Author Archives: brett

life_of_george

Life of George: LEGO + iPhone App = a weekend’s worth of geeky fun

This weekend I spent an undisclosed number of hours playing Life of George, LEGO’s foray into iPhone-enhanced gaming. The premise is simple: buy the boxed set of 144 coloured bricks, then download a free app that presents objects which you build out of bricks within the allotted time. Fast, accurate construction is rewarded with points that are calculated when you use the iPhone to capture an image of your work.

The game is pleasingly distracting – on the difficult setting it kept me engaged long enough to complete the twelve levels. The context is straightfroward – George is a a typical office worker (think Dilber but better travelled), who takes photos to chronicle his adventures. Each page of his photo album constitutes a level, and challenges you to construct ten LEGO objects from George’s photographs. Complete each level and unlock the next (or play two player, taking turns to build as quickly as you can).

Life of George demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to ‘close the loop’ with physical toys, games and equipment. Having the device set the tasks and assess the performance while the blocks provide the means of actual ‘play’ uses both parts of the system to their best advantage, creating a seamess hybrid real/virtual experience. Having said that, where the game falls down is in the broader ‘gameplay’ – the premise of building George’s photos is simple, but not particularly engaging. The gameplay does not actually advance George’s life at all – the player has no impact on the ‘story’. To make matters worse, after twelve levels the heroic adventurer is rewarded with a screen that simply says ‘more levels coming soon’. In the age of Donkey Kong that would have been acceptable, we expect a little more narrative resolution these days.

Arriving around the same time as Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, Life of George starts to show us how mainstream the ‘real virtuality’ of play will become – particularly when we leverage existing play platforms like LEGO and well established digital platforms like the iPhone. In the near future will see a lot more of this, specifically I think that we can soon expect…

  • Something for the kids. George is targetted at… well guys like George (which I am guessing is how LEGO understand their older geek audience). It’s 14+ not for difficulty but because seven years olds might not see the relevance of building a martini from the office party, or a copy of Munch’s Scream.
  • The Life of Citizen Cane. Even if the gameplay is limited, we should be able to be more immersed in a story. The Final Fantasy franchise has finely honed the craft of gluing very limited gameplay together with long, meaningful cut-scenes – surely LEGO can learn a little from that.
  • Making a real difference. The really exciting part will be when the play activity (building objects with bricks) actually integrates with the storyline in a meaningful way. You want to get over to the other side of the river? Biuld a bridge. You want to woo the beautiful maiden? Build a rose. As our actions become more meaningful within a narrative, and as that narrative becomes one that we feel we have a stake in… well, I know I’ll be rushing out to by the next installment.

The Difficulty with being a Generalist Dilettante

A while back, it suddenly occurred to me that it's been quite some time since I gave my CV a good thorough update. Not that I need to do so for any reason (relax guys, promise…), but it has becoming an increasingly confusing thing to try and do over the years. In some ways I envy people who have stayed with one role, one employer, or just one career – surely it makes one's existence so much easier to articulate.

For my own amusement more than anything, I sat down to try and write the most succinct resume I could. I'm sure I have forgotten things…

 

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY

Andersen Consulting (Accenture)

  • Consultant (Developer, Team Leader)
  • Senior Consultant (Business Analyst)

Harlequin Talent

  • Director (Partner)

APL Digital

  • Developer
  • Producer
  • Senior Producer
  • Executive Producer
  • Director of Special Projects

Beyond Interactive

  • Director of Strategy

Digital Strategist

  • Director (Owner)

OneDigital

  • Executive Producer
  • Director of Strategy
  • Creative Director

Naked Communications

  • Communications Director
  • Digital Evangelist
  • Brand Strategy Director
  • Director of Technology and Innovation

 

EDUCATION

  • Bachelor of Science (Computer Science & Psychology) – University of NSW
  • Master of Communication (Public Communication) – UTS
  • PhD (New Media & Cultural Studies) – University of NSW (discontinued)
  • Master of Teaching (Primary) – University of Sydney (in progress)

 

TEACHING

  • Tutor, UTS – Public Communications
  • Course Convenor, Center for Continuing Education – Email Marketing
  • Course Convenor, AdSchool – Digital Creative

