Wicked Ideas

Choose Your Own Adventure

I teach English, or more to the point, I teach stories; so when I persuaded a few dozen students to join me at the  Big Data Congress recently, I am sure that more than a few of them were wondering why. To be honest, I didn’t know; at the time I was just looking to give them an opportunity to see something beyond the classroom for the day, and to meet people that see the world the way that they do. What they learned instead – what we all learned – is that big data and coding are all about stories.

Throughout the day, whether intentionally or not, everyone of the speakers referenced story-telling in some way. Whether it was American data-scientist Hilary Mason explaining the role of stories in interpreting mountains of meta-data, or young coder, Michael Go from Riverview, talking about how learning to code helped him to take control of his environment for fun and a profit, there was a common thread beyond data and technology. Their stories were about empowering young people, and changing the public narrative.

So much of our lives – so much of our young people’s lives – is defined by the public narrative we have created. Here in New Brunswick, it is often a story of people and a province fallen on hard times. A sad story, with lots of hardship and heart-break, that probably ends badly for everyone. It is a story in which the vast majority of the characters are passive, and seem powerless to do anything. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Interactive stories, the kind found in the choose-your-own-adventure books from my childhood, and in many videogames today, give us choices that can influence the outcome; they allow us to be active collaborators in the story that unfolds. But in our schools and our communities, many young people have grown up inside a story they feel helpless to change. They believe that they are powerless, and that the end of the story is predetermined. And sometimes, when it seems like we have no power, the most sensible thing to do is to leave. I know, because that’s exactly what did.

I grew up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a cluster of small cities, towns and villages, peppered with lakes and ski hills, nestled between Montreal and the American border. It is beautiful, and it broke my heart to leave, but after ten years as a teacher and school administrator in the shrinking English school system, and more than thirty years as part of the linguistic minority, I had begun to feel powerless in my own story.  I would like to be able to say that I found it within myself to change the narrative, but instead I packed up a van with all my worldly possessions, and followed my wife to New Brunswick.

Nearly eight years into my New Brunswick story, I have a better appreciation for where I come from and why I left, and a better understanding of what gives people the courage and strength to write their own wrongs (did I mention I teach English? Bad puns are part of the package). The Big Data Congress and the Brilliant Labs initiative are promoting technology and innovation, but more importantly they are challenging the way we tell our stories. Learning to make and to code is really about creating a culture of co-authorship, where everyone, young or old, has access to the tools they need to change their personal narrative, and by extension give them something that the story we sometimes share does not: hope, and the power to choose own adventure.

Bill Duncan

January 2018
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