Learning between the lines

You can’t ever just teach one thing.

Whether we like it or not there’s always other stuff going on: we’re teaching what we think of our students, whether we value other people’s time or feelings, how we think we should speak to people, how a person might be in the world…

All the time – consciously or not, or both – teachers are sending messages about what it means to be at school, about what education is for, whether this stuff we’re learning is part of the thrill of a lifetime or a necessary chore.

We play a huge role in determining whether or not our students like school, and the qualities that we reward and emphasise – risk taking or obedience, creativity or following the script, delight or the humdrum, kindness or indifference or worse – shape our kids’ days and so – their futures.

As with so many things, what we do and how we do it speaks louder than what we say.

What are you teaching today?

What else will you be teaching?

Education for the future (5): tools and the wielder

Recap: a foundation for life

Education – formal education at least – is concerned with equipping people with tools: skills, knowledge and ideas that will empower them them to live a flourishing life and achieve their purposes in the world.

We’ve talked about the importance of sharing a vision of the flourishing life with our kids – the best that we are able to give – and a definition of success that includes writing their own definition.

We asked “Who are we empowering?” and looked at the importance of being aware that as we share knowledge and technical skills, we’re also shaping the people who will use them. Value-neutral education is impossible and undesirable – our kids need to learn values and ethics, and its far more important that they see these in action than hear them articulated, although both is best.

If we think of skills, knowledge and ideas as tools in a person’s hand, the questions so far are all about who will be wielding these powerful tools, and what we hope they’ll be wielding them for. 

Attributes

There’s a second set of important qualities I’m calling attributes. These are the qualities that determine how effectively a person might be able to use their tools for a given purpose. In ourselves and others, most of them lie within our influence but outside of our control. Here’s a shopping list, with a bit of repetition. The lines are blurry at best – values, attributes, and tools are very intertwingled – but I’m giving it a go.

  • A reflex to kindness
  • Determination – persistence – grit – and the will to succeed
  • A sense of hope
  • Mental robustness
  • Curiosity and a desire to learn
  • Creativity and resourcefulness
  • Integrity and ‘right honesty’ (blurring the line back into ethics here)
  • A love of fun
  • Physical health
  • Energy
  • Stamina
  • A positive but clear-eyed outlook – hope
  • Confidence
  • Focus
  • Patience
  • Positive regard and right respect for others
  • Empathy and compassion
  • An inclination towards teamwork and helping others
  • Reliability
  • Humility and the ability to receive help
  • Tact and social grace – courtesy and politeness
  • Self control
  • Diligence
  • Courage (“the virtue without which none of the other virtues matter”)
  • Assertiveness
  • Some balance between caring what others think and really not
  • Initiative
  • A sense of peace
  • A sense of humour
  • Gratitude

What have I missed?

**edited 05/12/2018 to add ‘a sense of humour’ – thanks to Mas K

Starting line

Where’s the starting line?

Sometimes we’re a few steps further down the track than the people we want to take with us:  we’ve given it more thought, we’ve done it before. We want it more.

We’re so keen to get people over the finish-line that we don’t notice that they’re still milling around at the start – or even that they’ve chosen to stay in bed.

How far away are you? How many steps backward will you need to take if you want to take them with you?

What do you need to communicate? What are the thousand other important things that you don’t?

When are you going to stop talking about techniques for crossing the finishing line and help them to put on their shoes?

 

*see also: Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

 

Education for the future: foundations (4)

This post was lost in the Crocapocalypse – I’m reposting it with its original date.

The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, with a hat-tip to the writers of The Second Machine Age

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, with a hat-tip to the writers of The Second Machine Age

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Teacher – how are your ethics?

I heard someone talking about driverless cars explain that the technical side of things was becoming almost inevitable. In a sense, solving the problem of how to get cars to drive themselves is on its way to being easy.

The hard part is helping the car to decide who to hit if it has an accident.

In an accident a human might have to choose: hit a bus or swerve to hit a car; hit a family on the pavement or a child crossing the road.

