Longer post than usual here, but these ideas are critical for educators and parents to think about and act on. Complex issues, but also important assumptions that should be recognized and understood in context.

Lowell Monke’s thoughtful article “Charlotte’s Webpage: Why Children Shouldn’t Have the World at Their Fingertips” is a marvelous read and a refreshing breath of levelheaded thinking amidst current hoopla over 1:1 learning initiatives, $100 laptops, WikiPedia, Google Print, and many other issues I address in my blog regularly. This line of thinking is not new to me– remember I am an advocate for Luddite Literacy— but it is not something I engage in often enough. Thanks to Bill Casebeer for referring me to this piece.

Kids need recess, art and music– and boy am I ever concerned that many of our schools today are cutting these activities out of daily schedules. My wife recently finished reading an excellent book I have just scanned, “Last Child in the Woods : Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv. The focus of the book and this article by Monke is very similar when it comes to recess and the need children have, from a developmental perspective, to enjoy unstructured time in natural environments. Sadly, in 2005, that time is in short supply for many of our children. Adults need this too, and we probably don’t get enough either.

I would like to take issue with an initial statement Monke makes in the article, however. Quoting Neil Postman, one of my favorite thinkers on topics including education and technology, Monke writes,

If we look through that lens [of technology altering our conception of learning in fundamental ways] I think we will see that educational computing is neither a revolution nor a passing fad, but a Faustian bargain. Children gain unprecedented power to control their external world, but at the cost of internal growth. During the two decades that I taught young people with and about digital technology, I came to realize that the power of computers can lead children into deadened, alienated, and manipulative relationships with the world, that children’s increasingly pervasive use of computers jeopardizes their ability to belong fully to human and biological communities—ultimately jeopardizing the communities themselves.

I am not by any means discounting the value of Lowell Monke’s perceptions about educational technology use over the past two decades in making the next comment, but simply trying to put it in context. This article appears to be written from a pre-Web2.0 perspective. The fact that the only reference to “blog” in Monke’s article is to “hateful Web logs” is convincing proof of this opinion, I think. If you are not sure what I mean by “Web 2.0,” you might want to read my last published TechEdge article, “Teaching & Learning with the Read/Write Web.”

I thoroughly agree that students of all ages typically need more time spent engaging in recess, artistic pursuits, and musical activities. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that educational technology use necessarily equals simple computer aided instruction. I just edited the preceeding link on WikiPedia by adding the following paragraph:

Some people have a conception or paradigm of educational technology that revolves around the use of CAI software products. While that model may have been accurate in the early days of classroom computing in the 1980s and 1990s, in the twenty-first century the advent of Web_2.0 technology tools (also called the Read/Write Web) is revolutionizing the use of computer technology in classrooms.

Monke is right on (as was John Dewey) that experience is a powerful teacher, and we should not overestimate the potential and actual value of “virtual” experiences on a computer when students can alternatively (or as a supplement) have REAL experiences in schools. Doing actual lab experiments, going outside to interact with their environment, going on a field trip, are worthwhile REAL and EXPERIENTIAL learning opportunities that intrinsically have more value and longevity in terms of their learning impact than many virtual activities.

I do love Monke’s observations about “structured learning” also. I watched part of the PBS documentary, “Making Schools Work” this evening, and the message seemed to be: structure and testing can save our schools. I know children as well as adults DO need a level of structure, but I think we need balance here. Monke writes,

Structured learning certainly has its place. But if it crowds out direct, unmediated engagement with the world, it undercuts a child’s education. Children learn the fragility of flowers by touching their petals. They learn to cooperate by organizing their own games. The computer cannot simulate the physical and emotional nuances of resolving a dispute during kickball, or the creativity of inventing new rhymes to the rhythm of jumping rope. These full-bodied, often deeply heartfelt experiences educate not just the intellect but also the soul of the child. When children are free to practice on their own, they can test their inner perceptions against the world around them, develop the qualities of care, self-discipline, courage, compassion, generosity, and tolerance—and gradually figure out how to be part of both social and biological communities.

Preach on, Brother Lowell! Neil Postman may have passed on, but thankfully we have thoughtful writers like Lowell Monke who still challenge us to critically think about education and technology in his spirit. Another good book on this topic to check out, if you have not already, is Postman’s “The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School.” I read that last year and highly recommend it.

I also agree with Monke’s observation, “If children do not dip their toes in the waters of unsupervised social activity, they likely will never be able to swim in the sea of civic responsibility.” Yes, let’s bring back recess to all our schools. But let’s also recognize that the inherently social behaviors of students in an online environment, particularly one empowered with Web 2.0 / read-write web tools, can help students realize the precise goals Monke is championing in his article. If students are blogging, podcasting, helping write the WikiPedia, and interacting with others on a daily basis about ideas and topics that truly matter– they are being well prepared for the future.

But yes, they do still need more time at recess and in fine arts. And Monke is right also when he observes, “For children, belonging is the most important function a community serves. Indeed, that is the message that lies at the heart of Charlotte’s Web.” We need to help children connect with each other and people in their community, which can now be global as well as local. Students need to be creating historical artifacts by recording oral histories and publishing them as podcasts. Monke is also right stating, “There is a profound difference between learning from the world and learning about it.” What he seems to not understand is that technology, IF USED APPROPRIATELY, can serve as a bridge for children of all ages needing and wanting to better understand FROM their world– directly.

Monke is again preaching truth when he observes:

Western pedagogy has always favored abstract knowledge over experiential learning.

So true. Yet he reveals his lack of awareness of Web2.0 realities, as well as his own CAI-centric paradigm of educational technology use, when he writes:

Keep in mind that a computer always has a hidden pedagogue—the programmer—who designed the software and invisibly controls the options available to students at every step of the way. If they try to think “outside the box,” the box either refuses to respond or replies with an error message. The students must first surrender to the computer’s hyper-rational form of “thinking” before they are awarded any control at all.

This is almost completely wrong in a Web2.0, read-write web environment where students are encouraged to validate information sources, compare and contrast the opinions of various groups and individuals, and publish their own thoughts to an interactive audience of blog commenters and podcast listeners. Technology use in an authentic environment of encouraged “digital literacy” is so much more than point and click, answer the question and get a feedback reward as long as Windows95 doesn’t blue screen and crash (or otherwise misbehave.)

Despite these shortcomings, Monke’s article is a superb read, and one of the most thought provoking I have run into in a long time. I highly commend it to you.

One of the last questions Monke poses in his article is:

What happens when we immerse our children in virtual environments whose fundamental lesson is not to live fully and responsibly in the world, but to value the power to manipulate objects and relationships?

If children in your school or your home are using technology in this way, and learning this lesson, then it IS up to the adults in the environment to step in and take action. My guess, however, is that students engaged in blogging, instant messaging, podcasting, and other forms of online social interaction are growing up in an environment where the lessons of responsibility and ethical decision-making are as important and apparent as ever.

Orion magazine (the publisher of this article by Monke) has an online offer for a free copy of their current issue, titled “Breaking Connections: Are Computers Changing Childhood Experience.” If this sort of thing is of interest, you might take them up on their offer. I did.

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One Response to Recess and Computing at odds?

  1. John says:

    Very good site. Thanks for author!

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