Homage to Duchamp

It’s interesting that as you get older you become increasingly aware of your own influences. Aside from my parents and my direct family, who obviously had a major influence on my life, there are only handful of people whose ideas, thoughts and perspectives about the world have been so influential, so pervasive, so far reaching, that I can honestly say they have shaped the person I have become.

We all have them. They are the people you would invite to your ultimate fantasy dinner party. The ones who are so interesting, so fascinating in their ideas and the way they think about things, that you would give anything to spend time talking with them, learning from them and being in awe of them.

duchampI only have a few people in that category, but one is Marcel Duchamp.

For most people reading this, your reaction is probably “Marcel who?”

I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson, so if you want to know more about Duchamp, you can no doubt look him up. It’s quite likely that he will not affect you the way he affected me, and that’s ok. That’s what makes us all unique. But to me, Duchamp was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century. He was one of the truly great thinkers whose ideas had a profound, lasting and life changing effect on me. His insightful genius, his witty sense of humour, his unswerving individualism, and his sheer brilliance forever changed the way I see the world. Or perhaps it was that he gave validation to the way I was already seeing the world for myself. Either way, I grew up seeing Duchamp as something of a hero. He struck me as one of the most brilliant minds I’d ever encountered.

As a young teenager, and then on into art school, I read everything about him that I could get my hands on. I pored over his work, looked at whatever photographs I could find of both him and his art, and was always astounded at the way he managed to express such profound ideas in such simple acts of creation. His disruptive sense of fun was more than just a means to amuse himself, it caused us to question and change the way we think about art, life and the world. Or at least that’s what it did for me. It was the way he took the idea of art beyond the “retinal” – the way something looks – and instead explored intellectual ideas embedded in the art.

Anyway, I was stunned tonight as I browsed around the web to find a 28 minute video of Duchamp being interviewed on the BBC in 1968 (the year he died). It’s an amazing interview.

Which brings me to the second point of this post. YouTube. I still hear of so many schools that block or limit access to YouTube. When I was a kid, growing up trying to read everything about Duchamp I could lay my hands on, I was completely unaware that any television interviews with him even existed. For everything I’d read or seen about Duchamp, tonight was the first time I had ever heard his voice or seen a moving image of the man. I went to art school in the 80s and taught art for several years but until tonight I had no idea that a 1968 interview with Marcel Duchamp existed.  Tonight was the first time I’d ever heard one of my lifelong heroes actually speak. And it was YouTube that made it possible. Forget the criticisms about millions of cute cat videos or pointless clips of stupid people doing even stupider things. Tonight I finally met one of my lifelong heroes and it was YouTube that made it possible. Think about that.

Seriously. If your school is still blocking YouTube, do you have any idea what you are depriving your students of?

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons http://goo.gl/nw77Qu

Going Back To Basics Is Still Going Backwards

chris-pyneI’m not a big fan of Christopher Pyne. As far as I’m concerned, our new federal education minister has shown himself to be inept and completely out of his depth in his current portfolio. He continually implies that Australia’s teachers are less competent than they should be and that our students are not receiving a proper education.

The amount of political mudslinging every time he opens his mouth is just an embarrassment to any thinking person. In his interviews with that other redneck extremist lunatic, Alan Jones on 2GB, the two of them make complete asses of themselves as they bask in idiotic, inflammatory statements about Australian teachers.

The thing that really ticks me off about Pyne is this phrase he continually uses… “back to basics”.  In adopting this phrase he poo-poos “modern teaching methods” which he considers airy-fairy, and talks about how we need to get back to a direct instruction model where students listen to a teacher talk at them. He dismisses the idea of child-centred learning, and wants a return to a more didactic teacher-centric model.  And don’t even get me started on his ignorant judeo-Christian-centric view of history.

Christopher Pyne is a fool who knows nothing about teaching or learning.