These are usually reflex decisions – there may be rights and wrongs but fear clouds judgement and the mistakes people make are inevitable – and ultimately forgivable.

But a car driven by a computer? They might be sent out of control by an accident, but still have billions of computational cycles to make their decision in the seconds before impact. So we can imagine that a driverless car faced with the situation described above could have time to see its options clearly and have time to evaluate them and make a meaningful choice.

What do we teach it to choose? The machine forces us to think harder about our moral choices, as things that weren’t real choices before become so.

And the same is true in education: as things happen faster, as the augmentations (more on augmentation later) expand our power and widen our reach, we ask with greater intensity: who are we empowering? How will they decide to use their power?

When John Acton said “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was wrong, of course. We can’t hold that view and be in love the idea of empowerment at the same time.

Power doesn’t corrupt, per se, but it is an amplifier. Tools, technologies are amplifiers, multiplying the potential of what’s already there. The more powers we have, the more important the moral foundations of our humanity become.

Crikey, it’s Captain America all over again.

Education for the future: foundations (3)

This post was lost in the Crocapocalypse – I’m reposting it with its original date.

Look at the nearest child. How will they know what’s important when there’s no-one around to make decisions for them?

What will they live for?

What will they work and fight for?

Which prices will they think are worth paying, and which should never be paid?

Before basic skills, these moral underpinnings are the foundations of education. There’s a place for teaching values and ethics – also known as morals – but the best way to learn them is to see and experience them.

Education for the future: foundations (2)

This post was lost in the Crocapocalypse – I’m reposting it with its original date.

Education is empowering in a very literal sense, and most of the powers that we gain through it are easily weaponised.

Driverlesscroc– Education for the future: foundations (1)

“Who are we empowering?”

This is a fundamental question that we often overlook – and incidentally I think it underlies many of our fears about artificial intelligences.

We often ask: What are we building? Can we trust the machines?

It’s rarer to ask: Who are we augmenting? Can we trust our children?

We spend a great deal of time focusing on technical aspects of education. We concentrate on the raw materials and tools – information, ideas, knowledge and ways of understanding, skills – and neglect the more difficult conversation about deeper ethical or moral foundations.

As we augment our children (and our peers, and ourselves) with new and more powerful tools, we need to pay attention to how we’re shaping them as people – the people who will use those tools to change the world around them.

Education for the future: foundations (1)

This post was lost in the Crocapocalypse – I’m reposting it with its original date.

So the question becomes, how do we prepare our kids for a future that’s becoming less and less knowable as change accelerates?

And I think the answer is the same as it always has been. The best – the only – way to prepare our kids for any future is by showing them love, and a vision of a flourishing life, and by equipping them with the best tools we have to achieve it, and with the wisdom to use those tools well.

Stuart Patience – DriverlessCrocodile

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The higher you build, the more important foundations become.
Education is the process by which we equip people – including ourselves – with the values, attributes and tools they need to navigate and shape the world.

I use ‘tools’ here in the broadest sense, to include ideas, ways of understanding, and specific skills. Tools make it easier to do particular things, and word is more or less interchangeable with ‘technology’ as explained so well by Kevin Kelly.

To put it another way, tools make us more powerful.

Education is empowering in a very literal sense, and most of the powers that we gain through it are easily weaponised.

Deep literacy: what it takes

Put aside AI and machine learning for a minute, and ask instead:

“What does it take to equip a human to be self-teaching?”

As a starting point – how many lines of code does it take to make a child who can read with fluency and ease and with critical understanding, and who loves reading, and is motivated to read and learn more?

We just tidied my kids’ bookcase, and I took a moment – okay, more than a moment – to count the books.

bookcase with 519 children's books post cleanup

519

There are 519 books on this book case (including those on the floor and nearby that should be on it).

There are picture books, stories, touch-and-feel books, comics, small novels, catalogues, phonics books, kids bibles, magazines, science books, poetry, stories and non-fiction books about other cultures, lots of books about cars, even a couple of hand-written and coloured books by his great aunt, and a couple of notebooks with short and often unfinished stories that he’s written himself.

