Friday, 14 June 2013

Let's Hack the Curriculum

                The fact that schools must prepare students to innovate in a rapidly changing world has been repeated to the point of becoming an educational cliché- the twenty-first century’s equivalent of stressing the “Three Rs”.  Indeed, we have thus far tried to impose order on our increasingly dynamic era by preparing students in the same way we have always instructed reading, writing, and arithmetic.  That is, by creating and following curriculum.
A desire to explore alternative approaches has led to my decision to leave traditional education.  June 25th, 2013 marks the end of my nine year career as a high school teacher and the beginning of my journey as an entrepreneur.  I have been inspired to take this leap through my interactions with the dynamic population at the Centre for Social Innovation. CSI is a collaborative workspace with three locations in Toronto and one in New York.  In addition to providing space for social entrepreneurs to work, it has a fulltime team of educators and community animators whose sole purpose is to organize programs and events which allow members to share knowledge.  CSI has shown me a powerful and fluid form of education.  It has also furnished me with the vocabulary to describe what needs to happen in the school system.  Both the curriculum and the way we train teachers need to be hacked.     
Before arriving at CSI, I had always associated hacking with the tech world.  This quickly changed when I learned about Project Ukulele Gangsterism, the brainchild of CSI Director of Culture Adil Dhalla.  His idea to “hack the morning commute” with dozens of ukuleles and a song entitled “Have an Awesome Day” made me question my narrow understanding of this concept.  Hacking has moved away from its techy and pejorative origin and towards the idea that positive changes can be carved out of a larger system.  Adil’s ability to inject some fun into the doldrums of rush hour is part of a growing hacker mindset which is also infiltrating education.  After posting this, I am heading to OISE for a weekend “EduHack” Conference.
Although the idea of the teacher-as-hacker is starting to gain traction, it definitely faces an uphill climb.  Change in education remains remains firmly tethered to policy.  As a consequence, "innovation" has been equated with accelerated changes in provincial curriculum.  When I began my career, Ontario was one year into an entirely revamped secondary curriculum which had been streamlined from five years to four.  The teachers who mentored me were still grappling with a dramatic shift in assessment policy which had been phased in over the previous four years.  Six years into my career, that policy was replaced.     
                Of course, curriculum needs to evolve if it is to remain relevant; however, relevance is a far cry from innovation.  The accelerated changes I confronted as a teacher are positively glacial when placed next to the quantum developments outside the school system.  In the same time it took to revamp Ontario’s assessment policy, an additional 1.5 billion people gained access to the internet.  The Ontario math curriculum was revised in 2007.  Bureaucratically speaking, this was yesterday; but it was in the Stone Age compared to the 0.26 seconds it takes Google to find 2,490,000 results for “calculus help”.  The inescapable conclusion is this- traditional curriculum is a tried and true means of setting academic standards, but cannot possibly keep pace with changes in how we use and disseminate knowledge. 
If we can’t rely on policy to innovate, we must better prepare the individuals who can.  We need to train teachers in the art of innovation if we want our schools to create rather than simply respond to change.  Teachers must be given both the tools and the confidence to hack the curriculum from within.  As the entrepreneurs at CSI know, this type of training does not come from a textbook and is not shackled to an overarching curriculum mandate.  However, there is a methodology to crafting an entrepreneurial mindset.    
I would like to tap this methodology to rethink how we prepare new teachers.  To this end, I am planning a twelve week program based around lessons distilled from my experiences at CSI.  It will take newly graduated teacher-candidates through a series of interactive workshops focusing on themes which are relevant to educators and entrepreneurs alike: network thinking, communication and active listening, assessment and iteration, and presentation design.  Participants in the program will hone these approaches by both engaging in, and initiating events at CSI.  The program will culminate with a pitch night in which this cohort of newly minted “edu-preneurs” will present their educational ideas to a collection of entrepreneurs and educators who are in a position to help them realize their vision.

Although I plan to scale it in the fall, this program is already in effect.  I consider myself its first graduate.  The lessons I have learned so far at CSI have given me the reason and the confidence to develop the program briefly outlined above.  Of course, I still have much to learn, and am eager for your input.  If you’re interested in discussing this further, I would love to hear from you! 