When I hear a politician say they want to go “back to basics”, It usually means one of three things…

1. They actually have no idea how to move forward.  By going back to a previously known state, something that used to work in the past, they attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility to move forward. If it worked for your parents, it must work for you too, right? By going “back to the basics”, whatever the hell that actually means, they don’t need to think of what a better future might look like. They don’t tackle the hard task of building a better tomorrow, they just hope that whatever we did yesterday will still work tomorrow.

2. They have no idea that the world has changed. Anyone who claims that going back to the way something worked in the past is a sustainable solution, simply does not understand how much the world has changed. By going “back to basics”, we go back to a pre-Internet, pre-hyperconnected, pre-Google, pre-Globalised world that looks very little like the world our children are actually growing up in today.

3. They have no idea what our kids actually need. Yes, literacy and numeracy are important, but it would be foolish to assume that the concept of “literacy” as it existed in the 1960s is sufficient in the 2010s. Of course we should produce students who can read and write and know their times tables (and we do, although to hear the way these politicians belittle educators you would think that not a single student can read).  There are other forms of literacy that matter as well, and I don’t want to see Australia go down the same path as our American friends who seem to have a school system which values the Three Rs and not much else, and in fact the insane focus on “the basics” has come at the detriment of so much else about learning that makes us human.

Pyne wants to quote PISA figures and all sorts of other statistics that are supposed to “prove” that Australian kids are going backwards. Continually improving our students ability to read, write and add up is important, but so is their ability to sing and dance and play and paint and draw. We need well rounded students who enjoy learning, who  discover what it means to be truly literate, not just with words and numbers but in all senses of the word.

Make no mistake, no matter how you look at it, going “back to basics” is still going backwards. Any fool can see that. Any fool except Christopher Pyne it seems.

Playing Lawyer

I’ve been following a discussion online about school Acceptable Use Policies for using computers. AUPs are documents that many schools get students to sign which outline the rules for using the computers. Students – sometimes quite young students – then have to sign it like a contract, a sort of in-writing promise that they won’t do the wrong thing; visit banned websites, try to hack the system, abuse the equipment, etc . The contracts are usually enforced by people who rarely read the Terms of Service on the websites they visit themselves.

My own personal view is that getting kids to sign a document saying they will do the right thing is ‎rarely responsible for actually getting them to do the right thing. The best you can hope to achieve ‎with an AUP-style document is the chance to wave it in their face when they do the wrong thing… but ‎really, what positive thing has that achieved other than the opportunity to lord over them about the error of their ‎ways?‎ (Unless you consider creating a culture of mistrust a positive thing)

On the other hand, if all you really want to achieve with the AUP is to make sure that every kid knows ‎what the rules and expectations are, then there are plenty of more effective ways to do that than ‎having them sign some quasi-legal document invented by the school (or more commonly, copied ‎from another school).  ‎

There are lots of rules and expectations in schools that kids “just know” because it’s just part of the ‎culture and “the way we do things around here”.  Most of those don’t need to be enshrined in some ‎sort of unenforceable contract.‎ Computer Use AUPs are about as effective as Lineup Neatly in the Cafeteria AUPs, Do Your ‎Homework AUPs and Keep Your Shoelaces Tied AUPs.  There are rules, customs and expectations ‎about all these things, but we don’t seem to feel the need to have a contract for all of them. Why is Using A Computer so different.?

I think Computer Use AUPs harken back to the old days when going to the computer room was a big ‎deal, and computers were so rare that we needed special rules about using them. I’d like to think we’ve ‎moved on a little since then…‎

Image: ‘Panama Real Estate – Contracts
http://www.flickr.com/photos/23065375@N05/2235529638

Head in the Sand

I was following a discussion on a mailing list today about the various internet blocking and filtering policies that different schools implement. Someone said their school was revising their fitering/blocking policy and wanted to know what others were doing. From the replies I saw, it seems that many schools are still running scared of what their kids might do on the web, and still block access to useful services like YouTube and Flickr, and pretent things like Facebook and Twitter don’t exist. Seems that even after 10 years, Web 2.0 is still a scary bogieman to many schools.

