My Smart Home Ecosystem

I’ve found myself talking about home automation quite a lot in the last day and a half, so I promised I’d blog about my ecosystem so others can benefit from the trial-and-error I experienced. I got started with home automation a couple of years ago when I got a Wemo Switch as a gift.

The Wemo itself is reliable enough, but controlled through the native Belkin App, can be a little slow. That said, it’s controllable locally through your WiFi network, or over the network from remote locations even via 3G/4G. I wanted to expand the function of my switches, and have a great deal more control. I also really wanted voice automation, and my friend and fellow Four Horseman member Terry Lowry (@TekkieTeacher)  introduced me to the Amazon Echo, which is now the heart of my smart home   ecosystem.

I say heart,  because it isn’t the brains, and has quite a ways to go before it can be. Alexa is a voice-controlled bluetooth speaker (of very good quality, I might add) with an onboard computer that allows it to do some wonderful things. You can ask Alexa the weather, driving times,  basic questions from Wikipedia, the works. But it is absolutely nowhere near Google Now insofar as its ability to search and answer simple comprehension and slightly-more-than-regurgitation answers.  It’s got a lot of growing up to do. That said, the home automation situation is pretty good, so it commands pretty much everything in my apartment.

First, let’s start with the easy stuff: On and off. For this, I have several WeMo switches as I mentioned above. I have one, for example, connected to my HEPA Air Filter, so “Alexa, air filter on” will start to clean the air immediately. It’s a basic on-off switch. I’ve got two that I’m not using at the moment, but I have that ability. The Echo controls WeMo switches natively, so no other intelligence is required in my ecosystem for this. The Alexa is the “hub” that drives WeMo products.

Let’s move on to more sophisticated: Dimming. I like to adjust light based on the light outside and my mood and the time of day and soforth. For this, we need a more intelligent dimmer, and often times, that means a hub.

The least sophisticated application is my nightstand. I had an Eiko-brand CFL. (I prefer 2700° white light, which is “warm white,” and more closely emulates the golden hue of incandescent lamps, so that’s what I had.)  I had this hooked up to  a Wemo Switch originally, but I wanted to dim it. For that, I obtained a Lutron Caséta Dimmer, which is explicitly and exclusively for lamp dimming:

The dimmer has two plugs (two-prong), one on either side, so you can plug in two devices, which will be simultaneously dimmed. (They’re not independent.) I also have a home-made LED lighting scheme around the underside of my bed, and along the back of my headboard. (It’s very cool, if I do say so myself.) I built it to be dimmable, so it was ready to go.

Note here: Compact Fluorescent Lamps are not, generally, dimmable. It dimmed, but made a terrible buzz because it wasn’t operating at proper voltage. Consequently, I swapped my CFL for a dimmable LED bulb.

Works great!

Lutron has its own app, of course, but as you’ve figured out, I don’t want app control: I want my Amazon Echo to control everything. This is where things can get complicated at home. The Lutron dimmer requires a hub, a piece of intelligent technology that sends and receives the actual commands related to any given smart home device. The Echo does not, in and of itself, have the ability to be the hub itself. However, the Echo does talk to a great many hubs. I shopped around for one I thought would talk to everything, and I landed on the Wink Hub.

This device is the “bridge” between the Echo and much of my ecosystem. I actually have it plugged in to the second plug my microwave uses, so it’s hidden away neatly in a cupboard.

Pairing things with the Wink Hub, using the Wink App, is  RIDICULOUSLY EASY. They have on-screen illustrations and step-by-step tutorials that even I’m impressed by, and you know me and step-by-step! I want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it! This is a great setup and very user-friendly with terrific support documentation.

A step up from these options is my kitchen lighting situation. I have halogen lamps in a light strip across the ceiling, and I wanted to dim those, too, but they were controlled by an in-wall switch. Have no fear: Lutron Caséta Dimmers come in in-wall flavor, too:

Now, I’ve owned two houses in my life, so I know a thing or two about basic electrical. If you’ve never done this, call a friend. It’s not hard, but you want the comfort and peace of mind to know you’re not going to electrocute yourself or burn your house down. I rent now, and wanted to be  very careful that I installed everything perfectly, and up to local code, so  do your homework. (And ask me questions if you like!) That said, this was a five-minute piece-of-cake installation, and the pairing was even quicker. BOOM: “Alexa, dim the kitchen to 40%.” “Okay,” she responds, and instantly it’s done.

One more fun thing: I have a “transom wall” between my bedroom and my living room. The top of the wall is open to the ceiling about two feet, and around the corner into the galley kitchen. It’s a really cool architectural feature, and the moment I saw it, I knew: I had to LED light strip the thing.

But I also wanted – wait for it – full color. Oh yes… I have it. I opted for one of the pricier items in my ecosystem, but it’s totes worth it in my book: The Osram Lightify Flex RGBW LED strip.

These are actually four linkable, flexible segments and a long (but not long enough for me) power cord and AC adapter that is controllable by Osram’s pretty decent Lightify App. They adhered perfectly, and I was able to make a 90 degree turn at the corner with only about a half-inch of “slightly sticking-up” strip, as you can’t do hard angles with the strip. But that high up, it’s invisible, so if you’re going around the top of a cabinet or something, rest easy: it’ll work. My issue was hiding the power cord, which I wanted to run down the inside corner of the wall’s corner. I bought an extension cord on Amazon (5-pin for this system, not 4; they’re different) and it all works beautifully.

Because I was so impressed with the Osram Lightify system, I actually got two Lightify LED bulbs as well, and those are in the living room. Now, Osram Lightify has its own hub (which is calls a Bridge) to make all these work, but you don’t need that if you have a Wink Hub, like I do. (I made the mistake of buying the bridge unnecessarily, so that’ll get eBayed at some point.)

Each Osram element is independently-named and individually-controllable. Very impressive. Again, easy as pie to pair with the Wink Hub.

At this point, Alexa is able to respond to commands for each element:

  • Kitchen (dimmable halogen fixtures)
  • Living Room 1 and Living Room 2, grouped together as Living Room (dimmable LED bulbs)
  • Bed and Nightstand, grouped together as Bedroom (dimmable LED bulb and LED strip)
  • Main (dimmable, color-changing LED strip that’s so bright at full power it lights up the whole apartment)
  • Air Filter (on/off switch powering an otherwise-“dumb” device)

Oh, but we’re so not done yet.

