Sunday, 26 July 2015

Designed for a purpose

On one day this week, spend 30 minutes on your way to work, at the gym or in a restaurant, taking care to observe, and note in a sketchpad, everything that you think has been designed for a purpose, without which the journey, gym or restaurant experience would be more difficult, or less pleasant. Has anything been designed for one purpose but harnessed for another?

Since I'm still on holiday, I considered the area I'm in at the moment. Vevey is located on Lac Leman in the southern part of Switzerland. It is home to Nestlé, where about 6,000 of its employees work in a beautiful building on the lake.
When we're here in the summer we often come down to the lake to picnic in the park and s to take out the paddle boats or swim in the lake, and in the evenings I notice the employees coming out of the office and decided to document the 'design' experience of their commute home or to have fun next to the lake after work.

Commuting options:

Straight outside the office complex their is a funicular which takes one up the hill into the Lavaux where one can hike or walk or bike for hours.  There is also a "freecycle" stand with bicycles that can be taken and used and returned at another spot. The trolley bus line passes by which links to the train station with 2 trains per hour with a commute of 1 hour to Geneva (the closest big airport), or 30 minutes to Lausanne.

A lovely pedestrian promenade along the lake which is extremely well maintained with lovely flowers.

A great design "nudge" was the display in the bus which said (translated from French) "90% of your fellow passengers have paid their fare".   In addition, during the Montreux Jazz festival (which has just finished), the bus has extended hours and provides free trips to Montreux to prevent the use of passenger cars with the resulting congestion and parking problems.

Vevey promenade Images: Nadine Bailey, Map - Vevey Tourist office

Recreation options:

It seems like many people leave work on time (around 5pm) and since it's still light until about 9.30pm they'll stop by the park and bathing areas and meet their partners and children there and have a picnic dinner or BBQ on small portable stands. The whole area transforms into a space of families after 5pm.  The best form of design "repurposing" are the fountains.  Unlike in most parts of the world where putting body parts into the decorative fountains is strictly prohibited, here it seems to be encouraged, and all 3 of the fountains are repurposed as bathing areas for the little ones for whom the lake would be too cold or too deep (see images 1-3 above).

When I walked past on Tuesday, the local library had brought along their van with a pop-up library with books for kids in a cute little trolley and chairs to curl up into - and of course a friendly librarian to help with your choice.

IMG_0623 IMG_0624
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Images: Nadine Bailey

The community also provides free wifi - albeit at not a very fast bandwidth.  


 The whole area is surrounded by beauty both in nature, but also in the man-made and maintained flowerbeds and the placement of sculpture - including the wonderful kinetic sculptures of Charles Morgan, who is a local inhabitant. In conclusion, this environment definitely reflects the words of Tim Brown in his TED talk in that it makes life easier, more enjoyable with an understanding of culture and context and where a focus on the systems (such as public transport) have a bigger impact on the society as a whole.

Mobile library on the shore

Our local library in Vevey has decided to do a pop-up library on the shores of lake Geneva!

Thursday, 23 July 2015

On the box, off the box

With respect to physical space, I have to think about the orchestra my son was playing in. They had a very very small podium to rehearse on - about 8mx4m and about 35-40 students including 1st, 2nd & 3rd violins, cellos, violas and 2 double basses. The podium had an upright piano - which isn't being used but can be moved but not off the podium.  Excepting the 3 celli, they are all standing for a 2 hour rehearsal except a 15 minute break and they're pretty squashed at that.
That got me interested in what the "norm" would be for orchestras. When I looked it up, 1.7-2m2 per person was recommended (this particularly has to do with health and safety guidelines - for noise / sound exposure - the whole article was quite an eye-opener for me).
The impact the limited space has includes the fact that it is very difficult for the conductor and the teachers aiding the orchestra to move between the ranks, and individual players - this is normal behaviour in amateur and student orchestras since the players are often too young to just take the instructions and write them in the music unaided, or even sometimes to understand exactly what is meant or asked for. This is even more the case in a situation like this where the musicians only come together for four days of rehearsals with the final concert on the fifth day. The students have limited freedom of movement which leads to more cramped posture which impacts the sound, and they're very close which can lead to a claustrophobic feeling in some.

Day 1 - squeezing 38 players on a podium
Viola players off the edge at the back
First Violins nearly on the edge
A lot of space and few observers
Day 2, piano moved not much improvement

The interesting part of the equation, is although the podium is small, the rehearsal space is very big, and there are relatively few observers.  I did make the suggestion to the conductor that there was no particular need for the rehearsals to take place on the podium, and we as observers would be happy to sit in one part of the room while they took over the rest - but he didn't seem open to the idea.  I guess it's that thing of not being able to think outside of the "box" or the functionality of the podium, which in this case is not very functional! Then on the third day I went to look at the rehearsal of another orchestra (there were three orchestras in total depending on ability). Voila! This conductor obviously was not constrained by the box! The first violins, cellos and double basses sprawled over the front edge, as did the conductor and the spectators were pushed back.  Why?  I can only imagine that with 6 cello players needing chairs they just HAD to move down, it was no longer an option to stay "in the box"

Conductor off the box!
Violins have plenty of space
Cellos spread out. Violas on the podium
no-one falling off the edge!

