I’ve seen the future—and it made me nauseous

Twice per year my school hosts an in-service for the whole school. Students stay home, we gather as faculty and staff for a plenary session in which our president offers insights about school operations, the educational landscape, or other brain pickings. We then turn to either a specific topic of concern (a societal trend that bears consideration), a divisional need (an upcoming programmatic initiative), or a dealer’s choice selection of sessions aimed at growing the professional practice of educators and support staff.

The in-service of February 2022 was an instance of the latter. An upper school faculty member hosted a session on the use of virtual reality. Stephen is an English teacher and technologist. Rooted in his studies of Victorian literature, Stephen was also an inveterate gamer and techie. So, when the school decided to seed-fund a VR lab, he and a few colleagues acquired equipment, built PCs to spec, and installed an eight-station VR lab using the Oculus rift headsets.

Stephen started by outlining best practices in using VR in the classroom.

Then, after a brief tutorial, Stephen let us strap in and explore what VR has to offer. I started with Google Earth VR. I put on my headset, and found myself looking down-valley in what I immediately recognized was Yosemite National Park. Exhibiting all the dexterity of a newborn giraffe, I floated above and around Yosemite, replaying in virtual space my hikes to Nevada Falls and Glacier Point. I paid a virtual visit to The Ahwahnee. I even flew at alarming speed out of Yosemite Valley, following the Merced River to the charming hotel that I called home for a week in 2016. The environment was fully build-out.

I was enthralled. Remembering that I was getting paid to do this, I quickly put on my Spanish teacher hat and started exploring areas for the purposes of curriculum development. I navigated to Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca, only to find out that they aren’t nearly as detailed as the parking lot of the Cedar Lodge in El Portal, CA…disappointing.

However, there is certainly enough there to get kids started experiencing what major Mexican cities have to offer in terms of history and culture. A flick of my wrist and a tug on the joystick allowed me to zoom out of Central America and fly over to Cusco, Peru, which much to my delight was recreated in impressive detail.

In the main plaza, I got my bearings at El Hotel Presidente where I stayed in 2006. I swung around the square to the town’s cathedral and the adjoining Triunfo Chapel.* I tried to “walk” down Calle Laredo to inspect a wall that featured Inca foundations, precise, artistic in its geometry and engineering, that was “repaired” by Spanish colonizers with laughable ineptitude. Alas, the pedestrian road was not yet added to Google Earth’s blueprint…someday.

*Forgive the indulgence, but I have to tell you about the Triunfo Chapel. Most every major town in Latin America has a cathedral followed by secondary and tertiary churches, parishes, chapels, etc. El Triunfo is, in my thinking, one of the most significant places to visit in Latin America. 

In 1532, Francisco Pizarro brought his men down the Pacific coast of South America, a continuation of Nuñez de Balboa’s Panama expedition. In October of 1532, Pizarro and his 150 cavaliers made contact with the Inca civilization and their god king Atahualpa. One fateful day in the town of Cajamarca, the Spanish and the Inca decided to make formal introductions. Spanish troops had billeted in the buildings surrounding the main plaza of Cajamarca, effectively surrounding the plaza on three sides. When Atahualpa’s entourage entered the plaza, the friar assigned to accompany Pizarro’s expedition, a man named Vicente Valverde, raised a large cross over his head. This signaled to the Spanish soldiers the moment of attack. Swords and arquebuses poured out of the shadows, overpowered the Inca warriors, knocked Atahualpa off his litter, and effectively took control of the Inca Empire within a half hour.

In El Triunfo, much as in many Catholic churches of the time, there is a large altar. This altar is bedecked in gold plundered from the Inca territories. High atop the altar is a glass enclosure. Inside the enclosure is the Cross of Valverde. The item whose use instantiated one of the great atrocities of the last millennium sits atop that altar. When you visit, if you know the history, the place hits you with the force of history and human suffering. It really is quite an experience. 

At this point in my dalliance with Google Earth VR, I started to feel a bit queasy. I had spent 45 minutes in the virtual world. The experience is immersive, it grabs hold of your senses and doesn’t let you go until you force yourself to exit. Truthfully, I didn’t want to quit. I wanted to see more, experience more. But my body wouldn’t let me.

For the remainder of the day, I had to take short breaks for a drink of water. At times I had to sit down. This feeling stayed with me until the end of the workday…another three to four hours. My colleagues in the workshop reported the same feeling. Some had it worse than I. I think that there’s something to the nausea. I had forced my brain to do something it is not equipped to do, and it let me know that by trying to “right the ship.”

Fast forward to a few years from now.