Monday, 29 April 2013

Integrated Thinking and Online Curating

Discussions about the necessity of integrated thinking abound today, as do large-scale educational experiments with this concept.  Quest University in Squamish B.C. was founded in 2007 to teach students techniques to creatively combine rather than simply reiterate what they have learned.  Students there are encouraged to integrate knowledge from across disciplines to explore a central, self-directed question.  More recently, the Rotman School of Management in Toronto has teamed up with a variety of public and private K-12 schools to provide students and staff with lessons in integrative thinking.  The brainchild of Rotman dean Roger Martin, the I-Think program is designed to teach students alternatives to either-or decision making.  Meanwhile, the Ontario Ministry of Education as a whole has been tinkering with the idea of providing more integrated course offerings since 2002.  Interdisciplinary Studies is an exciting framework which allows Ontario secondary school teachers to offer senior level courses covering ministry expectations from across the curriculum.
It is truly wonderful to see these progressive changes in educational thought; however, it has thus far proven challenging to apply integrative thinking techniques to the day to day realities of the classroom.  As with most philosophies, the devil is in the details.  This is why I have recently been experimenting with online curating as a tangible, accessible application for integrated thinking.  I first came across the amazing curating site while consulting for Twenty One Toys, an educational start-up working out of the Centre for Social Innovation.  In my brief time working in this environment I have been amazed at the seemingly natural ability of entrepreneurs to access and synthesize tremendous amounts of information.  This is precisely the kind of thinking I want to cultivate in my students (and in myself!)  Upon closer inspection, I have come to understand that the ability to navigate and creatively connect large amounts of information is a logical process which can be both learned and taught, with a little help from the internet. is part of a growing group of sites which allow users to collect, organize, and reflect on online content.  This process begins by defining a unique topic which acts as a unifying arc for all content linked to the site.  When users post information which they have found online, they are asked to offer their brief insights.  They can choose to share these insights on a variety of social media sites, and when they have collected enough content they can even publish an online newsletter based on their efforts.  Using the site is very easy, but it allows for useful and challenging applications of integrative thought.  I am in the process of experimenting with it in a variety of ways:
·         Providing interactive homework: Homework should be an opportunity for students to build upon what was taught in class. can be used to provide students opportunities to arrive at divergent rather than convergent conclusions about my courses. 
I am trying an approach to homework in which the majority of at home readings/video posts are provided on my page.  Each student scoops course content from here onto a page they curate themselves.  More importantly, they will expand upon this content by finding a related item (article, video, photo, blog, poem, song…) for each resource I have provided.  By the end of the term, each student will have built an online “textbook” which reflects both the structure of the course, and their unique insights.  I am also encouraging students to publish their scoops on Twitter and/or Facebook to stimulate discussions outside of class.  And although I do not want to frame this as a numbers-based exercise, I do think that the possibility of gaining followers and increasing traffic to their page will provide additional incentive to curate interesting content.

·         Emphasizing interactive studying techniques: Tests have gained the unfortunate and inaccurate reputation as the ultimate crucibles of the educational process.  Rather than being a confrontational activity, a well composed test allows students to think holistically about a given section of a course.  It has always bothered me, therefore, that so many students prepare for these integrative exercises by re-writing course concepts in fragmented notes or flashcards.  While thinking that they are being efficient studiers by focusing on isolated areas of misunderstanding, what they are actually doing is robbing themselves of the context which makes the entire course cohere. 
Last semester, I challenged my students to use to prepare for their Communication Technologies exam.  I wanted to see if the process of actively searching for course content, rather than passively reiterating it from their notes, would lead to greater success.  Beyond that, this exercise was also used to encourage my students to go beyond what they had learned.  In addition to posting content related directly to course content, each student had to include and justify content which explored ways that the internet is fundamentally changing the history I had taught them.  An example of a student’s first attempt can be viewed here.
·         Teaching integrative research techniques: Increasing instances of plagiarism, and the less serious but still troublesome problem of students equating research success with quantity both stem from the same misguided assumption that research is only about gathering information.  The age old adage that “knowledge is power” needs to be updated to reflect the realities of a knowledge soaked digital world; “connections are power” is a much more fitting slogan for the age of the web.  Using techniques practiced throughout the term in activities briefly outlined above, I hope to convince my students of this.      



