Sometimes I like to take a break from teaching and digital technology. Using 4-5 simple ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt and (optionally) oil), and this tutorial, you can bake a simple, but very satisfying, loaf:
This article was originally posted on Medium.com.
In 2011, Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and co-founder of the venerable Netscape, noted that “software is eating the world”. His observation was intended to reflect the way that computers, and the software they run, were flipping the business world on its head. Nine years on, and Andreessen’s words ring truer than ever. If anything, it seems that he understated the shifts we were seeing and feeling. In 2020, you could reasonably look at the changes of the past decade and say that “software has eaten our culture”.
Picking up on this thread, Michael Harris’s The End of Absence takes a long look at the peculiar, and revolutionary time, in which we live. It draws our attention to the fact that there will never be another time like this: one in which adults have experienced the world both with and without the Internet. Our current observations, he notes, offer a final glimpse into a world that will soon be forgotten. If this sounds like hyperbole, then just consider how much time you spend thinking about life before Gutenberg’s printing press, which was the 15th century’s own version of the Internet. In the same way that we have, as a culture, forgotten what it was like to be pre-literate, we’ll soon forget what it was like to be pre-digital.
What will we fail to miss most, asks Harris? Absence is his answer.
If you are over the age of 35, you will probably remember a childhood and adolescence filled with absence: the absence of stimulation, fun and company. It was, for many of us, a time with ample opportunities to be alone, to think, to ponder, to be creative, to read deeply, to be bored. These activities, although we did not always relish them, forged the minds we carry around with us today. They enabled a culture in which deep thought was valued and valuable.
Unless we are very careful, the intrusion of devices and software into our lives will mean that our children will never have these experiences. Which will mean that by the time we are grandparents, these thoughts and feelings will seem old-fashioned, musty and dull. And then, in a flash, they’ll be gone.
Harris is far from alone in voicing these concerns. Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, discerned the corroding effects of digital dependency almost a decade ago. More recently Adam Atler, William Powers, Andrew Keen and many others have all written compellingly about the changes we are undergoing. Richard Louv and Lenore Skenazy demonstrate how these shifts play out in the lived experience of our children.
If you remain unconvinced, then perhaps this short read by Benjamin Conlon, focusing on how childhood has changed, might help you to imagine how difficult it must be for our children to daydream, imagine, create and get lost.
Given all of this, it might be fair to say that we are set on a path which leads to software eating everything. Whilst this will have sounded excitingly disruptive to venture capitalists in 2011, it should, today, strike us as alarming.
It might not be surprising then, that for all of the energy schools are pouring into software, there is a growing concern among educators about where we are heading. As Conlon observes:
In many districts teachers are encouraged to employ Twitter and Instagram for classroom updates. This is a bad thing. It normalizes the process of posting content without consent and teaches children that everything exciting is best viewed through a recording iPhone. It also reinforces the notion that ‘likes’ determine value. Rather than reading tweets from your child’s teacher, talk to your children each day. Ask what’s going on in school. They’ll appreciate it.
This thinking represents a distinct change of tack. It represents schools pushing back against the ascendancy of big tech. It suggests that swimming downstream through the dominant culture might not be the right thing to do.
It was with all of this in mind that Toby Newton (Head of School at ICHK Secondary) and I spent a sunny autumn day in 2018 sketching the outlines of a new ICT policy. By this point, it had become clear to us that our existing structures, which were based on the techno-utopian thinking prevalent at the time of their writing, were no longer fit for purpose. It was also apparent that drastic change was needed, and that it would not be easy to pull off.
What followed was 9 months of intense discussion, drafting, consultation, introspection and iterative improvement. The whole process relied on exactly the kind of solitary deep focus that software seemed to be imperiling, coupled to short bursts of intense collaboration. Almost all of the work was kept hidden from students, as we asked ourselves how we could orchestrate a sea change, without coming across as a bunch of old, irrelevant reactionary Luddites.
The resulting policy was introduced to students in June 2019, via a series of unannounced simulations and presentations. Its aim was no less than reclaiming for students some of the quiet space commandeered by digital technology. The primary vehicle for this was a set of protocols that would invite students to put away their own mobile phones, whilst refocusing teacher attention on how we use laptops for learning.
