Friday, November 26, 2010

The first rule

Sully thinks I've advanced enough to actually start hitting something other than air in our training sessions. Intro... the punching-bag! What could be easier that to whack the heck out of a helpless target that can't hit back?

Wrong. Today's session was still all about technique, coordination, balance and timing. I learned the hard way, as usual. Throw a punch incorrectly and the impact rebounds, sending a shockwave back the way it came; that is, back through the knuckles and all the way up the arm. Ouch.

The first rule of Fight Club is "don't even join". At least, not till you've had more training.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

As she wheeled her wheelbarrow

We said farewell to Mel. Again. For good this time. Booked a table at Molly Malone's at which we shared one last carnivorous meal as colleagues.

It was our regular, noisy table company, but somehow I couldn't get into the swing of the multiple conversations raging around me. One possibility is that I've been dissociated from everyone for so long, my social engine was taking longer than usual to warm up.

Another is that maybe I'm not taking Mel's departure as well as I thought.

So many friends have moved on already. Every time someone leaves, there's a whole new upheaval in the social dynamic.

Change is nothing new. Technological change I take to like a duck to water. Changes in my social circle, however, are a little harder to adapt to. But then, that's nothing new to me either.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'This R2 unit has a bad motivator'

We're all familiar with the carrot-and-stick approach as our primary motivation tool. We reward someone for doing good work and punish them for delivering something that isn't up to standard or not doing what we wanted of them.

In school, our rewards tend to be good grades, a glowing testimonial and maybe the occasional citation or cash incentive for exceptional performance. Undesirable behaviour, on the other hand, is punished with personal audiences with increasing levels of the campus heierarchy, discussions with parents, Corrective Work Orders, threats of repeating a year or a 'recommendation to seek educational instruction at an alternative institution'.

Daniel Pink, in Drive, calls this practice Motivation 2.0. Much of our workflow systems and even our economy itself is largely based on this model, and it's been very successful so far in moving us along. Motivation 2.0 is an excellent tool for mechanical, routine tasks. Nobody wants to do them, so offering people a decent exchange for their time and effort is the only way we can shoehorn human resources into our assembly-line industries.

Problem is that our economy no longer relies on routine mass-order jobs. Our employment opportunities are now shifting towards knowledge, service and creative 'products' where we have an edge over our more labour-intensive neighbouring economies. Good as 2.0 is in replicating a compliant, narrow-skilled workforce for the industrial economy, for tasks involving thinking and complex problem-solving, 2.0 doesn't work. Throwing in more money isn't going to make solving problems easier or faster. Pink even suggests that these material rewards might even be a de-motivational factor because it raises the pressure to get the task done (reward conditional to successful delivery) and it makes people work towards what the money's worth and no further. If this sounds like what schools are like today, that's because we are still following the 2.0 model, and yet are supposed to be grooming capable workers for the new economy.

Drive advocates an upgrade to Motivation 3.0, detailing scientific and behavioral studies; and case studies of successful corporations that have adopted this new approach. One of Pink's best examples is that Microsoft Encarta (an attempt at creating and maintaining a pay-to-use online encyclopaedia) which had a huge financial backing and lots of talented employees closed down after a few years of operation, whereas a loose organization with the same goals but having no paid management, no paid employees and no for-profit motive has become Wikipedia, one of the most-referred to and relied upon websites today.

The 3.0 model emphasizes autonomy, mastery and purpose as the prime movers of human achievement. Autonomy being the divestment of superfluous supervision over the worker and the work; mastery as in putting in time and effort to get good at a skill or skill-set; and purpose as in having a sustainable, believable and realistic rationale for doing the work in the first place.

