Living and Teaching in the Slow Lane 2

Early in December a close family member had a significant stroke.  She was given only a small chance of pulling through but as luck would have it, she thankfully has remained with us, and made considerable improvements during rehabilitation.  It meant that our Christmas day festivities were postponed, and on the 25th of December we spent the day in a small regional rehab centre.  It proved to be quite a remarkable day.

We arrived at the rehab centre on Christmas morning to find that most of the patients had gone home for the day (not an option for our loved one), and all but two of the staff had the day off.  Much of the day was spent very quietly chatting away over cups of tea, often repeating phrases for clarity, and generally taking things very slowly.  The two nursing staff working that day  were wonderfully attentive and also chose to have lunch with us, which was greatly appreciated.

After lunch I started a conversation with a preposterously nimble minded 91 year old lady originally from Germany.  She showed me pictures of herself and her father during WW2 looking very debonair and smart in his SS officers uniform.  She explained that they had moved to Austria after the war and then settled in Australia.  She spoke fondly of her time in Germany growing up under Hitler’s reign, and believed that he had brought great pride to the German nation.  When I asked about the horror of the ‘Final Solution’, she was unrepentant and believed that it had been the right thing to do.

I suspect if I had been listening to a younger person I may have left the conversation with a some sharply chosen words, but in the spirit of the day I listened intently to this very softly spoken woman.  I won’t go into the details, but she was adamant that Hitler had been a hero, fighting for justice for her homeland.  She was happy to listen to my obvious counter arguments, but believed I was too soft in a harsh unforgiving world. While I found her views on Hitler abhorrent, nonetheless, her life had been fascinating and I enjoyed our long whisper like conversation.

After what seemed like another fifty or so cups of tea my wife and I set off for the long drive home. We both remarked how enjoyable the day had been.  It had been a very different Christmas day.  Everybody had spoken quietly and slowly and with long pauses, and this had a very calming effect on us.  We both agreed that Christmas day 2017 will go down as possibly our most enjoyable. It reinforced to me yet again, that going slow means you get to actually experience so much more than when you rush to get more done.  If you get a chance, I recommend turning the outboard off and drifting for awhile.

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Creativity and the Kandinsky Critique

I think it’s fairly common for some to get the concept of creativity and creative problem solving mixed together and loaded into the one bag. I think this is a mistake. According to me they are very different beasts altogether. Being creative doesn’t make you a creative problem solver as such.

Creativity is a very nebulous concept indeed. It’s impossible to argue that Kandinsky was a very creative artist if those who disagree with you think he’s rubbish. If I think Kandinsky was creative, (and I do), I’m correct. If others think Kandinsky is boring and predictable, they too are also, correct. That’s creativity for you. It defies definition or logic and perhaps this is how it should be. Sir Ken Robinson describes creativity as “Having an original idea that adds value”. Does Kandinsky add value? For many people the answer might be no. Someone once told me that creativity was a way of being, a way of life if you will. Who am I to say its not? I believe there are some people who are generally more creative than the rest of us, but again that’s a judgement call on my behalf. My most creative people of history list might not contain a single person from another’s list. So be it.

Creative problem solving or creativity in problem solving lends itself to closer inspection. A couple of examples. A few years back my class was chosen to compete in a creative problem solving competition. I chose four students out of a hat to compete as a team representing our school. On the day the task the students were given was to make a catapult out of a small number of materials.

The winner would be the group who could use the materials to make a genuine catapult and fling a payload the furthest. Every group had a marshmallow and all chose the marshmallow to be the payload, except my group. Luckily, having done this task a few weeks before, we knew through trial and error that spit balls of paper really fly. As each group had been given a pencil and paper on their desk and also told they could use any materials on the desk, my team were declared easy winners. The experience and knowledge gained from having made a catapult a few weeks before was invaluable. The spit ball knowledge made them more creative. Embarrassingly my students were interviewed after the task and asked how I taught creativity in the class. This led to some very blank looks from my students. I don’t try to teach it I’m afraid.

