it is easier to start thinking about ways to fix this that involve you.

When you think to yourself “the assignment wasn’t completed on time”, who was actually responsible for that? Note, I’m not talking about assigning blame – I’m talking about taking responsibility. If you didn’t finish the assignment on time because you didn’t start early enough, then you have started the mental processes that lead to a potential conclusion of “Oh, I should start working on things a bit earlier.” Were you sick? Should you have organised a med cert or spoken to the lecturer?

Responsibility doesn’t have to be a burden but it does give you a reason to exercise your agency, your capacity to act and to make change in the world. If all of your problems are in the passive voice, then “assignments are handed in late”, “the money ran out”, “mistakes were made” rather than “I didn’t start early enough or put enough time in or I was horribly ill and thought I could just push through”, “I spent all of my money too quickly.” and “I made a mistake”.

Obviously, a false declaration of responsibility, where you have no intention of changing, is just as bad as weasel words in the passive voice. Saying “I made a mistake” achieves nothing unless you try and change what you’re doing to stop it happening again.

When you feel that you are responsible for something, you are more likely to devote time and effort to it. The way that you describe the things in your life can help to remind you of what you are responsible for and where you can take charge and try to bring about a positive change. Language is powerful – it can really help to focus the mind on what you need to do to get the best out of everything. Use it!

(Edit: This is now in the comments but after the original post, I linked to an article on one set of steps students could use to write a real apology. You can find it here. Thanks for the nudge, Liz!)


Tell us we’re dreaming.

I recently read an opinion piece in the Australian national newspaper, the conveniently named “The Australian”, on funding school reform. The piece, entitled “School Reform must be funded” and sub-titled “But maybe we need fewer academics thinking up ways to spend our taxes”, written by Cassandra Wilkinson, identified that the coming cuts to higher education because of the apparent impossibility of paying for school reforms in any other way. No-one, sensible, is arguing that the school cuts can come out of thin air, I make explicit reference to realities such as this in my previous post, but it does appear that Cassandra is attempting to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the academics, for this sorry state of affairs (“the growing influence of the university sector on early childhood and school education is partly responsible for the now necessary cuts to higher education.”, from the article).

It is the professionalisation of teaching, and the intervention of education academics to convince governments that early educational investment, potentially at the expense of the family unit’s role in child rearing, that has convinced governments that money must be spent here – therefore, it is our fault that our argument is leading to money coming out of our pockets. I cannot think of a more amazing piece of victim blaming, recently, but then again I generally don’t read the opinion section of The Australian!

Now, you may immediately say “You must be quoting her out of context”, here is another extract from this rather short opinion piece:

“In addition to the public costs being generated by education academics, we have public health academics driving an expensive “preventative health” agenda that includes mental health checks for kids and public advertising about the calorie content of pizza; safety academics driving up the cost of road building and tripling the price of trampolines, which now come with fencing and crash mats; and sustainability academics driving up the cost of housing.”

Not only are people concerned about education driving up the cost of education but we have increased all other prices through our short-sighted adherence to preventative health, safety and sustainability! I keep thinking that Wilkinson, who has some quiet excellent social project credentials if I have researched the correct Cassandra Wilkinson, must be making a satirical comment here but, either my humour is failing (entirely possible), she has been edited (entirely possible) or she is completely serious and we in higher education have brought doom upon our heads by dint of doing our job. The piece finishes with:

“It may well be that the real efficiency savings will derive from a university sector employing slightly fewer academics to dream up new ways for governments to spend taxpayers money.”

and whether this is intended to be satire or not, this statement does raise my hackles.

Right now, most of the academics I know are trying to dream up ways to meet our obligations to our students in terms of a high-quality, useful and valuable education under existing restrictions. The only tax spending we’re trying to do is on the things that we can barely afford to do on the monies we get. I’m assuming that Cassandra is being satirical but is just not very good at it – or is assuming the role of her namesake, in that no-one will actually take her seriously, which is a shame as the approach that she seems to be supporting is not just saying that the only place this money can come from is higher ed, but that we should shut up because of how much we’re costing decent, family-centered Australians. If only I had that many column inches in a large-scale distribution paper to put my case that, maybe, people should stop talking about what they think we’re doing, or their fuzzy memories of old Uni days and bad movies, and come down and see what we’re doing now. Shadow me for a month. Bring running shoes. But, hey, maybe I’m just lazy, soft and dreamy. How would I know?