I’m curious to know why, in the schools that do block access to certain sites (and it sounds like it tends to be mainly social media sites), what educational reason is given.  I’m just trying to look at the other way for a moment and instead of assuming that sites should be blocked unless a case it made to unblock them, why we never seem to do it the other way around. Is there really any reliable research to support the idea that we block first and ask questions later?  In schools that block, what are the educational arguments given for why that blocking takes place?

The usual reason is “duty of care”. The idea that we need to be doing everything we can to protect our students from every possible harm. I’m more concerned about the other kind of harm. The kind caused by overprotective shielding from the real world.

I took a Year 6 class the other day and was teaching them some “Googling skills” and ways to find information quickly online.  We had an impromptu game of Google Trivia, where I was asking them quiz-style questions and they were trying to find the answers as quickly as possible.  At one point I simply said “Look up your own name”.  To the great surprise of many of them (about half the class) they DID find themselves online – mentions of their name in sporting results, school newsletter articles, family businesses, local newspapers stories, etc.  ALL of them were surprised and NONE of them had any idea that there was information about them to be found online (ie, they didn’t put the information online themselves).

It led into a really interesting discussion (and an idea that drives the access policy we implement at my school)… it’s not a question of IF you can be found online, it’s just a question of WHAT will it say about you.  There is no question that these students will end up with a digital footprint/tattoo as they grow older, and the “body of evidence” that defines their online existence will continue to grow as they get older.   This will happen whether they consciously do it or not… Does anyone seriously believe it won’t? So there is a fairly strong compulsion (in my opinion anyway) that we need to educate children to create and manage their digital presence/persona/footprint so that it says the right kinds of things about them. Putting our head in the sand and pretending that places like Facebook with it’s 600 million inhabitants, or Twitter with over 200 million users, can simply be ignored because there might be some risk involved is a massive failure of duty of care because we are neglecting to responsibly educate our kids in the very worlds they inhabit.

Blocking access to the social networks, and pretending these things will just go away if we ignore them, is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. I’m actually looking forward to the first class action suit against an education system for knowingly restricting students’ access to environments that are a core part of growing up in a digital world.  It’s not the “stranger danger” of the online world we need to be concerned about. It’s the culture of fear and uncertainly that we propagate by not allowing our kids to play responsibly in that world.

Image: ‘As seen on Halsted Mt
http://www.flickr.com/photos/24369373@N00/4817906071

Public Visibility

I have an RSS feed set up that automatically scans the Google news feeds for the phrase “PLC Sydney” or “Presbyterian Ladies College“, so anytime either of those phrases appear in a news publication worldwide I get notified of it.  (Which, if you want to monitor your school’s online public image, is a useful thing to set up by the way!)  While I do get the occasional mention of other Presbyterian Ladies Colleges such as the ones in Melbourne or Perth, and occasionally the abbreviation PLC Sydney turns up some non-related stuff, having the RSS feeds scanning the news for mentions of your school is handy.

Recently, I spotted this article in one of the local papers.  It was a project that I didn’t even even realise was taking place in the school so I was surprised when I spotted it.  (I also like the idea that some of our teachers are now doing interesting projects that use ICT and they don’t need me to make it happen!  Yay! The good kind of redundant!)

What I find amusing is that the newspaper has published the name of the school and the full names of the students, along with a photo… three pieces of information that the cybersafety experts will all tell you should not be made available online.  I suspect that if one of our teachers got their students to do an in-class online project that published their full name, school and photo, they would get a stern talking to.  However, there is still a belief that, because it was published “in the paper” (which also happens to be online) then it’s ok.

We do, in fact, have a “Do Not Publish” list of students, which is derived from a form that all parents fill out at the start of their enrolment at school.  On this form they give advance permission – or not – for their child’s photo and name to be used in school publications.  We keep a record that covers both print and online separately, and before any child’s details can be published we check the Do Not Publish list.  In reality, out of a school of 1300 kids K-12, we have maybe less than 10 whose parents have elected for them to remain unpublishable.

