Sunday, April 27, 2014

Computers harm science education

The foundation of science is the natural world. If you minimize a child's exposure to the natural world, you diminish her capacity to grasp science.

We are doing our best to do just that.

The digital world is not the natural world, not even close. An economy based on extraction and manufactured desires depends on children becoming disconnected from what we are, mammals dependent on the natural cycles of the physical world.

If you hope to teach a child anything at all about time, about months, about seasons, about years, she needs to spend her young days under the sun and the moon, not on an iPad playing with a simulator.

In 1978, Jerry Mander, an advertising executive with a background in economics, wrote Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television. While some of it is dated, Mander's extensive second argument, "the colonization of experience", extends to much of what we do with children today, both in and out of the classroom. He shows how this colonization supports our extractive economy, and the costs it entails on our sense of well-being.
"We have been removed from the environment within which we evolved and with which we are uniquely designed to interact. Now we interact and coevolve with only the grosser, more monolithic, human-made commercial forms which remain available within our new laboratory-space station. Because we live inside the new environment, we are not aware that any tradeoff has been made."

Fisher-Price Apptivity Seat, photo via

It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to love science, to be truly curious about the world, if you spend most of your awake hours in front of screens. (I am not talking about the Aspergerish behavior of some children who cling to science "facts" like security blankets, garnering adult praise for their trouble.)

It is also very difficult to teach children science if they spend their first decade of schooling in a system geared to game "standardized" tests they face every spring. Every time a district pares down recess, or fine arts, or physical education, or music, or school trips to a local natural landmark, a child's chances of grasping the natural world diminishes.

The eye of a horseshoe crab, from inside the shell.

I'm taking my kids to Sandy Hook in a few weeks to watch horseshoe crabs mate--one of their assignments will be to watch the tide rise. Despite living within 50 miles of the Atlantic, more than a handful of my students have never seen the ocean.

But all of them can dash off a five paragraph essay on nothing.

How can you even pretend to know the ocean if you have never stood at its edge?


Todd Miller said...

I'm with you. Watching the tide rise. One of my most remembered labs, as much for doing it as for content gained, is giving kids a milk carton full of ice, a beaker, a thermometer and a hot plate and having them turn it into steam. They rarely get the perfect graph but they do watch ice melt and water boil. And in our climate many of them have never seen a piece of solid water larger than an ice cube at the 7-11.

doyle said...

Dear Todd,

Experience matters. We forget that the little ones among us have less time to see things outside the human sphere than ever before....

Love the lab--that they rarely get the "perfect" graph is a great lesson in itself.

Ian H. said...

On the flip side, computers allow kids to see science that school budgets could never afford. Chris Hadfield's videos from the ISS are a prime example. I'm not arguing that we should ignore the natural world, but let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

doyle said...

Dear Ian,

If a video of ISS is shown to a child with little feel for the relations between matter and energy, with too little exposure to how the world works, then it becomes just another series of images, as true (or not) as any other images floating in the child's view that day.

That is the danger, and I think the danger is vastly underappreciated.

John Spencer said...

We have science experiments going on all the time in our house and rarely does it involve technology.

I see a place for certain areas of tech. I think it's important for kids to learn some programming and really learn how a computer works. I see a point in having them take out parts and fiddle with them. I think Arduino and Raspberry Pi are both impressive.

But . . .

I want to see kids observing their world, making sense out what they see, asking tons of questions even if the answers can't be measured.

The hardest part for me as a teacher (when I taught science) was getting the right materials to let them explore and not getting in the way of their inquiry too much. Lots of frustration and faulty assumptions and guesswork in the early stages of science. I never figured out the best way to organize all of it.

Graham Copeland said...

Thought I posted this earlier, but, hey, maybe not.

Super-cool picture of back-lit Saturn with Earth a single pixel (perhaps the coolest pic ever taken by Cassini) shown to my students: "meh".

Looking at a fuzzy monochrome view of Saturn through one of my telescopes and actually seeing its rings: "COOL!" "WOW!" "Is it real?"

doyle said...

Dear John,

We've been sharing this conversation for years now--and I've enjoyed the many vignettes you've shared about exploring the natural world with your kids.

The tech stuff matters, of course, but too few folks let their kids rip out the guts of anything anymore. My students are fascinated by the mechanics of the typewriter in our room.

Science can be a royal mess--that's both a joy and a challenge.

doyle said...

Dear Graham,


We'll be hosting a Saturn "starparty" in the next few weeks--great time to catch its light. Kids are amazed. I think just getting them outside and looking up is a great deal, but Saturn makes for a spectacular event.