The rich dream of luxuries, the poor dream of staples. We are dreaming of having enough to do our jobs adequately and these are not the dreams of rich people.

Maybe I’m just too tired right now to see her humour in all of this. I seriously hope that I’ve just got the wrong end of the stick, because if this is what the social progressives are saying, then we may as well close up shop now.


Grace.

A friend sent me a link to this excellent piece on the importance of grace, in terms of your own appreciation of yourself and in your role as a teacher. Thank you, A! Here is the link:

The Lesson of Grace in Teaching

“…to hear from my own professor, whom I really love and admire, at a time when I felt ashamed of my intelligence and thus unworthy of his friendship, that I wasn’t just a student in a seat, not just a letter grade or a number on my transcript, but a valuable person who he wants to know on a personal level, was perhaps the most incredible moment of my college career.”

 


Doo de doo dooooo, doo de doo doo dooooo.

"What did you do in the 80s, Daddy?""I don't want to talk about it."

“What did you do in the 80s, Daddy?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Some of you will recognise the title of this post as the opening ‘music’ of the Europe song, “The Final Countdown”. I wasn’t sure what to call this post because it was the final component of a year long cycle that begin with some sketchy diagrams and a sketchier plan and has seen several different types of development over time. It is not, however, the final post on this blog as I intend to keep blogging but, from this post forwards, I will no longer require myself to provide at least one new post for every day.

This is, perhaps, just as well, because I am already looking over 2013 and realising that my ‘free project’ space is now completely occupied until July. Despite my intentions to travel less, I am in the US twice before the middle of March and have several domestic trips planned as well. And this is a reminder of everything that I’ve been trying to come to terms with in writing this blog and talking about my students, myself, and our community: I can talk about things and deal with them rationally in my head, but that doesn’t mean that I always act on them.

In retrospect, it has been a successful year and I have been able to produce more positive change in 2012 then probably in the sum of my working contributions up until that point. However, I am not in as good a shape as I was at the start of the year, for a variety of reasons, so when I say that my ‘free project’ space is full, I mean that I have fewer additional things to do but I am deliberately allocating less of my personal time to do them. In 2013, family and friends come first, then my projects, then my required work. Why? Because I will always find a way to do the work that I’m supposed to do, but if I start with that I can use all of my time to do that, whereas if I invert it, I have to be more efficient and I’m pretty confident that I can still get it done. After all, next year I’ll have at least an extra hour or two a day from not blogging.

Let’s not forget that this blogging project has consumed somewhere in the region of 350-400 hours of my time over the year, and that’s probably an underestimate. 400 hours is ten working weeks or just under 17 days of contiguous hours. Was my blog any better for being daily? Probably not. Could I be far more flexible and agile with my time if I removed the daily posting requirement? Of course – and so, away it goes. (So it goes, Mr Vonnegut.) The value to me of this activity has been immense – it has changed the way that I think about things and I have a far greater basis of knowledge from which I can discuss important aspects of learning and teaching. I have also discovered how little I know about some things but at least I know that they exist now! The value to other people is more debatable but given that I know that at least some people have found use in it, then it’s non-zero and I can live with that. Recalling Kurt Vonnegut again, and his book “Timequake”, I always saw this blog as a place where people could think “Oh, me too!” as I stumble my way through complicated ideas and try to comprehend the developed notions of clever people.

“Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'” (Vonnegut, Timequake, 1997)

I never really thought much about the quality of this blog, but I was always concerned about the qualities of it. I wanted it to be inclusive, reliable, honest, humble, knowledgable, useful and welcoming. Looking back, I achieved some of that some of the time and, at other times, well, I’m a human. Some days I was angrier than others but I like to think it was about important things. Sexism makes me angry. Racism makes me angry. The corruption of science for political ends makes me angry. Deliberate ignorance makes me angry. Inequity and elitism make me angry. I hope, however, the anger was a fuel for something better, burning to lift something up that carried a message that wasn’t just pure anger. If, at any stage, all I did was combine oxygen and kerosene on the launch pad and burn the rocket, then I apologise, because I always wanted to be more useful than that.