My second example is a cousin of mine who works in Silicon Valley. He is a very wealthy young man who has built a successful company around providing creative solutions in the cyber security area. Some of the things he talks about I wouldn’t have even thought of, but he assures me that with the right knowledge there are many solutions available to protect your data. On the other hand, despite having a state of the art kitchen at his workplace he prefers to order in because he can’t “Get all the ingredients at his disposal to taste good”. I’m sure if he put the time, effort and practice into gathering some knowledge about what fresh ingredients generally work together; he could create something not only edible, but also tasty.

When people like Sir Ken Robinson argue that we should value creativity as much as academic achievement, and that you can assess creativity with clear criteria based on originality (original to you) and added value, (I think that’s more a business focussed outlook), what I believe he is arguing for is our young people to be more knowledgeable. I believe he also is mixing creativity and creative problem solving on the same palette.

There are rare occurrences of people who stumble upon creative answers to problems without much background knowledge. But by and large creative ‘geniuses’ have put in endless hard work and investigation and have vast knowledge in their field. They are not overnight sensations that know how to think creatively and so have been able to shortcut the process.

Mind you this blog has some creativity issues, so what do I know?

Mark Johnson @markxsyst

 

Our Rage is the Fuel of Our Oppression

The fuel that drives the machine is the rage of the oppressed. That rage must be coerced to be directed at ‘others’, rather than those engaging in the oppression. The machine then immolates the ‘others’. Thus it’s a self-fueling vehicle of the very oppression the oppressed rage against. (I’m channeling many before me of course.)

We wish to wash ourselves clean of the dirt, grime and putrid odour of late stage democracy. We wail and gnash our teeth at the injustices perpetrated on us by a narcissistic buffoon. We rise with clenched fists and demand that the voice of reason, the voice that calls for compassion and understanding, the voice of the righteous, be heard in the dark caverns of peak stage capitalism. We will not tolerate the incoherent bleating of the fake tanned, floating haired Satan. So we peer into the cavern and call the names of our former puppet masters. Please, please come out, come out and denounce the demigod and lay plunder to his to his vacuous nonsense.

Current and former Kings and Queens are quick to heed the call, lest the oppressed venture further into the cavern seeking clarity. They denounce the intruder, and we are scoured and scrubbed clean by their words of scorn for him. Our indignant wounds have been temporarily salved and dressed. We wait with baited breath for another tongue lashing to be directed at the heathen in the oval shaped office.

Yet when the curtains are closed, our former overlords know that their denouncements are not on behalf of the oppressed, but a desire for us to return to our slumber, to keep our dispirited sleepwalking gait in stride. For you see, the machine requires a steady driver at the helm, and its fuel is the rage of the oppressed.  We scowl at Trump, he is the ultimate ‘other’, and our rage fuels our own continued repression.

Review: Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A Guide for Parents and Professionals

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I was asked by Professor Pamela Snow to review the book she co-authored with Dr Caroline Bowen, ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Development Disorders: A Guide for Parents and Professionals’. As a parent of a young man with autism who has recently navigated his way through 12 years of schooling, I was happy to oblige. Professor Snow provided me with an Author’s copy.

Over the years I have spent many hours pouring over research articles, industry publications and to a lesser extant personal stories, in an effort to help our son on his journey. Often this was a frustrating experience, (There is a minefield of dubious information out there). So after having had my fill of the “10 things you should know about Autism” type of publications, I’m happy to report that ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders’ is not that kind of book. If it were I think I would have returned the book to Professor Snow and declined the review.

I think this an important book because it attempts to demystify the endless interventions that are available for children with a developmental disorder. There are such books out there already, but in my experience some can be quite heavy going at times. To a large extent I think the laudable aim of providing some clarity about what is and isn’t helpful is achieved in a plain, easy to read style, that focuses on avoiding tiresome, bewildering jargon. Its purpose is to sort the wheat from the chaff, and on occasions those interventions where we don’t know whether the intervention is either.

