Friday, October 5, 2007

Teaching Nature WITH Technology--A Spiritual / Ethical Imperative

Unplugged Schools [and universities!]

These are just a couple examples of thousands of innovative local nature habitat programs being developed by schools all over the country. (A number of other examples can be found in Richard Louv’s article in the March/April 2007 issue of this magazine.) As one reads about these programs, it becomes clear just how important it is that we help children get beyond the environment we have built to fit humans and experience the larger environment within which humans must learn to fit. Only nature can suffice for that, of course, but more specifically, the wild—that which has not been entirely tamed and domesticated by human intervention—is vital. By helping children understand the limitations of human power, the wild provides some inoculation against the day-to-day charm of a technological milieu that seduces us into believing that those limitations do not exist....

As much as they need direct contact with caring adults, children also need quiet places that give them a respite from the din of adult-generated electronic media constantly assaulting their eyes and ears. In past generations, playhouses, treehouses, forts, or even a sheet thrown over a card table served as places to escape adult intervention for a time. Children’s studies author Elizabeth Goodenough calls these places “secret spaces,” where children retreat for undirected fantasy play, security, and quiet contemplation. With ubiquitous media making these places harder to come by, enlightened schools are creating their own quiet (if not secret) spaces for their students. I have visited a preschool and kindergarten in West Des Moines, Iowa, that has a loft with an adult-unfriendly five-foot ceiling. Children go there to rest, play, or just withdraw for a while....

The imaginative powers of children being what they are, these quiet spaces don’t always have to be physical. In Goodenough’s book Secret Spaces of Childhood, Harvard professor John Stilgoe recalls putting the leaves of sweet fern in his math books when he was in junior high so he could take a whiff of it during school, which would transport him back to the gravel bank where he spent so much idle time in summer. Evidently, the concern for keeping students “on task” had not yet reached the point that it prevented his teacher from giving him some space for daydreaming. This and the kindergarten loft are just two ways that schools can, in remarkably simple ways, give children the opportunity to withdraw from the ceaseless noise of high-tech life and do the kinds of things that their childish nature calls to them to do.

IT SHOULD BE CLEAR BY NOW THAT ALL of the compensatory activities of unplugged schools have ideological implications. For example, our plugged-in society values the Internet for its capacity to overcome time and space—to allow us to “go anywhere at anytime.” Unplugged schools would recognize that this benefit has been accompanied by increased difficulty among children in feeling that they belong to any place at any time. According to educator R.W. Burniske, belonging is just what kids need to survive a media-saturated environment. “When you are drowning in a river of information,” he once wrote me, “the last thing you need to know is the temperature of the water. What you need is a rock to stand on.” One way to find that rock is through what has come to be called place-based education. By using the local community as a primary means of learning, place-based learning counteracts the alienation generated by too much of what Postman called “information from nowhere....”

The efforts to label and sort children while constantly seeking technical means to accelerate, enhance, and otherwise tinker with their intellectual, emotional, and physical development are acts of mechanistic abuse (there is really no other name for it) committed against children’s nature. There is no more critical task for schools than to counter this unfolding tragedy. Schools can make headway simply by patiently honoring and nurturing each child’s internally timed, naturally unfolding developmental growth, by abandoning anxious efforts to hurry children toward adulthood, and by giving these young souls time to heal from the wounds inflicted by a culture that shows no respect for childhood innocence. As Richard Louv and others have argued, nature is a particularly effective antidote for this condition. Eliminating the clock as the means of governing everything is another more modest but important move....

However it is undertaken, what is important to recognize is that compensating for the dominant view of children-as-mechanisms is, at its core, spiritual work. It acknowledges that some facet of a child’s inner life must remain sacred—off-limits to our machinations—to be viewed not as new territory for scientific investigation and technical manipulation but simply with awe and reverence and our own best, most human, expressions of support. To grant the dignity of that inner core is perhaps the most important gift unplugged schools can give children in the technological age. And, in turn, to foster within children those once universal but now nearly extinct childhood qualities of awe and reverence is spiritual education in its most elemental sense.

1 comment:

Benjamin Vogt said...

Dear Anonymous,
I am COMPLETELY on board with having untouched natural areas, with none of us going in and mucking it up. We absolutely need this--what's the point in saving animals if we don't also save habitat and migratory routes? I.e. stay out of their business. But I still thinks kids, in some way, need to understand and experience what wilderness is, since we pretty much have none left. This is essential to being human AND a contributing living organism on the planet, a participant in ecosystems.

I don't think we should be sending kids out into the woods on mandatory camping trips (as I did in prep school for 7 years straight), but I do think embarking in local "natural" venues already over colonized and lost is great--parks, for example, or completely human made stuff like arboretums.

It does seem unfair, and incorrect, that kids be taught only by and within technology. It wasn't like this in 1800, but even then we were still subduing the land, those were the inherent lessons. Quality interaction with ANY surrounding is needed over quantity, and this means special teachers in special schools with special lesson plans. This means less assembly line teaching.