This is not the end of the blog, but it’s the end of one cycle. It’s like a long day at the beach. You leap out of bed as the sun is coming up, grab some fruit and run down to the water, still warm from the late summer currents and the hot wind that blows across it, diving in to swim out and look back at the sand as it lights up. Maybe you grab your fishing rod and spend an hour or two watching the float bob along the surface, more concerned with talking to your friend or drinking a beer than actually catching a fish, because it’s just such a nice day to be with people. Lunch is sandy sandwiches, eaten between laughs in the gusty breeze that lifts up the beach and tries to jam a big handful of grains into every bite, so you juggle it and the tomato slides out, landing on your lap. That’s ok, because all you have to do is to dive back into the water and you’re clean again. The afternoon is beach cricket, squinting even through sunglasses as some enthusiastic adult hits the ball for a massive 6 that requires everyone to search for it for about 15 minutes, then it’s some cold water and ice creams. Heading back that night, and it’s a long day in an Australian summer, you’re exhausted, you’re spent. You couldn’t swim another stroke, eat another chip or run for another ball if you tried. You’ll eat something for dinner and everyone will mumble about staying up but the day is over and, in an hour or so, everyone will be asleep. You might try and stay up because there’s so much to do but the new day starts tomorrow. Or, worst case, next summer. It’s not the end of the beach. It’s just the end of one day.

Firstly, of course, I want to thank my wife who has helped me to find the time I needed to actually do this and who has provided a very patient ear when I am moaning about that most first world of problems: what is my blog theme for today. The blog has been a part of our lives every day for 1-2 hours for an entire year and that requires everyone in the household to put in the effort – so, my most sincere gratitude to the amazing Dr K. There’s way I could have done any of this without you.

For everyone who is not my wife, thank you for reading and being part of what has been a fascinating journey. Thank you for all of your comments, your patience, your kindness and your willingness to listen. I hope that you have a very happy and prosperous New Year. Remember what Vonnegut said; that people need to know, sometimes, that they are not alone.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

And this is the real me! Yes, it was me ALL ALONG! Happy New Year!

And this is the real me! Yes, it was me ALL ALONG!
Happy New Year!


“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…


Brief Stats Update: Penultimate Word Count Notes

I occasionally dump the blog and run it through some Python script deliciousness to find out how many words I’ve written. This is no measure of worth or quality, more a metric of my mania. As I noted in October, I was going to hit what I thought was my year target much earlier. Well, yes, it came and it went and, sure enough, I plowed through it. At time of writing, on published posts alone, we’re holding at around 1.2 posts/day, 834 words/post and a smidgen over 340,000 words, which puts me (in word count) just after Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” (311,596) but well behind her opus “Atlas Shrugged” (561,996). In terms of Objectivism? Let’s just say that I won’t be putting any kind of animal into that particular fight at the moment.

Now, of course, I can plug in the numbers and see that this puts my final 2012 word count somewhere in the region of 362,000 words. I must admit, there is a part of me that sees that number and thinks “Well, we could make it an even 365,000 and that’s a neat 1000 words/day” but, of course, that’s dumb for several reasons:

  1. I have not checked in detail exactly how well my extraction software is grabbing the right bits of the text. There are hyperlinks and embellishments that appear to be taken care of, but we are probably only on the order of 95% accuracy here. Yes, I’ve inspected it and I haven’t noticed anything too bad, but there could be things slipping through. After all of this is over, I am going to drag it all together and analyse it properly but, let me be clear, just because I can give you a word count to 6 significant figures, doesn’t mean that it is accurate to 6 significant figures.
  2. Should I even be counting those sections of text that are quoted? I do like to put quotes in, sometimes from my own work, and this now means I’m either counting something that I didn’t write or I’m counting something that I did write twice!
  3. Should I be counting the stats posts themselves as they are, effectively, metacontent? This line item is almost above that again! This way madness lies!
  4. It was never about the numbers in the first place, it was about thinking about my job, my students, my community and learning and teaching. That goal will have been achieved whether I write one word/day from now on or ten thousand!

But, oh, the temptation to aim for that ridiculous and ultimately deceptive number. How silly but, of course, how human to look at the measurable goal rather than the inner achievement or intrinsic reward that I have gained from the thinking process, the writing, the refining of the text, the assembly of knowledge and the discussion.