Funnily enough I did ask my son and the other viola players how they felt. They were a lot less indignant than the parents of the players. Is it because they are much younger and have less insight? Or is it because they are more happy to accept what someone in authority decides? Or do they get less upset and excited generally about this type of thing?  Anyone have suggestions? Do we care too much?

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Don't break my heart

I've just spent 5 days at the Suzuki European Convention, accompanying my cello playing daughter and viola playing son, which was a brilliant opportunity to observe some very hardworking and talented students and teachers in action. There are group classes, orchestra classes, concerts and a lot of playing and learning for the students, the teachers who are not teaching the class but observing classes and of course the parents.

Since my current course is INF536 "Designing spaces for learning" I was particularly interested in seeing how thinking about space and learning was incorporated into the lessons.  The idea of space is an interesting one. I do not have any power over changing a learning environment, since I am an observer and living in a hotel, however I can make some comments on what I have seen around me.

The first thing I have noticed is that we should not limit our considerations about space to physical space.  One of the interesting things is how the temporal space of timetabling is used.  Each group starts the morning with a "play in" - with all children at all levels attending. Then there are group classes depending on levels interspaced with orchestra (for the higher levels) and free time, during which students are free to wander into other orchestra rehearsals or to observe classes of their own or other instruments.  Building "space" into "time" can also have an impact on learning.

Within the structure of the class the teachers (who are all very skilled "master" teachers) build in playing and learning and working (Kuratko, Goldsby, & Hornsby, 2012) through alternating fun activities with advice on technique, dynamics and other musical issues, as well as the hard work of repetition until the desired effect is achieved.

One lesson that stood out was an advanced class that was working on the Haydn Cello concerto with Takao Mizushima.  First the class all played a section together. Then each student had to play it separately while he made comments and suggestions for improvement. All students play to a very high standard, but over the years various habits and issues with posture can creep in which may be expeditious in the beginning, but over time will compromise the quality of sound.  In this instance the learning space is the cello and the bow and in fact limited to a very small section of the cello, namely the area from where the finger board ends to the bridge as well as the C Bouts (see below).
The area of learning indicated by the red circle

An important aspect of sound relates to bowing. Ideally the bow should be at right angles to the string and should remain at right angles even as the cellist moves from string to string - which requires adjustment of the whole arm.  The video below explains this - in a rather boring fashion. (Note there are exceptions to this "rule" such as in baroque playing or when a specific sound needs to be created).


As the boy finishes playing, the teacher praises him for his interpretation and then says, "please don't break my heart" - he moves to his bag and gets a roll of sticky tape and fashions a heart out of the tape. He then places the tape on the tip of the C Bout (as illustrated in 3 below) and instructs the student to play the passage again.  At no point does he tell the student he's bowing incorrectly (as illustrated in 2 below) but the student in question and all the students around him immediately get the point of what was wrong.  He plays again, to animated "acting" by the teacher about his heart not being broken and the bowing is better.  The 'goal post' is then shifted (as illustrated in 4) and the bowing is even better.
An illustration of the lesson components
Enjoy the video - the quality is not very good as individuals are not focused on to protect their privacy.

Don't break my heart from Nadine Bailey on Vimeo.

The lessons I drew from this were the making of a design change - in this case introducing a constraint, display (playing with the constraint) and replay (moving the constraint) with the feedback to both the participant in question and all the learners around, as well as to the audience of a teaching "trick" that is effective.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Forced constraints

The third interesting observation was during a cello class today.  The teacher was trying to get the students to reign in their youthful exhuberance during a piece, and she deliberately introduced a constraint in order to get them to "feel" what she was trying to teach.  She got them all to turn the bow around so they were playing it the wrong way around and then to put their grip really close to the end and only play on that part.  They were then allowed a little more space and then to play normally again - mission accomplished.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

ePortfolio - a counterview

As part of my 'onboarding' I was watching this video and thinking about it as it relates to what I've been observing. 

I've been blogging for a long time and have used it to document my learning and understanding about a wide range of things, including my children's development, learning chinese, coming to grips with living in different cultures and most recently as I continue my tertiary education.

I think Dr. Barrett has some very valid points. BUT. It really all depends on who is initiating the creation of the portfolio.  If I look at my children for example. I have a child who is a serial obsessive and during an obsession will spend every waking moment learning everything he needs to know about his desired topic. This includes joining online chat groups, watching youtube videos, experimentation, talking to people, finding experts and grilling them.  However he's not a keen writer or documenter so this will never go beyond what we as a family observe and what teachers may notice and appreciate (or even document themselves). If I look back at his "compulsory" school learning portfolio I see little or no evidence of this learning. Does this mean it didn't happen? Or that it's not appreciated or meaningless? It's in fact one of the things that happen that allow me to have complete faith that regardless of school grades "he'll be ok".  Gee made the same point in his discussion on passionate affinity spaces.

