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?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

"We've always done it this way..."

You should share my reliance on those old, old truths which shallow, drawing-room talk contemptuously dismisses as "commonplaces", though they have more marrow in them, and are quite as seldom wrought into the mental habits as any of the subtleties that pretend to novelty.
Marian Evans (George Eliot)
via Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind

We love the new, the shiny, the splashy, next big thing.

When we focus on the newest tech tool, we can let go of the harder questions. We can bask in the light of the new while quietly ignoring the mess we've left behind. We focus on the bright green foliage at the edge of the cesspool.

When we focus on the newest tech tool, we confuse the surges of adrenaline and dopamine we get from novelty with the warm satisfaction of working our way towards wisdom. The tool becomes the truth.

I love tools--I've used a drill, a mallet, a cross-cut saw, a measuring tape, a socket wrench, and a wheel barrow all within the last few hours to build a raised garden bed to grow vegetables that we plan to harvest with our hands.

The point is, literally, the fruit of our labors.

That anyone uses the "we've always done it this way" as a defense for a particular practice strikes the technophile crowd as galling, and on the face of it, I agree. The more interesting question would be why has it "always" been done this way? Does it work?

I am trying a raised bed for the first time this year, but I will not know if it is an improvement until I see the results in late summer. I've invested some time and money in the effort for something that I know works for many, but has never been tried on this particular patch of land here in my backyard.

I will still bury my beans one knuckle deep, as I have always done. I will still use jute twine to hold up the vines, as I have always done. I will still mix some compost and aged manure into the earth, as I have always done.

My goals have not changed--I want to eat fresh basil and sun-warmed tomatoes within an hour of harvest--and I use tried-and-true ways for obvious reasons.

The art of educating human larvae may have lost its way--these things happen when crowds wander around aimlessly without a consensus on the destination. The high tech crowd keep selling us marvelous GPS devices that do everything they promise to do, and we keep mindlessly buying them, hoping to reach our destination quicker.

Unless you know where you want to go, you're never going to get there.

I'm not as much anti-tool as I am pro-mindfulness.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On bulls and blossoms

The Story of Ferdinand

The cherry blossoms are a week late this year--they know better than I do when the bees will be around, so I do not begrudge their timing.

Several cherry trees line Liberty Street here in town, a road I've walked a few thousand times on my way to and from Bloomfield High School. A few have branches low enough for me to bury my nose into their blossoms, so I do, but not before I check for bees. The bees have work to do.

We are (mostly) visual creatures. We analyze light, look for patterns, capture it digitally so we can show others what we think we saw. We have cameras to compare our various abilities to capture light, to hold the world in a frame.

Me and my nose live in a different world, a world of curves not  angles, smudges not sharp borders, a world where time and distances dissolve into layers of fog swirling into each other.

Cameras capture the sensuous, pleasing the cortex, blending thought and analysis and the beauty of order; my nose triggers the sensual, flaring up the olfactory lobe, part of our more primitive brain, visceral, without language.

Branch Brook Park, April, 2010

If you have never slid your nose into an hours old cherry blossom, no words can describe wash of peppery sweetness that takes you to nowhere but here now. Noses are like that.

Yellow pollen sticks to my nose like fairy dust.  I wipe it away, feeling vaguely self-conscious, ignoring the strangers who pause to stare at this madman burying his nose in the flowers.  It takes me a moment to regain my bearings.

In a week the blossoms will be gone, and I will have nothing but a false memory left of what once was.


This cerebral, abstract culture of ours does not deal with noses well. Odors are just so hard to control, the memories they arouse so unpredictably deep, and the sense of smell is, well, too primitive for those of us who dwell in the abstract world of words, numbers, and big data.

We talk about stopping to smell the flowers, but we focus on the stopping, not the wave of sensuous, even sensual, deep aroma of flowers that give us reason to pause. What does it mean to stop and take a break, to get away from it all, when the all can be found in a moment spent on the edge of a city street, face buried in flowers.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Story of Ferdinand,  a bull who would rather spend his days buried in flowers than fighting. The book was banned in many countries.

Things as they are would, of course, fall apart if too many children figured out that what we want them to want is more about success of our economy than about them them. Ferdinand is a dangerous role model.

You can live your life working for the next big thing, dreaming of your next vacation, your next car, your next hazelnut macchiato, You can dwell on the moments you will (or not) eventually have, but the idea of anything worthwhile is still just that--an abstract thought, reduced by the limits of imagination, and ultimately unsatisfying.

If you continue to see the kids in front of you as potential professionals, as potential thieves, as potential laborers or soldiers or teachers, you cannot see the child in front of you now, on a dreary April morning, here, in a room defined by its sharp edges and word salad on the walls.

Kids know if you're present in the classroom.  Passionate teachers are effective not so much for their passion, but for their presence. You can fake passion--teachers are good actors--but you cannot fake presence.

If you need to fake it, you're not doing it right.