Although I find our students to be very attentive and engaged, launch day was the most striking example I’ve seen of having their undivided attention. A handful of individuals, those most tethered to their devices, had felt the tremors approaching, but most were caught unawares.
Where I had, during some dark sleepless night, feared a visceral backlash of phone-deprived adolescent rage, we saw a remarkable degree of thoughtfulness. There were many good questions, the odd wounded look, and a range of very sensible suggestions for making the new policy more workable.
School life, as it will, marched on. But the culture had been distinctly altered. Where, at break, we previously saw growing numbers of students conspicuously using mobile devices, we now see playing cards, games around whiteboards, students talking and playing. There are more students playing sports on the playground, and the old primary school favourite, foursquare, has enjoyed an unexpected resurgence among older students. During class time we’ve seen the near total disappearance of mobile phones, and the distraction that attends them. Our senior students, who have more leeway, have proven reliable role models, in carrying their devices but using them discreetly. Students no longer wait for class to begin by playing with their laptops. Teachers are more aware of their own role in modelling positive digital behaviour.
Given the danger of newly-bored and untethered students, we worked to create a physical and social environment that supports socialisation and playfulness, introducing giant board games, installing more seating and putting on lunch time activities. Phone lockers, now installed in every form room, offer a structural change that allows students to use one material technology to control another. All of this builds on our ongoing work in offering students an epistemic apprenticeship, in which they learn positive habits and skills that will serve them throughout their adult lives. The foundations of our school remain choice, adult-adult conversations and an absence of traditional school behaviour management.
Ultimately, whilst we might want to blame children for not controlling their device use, it is not really their fault at all. As Adam Alter (Irresistible) makes abundantly clear, it is adults, acting under contemporary economic pressures, who have deliberately designed the environment our students find themselves in. Having found a plausible and popular narrative, many schools have, under the tired banner of “21st century learning”, jumped on board the digital bandwagon. What has taken some time to become apparent, is the extent to which our biological imperatives to switch attention towards opportunities and threats have been hijacked. These “orienting responses” (Behave, Robert M Sapolsky), have been turned against us because it has become economically and culturally advantageous, and technically possible, to do so.
As educators it is imperative that we recognise these forces, and work to create an environment that guides students to be able to judge both the value and the costs of a wide range of human technologies. We cannot simply turn out backs on the many advantages that digital living offers, but neither can we remain complicit in the greatest heist of all time: the theft of our collective attention.
Phones in particular, for their many benefits, carry a massive set of interconnected costs. However, we, as educators and parents, can counter these through the use of other technologies, such as well thought out protocols and policies, phone lockers, the freedom to roam, the freedom to connect in person and dinner together as a family. During such times, we might stop and consider the extent to which words that once held meaning associated with face to face intimacy and organic emotional growth are now connected to a much less rich sense of what they could or should represent. For example, how many of our online “friends” serve the functions that a real friend ought to. Likewise for “community”, “contact”, “like”, “share” and a growing lexicon of repurposed words. It is in these shifts that we can divine the deconstruction of much that we ought to hold dear.
Of course, the best technology of all might just be adults who reliably role model a positive culture around device usage, and who revel in absence, spontaneity, exploration and fun. As Neil Postman notes, perhaps a little stridently, in Technopoly, “a family that does not or cannot control the information environment of its children is barely a family at all”. Our actions as adults, like it or not, form a large part of this very same information environment.
The changes we’ve experienced at ICHK Secondary over the past 18 months have been neither straightforward, nor pain free. However, we believe that when we draw firm boundaries against the encroachment of digital devices, we stand to gain tremendously. Along the way we have greatly appreciated the ongoing support of the many parents and educators who have voiced their joy at our new policy. We hope that, over time, yet more people will join us on this journey.
As part of ICHK’s Deep Learning program, I’ve been working with a group of 10 students over the past weeks, studying the wonder that is yeast. In this hands-on unit, which covers a total of 4 school days, students bake bread and brew beer (of both the ginger and alocholic varieties). Through these experiences student hopefully come to understand the joy of hands on making, as opposed to mere consumption. In addition, the unit includes independent travel and shopping, a range of practical and theoretical science, and an appreciation for a range of ancient human technologies.