I'm looking at my students past and future. Most of them came from 2.0 schools, and even when they arrive at our doorstep we still keep them suppressed under 2.0 principles. We complain about how unmotivated they are, how slow they are to absorb new ideas and concepts, how frustrated we are that they keep making the same mistakes even though we've corrected them time and time again. We run our education like a factory churning out neatly packaged mass products but we also realize that each student is an individual with individual learning needs and hence requires a personally customized instructional programme in order to develop each potential, like we promise to. That's quite the dilemma, isn't it, trying to meet 3.0 demands with 2.0 structures?

Our biggest problem with 3.0 is in the first pillar: autonomy. I'm not talking about staff autonomy because one of the reasons why I enjoy my work on campus is that I have loads of autonomy to run my classes and other programmes the way I want. I'm talking about the kids and how we have to monitor them, guide them, discipline them, safeguard them, and sic their parents on them (if necessary) their whole two years with us. I'm talking about not trusting them to do the right thing, and likewise them not trusting themselves, coming from environments that didn't trust them either. It's going to be difficult if I apply 3.0 while the rest of their subject tutors still manage them with 2.0, the way they're used to. The kids are so conditioned under survival 2.0 they don't see the higher purpose of 3.0 as a necessary or even a worthwhile aim. Avoiding a shelling will always win out over reaching for higher goals.

I'm absolutely sure 3.0 works. The kids in Drama Club grow and develop so many skills so quickly because they have the autonomy to do what they need to do to get their show on the road. They dedicate themselves to mastering stagecraft, turning in long rehearsals above and beyond their regular scheduled schoolwork and working with a true master of the craft like Tina or Rods. And they have a purpose to turn in a performance they can be proud of for our annual Drama Night or national competition. But these same kids are often in trouble in class because 2.0 just isn't adequate to motivate them to do as well in their academic obligations.

Working in an organization so firmly entrenched in 2.0, can there be a transitional step, a 2.5 that I can at least start on? Or have I been stuck on 2.5 all along? Whatever it is, it's time to throw a bigger rock into the pond. Our collective futures could well depend on it.

Digital generation gap

Among the various threats and opportunities dNYel had been discussing earlier, I'd like to throw in one more item that is BOTH a threat and and opportunity: the kids have gone digital and they think differently from us pen and paper types.

One of this year's GP essay questions was something about how technology has negatively impacted our skill levels. The bias to this question is from the fact that old schoolers like us took great pains to practice and train in the skills we wanted to be good at. Whether it was music, art or sport there were no shortcuts to developing the necessary muscle memory and the right kind of sensitivity to make it work the way we want.

But with technology, anybody with an interest and some patience can learn to use so many easily (often freely) available digital tools that can turn an amateur attempt into something approaching a piece of professional expression. For instance, music doesn't have to be 'original', it can be sampled from existing tracks and remixed with a GarageBand tool; a backyard lot and a few enthusiastic teenagers can become the platform for the next YouTube viral hit. You call THAT skill?

But really, who's to say it isn't? We oldies are conscious of the distance between audience and performer, but to this generation, there is hardly any difference between one or the other. Easy access to all these tools that were once only available to those who could afford them (i.e., the professional studios) has closed the gap so significantly it's almost pointless to make the distinction now.

What I'm getting at is that with so many opportunities for the kids to express themselves these days, it's still our job to return them to the table and focus on writing an essay or make sense of a given piece of writing. I suppose it's necessary. It's not so much that the exam only seeks to reward pen and paper skills, but it's the only opportunity they might have to create something original, by themselves, of themselves.

As we are in the process of figuring out our programme for the next batch of J1s, this digital mindset is one more thing to be aware of if we're going to engage them in any meaningful way.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Six-word stories

Here's an interesting movement launched recently: to identify what truly matters to you in exactly six words. The site is full of happy motivational phrases coined by contributors who also add a little background story to explain themselves.

I don't personally have an apt six-word motto to live by, or perhaps I'm too woolly-headed to quip an enlightening stock phrase for myself right now. This week, I only have one concern: "Treat animals right, you stupid humans!" If you've been following recent video links portraying acts of animal cruelty (which I will NOT perpetuate here), you'll know why I'm so bugged.