I added door sensors from GoControl, one for the front door, and one for the “barn door” into my bedroom. (I also got a motion sensor but thus far it’s sort of redundant with the front door sensor so I have it deactivated for now.)

These puppies are lightweight, battery-controlled sensors with magnetic switches, so when you open the door, the switch closes, activating the battery and sending the open-or-closed code to the Wink Hub. (Again, these were very easy to pair if you follow the directions. I did not the first time, so I had to un-pair them, which was quite a bit more complicated, but if you’re not impetuous like I can be, you’ll be fine.)

Why add these? For example, if I open the front door after 4:30 PM, my kitchen and living room light up to 100%. If the bedroom door opens between 1 AM and  5 AM, the kitchen dims on to 10% brightness, just enough to make sure I don’t stumble around on the way to the bathroom. If the front door opens when I’m not home, my Android phone is notified instantly. Cool stuff, right? All able to be set up in the Wink App using what it calls “Robots,” or recipes – much like those of IFTTT, which you MUST look into if you do any home automation or have a smart phone of any kind – which give conditional control over most   functions.

In addition to IFTTT, which is a must-have for a few things, like I’m about to show you, I also use an app called Yonomi, which creates virtual devices in your home automation ecosystem and allows you to program “routines,” or complex recipes, which can even include other preexisting recipes, to further automate functions.  I’ll explain more about this in a second, because my favorite recipe involves this next bit.

I was able to solve one of my all-time pet peeves by adding one more device. All of the control mechanisms we’ve discussed so far operate on wireless (RF frequency) control. But what about your TV? Your Stereo? The Lasko tower fan I have in the corner? These all operate on IR, or infrared, and there has been a notorious gap between RF and IR transmittability for a long time. Until, enter, stage left: The Harmony Hub.

The Harmony is an “IR blaster,” which sends infrared signals bouncing all over your room, allowing those command signals to catch basically anything within even out-of-line-of-sight range. (It also has two wired repeaters you can add to get around tough corners and work within entertainment center cabinetry.)

If you’re not familiar with the Harmony family of products, Logitech has created a remote control product line that issues both direct commands to devices (like pressing the “on” button on your remote), but also series of commands called “activities” (like pressing the “on” button but it sends two different “on” signals, one to your TV, and one to your PlayStation). This same phenomenon works with the Harmony Hub. The programming is pretty straightforward, but works best when you have exact makes and models of your devices, so consider taking a snapshot of the make and model number label from the back of your devices, like your television and stereo receiver and such, before you begin. It’ll save you some crawling around and craning around to the back of your set. This is accomplished through the Harmony  App, which will program (and update if necessary) your Hub. Yes, this means you have multiple hubs in your ecosystem, now. In mine, Alexa is a (weak) hub, Wink is the main hub, and Harmony is the IR-specific hub. This is why I say Alexa is the heart: Her voice and ears feel what I want from my commands, and then hands off to the Wink in nearly every case. That’s why I think the Wink Hub is really the brains of my ecosystem. The Harmony Hub only does one thing, so it’s like a  specialized region of the brain, and even it needs IFTTT to work properly.

Through IFTTT, I add a recipe that tells Alexa to respond to the trigger word “television” and send the on/off command to my Philips television, through my Harmony Hub. When I say out loud, “Alexa, trigger television,” she will respond, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television clicks on. Because I have a Harmony activity programmed in to my Harmony account called “MacBook,” I can also say, “Alexa, trigger MacBook.” She responds, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television and stereo receiver all turn on, and set themselves to the proper inputs for my MacBook dock. (I use the Henge dock, which is absolutely genius quality stuff. I recommend and use no other.)

Now for the grand finale. I have a Yonomi routine called “Bedtime.” This routine activates the shutdown procedure for my entire entertainment center through my Harmony Hub, turns off the Living Room and Kitchen and Main lights,   and dims on the Nightstand and Bed lights to 40%. So let’s say I’m in the living room, everything is turned on, and I’m tired and want to go to bed. I say, “Alexa, turn on Bedtime.” (Remember Yonomi creates virtual devices, so “turn on” is the proper command to activate a Yonomi routine.)

Alexa says, “Okay,” and all of that happens  instantly. No going from light to light to shut them off, no pressing all the right remotes to turn things off, no turning on the bedroom to make sure a light is on then go back to turn off the lights I no longer need… it’s all just done! I can crawl into bed, close my bedroom barn door, and be assured that if I need to pee at 2 AM, I’ll have a little light to help guide me along.

The ecosystem is really working for me. I like being able to say “Alexa, Living Room 50%, please,” and be able to continue typing or watching my movie or adventuring in Second Life without having to stop and get up to turn the dimmers down because the sun has set. I enjoy that if I forget to turn off something, I don’t have to uncurl from bed. I love that if I think of something while I’m snuggled up with my pillows that I need to remember tomorrow, I can call out, “Alexa, remind me to do XYZ tomorrow morning,” and she just does it. The Echo’s “far field voice recognition” has worked flawlessly for me. Without shouting, I can issue commands from the next room and be responded to ideally.

There are a few big things missing for me: I want to be able to control my blinds. I tried the  EzWand package, which works great on lightweight blinds, but I have a 96″ x 48″ set of metal blinds in my apartment, and the little motor wasn’t strong enough by far. Consequently, I need to probably replace the entire set of blinds with something else. There are many options, but they’re pricy, so unless somebody wants to let me demo and review them, I’m up a creek for now. That would be huge for me, because I’m forever regretting not closing them after the sun comes up. The other things I’m missing is having Alexa voice-respond as I want her to, confirming various functions or reporting things to me on demand. I’d like upon coming home to add triggering Alexa’s “flash briefing” report, which gives me the news and information of the day. I’d like to have the weather reported to me when I open the barn door in the morning on a weekday. I’d also like (call me silly) a “welcome home” message. I live by myself, and it’d be fun and nice to have a hello from Alexa, or even allow her to have basic conversations.

