Monday, May 27, 2013

The Who and the benefits of being incompetent.

I am a big fan of the Who, especially Pete Townshend.  Pete wielded his double cutaway Gibson SG like an executioner's axe.  He would jump up in the air and he had this windmill style with his strumming hand that added to the spectacle of his performance.   If that was not enough, he would smash his guitar at the end of the show. 

But like a lot of great innovations, his unique style of guitar playing came from some accidental circumstances combined with a lack of technical skill.  One of the reasons Pete started having such an outlandish, violent stage presence was because he felt he couldn't play the guitar that well.  To (over) compensate, he started swinging his arms and eventually his guitar around.  Once, he swung the guitar high on a stage with a low ceiling and smashed the top of his guitar clean off.  Pete was shocked to see what he'd done to his precious working tool, but meanwhile the audience was going crazy. 

The destruction perfectly matched the rebellious thread that ran through the actual music of the Who.  The Who gave the world an alternative to the pretty boy Beatles or the rough and sexy Rolling Stones.  For the Who, it was about the anger and frustration of being a youth in the 60s.  But, ironically, it never would have happened without a lack of competence and some happy accidents. 

Later, the Sex Pistols, the ultimate punk group, was formed on this basis.  Malcolm McLaren basically dragged four guys off the street who had limited or no musical experience, but who had the right anger and frustration level.  The Sex Pistols created a brash, primitive collision of sound that was a real kick in the face to the reigning genre of the day, disco. 

And then after the Sex Pistols was U2.  The guitarist, the Edge, says his sound comes from an original lack of technical proficiency.  Instead of playing scales, he used the time to figure out how to get the most from guitar effects the little electronic boxes in front of the amplifiier. 

Somewhat scarily, I think my teaching style parallels Pete's, the Sex Pistol's and the Edge's.  I've been blessed by a whole bunch of happy accidents (remember "serendipportunism"?).  And I have had to compensate from a lack of technical skill: I can't follow a lesson plan to save my life, my own or someone else's; I'm not a great oral communicator, and I get tongue-tied sometimes and confuse myself when I try to explain something; and there are some things that I just don't know about that others have great expertise in.  So like Pete, the way I compensate is: instead of following lesson plans to the letter, I am flexible and responsive to the flow of the classroom and my students; instead of being a good speaker, I try to be a good listener or I try to find different ways to get my meaning across or I try to give students opportunities to find out for themselves; and to compensate for not knowing, I try to find all sorts of things out or I make things up as I go along. 

Unlike the Who and the Sex Pistols though, I don't really have anything to be rebellious about (I am a pretty happy, lucky guy).  Though not a full on rebel, I do have a slight subversive streak. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Three-Wheeled Motorcycles and UDL: What is essential for some is beneficial to all.

I saw this ad on TV for this really cool 3-wheeled motorcycle.  As opposed to traditional 3-wheeled motorcycles, this one had the two wheels on the front.  It looked really sexy as the commercial showed the motorcycle zooming around and really hugging the curves.  It was a very slick commercial, and as I watched, I wondered, "Wow, that's cool.  Who is it meant for?"

And then I saw one on the street.  It was being driven by a guy who looked well into his 80s.  Yes, it still looked cool and it made him seem a little more hip, but it made me wonder what drew him to this particular bike.  That's when I looked a little closer. 

The old gentleman was not too tall and not very strong looking.  We were stopped at a light and I realized he didn't have to put his feet down to keep the bike in a resting position.  Actually, I'm not sure he could have reached the ground on a two-wheeled bike.  And there is no way he could have held the weight of a bike as he put down a kick stand, but three-wheeled motorcycles are always standing.  As he started to go (and not too quickly), I also realized that he did not have to think about balance in the same way he would on a two-wheeled motorcycle. 

That's when I realized that he wasn't really riding a motorcycle, he was riding a kick-ass, street legal mobility scooter capable of up to 200kph.  ("Clear the road, suckers, I'm going to Bingo!")   

Was this the target market the motorcycle company was aiming for?  Clearly not, based on their commercials.  But I love the fact that some of the unique features of the bike make riding accessible to a wider audience. 

At my school, for years we have been investigating Universal Design for Learning.  UDL looks to provide struggling students with multiple ways to receive their learning, multiple ways to express their learning, and multiple ways to engage students in learning.  Some of us have been looking at how technology can accomplish these ways.  Others have been looking at Self-Regulation techniques to help students be in a suitable frame of mind to be ready to learn.  And me, I've been looking at how the environment helps students to learn.  But all of us are looking for ways to make learning accessible for all students. 

My friend and UDL mentor, Anita Strang likens the concept of UDL to sidewalk ramps.  People who travel by wheelchair meet a challenge when they come to the end of a sidewalk and have to cross a street.  If the sidewalk or an entranceway has a square blunt edge or a step, there really isn't a safe way for a person in a wheelchair to access the street or doorway.  With ramps or rounded sidewalks, people in wheelchairs can travel safely across.  But ramps are also useful to moms with strollers, people with shopping carts, and delivery people carrying heavy loads on a hand truck.  What is essential to the wheelchair travellers is beneficial to all kids of other travellers.   

The 3-wheeled motorcycle is an interesting design, but it opens up motorcycling to a older demographic of riders.  Ramps are essential to people in wheelchairs, but also help others.  UDL (along with adaptive technology, differentiated instruction, classroom environments, self-regulation, etc.) helps struggling learners but really makes learning accessible to everyone.

UDL helps learners go Vroom!