Thursday, September 29, 2016

Back to the Future

It’s Strategic Plan time again at our school. To kick it off, someone came to show a presentation that included images of the “cutting edge” classrooms of the future. What I saw was bad architecture, kids spread out privately engaged in their devices, not connected to each other, not looking with wide eyes at a living, breathing teacher telling a story or reciting a poem or singing a song or demonstrating a scientific principle or modeling the technique of a basketball move or yoga pose. I didn’t see kids on the buses with chickens looking out the window at breathtaking natural scenery or people working in the fields. Instead, they were on the virtual bus looking at the window at a Mars Space Station or locked inside some Virtual Reality machine.

I guess people’s vision of the future hasn’t changed much from the Jetson cartoons of my childhood. But it never looked very attractive to me, all those cold, smooth, slick machines and not a tree in sight. My futuristic vision is not that much different from my own childhood past, where most of my interactions took place in the park near my house or cozied up inside my house with a few analog machines, some toys, lots of books and things like rope to figure out a system to open the downstairs kitchen door from my upstairs bedroom.

We all agree our machines are here to stay—at least until the electricity runs out. Yet everything I know about the needs of the developing child—and I daresay all my years of teaching, parenting, grandparenting, reading and writing had helped me know quite a bit—affirms my intuition that engagement with the three-dimensional living breathing sensual world produces happy, healthy children who can grow to be happy, healthy and intelligent adults. Who may or may not end up working in the field of IT. But first, they need to play in dirt and plant seeds in dirt, swing from trees and hug trees and climb trees, lie on their backs and look up at the cloud shapes in the sky, hold and pet and stroke and play with animals, pick mint leaves and ripe tomatoes, play clapping games with other kids and dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving fee. In short, experience fully the unmediated world, the direct contact with things that have texture and smell and taste and touch.

From the body, the first media is then balls and pencils and paintbrushes and drumsticks and legos and such. Things that respond to the touch and eloquence of the hand. Things that require control and practice and craft. Hands that help build the brain. Hands that take things apart and put them back together again, hands that build structures, shape clay, coax sound from pianos, all of which require more skill, connection and engagement than pushing buttons.

And then there’s those abstract numbers and words stored on paper, books, blackboards, whiteboards. When you’re reading a great book, does it make a difference if it’s a Kindle or a thumbed-through paperback with a weight and heft and smell, one you can mark passages with in pencil and carry with you anywhere? Aesthetically, I believe it does. And in a well-lived aesthetic and artistic and sensual life, these little differences start to add up. But that’s a small battle to fight next to the Virtual Reality machine and the too-young addiction of children to constantly flashing and changing at button-pushes screened “realities.” I think this unthinking acceptance of more and more machines as our necessary future is so narrow and unimaginative and so ultimately damaging to the kind of education that gets born from these thoughts.

One of the slides I saw sent chills down my spine: “Knowing is obsolete.” Not sure what it meant, but it felt like the learning of and memorization of and thinking about actual facts has been trumped my mere sensation. (And given the deliberate disdain for facts in this election year, that verb is the correct one.)

And so I speak on behalf of direct experience of the natural world and disciplined familiarity with simple tools. An hour working in the garden has more to teach than the same hour on a virtual reality tour. A xylophone is a brilliant technology for children (and adults) that carries important and useful information. A living teacher holding the class enthralled telling an old fairy tale is of more value than the Artificial Intelligence version. And at the end of the matter, it’s not a question of quantity of information, but the sense of immersion in a world of wonder, of magic and mystery. Childhood is the time to store memories like these and when strategic planning comes, it’s back we go to go forward to the future.

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