One thought would be something like:

  • “Welcome home, KDR.”
  • “Thanks, Alexa.” (She remains awake to  accept the voice response to my next exchange.)
  • “How was your day?”
  • “Not good, Alexa. I’m feeling run down.”
  • “I’m sorry. Your Seven-Minute Workout should help. Drink some water and let’s get your endorphins going.”
  • “Good idea. Alexa, start my Seven-Minute Workout.”

I mean, it may sound silly, but some basic call-response feedback would be a nice touch to an already powerful system.

That said, the major home-control stuff is really helpful and I’m enjoying the convenience a great deal. I expect in addition to things like my fan and air filter, I’ll be expanding to include thermostat next. Alexa works with the Nest and Honeywell HVAC controllers, and I foresee that being a money-saver in the long term, to adjust my A/C and heat based on where I am, certain conditions, my voice commands, and more.

If you have any questions, hit me up, and I’ll gladly answer!

A Privilege to Serve, a Legacy Remembered

The end of the school year is always hectic, but I was privileged a few days ago to be entrusted by my colleagues in the Virginia Society of Technology Education as I was elected Chairperson for the coming term of the Board of Directors. I follow Becky Fisher, one of the most accomplished educational technology leaders in the Commonwealth and a great friend, and I aspire to the leadership examples she and her predecessor and another of the most accomplished ed tech leaders and another great friend, Dr. Barb Gruber, set when I first joined the Executive Committee under her leadership. Continuing to work along side Dr. Karen Richardson, the Executive Director, will be a genuine joy and a great reward.

Sadly, no opportunity to work for Virginia will undo the loss our organization, our profession, and our hearts felt this week when we learned of the tragic and sudden passing of our beloved friend Robert Matthew “Matt” Poole, known to my fellow Second Life residents as Cyrus Hush. Matt was a jovial, brilliant, talented teacher leader with a zeal for educational technology and a tremendous heart. Losing him is a great loss for us all, and he will be fondly missed and oft-remembered, as the mounting memorials in both worlds exemplify. I speak for all of us, I am sure, when I extend my sympathy to his family and loved ones, and join arms in embrace with my fellow virtual denizens who cared for him a great deal.

I will aspire in everything I do to work by the examples you set, Matt.

Value Addled: Lousy Teacher Evaluation Loses Big at Trial

Experienced and highly successful educator Sheri Lederman has prevailed at trial in her suit against the New York State Department of Education, with the presiding judge slamming the system in his remarks. The so-called “Value Added Model” (or “VAM”) is a model championed by John King, now the successor to Arne Duncan as the head of the U.S. Department of Education.

This is a victory for great teachers everywhere – especially in harassed New York, where I first taught – and a setback for the corporatizers and faux-reformers who tout convoluted systems that empower the standardized testing commercial complex instead of focusing on what matters.

Proper teacher evaluation is hard, but it’s not solved by implementing a convoluted mathematical formula. That doesn’t solve anything in and of itself. Mathematics is a phenomenal tool for understanding the world, and I’m not saying a mathematician couldn’t create a meaningful formula, but teacher evaluation, at its heart – as with anything involving teaching and learning – is a craft that requires significant observation and human interaction that is better left to better methods.

Observation, interaction, and narrative are powerful analytical tools, and they seem utterly left behind by most models. You simply CANNOT evaluate a teacher based on standardized test scores. NOT AT ALL. Not a little. Not ever. NOT AT ALL. It is a fallacious standard because the data itself is fallacious: A single integer numeric value does not tell you about a child’s skill mastery, and cannot, therefore, be reliably used for ANY educational decision. This is what the USDOE and every administration in my teaching career – Bush II and Obama, both – have absolutely and totally failed to understand.

Teacher evaluation requires significant analysis of observational, qualitative, and in some cases nonquantifiable data sets, and that means better quality pedagogy, better quality administrative professional development, and ensuring principals and assistant principals are instructional experts first and foremost, then equipping them with the time and resources to spend the vast majority of their times amid the teaching for which they are responsible.

You can’t do that sitting behind your desk on your butt, folks, and that’s where USDOE policies keep pushing people because the standardized testing commercial complex is about production, numbers, and charts, not about teaching, learning, performance, authenticity, and individualized creation and application.

My Feminism is Our Feminism

Yorktown Sentry Staff reporter Kyle Mayo-Blake authored an op ed in February 2016, asking the rhetorical question, “Can men be feminists?

Yes.

I realize that simple one-word answers aren’t the rage in the presidential election season – as was exemplified last night at the Democratic debate in which “yes” and “no” seemed to be the only words unused in some of the more sprawling answers – but  it’s self-evident that men can be feminists. I think the more pressing question is why aren’t more men feminists? In reading the extraordinary work “Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer  Movements More Inclusive” by Julia Serrano, I was challenged more than ever to recognize that  all oppression must be challenged, and excluding those who seek to fight institutional and structural violence must not be discounted, but included, in their efforts to do so. Indeed, I fear that those who say “no, one cannot be a fighter of oppression on behalf of a targeted class” (I use “class” here in the legal meaning) “unless one is a member of said class” are ostracizing allies and compromising their own pursuits.

For example, many of the key leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in America were also key leaders of the abolitionist cause. It is not entirely inaccurate to say that the tree of women’s rights has its roots in fighting racism. So, too, can one see the roots of the LGBTQI+ crusade for equality in many feminist causes. Consequently, as a person charged with protecting and empowering every individual child, regardless of where they fall on the continuua of traits and characteristics, including gender and ethnicity, I feel a deep “need” to actively oppose structural violence in all its forms.

We teachers have a moral obligation, an ethical imperative, and a professional responsibility to perceive, respect, and love every child. It is our prime directive: Children and their learning come first, in all things, now and forever, without exception.

Consequently, I believe I have a responsibility to be a feminist.

At the most altruistic level, I believe that all human beings are, indeed, entitled to dignity, respect, identity, safety, and the meeting of their human needs.