Personally, I think that the benefits of getting some press for the students, either online or in a more traditional format, is enormous. Sporting achievements, success in interschool competitions, musical events, academic successes, etc… these things are all worthy of celebrating and telling the world about. The boost that these kids get to their self esteem, their reputation and their public visibility is a positive thing and these sorts of publications can start to form the basis of their longer term footprint, digital or otherwise.  While we have to respect the wishes of parents who choose not to allow their children to be published (and sometimes those wishes are based on valid reasons and sometimes it’s just paranoia and fear) the kids who do get published “in the paper” really love seeing themselves there.

In a world where being “in the paper” also means being online, this opens a real can of worms. We tell the kids one thing as we drill cybersafety into them – don’t give away details like your name or school – yet we gladly celebrate them being published online in other more traditional forums using all of these very same details.  It’s an interesting double standard.  The local paper is published to the open web with no passwords, no restrictions, yet we baulk at getting kids to publish the same information about themselves to other formats that are equally as open and public.

Thank goodness that all those fears about online safety are so blown out of proportion or this might actually be a real problem.

PS: By the way, if you haven’t seen it, the students’ final work is online at http://plcvasproject.blogspot.com and is worth seeing.  I’m sure they’d love a comment or two if you get a chance.

Photo embedded from the Inner West Courier

Bye Bye Facebook

As you may have noticed, Facebook has been copping a great deal of flak in the media lately for recent changes to its privacy policy.  There is growing evidence that Facebook as a company has few scruples or ethics when it comes to the way they view and use your personal data.  The company has continually “baited and switched” the privacy settings in Facebook to the point where they have become so confusing and complex that few people truly understand them.  There are something like 50 choices leading to about 170 different privacy variations possible, all needing to made in multiple locations in Facebook, with very little consistency or “expected behaviour” between them…  consequently, there could be significant parts of your personal data that is being made public without you realising. Facebook seems to be working on the principle that most users never look at the default settings or take the time to think through their options.  The most recent changes made to their privacy policy have made the sharing of your personal information “opt-out”, rather than the previous method of “opt-in”.  This means that, unless you wade through the many privacy settings to turn them off, you are probably sharing far more than you realise. Added to this is the recent change to the Facebook Privacy Policy that essentially grants Facebook the rights to give your data to third parties and advertisers in order to target marketing to you.  The infographic to the right was created by Matt McKeon, and links to his page where you can explore an interactive version which shows how the default sharing policy on Facebook has changed over time.  It’s a bit scary!

Interestingly, the Facebook Privacy Policy –which all Facebook users must agree to in order to use the service – has grown to become almost 6000 words long.  Do you know what it says?

Personally, I find this unethical behaviour completely unacceptable and, along with many others across the web, have decided to close my Facebook account.  Like many Facebook users, there have been times when I’ve found the service useful in helping me connect to friend and family, but their recent display of unethical, almost fascist, behaviour has left me with little choice but to cancel the service.  Although I had taken the time in the past to secure my Facebook account (and I was savvy enough to do so) I cannot, in principle, support a company that shows such a cavalier attitude to the privacy of their user base.

If you are a Facebook user, I would strongly encourage you to check the settings in your account to make sure they are doing what you expect.  There is a useful tool at http://www.reclaimprivacy.org/
that will actually probe your Facebook account to show you how it looks to the outside world.  I would strongly encourage you to take the time to check yours.

There is also much bigger issues about Facebook. Its disregard for open standards, its walled garden approach that continually borrows steals ideas from all over the web, its willingness to do whatever it takes to keep users within the Facebook environment… I believe in the longer term will be bad for the Internet in general. That’s a much bigger issue and beyond the scope of this particular post, but when you add it all up, I can’t in all good faith continue to support a company that continually exhibits evil motives.  Facebook might be a useful service for many, and it might offer a certain convenience factor by bringing things into one place, but there is no doubt in my mind that Facebook will bad for the open web in the longer term.

