Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

Click on "contact", won't you, and wave right back at me?

Beyond Coding

I love coding. I grew up coding and worked for a while as a programmer. Skills in coding and computational thinking are highly relevant for participating in our increasingly automated world. 

Beyond mere coding a revolution in computing is maturing: neural networks.

Neural networks consist of simulated neurons rather than classic algorithms, and they aren't programmed so much as trained. You create a bunch of neurons and connect them, feed the network lots of examples & examine the output, repeatedly tweaking the neuronal connections and firing patterns, thereby evolving a sort of simulated brain that performs a function. How it performs the function remains translucent. The how resides in what is termed the "hidden layer" of the network.

Neural networks are being used in the mainstream right now: 

I created a neural network with free "MemBrain" software

There's also plenty in the immediate pipeline:

If you're curious to explore neural networks, there are open access tools to have a play. 

For instance, "Membrain" allows you to create your own neural network and train it with data. 

Also, IBM's "Watson Analytics" is free to use online. You can upload datasets and see how it makes sense of them, often offering up questions or connections for further exploration.

Watson Analytics

Watson Analytics

What to do with all this? As for the teaching of coding and computational thinking - bring it on!

How can we go further? Insight into the power of repeated and branching algorithms doesn't begin to prepare us for what is essentially distributed extended cognition. Incredibly sophisticated artificial intelligence, including neural network computing, is embedded in our lives and progressing in rapid cascades. 

How might we develop critical literacy regarding high-order artificial intelligence?

For teachers (see this thought-piece by Pearson for what's in store, and note that in Australia, NAPLAN essays will be marked by AI in 2017).

For young people - a chance to grapple with the ontological, teleological, philosophical and political questions that extended cognition raises at the most practical levels: to understand that if they're on Facebook, its AI forms a functional part of their attention discrimination system; that when the Google search, they are teaching Google as much as Google is teaching them. I wonder how to do this with younger students in particular? I speculate here that a degree of personification might just hold some promise. Dennett's "intentional stance" could be made to work in simple. quasi-metaphoric framing for children of what technology is and what it does.  Quick, someone write a children's book like this! (Has someone already!?)

The Australian ICT general capability just doesn't use language to grapple with questions of third party machine agency: it's not just about "using" it's about extending into and being subsumed by. The into and by is an ecosystem of non-human agents, each with something like intent or agenda and increasingly consisting of hybrids that include "hidden layers" of neural networks whose functions were evolved rather than algorithmically programmed.

It's all getting rather complex.

A Quantified Self

On the last day of 2014 I posted this on Facebook:

What did these numbers mean? 

Whatever else happened in 2014, I did a lot of cycling.... that says something. doesn't it? I formally defined, recorded, and completed 579 tasks - what does that say? Something! I clearly got out of bed...!

More numbers - this time for 2015:  I completed 625 tasks (up 46) , 15 projects (down 14) and 51 events (up 3), and 1600km on the bicycle (down 1579), and saw 21 films (down 5).

In those 2015 numbers there was some big stuff:

  • we bought a house & moved in
  • I gave a TEDx talk
  • saw Star Wars (!)

Although I cheekily only posted numbers on Facebook, I do capture a bunch of different artifacts and then use them as anchor points to try to make sense of... to try to bring narrative to... my identify and purpose. 

I use Evernote on my phone or computer to do the capturing. It's easy to do. I create "tags" for the various artifacts I want to collect. 

Examples below are from my work life:

For instance - and much more meaningfully than mere whimsical numbers -  whenever I get unsolicited feedback I keep a record of it - I have 65 entries so far, including a book cover a friend told me reminded them of me, Post It notes from my 40th Birthday, and proper evaluations from schools I've worked with...

These little files I keep have been incredibly helpful for me because I happen to suffer nasty bouts of imposter syndrome - the awful feeling in my gut that I am a total fraud, totally out of my depth, and the world is about to notice & call me on it.

Brené Brown in "Men, Women and Worthiness" gives a good antidote. She talks about our "sacred ground", where we are neither puffed up nor do we shrink back.

My capturing, my quantifying in an externalised system, has given me anchor points to come back to when I've felt shaky. 

This year, for a bit of fun, I targeted those nitty gritty 625 tasks and used Wordle to analyse the most frequently occurring words: (bigger means more frequent).

Nothing too profound, but still therapeutic and quite beautiful, to peer at some of the fabric of the practical steps that I've taken, one by one. I find it interesting that people and interaction are prominent!

I travel quite regularly for work, and this year thought to track it all onto one map:

It does something, to see it on a map. The map represents quite a few years - but it does accumulate!

Just this year I started taking snaps of each hotel room I stayed in:

I feel I ought to finish with something profound... but all I've got is that life is a messy patchwork, but I want to savour it, and to savour it I need to watch sometimes, like an observer. Capturing & quantifying is a quaint habit of mine but it sure helps me take that step back for perspective. 