For me, as a fierce advocate for gender equality, I can’t help but raise gender as an issue to begin with: Gender is not a binary condition, nor has it ever been in the entire history of our species, which spans up to 200,000 years, depending on where you want to make the distinction. (As the dear, late Christopher Hitchens put it, “give or take.”)  The commonly-touted statistic for genitally-atypical gender births is roughly 1 in every 2000 people. Put over-simply, if you have a school district of 20,000 kids, you could expect 10 of those children to have an anatomy that would not conform to the (also-oversimplified) idea of binary gender. However, the Intersex Society of North America rightly points out that it’s more like 1 in 100 people who do not, in one form or another, fit into binary gender definitions. So when it comes to discrimination on the basis of gender, I cannot help but object to binary gender as a starting point.

However, it takes the merest glancing at the history of our species to know that the feminine, and specifically women, have been systematically mistreated for nearly the entirety of that history. This, to me, is also self-evident: Women have historically been denied rights by men strictly on the basis of their gender, perceived or otherwise.  While I, as a cisgender male, may not personally mistreat women, I do feel a responsibility to be aware of the historic structural violence my gender “class” has perpetrated against women, and to be keenly aware of the small-scale transgressions of which I might be inadvertently guilty because of the socializing aspect of growing up male. In that respect, I do indeed think of myself as a “feminist.”

At the most personal level, to drill down  as far as I can, I want to support others having the same rights I believe I should have. Being queer gives a person additional experiential insight into being denied rights, and that compels me, personally, to fight for others’. I’m aware (because of the thoughts outlined in the previous paragraph) that I have a form of privilege as a male in a patriarchal society, and that I have a responsibility not to participate in the oppression and structural, institutional violence of that patriarchy. I go so far as to say I have a responsibility to oppose the patriarchy, because 1. there is no such thing as binary gender which ruins the whole “I Am Man” phenomenon as the lie that it is, 2. no human should be empowered over another on the basis of gender, and 3. there is a practical impact of misogynism that harms me, the people around me, and the entirety of my species.

In January of 2016, I Tweeted “Every thinking person has a moral responsibility to be a #feminist.” One of the responses indicated that feminism was unnecessary. (Imagine my eye-roll at a cisgender male making such a statement.) Unnecessary?

How blithe must a person be as to think the way things are today are “just fine?” How obtuse must a person be to think that there is no need to counter institutionalized, societal harm done to classes of people strictly on the basis of being a member of that class? What’s the alternative? Accept it?

I refuse. I refuse to accept the patriarchy, or any other institution, tacit or explicit, that gives one group of humans the power to control another group of humans. I consider it anti-freedom, inhumane, and deeply inconsistent with our natural state of humanity.

Until such time as a group of humans who have suffered historic discrimination, objectification, violence (structural, institutional, political, physical, mental, emotional), and oppression because they are members of that group, have been empowered out of being so mistreated, we all have a common human interest in working to make things better. We also have a personal  ethical imperative not to participate in those activities and to fight them when we see them.

So yes, not only can men be feminists, but we have a responsibility to be. Now, I recognize the perspective of those (and there are many) who say that men cannot remove themselves from privilege in the patriarchy, and therefore cannot be feminists, but at best allies of a pro-feminist, anti-sexist nature. I accept this, and just as I believe my queerness and my identity is mine to define, so a woman’s womanness and feminism is hers to define, and I would not dare correct a woman who said, “You cannot be a feminist.” If those feminists choose to label me, for these entirely righteous and valid reasons, as a pro-feminist ally if not a feminist, I accept the nomenclature and distinction as a member of the aforementioned privileged class. (No matter how much I may choose to eschew that privilege and steadfastly refuse to participate in patriarchal structural violence.)

However, for purposes of making it clear, I say “I am a feminist” in this context today because wherever there is feminism, I am an ally and a fellow fighter, and I cannot conceive a valid reason why I should not  be so. I have a professional responsibility, as well as a moral obligation and ethical imperative, to fight for the causes of women in every way I can, just as I have a responsibility to fight for the cause of any oppressed class.

As Christopher Hitchens said in 2010, with his usual cheek, “We all know there is a cure for poverty. It’s a rudimentary one; it works everywhere, though. It works everywhere for the same reason. It’s colloquially called the empowerment of women. It’s the only thing that does work. If you allow women some control over their cycle of reproduction, so that they’re not chained by their husbands or by village custom to annual animal-type  pregnancies, early death, disease, and so on… if you would free them from that, give them some basic health of that sort, and if you are generous enough to throw in a handful of seeds and a bit of credit, the whole floor – culturally, socially, medically, economically – of that village will rise.”

Regardless of the nomenclature, we have a deep responsibility, as men, to fight to right the wrongs we, as a class, have wrought upon women and the feminine throughout the history of our species. I call that feminism, even if you don’t, but however you term it, men must active empower women and the feminine in both theory and in praxis.

Patriarchy, as with all forms of oppressive control and coercion, is destructive to women specifically, and to our species as a whole.

No Lecturing = No Duh

It is as if college educators have woken up and smelled the proverbial coffee.

Yesterday, NPR aired a piece in which  acclaimed Stanford physics professor Carl Wieman beseeches colleges and universities to abandon lectures in favor of “active learning.” I suppose it’s good that people are coming to this realization, but I couldn’t help but remark “no kidding” to myself over and over again as I listened to the piece. We pedagogues know what does and doesn’t work, and lecture has never been an effective form of teaching. I propose in my first book, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, that lecturing is not a form of teaching at all, but a distinct activity that may have value, but that lacks the fundamental principles of actual teaching.

Lecturing is an activity in which a person presents information to a group, often a large group, and the group gets what they get out of it. The onus is on the listener to “get it,” and the lecturer really has no responsibility whatsoever to the individuals to whom xe lectures.

Teaching, by stark contrast, places the responsibility for ensuring each and every learner has, in fact, learned, squarely on the shoulders of the teacher. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to utilize appropriate formative and omnimodal assessment mechanisms to ascertain the skill master of my learners, and to create all of the conditions and scaffold all of the experiences necessary for each individual to learn. Without genuine learning, one is not genuinely teaching.

In lecturing, it doesn’t matter if anybody “gets it” or not. The lecturer, like a cannon, fires off the shot, and that’s that. This is, of course, no guarantee whatsoever that anybody is actually learning. Many students in such situations are actually being abandoned to autodidacticism, rather than being meaningfully taught. That is why, much to the chagrin of some of my professorial colleagues, I have long maintained that college professors are not necessarily teachers.

