Month: August 2011

Hogwarts School of Technology

Very interesting discussion over breakfast at five-thirty this morning.

 It all started with the topic of my younger son’s new computer. Rishi is the sort who has brilliant ideas for poems and stories and is always writing. He used to fill uncountable notebooks and, ever since he got a computer, has folder upon folder of works in progress. He tries to talk to me about them but my brain starts hurting after a while.

“It’s not that your ideas are no good, or that they make no sense,” I assure him, “But that I don’t have the intellectual capacity or the imagination to process them beyond a certain point.” And this is completely true.

He recently got a new laptop because the old one was in its death throes. The poor thing was close to giving up the ghost because of the battering it had received at its owner’s feverish fingers. If he is not typing his stories and poems, he is playing games. And you know what that entails in terms of wear and tear!

In contrast, my older son has a Mac that he treats with more respect than he does the woman who gave birth to him (I jest. I think). Very visually oriented and a photography buff, Arjun can spend hours editing photographs, and has a great eye for detail. Wherever we go we are subjected to his critiques of posters, advertisements and signboards. Also interior design of restaurants, presentation of food…the list goes on. I think it is fair to say that I now see the world in a new way, thanks to this observant son of mine. And he usually sees it through the lens of his camera.

So you can see that each of my sons has a very different relationship with, and view of, technology. And that is why the discussion this morning was so interesting. Talk about how we use our computers led to the topic of technology at Hogwarts. Rishi thought it might be nice to write with a quill. I remarked that it would certainly separate the wheat from the chaff, because when your writing process is so slow and interrupted by all the ink-dipping, only those who can really hold their ideas in their head and organise them before committing them to paper would be able to produce any writing at all, as opposed to the “everycrap” you get when everyone can write whatever pops into their head (elitist oversimplification. I know). Arjun wondered why, with all the magic available to them, the students and teachers at Hogwarts used quills that had to be dipped in ink repeatedly to write with.

If you think about it, there is a technological divide at Hogwarts. While the average magical inmate scratches away with a quill on parchment, do you notice that only Dumbledore has access to a pensieve? Is that an indication that only he has so many thoughts that he needs a separate storage device for them? Or that only he can afford one? Or that only he is responsible enough to be able to use one?

And what of the horcrux technology? Only Voldemort wanted it so badly that he took the effort to learn how to use it despite all the barriers to access. Yet what if this technology, along with knowledge about its implications, had been brought out into the open and freely discussed? Would the lure of the dangerous technology have dissipated somewhat? Might constructive and socially beneficial uses have been found for it eventually if enough research had been allowed? The philosopher’s stone is another type of technology that was erased from the narrative after Voldemort had reframed its meaning. Limited access to the most powerful forms of technology seems to be a recurring theme. I’m not saying that’s wrong. It fits in with the polarizing of good and evil that is at the heart of the Harry Potter series. I just think that it is interesting to look at Rowling’s magical technology from the perspective of our relationships with real-life technology.

On another level, both the pensieve and the horcrux can be seen as metaphors for technology that we already possess. When we put our experiences and memories into blogs and online social networking sites via our photographs, status updates and other posts, we are storing them for later retrieval. As Dumbledore shared his memories with Harry, we can share them with our networks. Just as Harry noted that none of the people in the memories could see him or feel his presence, when we look back at our posts online, we see the interactions and the artefacts, but not the actual people behind them. Our lives move on after we have posted, yet these memories are embedded in who we are. Similarly, Dumbledore’s memories remain significantly intertwined in the later episodes of his life, and are relevant even after his death.

Sherry Turkle writes about cyberspace as a metaphor for identity, and suggests that just as we can be different people in different windows on our computer screen, so we can have multiple selves that exist at the same time, but which we cycle through with flexibility. This multiplicity of identity seems to me very close to the notion of horcruxes. You have a piece of yourself on a blog, another on Facebook, a third on Twitter and so on. Yet while the horcrux is seen as a dangerous concept, Turkle sees multiplicity of identity as a healthy thing, as long as we maintain flexibility in the way we move between our selves.

When you think about Hogwarts it is magic, not technology, that immediately comes to mind. Yet what is magic, if not a form of technology that is so poorly understood as to take on mythical qualities?  Let’s face it: to many of us, modern technology IS magic!

In celebration of uncertainty

Teachers’ Day is coming up, and usually I post as a teacher who respects the contributions of her fellow teachers, as well as the efforts of the learners who make it all worthwhile. That respect has not changed. I still applaud my colleagues who juggle their multiple roles as caring professionals, reluctant moral policemen, frontline guardians of social mores and the recipients of so many “teachers should…” lectures that it’s amazing no one gets up and screams in the middle of one.

I also still view with gratitude all the students who inspire their teachers on an everyday basis: you don’t know it, but when you laugh at our jokes, frown when you don’t understand something, ask questions that send us scrambling for answers when we don’t know them or light up when our explanations have hit home, you’re creating an engaging classroom situation in a powerful and fundamental way.

But this Teachers’ Day I want to pay homage to the transformative power of learning, and I am doing this both as a teacher as well as a student. I’d like to push the boundary a little and use this special day to talk about the process of learning in a way that links back to the role that teachers play, but with a special focus on the transformations that take place when you get thrust out of your comfort zone. This happens to both teachers and students. They are equally valuable sides of the same coin.