The main focus of the book is to give parents and educators a brief introduction to a range of developmental disorders and present the evidence for a large number of popular interventions. This is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of such interventions, but provides a guide to where they sit in terms of evidence. As mentioned in the foreword by Dorothy Bishop, “The stance of this book is scientific and evidence-based. Thus the primary approach to evaluating an intervention is to ask, what is the evidence?” It is an attempt to take interventions that sound plausible and attractive, and put them under the spotlight.

There are endless mainstream interventions that are accepted as tried and true practice. Many unfortunately are not evidence-based, and as such it pays for parents and professionals to check their sources no matter how convincing they sound. The authors make the point that just because you are reading a National Association for (insert developmental disorder), doesn’t mean the advice is evidence-based. They also emphasise that we should question eminence-based practice that achieves its standing from the high profile of those that support it. The main scourge I found when attempting to find information to help my son, was the ‘testimonial’. I was pleased to see the authors suggest that one take a cautious approach to such personal recommendations.

The main focus for me was the chapter on Autism Spectrum Disorder. As my son stumbled his way through school there were joyful successes, but more often than not an unhappy boy trying to navigate the pitfalls of education. More than once my family received recommendations for strategies or programs that had a very dubious past.  ‘Making Sense of Interventions with Developmental Disorders’ has an excellent quite detailed look at the current state of play in terms of evidence surrounding ASD and is the longest chapter in the book. For parents or guardians of children who have been assigned the ASD label, the journey to find answers can be long and daunting. Thankfully chapter 4 in the book ‘Children with autistic spectrum disorders’ is clearly laid out and looks at publications that may be helpful for those who are tired of the miracle cure endorsed by celebrity publications. I was pleased to see an endorsement for ‘NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity’, which I personally found extraordinarily insightful, and a great model for accepting diversity. I would have liked more time devoted to making it clear how different “NeuroTribes” is as a publication in this field. But that is not the purpose of this book, it’s a guide, an entry point to what is available, so that criticism may be unfair.

There is an excellent overview on many interventions for those with ASD, and a brief look at the current evidence available. These interventions range from the bizarre to the mainstream and accepted, (again often with little evidence) up to those interventions that have a solid foundation of supporting evidence. Pages 128 to 131 have an excellent range of strategies to caringly guide and support your child. These strategies are helpful whether your child has ASD or not. Overall the entire message here is one I heartily endorse. There are no miracle cures and we don’t need them because children with ASD or any other developmental disorder are not broken.

There is also some good advice about the ubiquitous Auditory Processing Disorder, which every second child seemed to have when I first started teaching some 20 years ago. The key finding reported here is that perhaps we would be better of without the APD label altogether. It is reported that 50 years of research has yet to find any specific auditory interventions that are definitively helpful. Language interventions for those with language and learning disabilities are far more helpful for those given the APD label.

Chapter 9, titled simply ‘Reading’, contains a helpful examination of the huge range of reading programs and interventions available. Of particular interest to me was the information on dyslexia as my child was variously spot- diagnosed with this from time to time, and as a teacher I have worked with many dyslexic children. I would agree with the authors that different coloured paper and ‘dyslexic-friendly‘ fonts are perhaps less helpful than generally accepted.

What I learned from reading ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders’ is that even for someone like myself who has been exposed to the many interventions that are available, there are so many more dizzying choices that have the potential to lead us up many a garden path. As a parent of a child with ASD, and as part of a family who works and has contact with children with disabilities on a regular basis, we are at the mercy of many a charlatan or well meaning group or individual who believe they have the answers. More often than not they don’t. If you are a parent or professional who is using a practice that is listed in the book as lacking evidence, this book is not an attempt to mock or belittle you choices. Rather a rational attempt to expose you to where the practice sits in terms of its efficacy to date. I endorse the point the authors make that those parents or professionals, who may support an intervention with little evidence, do not need to be belittled or made to feel gullible.