Bread and beer have been staples of human existence for thousands of years. In times gone by, bread offered a way to turn hard-to-digest grains into a nutritious, portable and tasty form. Meanwhile, beer offered not only nutrients, but also a way to purify dirty water in order to make it drinkable. Made from practically the same ingredients, the magic in these technologies is the use of yeast. This wonderful microorganism cracks open grains in order to eat hidden sugars. In its wake it leaves a supply of readily available nutrients, carbon dioxide (which makes bread fluffy) and sometimes alcohol.
According to some experts, many pre-industrial humans, children included, spent their days drinking low-alcohol beer, rather than water. How the world has changed! Today beer and bread are not as vital to human society as they once were, but they are still valuable technologies, both materially and socially.
This post was originally published as an ICHK Teacher Insight.
The process of becoming an adult is one of life’s main preoccupations: it takes a long time, and requires the investment of a considerable amount of personal, familial, societal energy. As a secondary school teacher I feel privileged to see my students pass through a significant chunk of this process: students come to ICHK as children, and leave, we hope, ready for the adult world.
But how can we meaningfully define adulthood? As a species, we like to put artificial and arbitrary milestones on the road to adulthood. The fact that these are so diverse, should tell us a significant amount about the variability of this particular part of the human journey. Consider that, according to the World Health Organisation, in Antigua and Barbuda it is legal to drink alcohol in a bar from age 10: an adult activity that Americans need to turn 21 to enjoy. We find variation too in the age at which citizens of various countries can drive, vote, own guns and create new humans.
In more traditional societies, the answer is more black and white: you are a child until you pass through a rite of passage, emerging into adulthood. In such a rite, you are removed from your family, endure a difficult experience with the guidance of your elders, and then emerge into adult society, via a celebration. Such rites are, according to Arne Rubinstein’s The Making of Men, essential in setting the tone for adult conduct in a dangerous world, where only sound judgement can keep a tribe alive.
Modern society has, for the most part, dispensed with such rites. Gone is the hunt, the scarification, the debutante ball, the formal coming of age. Yes, we have a public examination system that offers a weakened, extended rite of passage. And school graduations offer something here too. But on the whole, these miss the essential hallmarks of a real rite. As Rubinstein sees it, this situation is a significant contribution to many of contemporary society’s ills. We are the only society in history, it seems, that pays such scant respect to the art of growing up.
As a school, under the guidance of our Director of Creativity: Deep Learning and Head of PE Ray Chan, we have begun the work of introducing elements of rites of passage back into the lives of our students. At current, we can claim Year 7 induction, Senior School expedition camp fires and Year 12 IB Orientation as genuine, practical examples of such rites. These experience build upon existing Human Technologies curriculum work, where rites of passage are covered in the classroom. What we offer today may not be full-blown child-adult rites, but they meaningfully mark turning points in the lives of our students, offering the experience of age to temper the uncertainty of youth. They represent a step in the right direction, and point, perhaps, to the future development of a more formal and substantial rite for our graduates.
To this mix we have recently added another rite of passage, initiated by a small number of our recent graduates. For these 3 students, all long standing members of a group of technology enthusiasts known as the Nerdlings, school is now finished, and they are waiting to head off to university. Before leaving, they wanted to visit my home, hang out, talk and share a drink. Having experienced a similar occasion with my old maths teacher, I recognised immediately the positive benefits of such an encounter, for it represents a shift in relationship from teacher-student, to something much more akin to friendship.
And so it came to pass that the four of us spent an evening together, sitting on the deck outside my home, listening to (generationally incompatible) music and talking of old times. With parental and school permission, I was able to offer my guests a few different beers to taste (there is, it is worth noting, no age restriction for private drinking at home in Hong Kong). And, rather than simply swilling mass market, watery lager, they were introduced to a range of ales of differing styles and flavours. We chatted about how beer is made, and what makes beer beer. We relaxed, we talked of the future, we learned more about each other. We were social humans, using an ancient technology to drop our guard, to open lower barriers, to relate.
The most wonderful thing was seeing these grown men, who I’d known as boys, and watched develop, come to the table as equals. They were eloquent and funny, inquisitive and reflective, full of hope, yet humble and empathetic towards others. They sought wisdom whilst relishing levity. They had, through all the ups and downs of adolescence, come to represent those things that any parent or teacher could ask. They were able to engage in the world of adults, meeting eye-to-eye, and hold their own.