Wednesday, 20 March 2013

In difense of speling

                Over the past decade, I have marked the end of each high school term with the same ritual: swearing quietly under my breath as I attempt to extract meaning from the maze of spelling and grammatical errors which wind their way through the final essays and exams I must grade.  The swearing is knee-jerk, but once I have calmed down, I force myself to consider the implications of and reasons for the state of the written word.
                The first thing that I must accept is the fact that English, perhaps more than any other language, is an exceptionally malleable mode of communication.  Indeed, its success and richness are largely predicated on its willingness to borrow, repurpose, and create entirely new words.  The Oxford English Dictionary contains well over 600,000 words, and publishes quarterly lists of new entries.  The OED estimates that each of its quarterly reports contain upwards of 2000 new entries.  And as English teachers love to point out, Shakespeare alone contributed hundreds of commonly used words by adding or subtracting suffixes and prefixes to existing words, and by creating entirely new words to fit within the rhyme scheme and meter of his writing.  It is also interesting to note that Shakespeare himself spelled his own name no fewer than five different ways.  (Interestingly, the modern spelling seems to be one of the spellings he did not routinely use.)             
                The second reality that I must come to terms with is the fact that, as a result of this malleability, English spelling has acquired some very arbitrary characteristics.  The extensive list of homonyms that pepper our language is just one example of the wackiness built into our system of spelling.  “I’ll”, “Isle”, and “Aisle” are as differently spelled as they are similar sounding.  At the root of this baffling system is a love of fusion which underpins our language.  The tendency for written English to incorporate the verbal shorthand of spoken English is demonstrated in its multiplicity of contractions.  “I will” was long ago deemed too inefficient to leave unmolested, so the verbal slurring of “I’ll” found its way onto the page.  Of course, if English was content merely to fuse its verbal and written forms, its phonetics would make a lot more sense.  However, English also relishes the opportunity to adopt words from other languages.  “Isle” comes from the Latin word “insula”, which incidentally is also where we get the words “Island” and “Insulate”.   “Aisle” comes from the Old French word “Aile”, meaning “wing”.    
                As a result of this spirit of inclusion, English developed as a patchwork of disparate and constantly evolving rules and spellings.  It was not until the Enlightenment, when the English speaking world was ascending to a place of political dominance, that this dynamic mosaic started to be formalized.  The combination of the hegemonic forces of English colonization, and Enlightenment ideals of scientific rigour and uniformity led to the publication of the first comprehensive English dictionaries in the 1700s.  Perhaps the most famous speller of this time was Noah Webster (1758 – 1843).  He published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783, the year the American Revolution officially ended.  Commonly referred to as The “Blue-Backed Speller”, this formalized account of rules for written English would sell 100 million copies in the century after it was published; a literary reach second only to the bible.
                So, if the success of English has historically rested on its malleability, and its system of arbitrary rules was codified at a time bearing little resemblance to our own, why should I get upset when my students can’t spell?  Aren’t text messages and emoticons simply the next phase of English evolution?  After careful consideration, I can say with great confidence that spelling needs to be a continuing area of focus in education.  However, the methodology with which teachers present this skill is in need of change.  Rote memorization of arbitrary rules is antithetical to the creative demands of the post-industrial work place.  As is, I must concede, my knee-jerk anger directed towards students who don’t see the logic in this system.  Instead, spelling and grammar must be explored for what they really are: windows into a fascinating history of cultural exchange and evolution.  The English language needs to be taught using discussions of word etymology, and analysis of both how and why written communication changes.  Students should consider both the benefits and the drawbacks of communicating 140 characters at a time, and apply the same level of critical thinking when considering why teachers continue to ask them for formal essays and reports. 
                As with all significant areas of human endeavor, language is a process rather than an end point.  To be fully valued, therefore, we must learn to appreciate its past, present, and future.   