A quote from the last page sums up nicely what the main thrust of this book is about. “Mainstream education has an opportunity here to show leadership in eschewing charismatic salesfolk and their shiny new, untested nueurofandangles, in favour of the hard yards of painstakingly engaging with scientifically validated approaches.” Sage advice in my opinion. ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders’, is a good stepping stone for parents and practitioners, whether it is for the inexperienced, or those with some mileage under the hood.

Mark Johnson

@markxsyst

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virtual Creatures in a Botanical Garden

An article from the Sydney Morning Herald with the headline, Video games in school: Pokémon Go used to teach science, popped into my feed this morning.  As is often the case it was a bit clickbaity, but I do understand the need for this in our media.  What it actually meant was that some students captured a Pokémon Go character in the botanical gardens, and then the science teacher talked about the plant life seeing they were now there at the gardens.  Lured there if you will.

 
I don’t have a problem with games in learning but I do get concerned when some educators think that we need to tap into the latest game or fad that comes along to help motivate our learners.  Comments like “We’re using what the kids already like to do to get to our outcomes,…” are worrying for me sometimes.  The half-life of popular games and toys is generally quite short and I don’t think we should be expecting that teachers tap into the latest hit game in the market place.

 
Fidget spinners were all the rage for a short while and I saw a number of posts about incorporating them into learning.  In my neck of the woods, fidget spinners are so ‘last month’ and the students have moved on. Pokémon go is but a distant memory.  My view tends to be if the students are obsessed with these things at home, the last thing I should be doing is encouraging more use at school.  (Call me old –fashioned).

 
The other troubling aspect is this quote from the article. “Most major textbook publishers now have in-house game developers…”.  I think we need to continually cast a critical eye over this sort of development.  Perhaps not outrageous conspiracy theories about evil neoliberal villains profiting from students, but nonetheless we need to be cautious.

 
There is a place for online games in class, but I think we need to use them sparingly and with a very clear understanding of what our motives are for using them.  Vague ideas about motivating students need to carefully assessed.

 

In short, rather than luring students to the garden by chasing virtual creatures on a screen, leave the devices behind and stroll to the garden.  For me, that’s a bit closer to real life learning.

Living and Teaching in the Slow Lane

Around the start of this year, 2017, I noticed some unusual things happening. I began to frequently drop things like full cups of coffee, bowls of spaghetti, and most alarmingly glasses of French vodka. I also began running into things, or more precisely not taking a wide enough berth around objects like door jams and kitchen benches, particularly island kitchen benches became more difficult to circumnavigate. This coincided with problems with memory, or more particularly memory of things I had been asked to do. (My wife believes this was not a new development).

After much protesting, snarling and gnashing of teeth, I relented and we went to our local GP. He performed a battery of tests and promptly announced that he was very concerned and that I needed a CT brain scan quite urgently. Within hours I was at hospital and the scan was done. During the scan I actually fell asleep despite the farcical cacophony of sounds these machines make. While I was deeply anxious, this also made me very tired and so I nodded off. My doctor rang an hour or so later, and in between grumbling about his new Porsche SUV managed to convey that he would ring as soon as he got the results.

I was awoken around 10 hours later by the unmistakeable opening guitar riffs to Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ echoing in my ears. It was the doc with the happy news that there indeed was something on my brain that shouldn’t be there, and this would explain the changes I had been witnessing. He then verbally delivered two dot points that don’t marry well. Don’t panic and it doesn’t look good.

To move the story along the neurologists etc did their tests and 2 months later proudly announced that while things earlier appeared grim, the general feeling was that this intruder in my brain would not pose a threat to my life and limb. In fact the hitchhiker in my cerebellum was already starting to lose interest. Unusually my uninvited guest now started to have a profoundly positive impact on my life simply by making me slow down. My strategies to overcome dropping things and running into things was too simply do everything at a more sedate pace.