Sometime after January the 1st, I will go back and set the record straight. I shall dump the blog and analyse it from here to breakfast time. I will release the data to interested (and apparently slightly odd) people if they wish. But, for now, this is not the meter that I should be watching because it is not measuring the progress that I am making, nor is it a good compass that I should follow.


Wrapping up Grand Challenges

We had the final ‘farewell’ function for the end of my Grand Challenges course on Friday. While I would normally see most of these students again, as this is a first year course, one of them was a US exchange student who is flying home this morning to return to his own college system. I wanted to bring everyone together, in an informal setting, to say well done and farewell. It has been a remarkable semester. For me, now, digging through the student comments and feedback will drive a lot of my thinking for the next version of the course and the comments are very, very interesting. Students reflecting on the fact that they didn’t quite understand why they learned about the grand challenges in the first place, until we were knee deep in questionable ethics and the misapplication of Science, and then *bang* it all settled into place. Yes, this is what I intended but, frankly, it’s a little bit of a high risk strategy to construct scaffolding in that way and I had to carefully monitor the group dynamics, as well as making sure that the group had enough elements in it that we could achieve a good environment in which to reflect and develop. I, by myself, cannot be a full member of the group and I’m always going to be the outsider because, well, I have to be in order to function in the course coordinator and marker role.

Next year, we already have a lot of interest in the new course and this is very exciting. I’m not sure how many will roll up but I do know that I cannot handle a group larger than 8 with the current approach – hence, as I’ve said before, I now need to take all of the comments and work on scaling it up. Sitting around the table on Friday night, talking to all of the students, it really sank in that we (as a group) had achieved something pretty special. I couldn’t have done it without them and (I suspect) a lot of them weren’t quite ready to do it without me. What I saw around the table was passion, confidence, enthusiasm and curiosity. There was also some well-deserved pride when the final poster prints were handed out. I had their first projects professionally printed on Tyvek, a plastic material that is waterproof, hard to tear and really tough, so that their posters will go anywhere and hang up, without risking becoming sad and daggy old faded relics with tears and dog ears. The posters were the result of 6 weeks of work, hence some respect was due to their construction.

I’m not a very reserved person, which will come as no surprise to any of you, and people generally know what I’m feeling (with the usual caveat that I can appear delighted by the questionable musical practices of children and fascinated in meetings). My students will therefore know that I am pleased by what they have achieved and what, by their enthusiasm and willingness to go with a non-traditional structure, we have managed to achieve together. Was it perfect? No. I need to cater for students who are in transition more and remember that just because students can perform well academically, it does not magically grant them the associated maturity or ability to handle the unforeseen. It could certainly have been better organised and that was really down to the experimental nature of the course combined with my schedule. I was too busy, sometimes, to be as forward looking as I should have been (I was looking weeks out, rather than months). That will not happen next year. What’s really interesting is what my colleagues assume about these students. “Oh, they’re smart so they must have done all this maths or love maths or something.” No, they don’t. They come in with the usual range of courses you’d expect from students and have the usual range of likes and dislikes. They are, in a nutshell, students who happen to have worked out how to perform well under assessment. As it turns out, a GPA or ATAR (SAT) mark does not summarise a student, nor does achieving the same grade make you the same person. Shocking, I know.

But, snark aside, what a great experience and, from early indications, I am pretty confident that some of these students now have a completely different set of lenses through which to view the world. Now, of course, it is up to them. You might think that my posturing on an apolitical stance is just that, a posturing facade, but I am deadly serious about not imposing my political beliefs on my students. Yes, I firmly believe that there are a set of ethical standards that people in my discipline (Computer Science) and my calling (Education) should adhere to, but how you vote? None of my business. Next year, I hope to bring in more people from industry, more entrepreneurs, possibly even some more ‘challenging’ viewpoints. The world is complicated and the intellectual challenges are many. Me training students in dogma does nothing. Me training students in how they can think for themselves and then genuinely standing back to say “That was the toolkit, it’s up to you what you build” will truly test me and them.

Far too many times I’ve held forth on silly little points where I was wrong, or misinterpreting, and it didn’t help anything. I’ve always learned more from discussion than argument, and from informed disagreement rather than blind agreement. That’s the fine print on the PhD, as I read it, “be prepared to be wrong and then work out how to be right.”