The Importance of Teaching Optimism

                The most difficult part of teaching World Issues is steering students away from the cynicism and apathy that often infect discussions of the world’s problems.  If television is a good indicator of social mood, then this cynicism seems to be intensifying.  Recently, a variety of documentary-style television shows such as Aftermath and Life After People have entertained a wide range of apocalyptic scenarios.  Life After People is particularly bleak in regards to the future of our species.  The show, which is currently in its second season on The History Channel, callously quantifies how quickly human accomplishments will vanish after we are gone.  There are even some groups that are keen to see this future realized.  Founded in 1991, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT – pronounced “vehement”) is based around the motto: “May we live long and die out”.  Although this is certainly a fringe movement, its core ideas have been picked up in mainstream culture.  Most notably, the 1999 box office juggernaut The Matrix sounds remarkably similar to VHMET ideology when its main antagonist compares humanity to a virus which has infected the world.  
                Feeling that the world is too big and complex to fix and that humanity is only capable of destructive behaviour is very tempting because it is so easy.  It is the misplaced idea that nothing can change that frees us from the responsibility of trying.  Such a defeatist attitude, however, poses the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is therefore the duty of both teachers and parents to endow our students with a feeling of optimism and a sense of control over their future.  To my mind, the best way of doing this is to shine a light on the primary sources of the cynicism which seems so deeply embedded in our society.  As with all problems, pessimism can be fully overcome only if it is completely understood.                             
                The possibility that humans may have lost control of the world became a widely discussed theme during the Industrial Revolution.  Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is the most famous example of the era’s growing fear that humans could become victims of their own technology.  However, it is not the technology itself that is the primary object of fear in this story; it is how it came into being.  What is monstrous about Frankenstein’s creation is the fact that it was assembled rather than born.  The source of the monster’s murderous rage is its alienation from humanity as a result of its unnatural origin.  A little over a century later, Aldous Huxley gave Shelly’s critique of industrialized society a futuristic makeover in Brave New World (1932).  Like the monster in Frankenstein, people in Huxley’s futuristic dystopia are essentially industrial products.  Each person is engineered on an assembly line to fulfill a specialized social task.  Unlike Shelly’s monster, these assembly line citizens appear quite content with their lives.  However, this is only because human inefficiencies like curiosity have been meticulously removed.  They are happy only because they are too apathetic to be dissatisfied. 
                Literary allegories about the disempowering nature of the industrial world are mirrored by one of the most influential publications of the 19th century.  In certain passages of The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx sounds as if he is giving a description of the Frankenstein monster.  Most notably, he describes the “alienation” felt by modern workers as a result of their fragmented existence as industrial drones.  And like the monster described by Shelly three decades earlier, alienated workers will eventually turn violent.       
                Two centuries of academic literature, and a handful of communist revolutions is pretty conclusive: when people are treated like industrial products, they become blissfully apathetic at best, and chaotically violent at worst.  Even the most cursory glance at history shows that neither approach is particularly good at changing the world.  Knowing this, the value of an integrated, liberal arts education becomes all the more apparent.  Since the Industrial Revolution, education has unfortunately been based on an assembly-line model.  To maximize efficiency, students were educated in a series of specialized subjects, and forced to pass through a number of quality control check points to ensure their readiness for the industrial work force.  It should be no surprise then, that students coming out of this anachronistic approach to education felt alienated and powerless when confronted with a seemingly fragmented array of global issues.       
                Today’s students must be taught how to transcend artificial distinctions in order to regain a sense of overarching understanding and personal agency that was forfeited in the name of specialization.  As students stop seeing their world through the antiquated divisions left over from the industrial age, they realize that many problems share common solutions, and that one seemingly small action can have wide reaching implications.  Education itself is one such solution.  Higher rates of education have been repeatedly proven to eliminate many of the problems that plague the contemporary world, including gender inequality, economic disparity, and unsustainable population growth. 
                Postindustrial, interdisciplinary education can change the world.  It is the job of teachers today to share this optimistic fact with the next generation.