I now pick up coffee and vodka slowly, I drink it slowly. I walk around the house and out and about in public, slowly. I speak more slowly, after spending extra time to think. I spend a lot of time just sitting, musing, and looking around. Not daydreaming, just thinking, slowly. I’ve brought my new snail philosophy into the classroom. I speak more slowly; I have long pauses while I wait to see if everyone is on board. While I’ve always done this, now it’s far more noticeable. While it at first seemed a bit awkward, it now feels natural and I think it’s been a help to the students. My feedback is concise and considered and simple. Together we know that we will take our time and get the job done. Yes there is a lot to get through, but we will get to it when we are good and ready and not before. I used to stay in class at breaks and help students who were struggling a bit. Now I know that I need a break and so does the student. At playtime we play, no work. Oddly enough by slowing down, we seem to get more done.

I’ve changed the way I go about the endless distractions that go along with teaching. I’ve culled my email system to the bare bones. Student and parent email are answered, and any others are culled depending on my new rating system. The new system is basically lots of deleting while I say, “Computer says no.” I never spend more than an hour after school working. When the alarm on my phone goes off, I leave. Slowly yes, but I leave. I take zero work home. This was difficult for me to do at the start but now I find it perfectly fine to leave things unfinished. I have simplified everything about my teaching and savagely culled what I regard as all but the most important elements. So my new mantra is ‘Slow”. I say it to myself a dozen times a day. I’m a better teacher and person for it. My family get more of me and I get more of myself.

If others want to be superhero, champion teachers, who are answering their life’s calling, so be it. Good luck to them. For those who see being last out of the car park as a real achievement, again, good luck to them. And for those who hate being last to leave but have little option because of their workload, slow down.

A wise friend said to me the other night. Teaching is a job. It’s a good job, an important job. But it’s just a job. My advice, do it slowly.

 

The Trogs and the Prads. Episode 1

Once before, (no not upon) a time there was two tribes. Each tribe had loosely shared goals and philosophies that were strung together with gaffer tape and some liberally glued semantics. The tribes were named the Trogs and the Prads, and each wore their gang colours with ebullient helpings of pride. While the tribes generally kept to themselves, over time they had begun to inhabit the same forest, the strangely named Curricugodgy Wood. The coming together of the two tribes led to a violent outbreak of rank stupidity.

Whenever individual members of either tribe ignored the pleas of elders to stick to the pathways and not venture into the dark wood, violent attacks would be the outcome. If some poor bumbling Prad wondered alone, he or she would soon be pitiless prey for the roaming squads of Trogs who moved stealthily around, jealously guarding their territory. At times the Trog squads would devour the defenceless creature, and other times just hunt them for sport.

The Prads themselves were excellent hunters known for their ferocity and tenacity in expanding their territories. They took great pride in hiding out near a fortified Trog stronghold and ambushing any who dared venture close or even whisper it’s name. Like the Trogs, the Prads hunted in fighting armour made almost entirely of a particular thread made of pomposity interwoven with self-admiration. It was almost impenetrable, (almost) to any kind of weapon dipped in thoughtful, measured and reasoned questioning. The tribes matched each other blow for blow, and rarely achieved any new ground to stake their respective claims upon. Until one day…..

The Prads had been keeping a wary eye on a new tribe who had set up a very modern village in a valley adjacent to Curricugodgy Wood. The valley was called Sillycone Valley and its strange inhabitants were the Corpreneurs. Now the Corpreneurs were thriving in their valley due to the fact they were colonising all around them without so much as a USB cable to use as a weapon. While they appeared to be a very peace loving people, Corpreneurs had the peculiar ability to talk you out of your property and rights before you could bat an eyelid. They lured you onto the battlefield, started talking gibberish, and by the time you got home your castle was gone. There were many a person who had gone into battle with the Corpreneurs and been left with nothing but a pathetic,insecure grin to show for it.

The Prads admired these new Corpreneur raiders and their battle tactics, and decided to form a coalition with them. Nothing in writing mind you, but an unspoken understanding that they were fighting a common enemy. The Trogs greeted this new alliance between the Prads and Corpreneurs with ridicule and disdain. Well, just long enough until they realised that the war had swung against them somewhat, and that they may well have to seek a similar affiliation.  They started sending feelers out to other valleys.