Whatever 2016 brings I'll be sure to be playing a little bit of archivist along the way.

Maker Ed, Scaled

Well hats off to Lou Deibe and the amazing coalition of brave Primary teachers, because had I been the catalyst, this would have been a containable pilot, not a holus-bolus Maker day that:

  • encompassed all Primary (400 students)
  • regrouped the kids vertically (kindy mixing with Year 6, everyone mashed up!)
  • thrown in the deepest of the deep ends.... 
  • redefined Maker away from the computational/engineering slant it normally hasx

It was really done on a wing and a prayer - a bunch of "stations" set up around the school:

  • as deconstruction station, where students could basically break stuff - appliances, gadgets, other products
  • knitting station (plus heaps)
  • cardboard creations
  • painting etc
  • classic maker... Makey Makeys, motors, Little Bits, etc
  • MORE

The structure? Scaffolding? Well that came later (the following week). This day was GET TO KNOW the possibilities. Almost no structure other than "go, play, make" which is further up that end than I normally go (Oh but for ONE DAY what joy!).

Some photos

My TEDx Talk - Discovery + Direct Instruction

In my TEDx talk below - "The Power of Opting In" I attempt to describe a design space which marries direct instruction & information feedback loops (learner <-> teacher, learner <-> learner, teacher <-> teacher), with high degrees of learner agency, a spectrum of intents (including subversion), movement, discovery, improvisation, fluidity, and more than anything else: relationship & community as the beating heart.

The two questions "what works?" (explanatory) and "how do we want to be?" (narrative) can feed into this design space in elegant synchronisation. A design space can make room for multiple narratives to come together, preserving a sacred sense of self-determination in a social fabric.

I speak not theoretically but retrospective-descriptively based on a range of program designs we've developed at my school since 2005. We've not "got it right", but we have developed promising design directions that "make space" for everyone to grow. Internalisation can't be forced, so space for "opting-in" is critical even if it is sometimes post-hoc.

In my talk I propose the term "learning landscape" for this design space and propose 3 critical layers to the design: physical space, virtual (information flow) space, and cultural (head) space. All 3 can be designed together with intent. The result can have sophisticated structure and constraints that bring both focus and freedom to a community of learners.

I have a deep respect and admiration for my colleagues who have worked hard to develop these structures over many years of trial and error and constant iterating and rebuilding.

I've put the Prezi and the exemplar video footage below since they are not clear in the TEDx video:

Post Script: an observation

This scaffolded design space is not dissimilar to computer game design space, which also maximises autonomy, making/building, embraces subversion, embeds a mixture of curated + discovery learning, is profoundly social & cooperative, and includes sophisticated information flow loops. Many educators have noticed such parallels including John Hattie (p67, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn).

Pygmalion Education

Pygmalion begs Venus to make his sculpture come alive.

Pygmalion begs Venus to make his sculpture come alive.

Ovid recounts in Metamorphoses how a sculptor called Pygmalion falls in love with his own handiwork. This myth has been reinterpreted countless times, for instance by Bernard Shaw in his play "Pygmalion", which was then turned into the film "My Fair Lady". 

Of course the basic dynamic of projecting onto another person our every aspiration and then praising the fictional result is a universal blind spot, and it crops up in all kinds of ways in most human relationships.

Many have used the myth to explore similar dynamics in the education sphere, in texts such as "My Fair Lady".

I return constantly to the Pygmalion effect when trying to find clarity in the complexity of current educational discourse.

The education landscape is one giant screen onto which are projected all the oughts and shoulds of every vested party. At the center of this picture emerges a picture of the ideal child, ideally educated, and defined in great detail via curriculum outcomes, general capabilities. the 21st century competencies, local school values, and so on.

Schooling becomes a very particular focal point for the collective consciousness... a peculiar neuroses writ large on the world stage with an OCD-like obsession with kid KPIs. It is too obvious a move: apply processes that work with products to people. And with such gusto! It is all well-meant and comes from an ostensibly good place. 

Fortunately, at the local level we have freedom to create a space between the curriculum and the children - and space for colleagues too. We can interpret, design, implement for people instead of products. 

As hippie as it sounds, I quite like the metaphor of "ecoystem" for school communities as an alternative to "factory".

It is up to all of us to live and breathe humanity into schooling in our every interaction. 

Let's seek to create space in schools where others - colleagues, leaders, and students - can be the crazy and contradictory sorts of individuals that make life interesting and joyous and differentiated.

It doesn't mean lowering expectations or a vacuum, and it doesn't mean letting go of ambitious visions we have for each other and for the next generation. 

There is room here for a more elastic and multi-directional version of the Pygmalion effect, where at a local level we set an ambitious vision & find ambitious places for every person within that vision. It can be hit and miss, and come in fits and starts, and be shaped by participation.