He’s had them read and re-read to him by a range of people, had pictures pointed out, words explained, sounds and meanings spelled out, questions asked.

He’s listened, looked, laughed, frowned, cried on occasion, got fed up, desperately begged to have them read to him, been indifferent.

And he’s read them repeatedly by himself: browsed their pages, poured over the pictures, flicked through them, gone back to favourite bits again and again, skipped the endings or skipped to the endings, tried out the words, phrases and attitudes, in the real world come to us with questions, absorbed our answers, disagreed with our interpretations, shared with us bits that he’s loved, come to us with things that have scared him, made up stories just like them, and new stories of his own.

250

Did I mention the 250 leveled reading books – the books specifically designed to help kids learn to read – that live upstairs? Here’s a selection:

shelf of books

Or the books we’ve borrowed from friends or read at their houses, the books read at or borrowed from libraries?

Or the ebooks?

He’s probably read about a thousand books.*

190,000 and the less-than-one-percent

But it’s not just about numbers – which books he’s read is as important as how many.  Most of these books are a custom selection, just for him, made by someone with his current tastes and future growth in mind (my wife is something of a book-picking phenomenon) from the roughly 190,000 books aimed at children under 12 that are available to him in our culture.**

So the selection on these shelves represents the tip of a huge pyramid – roughly the best, most engaging and most appropriate 0.5% of books written for people like him.

Don’t forget the wrapper

That – the books themselves and the wrapper of love, support, enthusiasm, the culture of curiosity and valuing education, the relative affluence, and living in an economy that makes books like these cheaper than ever before if you bide your time and look out for deals – is what it takes to produce a solid reader at age seven or eight.

*I’ll try to estimate how many words this represents another time
**My point of reference for this was the number of books available on Amazon.co.uk – see this post for more information.

Full disclosure: here’s the bookcase pre-cleanup:

bookcase with 519 books

Education for the future: which kids are ours? (2)

Which kids are yours?

Which kids are “our kids”?

It’s fine to start with your own or those closest to you. If those kids aren’t your kids, it’s hard to see how any others possibly can be.

So ask yourself: what will it take for those kids closest to me to thrive – to have the kind of future I hope they’ll have?

They’ll need to love and be loved, to stay safe, to have enough to eat and drink, to have chances to learn and make mistakes. They’ll need friends, peers, juniors, seniors, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, leaders, followers, allies and possibly opponents. They’ll need people to build infrastructure and people to operate and maintain it. They’ll need medical care. They’ll need places to go and things to do and see. They’ll need clean air and water and plants and animals and natural beauty. They’ll need practical skills and art and science and wisdom and faith.

Our kids need all of these and many more to live well and, eventually, to die well too. So starting from the future-that-is-becoming-the-present – that is, starting from right now, and forever after – our kids will need other people just to live, let alone to thrive.

And not just any people – our kids need as many of the right sort of people as possible – people who can flourish, and help those around them to flourish too.

So of course, we start with the kids closest to us – of course we do. But even in the unlikely event that you only cared about yourself and those closest to you, when we’re talking about education for the future and what our kids need, we can be clear that “our kids” can’t just mean your kids.

Our kids need other kids, and the adults that those kids will become.

Even the most narrowly self-interested definition of “our kids” has got to include other people’s children too.

Start with yours, and work outwards.

Education for the future: which kids are ours? (1)

The best – the only – way to prepare our kids for any future is by showing them a vision of a flourishing life, and by equipping them with the best tools we have to achieve it, and with the wisdom to use those tools well.

Stu Patience / Driverlesscroc

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“Our kids” can mean several things.

My biological children.

The children in my extended family.

The children of my friends.

The children of my neighbours, colleagues, fellow members of groups I belong to.

All the kids in my district, city, region, country.

All the kids. Everywhere.

Which kids are yours?