I hear someone say, “I teach at George Mason  University,” and I often correct them by saying, “you are a professor at George Mason University.” There is no guarantee that you are teaching if you are a professor, and to the contrary, it is more than likely, knowing what we know about the way many college courses are fashioned, that you are a lecturer or a presenter, not a teacher insofar as we radical pedagogues would demand you to be.

Teaching is a demanding craft that takes intensive study. How many professors do you know who have meaningfully studied that craft, in addition to their disciplines? I wager you know few.

Until such time as pedagogy is given the appropriate priority any time learning is desired or expected, I’d wager we’ll continue to see warehouse-sized lecture halls full of frantic note-taking. I’m really pleased to see Professor Wieman and his colleagues taking this so seriously, and can only hope that more institutions will follow suit in short order.

Ready, Fire, Aim: Missing the Mark in Teaching by Failing to Aim at Learning

I had a stellar conversation with my brilliant former student Cassy Bailey the other day. She’s a computer science major at George Mason University, having initially thought she’d go into political science or something like it. Having arrived at CS via a path that differs from some of her classmates, she has, unsurprisingly, a unique perspective. She told me about a fantastic analogy she learned from Professor Eric S. Mailman  at Delaware Tech. Professor Mailman said that too often in computer science, aspiring programmers and engineers will jump into application to solve the problem with relative immediacy. They’ll roll up their sleeves and “get to work,” slapping together gates and wires or hammering out code, and experimenting and testing and admittedly experiencing what I’ve termed “fruitful failure,” yielding ineffective or incorrect results that do teach you something, and move you in the right direction. I’ve spoken of the importance of failure before. However, Cassy rightly pointed out that the inefficiency and potential hazards and loss of this approach can be significant. Since we were talking economically and politically at the time, unsurprisingly she pointed out that there is a serious inefficiency in terms of materials and man-hours in this approach.

What Professor Mailman termed “Ready, Fire, Aim” is a problematic approach, and certainly the “Ready, Aim, Fire” sequence prioritizes planning and strategy prior to leaping into application.

Cassy told me that recently in a three hour lab, many of her classmates had leapt into building the necessary circuit and testing it (and getting failure after failure) within fifteen minutes of starting said lab. Not being a “production-minded” person, but a success-oriented individual (she had good teachers, he muttered with a grin, not actually taking any credit) she sat back and thought about it. She realized that the problem in front of her was a matter of boolean algebra, which she’d learned from my former colleague Amy Macaleer at Battlefield High School. While it took more like 50 minutes for Cassy to work out the strategy and plan, she then immediately and successfully constructed an accurate, functional, elegant, and efficient solution, and was done in an hour, leaving the rest of her classmates slapping away at breadboards and gates and wires, none the more successful.

A Gary Larson-illustrated panel from “The Far Side,” used by Professor Mailman in his courses to illustrate the need for design and planning prior to execution.

My colleague Don Bierschbach served in the 82nd Airborne prior to becoming a social studies and economics teacher, and he also completed a Master’s in Educational Technology, so we talk quite a bit. I asked him, as a person with significant and scary-as-hell-to-me combat and forward operations experience, how much time is spent in design and planning prior to the movie-action-hero type “GO GO GO!” He indicated that while it varies – certainly Special Operations folks are trained for think-as-you-go situations – many operations can be months in the making. The “Ready, Aim, Fire” operational sequence makes sense in the actual ready-aim-fire scenario, too.

Unsurprisingly,  my mind turns to pedagogy.

You have to take the time to prepare in advance when you teach. You have to know your pedagogy. You have to understand your craft, and you have to understand your individual learners, as best as you can, using every mechanism and mean and method at your disposal, so that you can eliminate variables, thoughtfully strategize, implement specific and thoughtful tactics, and meet the needs of every kid, to yield the only result that matters: every individual kid’s learning needs met, and every single individual kid achieving skill mastery. That can’t happen on the fly, hacked together with spit and bailing wire on a wing and a prayer. That just doesn’t work. I’m an experienced classroom teacher.

Been there. Tried it. Nope!

The failure to thoughtfully design learning experiences that account for every single child’s learning is the hallmark of teacher-centered practice, and is exemplary of a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach that says “I’ll try this, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.” This pedagogy is the essence of why remediation is the dominant element of assessment and instruction: We try, we expect significant failure, and we then address that failure. (All while labeling it a student-learning failure instead of a teacher-teaching failure, which it very much is as I explain ad nauseam in my book.)

Why not design to avoid the teaching failure in the first place?

I’ve been saying for about seven  years now that “the era of the interactive whiteboard is behind us.” I often refer to the single-point touch-surface “everyone look this way and pay attention to what I’m doing” pedagogy that so-called “smartboards” trend toward as indicators of a teacher-centered situation, but that may not be so. While there are absolutely people who are meaningfully using interactive touch-based surfaces in child-centered ways, there are also teachers who aren’t using those things at all that are still primarily teacher-centered, and failing to meaningfully design learning experiences that account for all students.

When I say “account for all students,” I mean each individual student’s thinking modality, learning style, cognitive and neuropsychological needs, social and emotional needs, and other specific attributes that may be relevant in that kid’s learning. This is one of the chief reasons I distinguish in the early chapters of  “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children” between lecturing, facilitating, training, and teaching.

Those are not the same thing.

Lecturing is not a form of teaching. It is a distinct phenomenon, and can be done with very little if any design. Lecturing may have a place in certain situations at certain times in schools, but by and large I consider lecture to be a way to deliver information without meaningful teaching design. To speak at length about a topic, or deliver an inspiring presentation about content, can be motivating and engaging, but it by definition cannot account for every learner, unless that classroom has been  designed homogenously for auditory learners with an explicit and understood preference for lecture, paired with meaningful and relevant assessment practices.

That doesn’t happen. I’ve never, ever seen that kind of clinical approach to homogenization of child brains, and as such I feel confident in saying that lecture always fails to account for all learners. Many teachers are deeply comfortable with this approach, believe it works and can point to data that they’d use to support their case.