If at all success can be measured, one way might be to look at socially approved achievement milestones:

University degree? Check.

Postgraduate degree? Check.

 Professional qualifications? Check.

Married? Check.

Comfortable home? Check.

Kids? Check.

Who are doing okay in school? Check.

I could have gone back to work after my kids were grown up and didn’t need my physical presence 24/7. Or I could have stayed home and lived the life of a slightly down-at-heel but nonetheless privileged housewife. But I chose instead to study, because the brain needed to be engaged, and the hunger for that sort of engagement reached the point where it demanded some attention. I’ve done this my whole life – yanked myself out of my comfort zone against my better judgment and the pleas of my family, who know they have to put up with all the angst that the new “discomfort zone” will churn up in me.

This time is no different. I tutor a third-year module in a field that is new to me, and have to read like crazy before every tutorial. I am learning about theories I used to dismiss as esoteric without even knowing enough about them to make that dismissal in a logical and intelligent way. Comfort zone? I am so far out of it that I can’t find my way back. “Ask me questions if you don’t understand something” is the very kind offer I receive from teachers and classmates. What if I don’t even understand enough to know which questions to ask? As teacher and student, I am assailed with self doubt on an hourly basis. The panic blinds me sometimes, making words on the computer screen swim in front of my face until I step away, cry a few tears on my husband’s broad and much abused shoulders, hug my sons for extra strength and take a few deep breaths.

I thought I had it all. I thought this would just be something extra. It’s not. It is destroying the confidence I had, and shattering any sense of comfort in what I thought I knew. But this is also an essential part of the transformation process. I can’t say with any certainty that anything good is going to come out of this. But if there IS one thing I am learning, it is that uncertainty is the only constant.

If I might be allowed to link this very personal example back to the school setting, this uncertainty is out of sync with the system of high stakes assessment we have here in Singapore. High marks come from pre-packaged answers. Pre-packaged answers come from a false sense of certainty. Teaching becomes about transmitting that false certainty and learning becomes about induction into a mindset of acceptance. Acceptance leads to a belief that the outcome of learning is the skilled reproduction of pre-packaged answers. And so the cycle continues.

But here is the light that shines at the end of the tunnel: comfort zones are getting discarded, transformation is taking place, and this is happening every day. How can it not? As heavily scripted as classroom routines and curriculum demands are, teachers and students are real people with beliefs and dreams of their own. There is a quiet revolution that takes place in many classrooms on a daily basis. Schools are judged based on their examination results, but the outpouring of love and gratitude that you see students expressing for their teachers on Teachers’ Day comes from a different wellspring.

The source of the emotion cannot just be results, awards, performance indicators. I believe it is a recognition of the effort that goes into the transformative process, that leaves teachers and students raw and vulnerable, that is itself its own reward. If at all teachers are singled out in this transformation that is equally terrifying for all, it is because they are the ones who take on the responsibility for the process, hold themselves accountable for its success, and set the initial coordinates for its trajectory.

Happy Teachers’ Day – to my colleagues in the teaching profession, all the teachers I have ever had, and my students past and present. Uncertainty and transformation are not in themselves happy things, but anyone who engages in them deserves a chance to celebrate.

Dulce et decorum

A young valedictorian popped the ‘f’ word into her convocation speech at the Nanyang Technological University.  Trinetta Chong delivered an enthusiastic and exuberant speech to her cheering classmates, their parents, teachers and other guests at what is meant to be a solemn occasion. Opinion has been predictably divided, with some supporting the ecstatic punchline “We f-ing did it!” as a natural outpouring of youthful sentiment, and others criticizing the inappropriate interjection.

Our education system is based on high-stakes assessment which makes the transmission model of teaching much more time-efficient than any other more participatory and heterarchical model. Large class sizes make it difficult for teachers to conceive of and implement pedagogical innovations. We need foreign talent because the products of our own education system are apparently not creative or intelligent enough. We teach our children only how to pass examinations and then say that that is all they know how to do.

And then along comes a Trinetta Chong. Not exactly run-of-the-mill. She is, after all, valedictorian of a batch that represents the cream of the students in Singapore. Not many make it to university level. She may not have planned her little interjection very far in advance, but it is highly unlikely that it slipped out totally subconsciously. “Fuck” is a word that still has some shock value in largely conservative Singapore, which is why young people enjoy using it. The content of her speech was far from the usual stock phrases that such speeches are made of. Light and informal, she did her best to capture the experiences of her classmates. That this young lady felt confident enough to make the speech she did, and end it the way she did, is a sign of the times – whatever your opinion of the appropriateness of her speech. She reached out to her classmates, roused them and spoke in their voice. If their voice is not one that their elders approve of, it may not matter very much.

There are winds of change blowing through our little island nation. This is not a time when military force, political repression, educational stagnation and social rigidity are tools that can take any society forward. What army can fight an enemy from within? Events in Oslo and Mumbai have shown us that our best hope for peace lies in minds that are open to change, to expressions of diversity, and to the essential humanity that ultimately links us all.

So many things we teach our young people, whether by words or by example, turn out to be useless in helping them cope in a rapidly changing world. We do our best, of course, but ultimately we are staring blind into a future that grows more obscure by the minute. When once in a while they attempt to shine a light on their own path, just to make the journey a little brighter and to make their mark on it in a way that they think is memorable, perhaps the best we can do for them is to graciously accept their need to try.