Tie And Jeans

Where Andrew attempts an extended comparison between old injuries and exams for 1:1 schools

A decade ago I smashed up my right hand.  I was 22 and dumb and I skated down a hill that was far beyond my skill level. I was 22 and dumb and I had made the “rational” decision that I could go without medical insurance for a few years. I was 22 and dumb and incredibly lucky that I was able to shuffle skate home with only a smashed wrist and road rash.

A year later, all that remained from that crash was a well-tooled story and some nagging intermittent pain in my wrist and hand. This wasn’t serious, I said, just an annoying reminder that I had been 22 and dumb. If some activity proved painful, I’d  grimace and tell the story again.

Yesterday, something else triggered. What had been a moderate annoyance for over a decade turned into a real limitation. Instead of a long drive sending my fingers into clenched spasms, it was just 30 minutes of typing. I became aware of all the weird desks I type at, aware of the strain when lifting loaded pans, every action that strained my wrist graduated from notable to aggravating overnight.  I became aware of how much DAMAGE I was doing to myself with each of these actions. Suddenly the hassle of changing my behavior didn’t signify. A “grin and bear it” mentality was not only painful right now, but was adding to the cumulative negative effects.

In the middle of that day, I sat with Scott and talked through various models for laptop use in upper school exams. I’m reasonably content with the ways middle school has approached this challenge over the last few years, with increasing emphasis on systems that raise expectations for our teachers and students.  More of the details of both these setups are in his most and my comment at his blog.

There’s not even a real security question here. Students will have access to the data they want in direct proportion to how much they OWN those devices. In a 1:1 school where students have admin rights to their machines, their ownership quotient is pretty high. We considered a whole list of drastic and intrusive actions straight out a Cory Doctorow dystopia while looking for the “easy” way to roll their ownership quotient back for a few days.

There is none. Making personal laptops behave like a locked down computer lab will not happen seamlessly.

What terrible kludge! Now we’re faced with menu of disgusting choices because we’re afraid… of what again? Afraid of second and third order effects. Of what might happen if what could happen, happened.  Not afraid of a widespread cheating epidemic, but of the potential parent response if a student succumbs to the UNBEARABLE temptation of internet access. Not afraid of perfect crib sheets, but afraid that student exam responses will propagate out and contaminate all future locked-down two hour exams.

Through all this, my wrist ached.

Here’s the deal – the computer lab isn’t coming back. The sealed bunker isn’t going to make a surprise resurgence in school architecture. Even if we could wave a magic wand and transform every macbook into an AlphaSmart for exam week, that doesn’t make the world around these students into 1998.

The kludge mentality knows this, but drives us to string the caution tape.  “If we don’t take steps to stop them, then they won’t know we’re serious.” That’s profoundly backwards. If we erect a two foot fence and pretends it’s a gator-infested moat, we look like idiots.  If  schools electrify that playground fence with “zero tolerance” language, they’re unmasked as wardens.  Extravagant lock-down scenarios might incrementally complicate student’s access to information. In the process, they broadcast to the entire community that fear dominates trust in our decision making.

This is the cost of school kludge, a giant knot of complication and cruft wadded around the choices we can’t bear to make.

Honestly, I understand the fear.  Sometimes I lean over the vast well of the future, flick a pebble in and shiver while I wait to hear the drop.

That sucker sure looks dangerous. But it’s also THE WELL, and plans to hide it or board it up are going nowhere.

Our exam planning conversation took an unpleasant turn, but I’m glad we had it. Whatever compromises might be necessary for this semester, they’ll be clearly marked as temporary kludge. I’m sure someone will eventually start a faux-Waldorf movement built around emulating wealthy suburban public schools of the 1990s. For the rest of us, the challenge is to rebuild every aspect of our teaching around the reality of universal, ubiquitous general purpose computing. Let’s get to work on that, and not waste daylight hours trying to summon 1996 for sanctity of exam questions.

After that frustrating meeting, I rebuilt my standing desk. I fired up Dragon and read those obnoxious paragraphs about speech recognition, followed by some old blog posts. I spent hours taking apart things I liked and replacing them with untested solutions.  I’m typing this while standing on a longboard, with an chime every 15 minutes to remind me to stop and stretch my hands. The tableau is frankly embarrassing, and the mental image of this moment sustained my T-Rex typing posture for months.

Being unsure or embarrassed are honest emotions, but they’re bad reasons for  ignoring a problem or boarding up the well. Let’s make honest mistakes early and fall when our bones will still heal. Let’s avoid more years of kludgy decisions designed to avoid third order effects and face the meaningful problems around assessment  evaluation, admissions, content and move forward.


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2 thoughts on “Where Andrew attempts an extended comparison between old injuries and exams for 1:1 schools

  1. Andrew – a good reminder that young people are supposed to make mistakes so that they can truly learn from them. By creating a “Fort Knox” we only further the impression that they can be perfect.

  2. Pingback: Essential edPython – Cheese Shop | Tie And Jeans

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