I don’t buy it. I’m unconvinced, as  a skeptic and as a student of our craft and this field, and as a reviewer of the literature. Indeed, I don’t even accept anecdotal evidence from some teacher exit surveys indicating the kids prefer the exciting and engaging lectures as their primary preference because I cannot control for the missing variable: They may never have truly experienced meaningful individually-relevant pedagogy such as I espouse, promote, and teach.

A teacher at the board all the time may be an indicator of too-teacher-centered practices, but the real problem isn’t what the classroom “looks like.” The underlying etiology is a failure to design.

The hardest work of student-centered pedagogy is done in design, just like Cassy sat down and meaningfully  applied theory, analysis, and skill prior to the actual work in her lab building her wildly-successful and elegantly-simple circuit, and just like the best strategic minds must consider all variables and eventualities using all of the data at their disposal prior to sending people into harms’ way as Don explained. We must invest far more resources in preparing teachers with pedagogical professional development,  and teach them more child psychology, strategies for each thinking and learning modality, innovative teaching techniques, meaningful instructional design, and the relevant and meaningful utilization of educational technology. We must provide teachers with vastly more time and resources to insightfully collaborate, and deeply invest in their instructional design practices, not only as a part of teacher preparation, but perhaps even more importantly, in an ongoing way throughout the school year, including meaningful, unencumbered collaborative planning during the day. Moreover, as I explicitly call for in “Insurrection,” I believe this shift away from what’s preferable for adults to what’s best for children ultimately demands that we dismantle many of the most traditional structures of the traditional school model, which stand starkly and immovably opposed to meeting individual child needs.

However, even notwithstanding these systemic problems, we as individual practitioners can  shift our  philosophy and subsequently our pedagogy to prioritize the individual child , then meaningfully account for each of them in our design.

Otherwise, as I write about again in the book, we engage in  “intent-based pedagogy” with a fingers-crossed hope-we-hit-the-mark monkeys-banging-on-typewriters fling-it-until-it-sticks approach to teaching our kids, instead of “outcome-based pedagogy,” which demands that we meaningfully nail the target every time, for every kid.

A kid’s success is always a moving target, because kids grow. They develop, they change, they think, they experiment, they challenge, they stumble, they fly, they fall, they leap right over and past us. They are agile thinkers, neuroplastic and neurocapable by design, and we have to do better than the shotgun-like scattershot of undesigned teacher-centered pedagogy. We must engage in meaningful,  relevant individualized teaching, and to do that, we cannot shoot first and ask questions later.

We have to, as Professor Mailman said and as Cassy rightly learned, and then reminded me, be diligent and thoughtful designers.

Ready… Aim… Teach.

Praxis in Practice: CHARMing Assessment

If you didn’t reach this post through the video, you might want to start with my first Challenge video, which leads into this conversation!


Meaningful evaluation of skill mastery is best achieved through  continuous,  harmless assessment of  relevant  mastery.

Continuous

Testing kids is stupid. It’s not an effective way to truly understand what they know and how they can apply it. Beyond the form factor (multiple choice and fill in the blank responses are silly ways to truly understand a person) and the modality (people who organize information in certain ways will do better on such a test simply for that reason, and therefore discriminates against those who don’t), it’s also a single point of reference that doesn’t provide  meaningful, comprehensive data about growth as well as  mastery. In order to truly assess  skill mastery, we have to constantly assess it in a variety of ways.

Harmless

Too often we forget that the purpose of assessment is to understand our kids and their skill mastery. Assessment is not about accountability, responsibility, or compliance. None of those things are content area standards, and therefore not only should not but I dare say rationally and ethically cannot be included in any kind of assessment. High-stakes and pressure-oriented tests can in and of themselves be psychoemotionally traumatic to the developing child mind. Additionally, those who manage their information and time differently than other students may be at various stages of skill mastery development at any given time. Imposing a punitive timeline on skill mastery is foolish. Assessment is not an analog to what is too often callously termed “the real world.” This is teaching and learning, not a factory. We don’t fire kids for not doing what other kids do at certain times of the day, week, or year. Behaving that way is harmful to children, and therefore inappropriate in education.

Relevant

When studying composition with Dana Wilson at Ithaca College in the late 90s, I wrote a duet for Saxophone and Snare Drum called  Kölcsönhatások, the Hungarian word for “interactions” or “interrelations.”  The ways  in which an individual connects ideas, patterns, information, thoughts, and experiences are unique and sometimes unpredictable. Consequently, every individual will create meaning and relevance in the course of learning in an entirely unique way. This means that we cannot assume how our students understand and can apply a concept or skill, nor can we preconceive all of the methods they may use to do so. This has significant ramifications for the scaffolding we provide for the assessment.

Mastery

The only assessment that matters is skill mastery. Ancillary and unrelated elements like “promptness” ought to be removed from the conversation entirely. This is one of Rick Wormeli’s cornerstones, and one I was slow to adopt but now champion: students must be able to fail, and fail, and fail, without being punished for it. Failures and zeros, points off for lateness and noncompliance, these are all silly distractions from the essential collaborative process of understanding a student and how that student understands and can apply concepts and skills in a relevant, authentic way.  Fans of standards-based assessment will certainly understand this point: Grading homework as late does absolutely nothing to understand a student’s skill mastery, and is therefore not only unnecessary, but I believe is an improper distraction and may go so far as to say is unethical, as it introduces mechanisms of coercion, control, and compliance where they simply do not belong. It is not our job to create a certain kind of person or ensure students behave in a certain, normative kind of way. There are plenty of people in our diverse society, and there are many, many ways of being. We all have successful tardy friends and prompt friends that are kind of a mess, and certainly every  kind in between. We need to stop injecting personal, adult ideas of who students should be into our work with them.