I CANNOT WAIT! I know that the virtual world will continue to be built. Someday, hopefully soon, I want to enter El Triunfo with my students to see that ghastly cross hanging above the baroque carpentry of the altar, and to tell them the story of the siege of Cajamarca. I want them to contemplate that sometimes the world changes with the flick of a trigger, the raising of a cross, or a chance encounter between two people. I want them to experience that liminal moment of history, where what was is no longer, and what will be will is yet unknown.

I want to walk down Calle Laredo, and show my students Inca craftsmanship. But even more than what I want to show them, I am most excited about the interactions they will be able to have in this thing we will likely call the metaverse.

SOMEDAY will I be able to lead my students on a tour of Cusco? Will we be able to inhabit the same space virtually, where our likeness can see the likeness of one another, our avatars co-mingling? Will I be able to arrange meet-ups with Peruvian tour guides, historians, descendants of history? Witnesses to history? And will my students be able to ask them questions, interact with them in real-time?

SOMEDAY will I be able to bring my students, not to the Cusco of 2022, but Cusco as it appeared in 1532? Will historians and graphic designers partner with platforms such as Google Earth VR to simulate erstwhile environments? Will I be able to meet a historian’s rendering of Pizarro, Atahualpa, Valverde? Will a whole industry of virtual actors and recreationists be on hand to interact with my students?

Rather than a prepackaged AR tour guide, will VR someday allow me to interact in real-time with local experts?

SOMEDAY will VR incorporate a sense of smell or touch? After all, sight is just the product of neurons doing their thing. And so are touch and smell.

I’m excited about the possibilities of VR. Next time I put on that headset, I will come equipped with some of these questions. I’ll also bring some Dramamine.

Science, but not science class

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

Jules Verne

Science class, or any other class, is made up of mistakes that carry a discounted grade and perhaps a discounted sense of self.

The education we sell, the one we wish for for our kids and the one we seek for ourselves, is best achieved by those that can tune out the bell ringing, point deducting, grade norming, and finger pointing.

In order to thrive in the “fail up” sales pitch of modern school culture, you must first have been imbued with high self-esteem, been born to the parents that get it, and been assigned to the teachers that don’t use grades as weapons.

In other words, you have to have won the lottery.

What if work were assessed using rubrics rather than grades? What if your report card were a digest of the type of work you tend to deliver, rather than a derivative numerical abstraction of the same? What if your final mark, if such a thing were necessary, were a measure of your improvement over time, rather than the mean of your performances over time?

What if your work, both the successes and the mistakes, were seen as the thing that leads you little by little to the truth?

Not evenly distributed

The future is already here,
it’s just not evenly distributed.

Sci-fi writer William Gibson

This undated photo shows electric vehicles being plugged into what we today would refer to as charging stations. Early in the 20th century auto makers dabbled with electric vehicles. They repeatedly came back to the enterprise, most notably with the Saturn EV, profiled in “Who killed the Electric Car.” In every instance, the future was there for all to see. It just wasn’t evenly distributed.

Any time a good idea dies in its infancy, we can look to two reasons: technology and mindset. The batteries were laughably short-lived and the network of charging infrastructure to make long-distance travel possible was non-existent. And yet, as recently as a few years ago, the situation was no different. Battery technology (including but not limited to longevity, size, weight and cost) kept the major manufacturers from jumping into the EV space, and since ICE vehicles were still selling, with pickups and SUVs being the most lucrative categories, Ford and GM stayed where the money was.

Then Tesla. And Fisker. And Rivian. Lordstown. Lucid. Et cetera. The small outfits that tolerated the the lack of profitability in order to realize the dream of sustainable EV production themselves created the technology and mindset that led to sustainable EV production. (Let’s ignore momentarily that profitability is a key component of sustainability.

There were missteps along the way. In their investor presentations, the Nikola Corporation famously rolled a semi down a hill in order to simulate what it would look like if their long-haul EV tractor had worked. Then CEO Trevor Milton was swiftly mocked and relieved of his duties, and both Ford and GM withdrew their interest and investment capital. Notwithstanding the technology that already existed, if Tesla, Fisker and others had not sufficiently changed consumer and investor mindset, would Nikola’s gag have put EVs back on the shelf for another generation?

Electric vehicles are no longer the future. They are the present. The name of the game now is adoption rate. As we look to the future, what are the trends that reflect an unevenly distributed future? Hybrid workplace, augmented and virtual reality, Internet of Things, decentralized finance. These are just a few of the trends that have made headway in recent years, most of which gained momentum (or at least mindshare) during the 2020 lockdown. Which glimpse of the future will you seize on, invest in, adopt into your professional practice?