To me, this event, and the way in which it came to pass, is proof that the ICHK approach really does work. We lead children and teachers to transact with others as adults, to build positive relationships with each other. We don’t simply “do school”, we educate for a complex, uncertain and changing world. We understand the transformative power of rites of passage, both on the participants and on their elders. We select our human technologies wisely, and with care. We are adult, and human, learning and growing. Here’s to Isaac, Ray and Jonny, our graduating friends: we wish you all the best. Come back soon.
Are my anxieties a deliberate result of the capitalist systems within which I have grown up?
In this post you’ll learn how to build a simple game using Scratch, the block-based programming language designed for learning to code. The instructions are not 100% complete, so you’ll need to solve problems yourself, as they arise.
You can use Scratch without an account, but it makes it harder to save your work. So, let’s get started by heading to https://scratch.mit.edu and signing up:
Once your account is set up, click on the Create link in the main menu:
You should now find yourself in the Scratch editor, which has the following key features:
Give your project a name (top left), and then note the different features highlighted in the image above. We’ll build our game by dragging instructions into the script editor.
Let’s get started by creating controls to move our sprite around the stage, beginning with the right arrow. Find the instructions shown below, and drag them out into the script editor, snapping them together to make a stack:
Now press the right arrow key on your keyboard and check that your sprite moves to the right.
Try and find the next costume instruction and snap it to the end of your block. What changes when you press the right key?
Now build the rest of your arrow key instructions (you can right click on the top of a stack and duplicate it to save time):
Try your keys and see what happens. You’ll notice that as you move, your character flips upside down. You can add in a rotation control block to each arrow stack to improve this:
Right, we’ve got the basic controls, so now we can add some game elements. Firstly, use the Shrink function to reduce the size of your sprite:
Next, add a new sprite, into which you can draw a black maze with a green circle at the end:
Now we need to code our outcomes (losing and winning) into our first sprite:
Can you read the code instruction by instruction to work out what it does?
Let’s add a scoreboard, so we can keep track of our progress. To do this, make a new variable called Score, under Data:
And then add two instructions to our win/lose logic:
And there we have it, a simple maze game that keeps score. From here there are countless ways to make it harder (e.g. include different mazes, make the sprite bigger on each level, make the maze move, add enemies, etc).
Hopefully you’ve succeeded, but if not, or if you want to dig around inside for answers, try my version, which is embedded below:
The video screencast below does a great job of showing this process, with a few minor tweaks:
Although not quite as vociferous as Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society, 1971), I am nonetheless a constant critic of what might be termed “traditional schooling”. Discipline, rigor, neat rows of desks, exams. You know the drill.
Over a number of years I’ve criticised my own traditional teaching practices in my talks on Free Learning. To illustrate my point, I’ve used a three-leaved Venn diagram outlining the interplay between grade worship, conformity and dependence. Expanding on this line of thinking I’ve recently added a fourth leaf, delusion, which I’ve previously written about on this site. The result:
Is it any wonder that our school systems produce so many humans (and I include myself in this bracket) who struggle to live within the societies we are building?
In last year’s End of Year Assessment (which I did not write about, but you can get a sense of it from the prior year’s) students asked for more curriculum surprises. One them related with obvious relish the tale of the (very random) occasion on which I placed my lunch of raw sugar snap peas on a table and said “help yourself”. Working on these two pieces of feedback, food seemed like an obvious way to go.
More recently, during a start of lesson chat, I mentioned to my students that I hate most things about most schools (a common theme if you spend any time with me), but that I recently found a school that I love, and which ignited a real love of science and yeast:
This led to a discussion around brewing beer, making bread, the joys of yeast and getting your hands dirty…at the end of which the kids asked me to bake some bread for them. How could I say no?
So, this morning I got up at 4:30 to mix, knead and prove some dough, which I then baked into a large loaf. It was still warm when I met my students at 08:30…and it was all gone by 08:40. The kids seemed so happy with the simple pleasures of fresh, dense white bread and generously applied butter. Some even liked the Vegemite I stole from my wife. This led to an interesting insight that you don’t need lots of money to be happy: the simple things, made with love and shared with others can bring a lot of joy.
Here are a few photos of the process and the result.
As a starter recipe I’ve been using Jamie Oliver’s Basic Bread, which I’ve been tweaking to suit local conditions and tips from others. It is a joy to be learning something new each and every time I bake bread.