If I were ever to work myself almost to collapse again, taking on too much, striving to develop an entirely new course for a new type of student that we haven’t really catered to before, while doing everything else – I would hope that at the end of the year, I could look back on something like Grand Challenges and nod, with satisfaction, because it worked. I’m looking forward to bouncing ideas off the course members over the next 6 months to get their feedback on the new direction, possibly using these students as mentors and tutors (good idea, MH) to help me run the course and to keep building the community. That’s what it was always about, after all. Yes, it was a course for students who could handle the academics but it was always about the biggest Grand Challenge of them all: getting people to work together to solve problems.

Turn on the news and you’ll see lot of problems at the moment. Running up to (yet another) end of the world, we are once again taking the crazy pills and, bluntly, it scares me. We have a lot of problems to solve and that will take people, working together, sharing, talking and using available resources to try and deal with things that could potentially destroy our species. If you have the opportunity to tun any kind of program that could assist with this – problem solving, community building, team formation, outreach to other schools, or whatever – please consider doing so. I’ll tell you, honestly, it’s one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done and I’ve been privileged to be able to do a lot of cool things.


Winding up 2012: Dear Students…

Dear Students,

After this week I will not see many of you until February of next year and, some of you, I may not see again because you’ll go on to do other things. This is the time of the year when I reflect upon what I have achieved in terms of contributing to the knowledge and skills of my students and how I can do it better. I have to start from the presumption that I can always improve upon what have I done but, even without that, accepting that every year will bring a different group, with different needs, forces me to think about the core of my teaching – as opposed to what actually came out in the teaching activities. What I always want to achieve is to help you develop yourselves. I can’t change you but I can help you change. If you know more, understand more or can do more at the end of the year, then I’m happy. If you go on to help other people, then I’m ecstatic!

Many people throughout your lives will tell you big, shiny success stories and expect you to take a certain path because there’s a big brass ring at the end. I have walked that path and have known success but, if we are being honest, success is not the same as happiness. Throughout the year we have discussed many things, scholarly and secular, but we have rarely had the time or the opportunity to talk about some of the most important things in life: the reasons why we do things and, ultimately, how it will make us feel. But you shouldn’t be listening to me because of who I am or how you think of me, I’m just another voice from our species and I have one of the many opinions. My friends will (I hope) tell you that I am mostly a good man, with some occasional moments of selfishness and stupidity. You should realise that almost everyone is like this. It would be impossible for us to live as we do, where we do, were this not so. The majority of people are good, most of the time, with occasional moments of stupidity. What that means, of course, is that we have a terrific amount of force to act against those who are always stupid or unpleasant – the silent majority is powerful.

Firstly, let me tell you how much I love our magnificent, terrible and bizarre species. We are terrible and beautiful. We are capable of acts of tremendous selflessness and kindness, yet sometimes we taint it with greed, selfishness and cruelty. We are driven by so many things and, the more I read, the more it becomes apparent that who we are, as individuals, is as much about the world around us, our families and friends, our education and our overall exposure to reality, as it is about ourselves. I can think of several points in my life where the intervention of other people has held me back from a terrible and destructive course, explicit examples of changing direction, but there are so many examples that speak of casual intervention: a smile on a day when I needed one, someone holding the door, being let into traffic after waiting forever.

To try and distill this species, into the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” myths of Horatio Alger or to claim it is all emptiness and cynicism, is to sell us, and you, short. Fairy tales are conveniently small fictions, now separated from their original cautionary endings, that sell you a “happy ending” as a bill of goods, as if all you have to do is to kiss the frog, find the right name or have the right shoe size.

Nothing is that easy. If it is for you then, sadly, experience tells us that you will not really appreciate it that much. This is not a rationale for suffering but an observation of the bad behaviour that seems to come at certain levels of privilege. Be in no doubt, if you leave with a degree then you are privileged. This is not a matter of guilt or a burden, it’s just a fact. Some of you will never appreciate how lucky you were to go to University at a time of peace in a prosperous country because you do not quite realise how fortunate you were. You are no more or less entitled to be educated than the next person and it is pure accident that determines who enters school in a safe, highly educated, country, rather than trying to learn under gunfire in a cramped and broken classroom where you might be lucky to get to Year 6 before forced to go and work to keep your family alive. Some of you have made it through wars and fought your way to restart your education, surviving that and striving for more. Some of you represent minorities, first-in-family or face terrible ordeals that your peers will never quite understand. Many of you, facing no other impediment other than ignorance of a certain area, strive for more and to achieve a greater understanding. I salute all of you for your efforts, especially where you have reached out to help your peers. But why are you doing this?