Sometimes the future stares us in the face and we don’t know what we’re looking at. These police officers didn’t know what they were looking at. They saw an affront to law and order. They were actually looking at the future 16-term congressman from the state of Georgia, John Lewis. Future on the right, the past on the left—unevenly distributed.

If I had had the opportunity to meet Rep. John Lewis before his passing, I would have thanked him for bringing the future to us a little sooner than the country expected. He paid dearly for it.

What social trends do we see going on around us? What is as it should be and what is in dire need of change? Is the thing you see that makes you uncomfortable or makes you angry wrong, or is it the first glimpse of a future you have an opportunity to be a part of?

If you spend more than five minutes in the room with a self-proclaimed “educational innovator,” they will point out that the classroom of 2021 looks very much the same as it did in 1921. It’s one of our favorite zingers.

COVID-19 forces the world to adopt remote learning, and we learned two things from it: 1) It sucks and 2) It holds promise.

More than anything, we learned that regardless of where we are in our technology and our mindset, learning is nothing if not a deeply social enterprise. We NEED to connect with the people we learn from and learn with. And yet, as any introvert can tell you, not EVERYTHING needs to be done in groups of three framed around a “do now” and an “exit ticket.”

So, as schools reopen in the fall, or as those that have been open loosen restrictions, what should endure from our flirtation with virtual school? What does the future look like, its full distribution we’ve only begun to glimpse?

An English teacher colleague of mine has recently rekindled his love of teaching writing. He is far from stagnant in his practice, but neither does he chase every pedagogical whim for the sake of being “the innovative teacher.” He swings at pitches that he know will drive in runs.

When our school went virtual in the spring of 2020, he was forced to conduct writing consultations with students via a screen-shared Zoom call. This intimate setting allowed deep conversation, thoughtful inquiry and self-assessment, and frank conversations about one’s writing. Suffice it to say, this practice will endure the reopening of schools.

A math colleague began the practice of “breakout rooms of one.” She put her students alone in a breakout room during moments of reflection and assigned them a conversation with themselves. They had to speak out loud and they had to participate in both sides of the conversation. Although it took practice, students responded positively to the exercise. In particular, they like holding the responsibility of both formulating the question and finding the answer, of providing both the point and the counterpoint to a problem.

Which brings us to now. Nearly out of the pandemic, we probably spend more time looking to a more normalized future than thinking about our constrained past. Which of those constraints are worth holding on to? What should live on in your teaching practice? In the life of your school? What’s worth distributing now?

Reality is out of reach

There’s a Chinese proverb in which several blind men are summoned to court to answer the question, “What is an elephant?” As each man grabs a hold of one part of the elephant, the men in turn make their estimations:

“An elephant is a round pot.”

“An elephant is a thick tube.”

“An elephant is a large leaf.”

After some time the men begin arguing with one another about the nature of an elephant. Each of them is right, but only partially right. They only have access to one perspective of what is a very objective reality.

We can all agree that there is a thing called objective reality. In so far as our coaching practice is concerned, we have to acknowledge that we only see the portion of reality that we’re privy to. And that lot only represents a portion of the portion that our coachee/client/colleague is privy to. It’s a portion of a portion of reality.

The only remedy for this condition is curiosity. To stay curious in our coaching response keeps questions flowing, keeps options open, keeps the blind man running his hands down the elephant hide, searching for more information about the true form of the thing under examination.

Making Poetry and Politics

Right around the end of each school year I piece together a reading list for the summer, then I go to my school and public libraries and start clearing the shelves. COVID forced me to amass a summer reading list out of the books on my shelf at home. As a result, I managed to read several books that I have owned for months or decades. Some were better left on the shelf, but some have been a delight.

Even though schools and libraries are now open, I’m continuing the trend and recently picked up “The Buried Mirror” by Carlos Fuentes. Part history book, part Latin American polemic, I first read the book in its native Spanish (“El espejo enterrado”) in 1998. Some time later I bought the English version, put it on a shelf, and never looked at it again. Until now.

Fuentes opens the book with reflections on the relationship between Spain and the New World. Above all else, he characterizes the relationship as “a debate with ourselves.” In the process he evokes a W.B. Yeats quote:

And if out of our arguments with others we make politics, advised W.B. Yeats, out of our arguments with ourselves we make poetry.

Fuentes, p. 15

The original Yeats quotes is as follows:

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

Let’s not let slip the opportunity to quarrel with ourselves. Let’s, in every occasion possible, make poetry.