Many people in the Internet community are so outraged by the continual display of unethical behaviour of Facebook and their CEO Mark Zuckerberg that here is an official “Quit Facebook Day” organised for May 31.

If you feel strongly enough about the approach that Facebook is taking, you may also decide to close your account to send a message to the company that you are not willing to use a service that shows such scant concern for their users privacy.

Here are just a few articles (of many!) about the recent changes that you may want to read if you need more information.  It’s worth getting the full story.

I realise that many people find Facebook very useful, and many will not want to take the extreme step of deleting their account, but I do hope you take the time to make sure your account is sharing what you think it is, and to even perhaps share some of this conversation with your students.

A Policy of Trust and Respect

I’m a huge believer in the notion of trust and respect as the primary drivers in the relationship between student and teacher. People have occasionally told me that I’m just incredibly naive about this, but all I can talk from is my own experience, and in my own experience, building relationships of trust, respect and genuine care between student and teacher is the foundation upon which all “policy” rests on in my  classroom. I realise that school administrators will feel a need for something a little more concrete than this, but any policies, AUPs or guidelines that aren’t based on this first rule are  simply not sustainable in my view.

Take blocking and filtering for example. While school boards have the best of intentions for protecting students when they block access to web 2.0 tools and other social technologies, such policies fail the trust and respect test, because they start with an assumption that bestows upon the students neither trust nor respect.

Or what about when a school tells students that their mobile phones will be confiscated if seen? Again, this approach treats students with neither trust nor respect.

Forcing students to complete work that appears meaningless to them, asking them to remember facts that seem unconnected or pointless, again treats kids with neither trust nor respect.

So, yes, when policy makers make policies, I believe they need to think about it in terms of providing an environment of trust and respect first, and then expecting students to work within guidelines that honour that trust and respect that they have been offered.

For example, having a mobile phone in school or in class is not really a problem if it’s use is bound by behaviour that treats the student with the trust to know when and how to use it the correct way, and the respect to assume that they will. Instead of jumping up and down and reading them the riot act if we so much as even see their cell phone, perhaps we need to expect that they are welcome to carry one as long as it doesn’t get used inappropriately… after all, isn’t that how most adults would wish to be treated? Imagine if schools confiscated cell phones from teachers.There would be an outcry and a resounding “Don’t they trust us to do the
right thing?!” from staff, as they felt a sense of violation at their employers assumption that phones would be used inappropriately. As teachers, we would feel as though we were not trusted, we were not respected, and that our ability to make sound decisions was in question before we’d even done anything wrong. I have never seen an employer make those sorts of draconian rules for their employees, but I hear about it happening from schools all the time with regard to their students.  I can only imagine how untrusted and unrespected our students must feel when placed in a similar situation. I’m not suggesting that that school policy should be a free-for-all where kids just do whatever they want. Far from it. I do however think that kids should be given the opportunity to prove they can do the “right thing” before we set up policies that automatically assume they won’t.

I see the same sorts of thinking when it comes to Internet access policies. Blocking access to the web becomes far less necessary if we begin with a fundamental assumption of trust that our students will do the right thing, backed up with the respect that they are capable and able to make those decisions for themselves. Instead of assuming the worst, how much better would the environment we create in our schools be if they were based on trust, respect, and a belief that students want to do the right thing if given the chance.

I really do believe that we get what we expect. As long as we create environments that are based on the expectation that students will do the wrong thing, they probably will. Funnily enough, if we start to create environments where we expect our students to do the right thing, they will usually do that too. They will give us whatever we expect from them, but mostly, school policies are set up to expect the worst.

Seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen if we created an environment of trust and respect?

Image: ‘James,
I think your cover’s blown!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/23912576@N05/2962194797