We often fail to ask ourselves ‘why?’ “Why are you doing this degree?” “Why are you looking for this job?” “Why are you doing this?”

You will often be encouraged to believe that questions like “Am I happy?” or “Should I be doing this?” are somehow not appropriate questions – indicative of some sort of laziness when you should be seeking jobs and working harder, every single day. So, what are your plans? If your answer is “Get a job”, then which job are you looking for? If the answer to that is “a programming job”, then what kind of programming job? If you don’t know what you really want to do, then how will you know when you’ve found it? How can you search for something better? How will you say no to something that will make you miserable? What do you need to live and what do you need to make you happy? Can you combine them?  Many of you will have dependents and you will have to take the work that is offered, when it is offered. If you do have some freedom of movement now then I encourage you to make the best use of it so that, when people do depend upon you, you can support them with little or no resentment. Remember that rarely do the people we support ask for our help for any other reason than they need help. I always have to remember that when a student asks me a ‘silly’ question. It’s not about me – they just need my help and probably don’t yet realise what the question sounds like.

What makes you happy? Can you make it a job? Are you happy now? Do you actually want this degree? Why? Most students start University with no clear plan or understanding of why they’re doing it. Now, most students then end up finishing and having some idea of what they’re doing – and a Uni degree is a great thing to have when we teach it properly – but leaving after 3-5 years with a degree and no idea of direction means that finding something that you want to do is going to be a crap shoot. This must be tempered by the realities of your life because this is no fairytale.  You will give 5% of your time to some people and they will be so grateful in return that you will be embarrassed. You will try to give 200% to other people and they will only demand more. You will not necessarily know in advance which way this will go. Those of you have choice must remember that there are many, many more who don’t. Again, this is not about guilt but about perspective and valuing what you have, and what you can do.

I am, unashamedly, focused on actions taken for the good of us all: our community, our society and our home, which is far more than just a place for humans. I have spent time at a very low ebb over the years: depressed, deep in debt, terrible job or unemployed, living on almost no food for weeks, giving away my own books and CDs as gifts to not stand out at social gatherings, washing my clothes in the bathroom sinks at work to hide the fact that I couldn’t afford laundry powder or new clothes. I hope that none of this ever happens to you but you should be aware that this is happening, day after day, to people everywhere. Many of these people did not go to Uni, did not finish school, may not have basic literacy. How do you expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots and someone is standing on their toes (to quote Dr King).

I do not want to encourage you towards any movement, political, secular, religious or otherwise. It is none of my business what kind of “-ist” you become, if any, as long as you do so fairly, ethically and with respect and an appreciation of who you are and the people around you. I find myself constantly challenged to live up to my own beliefs and my ideals. Sometimes I do, sometimes I wish I had tried harder. That’s just how it is, for almost all of us.

My sincere wishes for a beautiful and happy future,

Nick.


Official plans for this blog: 2012/2013

I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to go forward after my year long commitment to daily blog updates and I have settled on the decision that the 1st of January, 2013 (Yes, yes, it originally said 2012), at 4:00am Adelaide time, will mark the last of the ‘daily’ posting commitments. From that point on, I will post as things interest me and when I have the time to deliver a good, sound and useful post. I have been concerned for some time that the quality has been sacrificed to get something out and this is not what I set out to do. Two days I sat down to write the blog and stared at the screen for 15 minutes before I sighed, gave up and decided to come back the next day. I then went on, the next day, to post a heap of stuff because I was refreshed. But, frankly, I’m busy enough without adding too many more hoops, bells and whistles to my life. (Unless it’s the circus from Madagascar 3, in which case sign me up!)

Polka dot, polka dot, polka dot, afro!

I do not, for a single moment, regret the commitment because now I know I can do it and it has definitely transformed the way I think about many important things. However, this structure has served its purpose and, once I’ve completed the commitment, I’ll be happy to take a more freeform approach. Now, I’m not saying that I will post more or less, what I am saying is that I will post with less regularity from January 1st and, more importantly, I will have the ability to take some time off if I need to concentrate on projects or work that may then lead to some far more interesting blog posts.

I will still be posting on the daily cycle until then and I thank everyone for continuing to read!