Omnimodality

I believe that the only assessments we can give that account for all four of these “CHARM” elements is omnimodal assessment: Allowing any demonstration method or mechanism that works. In  Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, I outline that I do understand this involves quite a bit of work for teachers, designing rubrics and assessment scaffolding and framework that allows such a variable and unpredictable intake of skill mastery demonstrations, but I believe the time and effort can be more than offset by not loading the year with “throttle points” of testing dates, as well as eliminating a great deal of the “work” we have kids do. We’re obsessed with productivity in this country, and a productivity mindset – make more, do more, show more – lends itself to lowering quality, deep, significant explorations of ideas and understandings. This is not to say that we don’t want our kids practicing their skills; to the contrary, we do, but we cannot presuppose how much practice any given kid may or may not need to develop mastery, and certainly having a kid beat a dead horse is as useless for that kid as it is for you. Why grade things neither of you need graded?

Instead of a traditional framework of percentages like this…

  • Tests 30%
  • Quizzes 20%
  • Homework 20%
  • Projects 20%
  • Classwork 10%

…consider a revolutionized CHARM-based omnimodal framework like this…

  • Skill Mastery Demonstration 100%
    • Standard 1 20%
    • Standard 2 20%
    • Standard 3 20%
    • Standard 4 20%
    • Standard 5 20%
  • Formative Assessments (Quizzes) 0%
  • Practice (Homework) 0%
  • Classwork & Collaboration 0%

Notice that I’m not saying “don’t use quizzes to check in with your kids  formatively” or “homework has no use as practice.” I’m just saying don’t grade them. Numbers are terrible reflections of the comprehensive understandings of how kids learn and what they know and can do, but if your district or school requires them in the gradebook, so be it. Just don’t count them for anything. Give them a weight of “zero,” and stick to the only thing that matters: skill mastery.

We will evaluate and respond to anything a kid does, but the only things that “count” are their authentic, relevant skill masteries within the standards we are charged to instruct. If we do this, their summative post-tests that the state imposed upon them will take care of themselves.

In omnimodality, we need to create rubrics that are comprehensive enough to take any form of skill mastery  and yet flexible enough so as not to exclude any form of skill mastery. Consequently, instead of talking about the features of a project as we do in many rubrics, instead create a framework around the standards and skills within the intended scope of learning.

Here are two previous videos of mine that might help if you’re struggling   with this idea:

Teach for mastery, and assess for mastery, free of preconceptions about how your students may truly, deeply understand and apply.

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!

My colleagues Charles tells me that no meeting I attend is considered officially adjourned until I’ve said the word “pedagogy” at least three times. We once had a surprisingly-brief meeting at a colleague’s school, and I got up and got my stuff, and he said, “Where are you going?” I indicated I thought the meeting was over, to which I got what we upstaters call The Seneca Falls Look – “c’mon, man, just do the obvious” for others – and he said, “You’ve only said it once!”

I sighed, said “pedagogypedagogy,” everyone laughed, and then we left.

Point one: I talk about pedagogy a lot.

Aaron Sorkin is my favorite television writer, and one of my favorite writers ever. He loves spoken diatribe, rant, debate, sparring, and the clever turn of a phrase like nobody else when it comes to rapid intellectual patter. The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Newsroom… I consider him a genius.

It helps that he went to Syracuse, my hometown, and it helps further that his great mentor Arthur Storch gave him his most important aphorism: “Dare to fail.” Clearly, this is advice I adore.

Sorkin wrote The American President, one of my favorite movies, which for all of the rest of its pros and cons gets a spot on my list because of the great penultimate scene in which President Shepherd delivers his now-famous “I Am The President” speech. I quote it often, and here’s the part that’s resonating with me in this post:

“For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But the more important question is why aren’t you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party’s most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution? If you can answer that question, folks, then you’re smarter than I am, because I didn’t understand it until a few hours ago.”

– Aaron Sorkin, “The American President”

Point two: Why aren’t you talking about pedagogy a lot?

I talk about the craft of teaching a lot because it’s what we do. We aren’t the learners, so we can’t do the learning for them. The best we can ever, ever do is teach. That’s what we do. Everything else is crap. I’m exhausted by people, in any number of positions or at any number of levels, trying to convince me (eternally in vain) that other priorities ought to eclipse kids and learning.

No.

No.

No.

To stick with the TV trope, and quote  Michael Angeli writing the character Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, “Not now, not ever.”

Preach your craft. Whenever anyone interferes with you, lands nonsense in your lap, challenges your intelligence and capability, attempts to lord unresearched and unlettered idiocy over you, quotes things out of context, forces ad hominem down your throat, bandies about errant   opinion  as if it is gospel… go to pedagogy. Go directly to the craft of teaching. Teach that person. Don’t relent. Don’t shrink. Don’t feint. Teach them.

I don’t care if it’s an administrator, a colleague, a parent, a politician… teach them. Teaching isn’t unprofessional, isn’t rude, isn’t cruel, isn’t punitive: It goes to where the learner is and seeks understanding and relevance. Show them what teaching really is. Get to know them, significantly, and engage them where they are. It might not get done the first time out. Your assessment might show that nope, they still didn’t get it, but you’re going to keep trying. Your personal frustrations may bubble up and challenge you. Your patience may be worn to a nub.

Tough. You’re a teacher. Get it done.

We didn’t sign up for something easy. You want to call yourself a teacher, then strap in and step up and do the work and get in here and help. We’re under siege.

Granted, I’m  renowned for being confrontational and not shying away from a fight, and I’m not asking you to step out in front of the  firing squad, but I DO want you to engage meaningfully  on the subject of teaching and learning when people attempt to interject nonsense into the conversation.

My pedagogy isn’t everyone’s – yet, LOL! – but if we bring every single conversation in education back to  teaching and learning, we’ll get our priorities straight.  HVAC problem? It’s about student health and wellness.  No gender-neutral bathroom? It’s about student safety and health. Need to schedule a county-wide activity mandated by central office? Do what’s best for kids. Considering painting a wall? Check the research on student color experiences and material safety around young people. Picking out a new chair? Investigate the seating preferences and needs of your students. And, in my current subfield of educational technology, goodness knows that every single conversation should be driven by what’s best for kids. I don’t care if it’s the cheapest option, if it’s easiest for the technicians we have, if it’s the system with which the adults are most familiar, if it’s what the adults are used to… none of that matters to me until and after we have considered all aspects of what’s best for our kids. If it sounds like I’m beating the same drum over and over, it’s because I am. As I write in Insurrection, “The educational revolutionary’s prime directive is  that children and their learning come first, in all things, now and forever, without exception.”