 

OTHER ACTIVITIES

  • TEDxYouth@ Sydney Conference, Executive Producer
  • Primary Teachers' Network, Founding Committee Member

 

ACADEMIC PUBLICATIONS

  • 'Building an Electronic Repertoire of Contention', Social Movement Studies
  • 'On the Production of Creative Subjectivity', Proceedings of the 2nd international conference on Digital Interactive Media in Entertainment and Arts (DIMEA)
  • 'Digital Technologies of Connection :Modelling Individual and Societal Impact', Proceedings of the 2004 Annual Conference of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA)

 

I look forward to discovering what it looks like in another ten years!

Naked Director of Technology & Innovation (getting back to my /roots)

Well, it's been an awfully long time since I've posted here hasn't it?! And that's probably because I've been concentrating on other things – mostly brand strategy, studying teaching, or this little guy. And all that has been just swell. However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit there is still a geek firmly buried in my psyche who likes the opportunity to roll up his sleeves and get stuck into emerging tech.

It's that inner geek that was particularly excited to start transitioning into a new role here at Naked, as Director of Technology and Innovation. While we are still working through exactly what that looks like, I'm thrilled to be able to focus more energy on bringing innovation, emerging technology, and world-class geek-partners to Naked – and to letting the world know about the great work we are doing.

Watch this space!

The relevance of Freire’s ‘critical transitivity’ to primary education in Australia

Freire Reading Paolo Freire ('Education for Critical Consciousness') for the first time, I was keen to see what relevance a Brazilian political agitator would have on contemporary Australian children’s education. ‘Education as the Practice of Freedom’ is a piece that explains and documents Freire’s project to address poor adult literacy in Brazil pre- the 1964 military coup. It is both a fascinating background on the cultural challenges Brazil faced (and continues to face) as a nation, as well as a discussion of an innovative literacy program.

At the core of the literacy program was its politicisation. In a nation undergoing the upheavals of early democracy, where literacy was a prerequisite to vote, any literacy program would necessarily be political. Freire made his doubly so by situating contemporary culture and politics at the centre of his program and using engagement with these issues as a driver to build literacy skills. Not dissimilar to the advocates of ‘quality children’s literature’, he believed that literacy was best achieved when grounded in content that was of interest and importance to the learner – and what better than the politics of the nation.

In discussing the history of Brazil, Freire identifies the need for people to become engaged with their environment (he is speaking politically for the most part, but the lesson can be broader), rather than passive ‘objects’ on which the environment acts. As ‘subjects’ with agency whose consciousness is ‘transitive’ (), he identifies two distinct options. The first is ‘naïve transitivity’, where we engage with the world, but is simplistic ways, without argument and discussion, following established patterns unquestioningly. The second is ‘critical transitivity’, a state of consciousness which is “characterized by depth in the interpretation of problems; by the substitution of causal principles for magical explanations; by the testing of one’s ‘findings’ and by openness to revision; by the attempt to avoid distortion when perceiving problems and to avoid preconceived notions when analysing them; by refusing to transfer responsibility; by rejecting passive positions; by soundness of argumentation; by the practice of dialogue rather than polemics; by receptivity to the new for reasons beyond mere novelty and by good sense not to reject the old just because it is old” (p.14)

What parent, teacher, or concerned citizen could argue against critical transitivity as a meaningful outcome for primary education – both as a civics objective, and far beyond. A way of engaging that “is characteristic of authentically democratic regimes and corresponds to highly permeable, interrogative, restless and dialogic forms of life” (p. 14).