There are two other tribes I haven’t spoken of, the Teachlings and the Learnlings. Their number far outweighed the total of the Trogs, Prads, and Corpreneurs combined. Unfortunately while strong in number the poor Teachlings and Learnlings held little sway in the woods and valleys where they toiled everyday. They mostly dutifully accepted their lowly place in the pecking order. (The Prads often got the Teachlings and Learnlings mixed up, which annoyed both no end). Occasionally you would see a timid little Teachling standing at the front door of their house sipping a cold cup of tea or coffee. They took little notice of the wars raging around them. When all the tiny learnlings they had taken under their wing were shuffled inside, the door was closed, and the really important stuff could begin……

Mark Johnson

@markxsyst

I reject your experiences and substitute my own.

Another week and another visitor to a school in Wembley blogging about their positive experience, and of course attacked on twitter for daring to say these things. What is it about our digital identities that allow us to dismiss the experiences of others (which we wouldn’t do in person) despite never having visited the school? I think it’s about planting a flag and virtually saying, “None shall pass”. Is there another way?

What if you vehemently disagreed with the educational philosophy of a school, you regarded it as draconian, inflexible and damaging to students, and against everything you believe, or know, or the research you align to or have done yourself? Now imagine you are about to speak to a child who has moved to the school. They tell you at their previous school they were bullied and intimidated and unruly classrooms constantly disrupted their learning. They had had a miserable time there. Now they are happy and confident and excited to be in an environment where they feel they are actually learning. Do you tell them they are wrong? Do you tell them that the school is damaging them and they are being treated poorly? Do you dismiss their experience as invalid?

What if a student was coming from a very strict academic environment where they were miserable and constantly in trouble? What if they were now in an educational environment where there was lot more freedom and students drove their own curriculum? You might be inclined to think that this is a recipe for disaster, and not helpful for disadvantaged students. Would you tell the student who has now adopted a more positive self-image and is actually doing something with their learning and has improved their behaviour no end? Do you dismiss their experience as invalid?

This is a simplistic notion of imagining that before you spit venom or ridicule what a school is doing (no matter how much they promote themselves) think about a scenario where you are talking to a student who is happy and confident at this school. What might your reaction be now? How might that change where you plant your virtual flag? Indeed, how might that re-frame how you think about your digital identity?

The answers to these question are complex and varied, yet they can be made very straightforward. No school should be above criticism, but if you haven’t seen it through the eyes of those who are there, what would you say to the students who feel they belong and are valued?

Mj

@markxsyst

Teachers are Creativity Crushers

There seems to be a bit of a resurgence of late in the tired, hackneyed, Sir Ken Robinson mantra ‘schools kill creativity’. While it is definitely jaded, a bit of spit and polish brings it up like new. While I have no problem with people having this view, I expect them to be honest and admit that they must also have a poor opinion of teachers to think that schools really do kill creativity.

No I know that people, including Sir Ken, will say that it’s not the teachers it’s the school system that has students slumped stupefied at their desks or snoring in their lime green bean bags. In fact many doomsayers will proclaim they have great admiration for teachers. But if ‘schools’ murder creativity, then teachers, who are actually doing the teaching, where the rubber meets the road if you will, must be complicit in this, or at the very least helpless to inspire student creativity.

You can’t have it both ways. Teachers are great inspirational professionals, but schools are suffocating the lifeblood out of kids, just doesn’t wash. Funnily enough the educators that blog and tweet the Robinson mantra, rarely say that their own classrooms are creative wastelands. If fact you are most likely to hear the schools kill creativity war cry during edchats about creativity and innovation, where everybody is telling each other that their classrooms are positively awash with creative juices.

So I’m hopeful that we can move on from a profession that stands and cheers when charismatic entertainers proclaim that our places of work are hollowed out shells of pathetic, mind numbing, robotic conformity. I’ve been a public school teacher for a long time, and I never cease to be amazed at the creativity and innovation going on in our classrooms. If you are an educator and you don’t agree, it might be time for you to try your luck on the celebrity speaking circuit. Remember, the harder you sink the boot into schools, the more popular you will be.