A friend of mine recently confided that her son had decided to "drop out" of school just before his final year.  I know a couple of other highly intelligent very motivated high school students who are at risk. Their problem? Not that they're struggling with the subject matter but that they're struggling with the matter of subjects. Often they seem to be just the students who DO know what their calling is and everything else on offer (demand) is just so much noise.

Out of the school environment, with the assumption that individuals are studying a subject of interest and choice another issue seems to arise.  Fear / embarrassment. So many of my cohort - otherwise accomplished, intelligent and knowledgeable individuals struggle to the point of refusal to document their learning process. This belies the fact that the whole point is to document a process rather than an outcome. It's also a very flawed view. What parent would refuse to video their child learning to roll over, sit, crawl, stand up and finally walk but say "I'll wait until they walk because all the rest is just practise for that end goal"?  I think as adult learners we do everyone else coming after us a disservice by not showing our mistakes and errors in thinking and assumptions and unpolished learning - because if they can't see the steps the end-goal seems so much less attainable.

So I guess the thing is yes to ePortfolios but perhaps negotiation as to the content and topics.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Literacy is not enough: Why we need to teach information literacy

Some weeks are just like hitting the jackpot in terms of the news and media world shouting out "yes, this is necessary" - although of course they don't phrase it that way, and they certainly wouldn't invoke libraries, librarians and information literacy in their communal hand wringing. But they should.

The first was the retraction of an article in Science. (Retraction watch - who knew that it even existed? And now I know it's going to be on my reading list from time to time! They're on twitter @RetractionWatch so that makes it easier - makes me think of "This idea must die" which is also on my reading list after hearing this talk).

Jesse Singal has written an excellent article - "The Case of the Amazing Gay-Marriage Data" - it really is worth reading the whole thing because it covers so many aspects of the world of academic publishing, how it can go badly wrong, and just how unlikely it is that it is found out and even if it's found out, how hard it is to be a whistleblower.

The second, was about chocolate, and how unfortunately it doesn't help in weight loss and in fact we'd all just been had as it was a bunch of science writers playing with journalists and our gullibility and lack of information literacy.  Here is John Bohannon, the culprit (?) 'fessing up: "I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How" and Rachel Ehrenberg's indignant retort on behalf of journalists "Attempt to shame journalists with chocolate study is shameful"

Obviously (one hopes) this is going to have repercussions in tertiary education and in journalism. But what can we learn from it in the K-12 environment?

Well a good place to start would probably be to introduce students to the concept of cognitive bias (and to do it WAY before they're doing TOK at IB level).  Here is a great little article by George Dvorsky on the twelve most common cognitive biases. Let's get everyone thinking - a little assignment for my readers - post in the comments what cognitive biases were present in each case! Just as we teach our G4's about marketing tricks of the trade, I'm sure this can be presented in a way that is accessible and easy to understand and relate to their own lives. 

I'm also thinking about how we could expand the math curriculum to replace a fear of numbers and statistics with a healthy dose of scepticism and what questions to ask and how to dig behind the "headline" numbers. I sometimes wonder why it is that we don't challenge our students more about their own data.  Thinking back to the exhibition presentations of our Grade 5's - yes they did a great job, and it was amazing what they pulled together and the confidence with which they could present. But who was looking at the data? Each group had a mentor, who could (should?) challenge when things don't add up, when what they're saying and what they can back it up with doesn't match. When things just don't make common logical sense.   Now this is a tricky thing. A very tricky thing. We don't like confrontation, and we're not really good at it either.  Now look back at the first article.  If the co-author had applied a little common sense and said "hey, if you've sampled 100,000 people, how did you get the $1m budget? (simple multiplication / extrapolation)" 

... how about Brookman? Things don't make sense to him, and what's everyone saying? "don't rock the boat"  And our students. Yes we want to created a safe learning environment where mistakes can be made.  BUT and this is a big BUT, we also want to be able to call them on their mistakes, give them a chance to correct them and build the resilience of being able to cope appropriately with (constructive) criticism AND the idea that this research thing is serious, and can and will be up to challenge, AND make them think more critically about how they interpret and use other's research.  I was not a part of the whole process and I know our digital literacy coaches and librarian were involved, I'm wondering if the math coach was also involved or not?  And in a school without a math coach - who would be doing this?  How many teachers at any level feel comfortable and confident enough around numbers and the "math" side of research to assume this role?  I'd argue all should be, and if not that's some PD that needs to be done as a priority. Because in the future and in the now, numbers are being used all around us, and the big big thing is "big data" and if we don't know how to look at numbers and to ask the right kinds of questions we are going to be manipulated into making the wrong assumptions, making the wrong choices. This stuff is important. (See my favourite math blogger Mathbabe on this).

All of us are literate in the sense of reading and writing. And some of us are critical readers of literature, we can analyse and comment and dissect. And then we get into the realm of being information literate, on the basic level, the whole model thing of finding a question, finding information, interpreting and using it, reflecting etc.  And then only can we get to the point of understanding who is writing something and why and then really understanding the socio-cultural / political and meta-cognitive things that are going on behind information. And if we don't start with the basics and make sure it's embedded in everything we do, how will we ever get there?