Freire strived to create “a literacy program which would be an introduction to the democratization of culture, a program with men (sic) as its Subjects rather than as patient recipients, a program which itself would be an act of creation, capable of releasing other creative acts, one in which students would develop the impatience and vivacity which characterize search and invention.” (p. 39) Well, I have to say, if it sounded suitable for illiterate Brazilian farm workers in the 1950s, it sound equally relevant for early primary to me! “Acquiring language does not involve memorizing sentences, words, or syllables – lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe – but rather an attitude of creation and recreation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context.” (p. 43)

Obviously, the challenge facing Freire was dramatically different from that facing a primary school teacher in Australia today. For one thing, working with adults who have developed oral literacy over many years  is not the same as primary students who are still building oral skills. Additionally, the highly phonetic nature of Portugese made it a more straightforward educational challenge. Having said that, his technique of contextualising literacy activity on a broader cultural context, and operating in facilitated ‘culture circles’ (abandoning the idea of ‘schools’ as too traditionally passive) offer valuable inspiration. Also worth considering is his comment on the difficulty of finding and preparing people who would deliver his culturally rich and empowering curriculum. “Teaching the purely technical aspects of the procedure is not difficult; the difficulty lies rather in the creation of a new attitude – that of dialogue, so absent in our own education and upbringing.” (p. 45) Suddenly Brazil doesn’t seem so far away after all.

 

Kids who play in the bush have greater environmental awareness (duh)

"Our study indicates that participating in wild nature activities before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood," says environmental psychologist Nancy Wells of Cornell University as the result of a 2000 subject research effort.

Not like it's surprising, but nice to have it empirically supported – get young'uns out into the bush and they see the big picture later on. Importantly, the activities that achieve this outcome are not mandated, organised things (like Scouts), but more 'free-play' in nature. Read more… 

US Education Adviser Advocates About-face on Standardised Testing

I thought i'd already written about this, but apparently not. Recently, a visiting US education adviser (Professor Linda Darling-Hammond) spoke about how damaging the testing approach currently pursued by Australia has been for the US.

"The US is taking a U-turn away from test-based accountability,'' said Professor Darling-Hammond. ''We hope not to meet Australia heading in the other direction in seeking policies we have sought to move away from."

The SMH article is worth a look, as well as a supporting opinion piece by the SMH education editor, Anna Patty.

Why English is deep and defective, and what Mum and Dad can do about it

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the process of learning to read (and, to a lesser degree, write). Literacy is such a fundamental skill in society, and it is one that seems to occur right on the boundary that marks the beginning of schooling. It is expected that children will generally arrive at school able to speak conversational English. It is expected that children will generally not be able to do arithmetic. But the degree of reading competence is acknowledged to vary widely, providing a challenge to Kindergarten teachers supporting a class of children whose literacy varies from a degree of reading competence to almost no engagement with the written word.

Acknowledging then, that the home can (and perhaps should) play a key role in developing literacy skills, it seems reasonable to ask how. The most likely place for this to develop will be in shared encounters with texts – from story books to road signs. Understanding the first stages of literacy development should give us a guide as to;

  • what kind of text will be most suitable to provide context
  • what kind of shared experiences will support this process

Understanding how we learn to read most likely requires that we have an understanding of how we read. This is what I have been fascinated with lately. Far from being a clear cut, well established fact, there seems to be ongoing debate and ambiguity about the cognitive processes that underly reading. This debate has influenced (and no doubt been influenced by) the 'war' between two approached to early literacy education – 'phonics' and 'whole language' teaching. While many educators now acknowledge the merit of both approaches, and suggest that the 'war' is more of a media beat-up and policy football, it is still intriguing to look at how they might relate to underlying literacy processes.

The most intuitive theory of reading is a phonetic one. It goes something like this… We learn to speak before we learn to read. When we learn to read it is about linking written words made up of letters to spoken words we have already learned, putting them together and making sentences from which we gain meaning. This is a 'bottom up' approach, beginning with the recognition of letters and the sounds that they make. Based on this line of thinking, we need to start by teaching kids to recognise the letters of the alphabet. They they need to know the sounds they generally make. Then they learn how they make sounds together (both in simplistic terms and more complex instances like blends). With that knowledge they can then see a word like 'cat', and 'sound it out' to discover what the word is. Mentally, the process becomes one of visual recognition of letters, transaltion into phonetics, building words which we 'listen to' in our heads, then the same process as oral language extracts meaning.

If we accept this as the underlying process, the process for building literacy skills becomes clear. What parents can initially focus on is letter-based skills – the recognition of letters and linking to phonetics. This results on lots of single-leter activity, books like 'Animalia', letter-based rhymes, and the fact that Sesame Street is bought to you today by the letter 'M'. As these skills solidify, we introduce simple books with lots of phonetically correct text and encourage kids to work through the text phonetically, 'sounding it out' being the core building block in becoming literate.