Pedagogy, pedagogy, pedagogy!

Get your copy of “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children” today to learn more!

Be a Revolutionary Today, as well as Tomorrow

Don’t have the book yet? Get yours now! Visit www.kdreeves.com/books and snag your copy and join the revolution!

Insurrection is a big book about big change, and that unintentionally intimidates, scares, or dissuades some people from believing my ideas and work translate to immediate classroom application. I owe you explicit elucidation when I say that if you read it through, and get it, you can hit the ground running today with revolutionized ideas.

Let’s take assessment as an example.

We complain a lot about grading, both the amount of grading we have to do and the way we have to report grading. So what does the Insurrection-ist (or the Seditionist if you’re a fan of the videos I do with Rob Furman, or whatever other revolutionary badge of honor you prefer) do to make that better?

Stop grading things that aren’t ready to be graded.

When you give an assignment, it should be designed in a way that, no matter how big or small, your individual students are showing you what they really understand and can do with the unique knowledge and understanding they’ve developed. A multiple-choice quiz doesn’t do that, because it shows no significant comprehension or deep critical thinking about the subject, and show can’t really tell you anything other than a superficial snapshot.

Why bother with superficial fluff? Dump the quiz. Dump the multiple choice test. Throw ‘em out. Don’t waste time with Scantrons and that factory-model nonsense. (It’s literally a machine-grader. How much more industrial can you get?) Instead, offer students a genuine opportunity to show unique, individual skill mastery.

“But wait,” you might be saying, “I use multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes and such because they’re quick and easy. I thought you said you were going to lessen my work load?”

Even if you did use that method, just let kids opt out if they’re not ready to demonstrate mastery. We’ve all done this: “Did you do your homework?” “Yeah!” “Did you really?” “Well, no…” “So are you going to do well on the test today?” “Well, no…”

Why bother putting the kid through that, and while we’re at it, why bother grading it? If you both know it’s not a good evaluation, don’t grade it. In fact, by moving to an entirely voluntary, entirely un-coerced “hand it in when it’s ready” system of evaluation, you’ll be stunned by the amount of time you’ll save from having to chug through substandard materials.

What do you do with the kids who aren’t ready to hand anything in yet? Well, there are several options. The instinct of the traditionalist will be to give that kid a zero, because no skill mastery was demonstrated. While this may make strict mathematical sense, for me, I’m more interested in no grade at all: Why penalize a kid when we don’t really know what the situation is yet? There are a few variations on this theme that come to mind for me. One that stood out as I drove here was the idea of saying “these assignments and assessments need to be turned in by the end of this quarter,” and doing that for each quarter. At the end of quarter one, missing assignments go unpenalized: you evaluate what’s handed in, and the grade is calculated exclusively on those grades, with the other assignments being unweighted and unpenalized. At the end of quarter two, that “placeholder” grade becomes a 75%: you have a baseline in your score, but your being “behind” is starting to creep in, as an incentive to ensure that the prerequisite skill mastery items are being addressed. A kid has a lot of latitude here to still get a great grade, but has the flexibility not to freak out about things yet. Next quarter, 50, next quarter 25, and finally at the end, no skill mastery yields no credit.

Personally, I wouldn’t use this system, as I don’t believe in penalizing students for time-based phenomena: The only truly required mastery level benchmarks are, usually, at the End of Course (EOC), or in some jurisdictions or for some classes, at the Semester. For me, I say no penalty for having a brain that procrastinates and does everything at the last minute. That is a legitimate form of time management. There are innumerable articles floating around the literature right now saying that some procrastinators are brilliant, have a ton of skill mastery, and are fully capable in ways their more incremental classmates might not be.

Is it our right, is it our place, to punish certain kind of thinkers? I maintain that it is not, and if you’ve read Insurrection, you know this is one of the center-most themes and core pillars of my revolutionary proposal. (If you haven’t read Insurrection, but you agree that nobody’s thinking style is innately “better” or “worse” than another, you should definitely pick it up and power through to the midway point, where these themes really start to pick up!)

However, while it might not be my personal cup of tea, do I think that a teacher who implements such an incremental system is doing far, far better than those who aren’t?

Yes, I do.

Not only that, but I believe you could (if you were so inclined) cite some significant research to back up your position that there may indeed be justification for building such time management scaffolding into your curriculum and assessment methods, because the vast majority of students regardless of thinking style, aptitude, individual preference, or future plans, will be living in America after they graduate, and in America, there is a case to be made that executive function skills necessary in many segments of our society may benefit from such scaffolding. (See, I can be on your team on this!)

Do I want you to understand the etiology of the socioeconomic and psychosocial structural violence that has coopted our schools for two centuries? Yes, I do. But I also want you to help your individual kids, right now, and Insurrection will equip you not only with future-proof pedagogy, philosophy, and history, but with core principles that you can use right now in your classroom.

I’m going to continue to try to outline these Praxis in Practice skills throughout 2016, as I did in the latter half of 2015, as I genuinely believe that the real revolutionaries are already among us, the teachers “on the ground,” doing the work in our classrooms, for each one of our kids. I believe in you, and I’m here to help.

My Freire Moment Today

“The story emphasizes on the mechanically quantitative comprehension of knowledge, which is absurd. The girl could have asked, ‘Teacher: look how many envelopes of knowledge you have deposited in me today.’ This understanding of the act of teaching – and that’s why he says with humor – that what somebody can learn with Paulo Freire is exactly the opposite of this. I am the antagonic pedagogy. I am the antagonic epistemology. I am the opposite ethic. I am nothing of that because I am the antagonism of that. And I insist, I don’t like discourses. I am not a ‘good boy.’ I try to be a good person, but ‘good boy,’ God forbids. If somebody wants to hurt me, call me ‘good boy.’ I am an educated person, very educated, polite, disciplined, courteous, that I am indeed, and even more, I try to be even more respectful, but ‘good boy?’ For God’s sake, no. So I am antagonistic to all this. I am the contrary, the opposite of all this.”

– Paulo Freire, discussing education with Seymour Papert

Rock on, Paulo. Rock directly on.

The professional website of Keith David Reeves