But here's the rub. Maybe it doesn't work quite like that. The big question is this: Do we really 'sound things out in our head' in order to translate them from text objects into meaning. Introspectively, it often feels like we do. But it often also feels like we don't. And it definitely feels like one of those cases where our introspection may well be unreliable. While these are all 'exception cases', here's a couple of things to think about…

  • Read these two phrases… 'the sun's rays meet' and 'the sons raise meat'. You knew they meant very different things. But if you were gaining meaning by listening to the sounds in your head, the sounds are exactly the same. How did the meaning get extracted through phonetics?
  • Read this sentence… 'The bandage was wound around the wound.' Let's assume you came to understand that by listening to it sounded out in your head. Note that each 'wound' sounds different. But you only know how they sound *after* you know the meaning of the sentence as a whole. If you are sounding out the words in order to gain the meaning, how did you know how to pronounce them?
  • How do profoundly deaf children learn to read, without ever hearing what a letter or word sounds like?
  • In Mandarin, characters relate to whole words or word-parts – they usually don't have any phonetic cues. Without understanding what the characters mean, it is impossible to 'sound out' most Mandarin. How does one learn to read Mandarin?

The alternative theory about reading (often referred to as 'lexical') is that we directly recognise language based on visual cues, and generate meaning from it without translating it into sounds. This is extremely counter-intuitive (to me at least), as oral reading is so ingrained in how we do things, and how we come to reading – as conversationally competent individuals.

This theory relates to the 'whole language' approach to early literacy. In this model, there is less (if any) focus on teaching letters and sounds. Instead, learning to read takes place within the context of reading texts. Simple texts are repeatedly read 'with' the child. In the beginning, the adult reads 'to' the child, to establish familiarity with the text. Over time, the child takes over the role as reader. Initially this will be done by fabricating an oral story that follows the narrative of the story (possibly including rembered key phrases). The adult supports this, providing prompts that link the oral version back to the text. These prompts include following the text with a finger as the story is told, as well as acknowledging or correcting key words. The child comes to realise that the written text 'contains' the story, and works toward what they realise is 'reading'. Gradually, the oral version comes closer to the written version. This begins when short words are recognised, then extends as they enlarge their 'sight-read' vocabulary, and grasp that certain letters or word-parts are linked to certain words. Feedback will focus no on 'what do you think that word might sound like', and more on 'look at the rest of the sentence and the picture, what words do you think might make sense there'.

While this was initially quite a bizarre idea, it strongly resonates with my understanding of how neural networks learn, which is in turn based on the functional biology of the brain. Arguable it is also much closer to how we originally learn to speak – gradually plucking out sounds and words from a 'soup' of linguistic noise we are constantly embedded in.

Following this approach, we come to a very different set of texts and processes for parents supporting early literacy. First, there is a much larger time commitment required to provide a level of literacy support that compares to the oral support provided as children learn to speak. Second, texts need to be both engaging enough to support many, many re-readings. Third, the most successful texts will be very simple, with high levels of word repetition, short words, and ideally words that have clear orthographic. Conversely, less attention will have to be paid to whether words are phonetic or exceptional. Finally, reading with kids becomes a much more complex task of providing constant feedback to gradually extend the capabilities of the child.

The way the written elements of a language relate to the language is called its 'orthography'. If English had a perfectly clear relationship between letter and sounds, we woudl say it has a 'phonemic orthography' – like Turkish, for instance. It is very easy to 'sight read' Turkish, after a little practice you could read a Turkish text aloud, yet have no understanding of the words you were reading.

Conversely, English has a 'defective orthography' – this is also referred to as a 'deep orthography. We have words that look the same but sound (and mean) different things. We have words that looks different (but sound the same, and on rare occasions even mean the same). For this reason alone, phonics and 'sounding out' does not provide the perfect answer. If we were teaching Turkish, perhaps it would. If we were teaching Mandarin, it would be completely useless. Exactly how much value it provides is a difficult question.

Having finally gotten my head around these two theories, I realised that they each suggested a fundamentally different set of underlying cognitive processes. Surely, this must be a field of interest, particularly given the latest technology (fMRI etc.). As it turns out, there seems to have been quite a bit of study in the area, focusing on the 'phonetic' vs. the 'lexical' cognitive 'path' for reading. Two points on this;

  • One of the perspectives that has been gaining support (but not uncontested by any means) is the 'dual route' theory, which posits that there are two 'parallel' cognitive paths that support reading – one phonetic, one lexical. The experience of reading is a messy, hybrid consequence of the two – which I have to admit, sounds a lot like the way our brains seem to work
  • Unfortunately, all the research I have been able to find so far focuses on getting subjects to read individual words – often aloud – and measuring time to do so. In particular, words may be 'pseudowords' or 'exceptions'. Pseudowords are sequences of letters with no semantic meaning, so any 'reading' of them leans heavily on phonetic cues. Conversely, excetions are words that are not pronounced phonetically, meaning that some non-phonetic activity must be at play. The catch is that these experiments isolate an individual word and create an experience of 'reading' that is completely de-contextualised.

So, it seems the jury is still out, and the process may be complex and multi-facetted. As parents we are anxious to provide suitable textual environments for kids, and to give them the scaffolding that they need as they start to engage with these texts. Understanding the nature of the skills they are building is an important factor in shaping that enviornment and that scaffolding – so I for one will be watching this space with interest.

Another conisderation is that this discussion has focussed on reading, not writing. There seems to be evidence that we are much more phonetic when we write – that we probably do 'speak' the things we write before we write them. Again, there would then need to be complexity to accommodate exceptional spelling – we need to over-ride our phonetic writing for words that we learn are spelled in certain ways. If we accept that most writing is first 'mental speech', it raises interesting questions about generating text that is not spoken – do we modify our mental speech for different contexts, or do we generate meaning then 'rephrase it' based on the context in which we are writing?. There is also the idea of teaching writing before reading (I believe Montessori does this) – how does that fit with the different threories? But perhaps those are questions for another post…

 

TED Talk – John Hunter on the World Peace Game

A wonderful talk by John Hunter, a teacher in the US who described his use of an in-class game with 4th Graders (along with lots of other commentary about progressive teaching)

Describing the 'World Peace Game' he uses in his 4th Grade class, he says "I throw them into this complex matrix, and they trust me because we have a deep, rich relationship together." Sounds like my kind of guy.

 

 

"I walked in, and I sat down and had an interview. And I guess they were hard up for teachers, because the supervisor, her name was Anna Aro, said I had the job teaching gifted children. And I was so shocked, so stunned, I got up and said, "Well, thank you, but what do I do?" Gifted education hadn't really taken hold too much. There weren't really many materials or things to use. And I said, "What do I do?" And her answer shocked me. It stunned me. Her answer set the template for the entire career I was to have after that. She said, "What do you want to do?" And that question cleared the space. There was no program directive, no manual to follow, no standards in gifted education in that way. And she cleared such a space, that I endeavored from then on to clear a space for my students, an empty space, whereby they could create and make meaning out of their own understanding. …

I was creating a lesson for students on Africa. We put all the problems of the world there, and I thought, let's let them solve it. I didn't want to lecture or have just book reading. I wanted to have them be immersed and learn the feeling of learning through their bodies."

waiting_for_superman

Dubious depiction of ‘teaching’ in ‘Waiting for Superman’

I really wanted to like Waiting for Superman. Here was a movie about the need for revolutionary change in education – from the guy that brought us An Inconvenient Truth – what’s not to like? To tell the truth I still haven’t finished watching it. I’m sure there is much merit in it – perhaps more on that in another post.

For now, I could not resist posting this still from an animated sequence. The purpose of the sequence is not the issue here (it describes how bureaucracy limits teachers ability to teach). What absolutely stunned me was the depiction of ‘teaching’. As you can see from the still, the students are all nicely sitting working at their desks. The teacher walks from one to the next, opening up their skulls and pouring knowledge in. Yes. Seriously. WTF.