Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Here in our little corner of Maine, I have found an area of conflict with respect to education that is difficult to bridge.

Many of the people who agree with the principles of education that I support differ in the area of computer and Internet use. The conviction that excessive computer use in school and at home is detrimental to student learning is strong in many of my friends.

I understand the view, and a very strong part of me agrees, absolutely. But I’m trying to get a handle on the issue, even to the point where I take myself out of my own comfort zone.

If we are going to move forward, advocate for student-directed, passionate education, against the juggernaut of testing and standards and attacks on public education from corporate reformers, we need to be united.  

I am convinced that far from being a detriment, the technology -- Internet use, cell phones, and complex video games -- can give our kids the power of exploration, learning, experience, connection.

A friend who has been an elementary school teacher and is the mother of two small children writes: “Childhood is short, I want my children to climb trees, interact with the earth and the animals and people around them.”

I'm not sure those values are in conflict with kids' use of technology for learning. But there's no question that many adults see computers as something that interferes with kids' healthy development.

It is felt that kids whose lives include an excessive amount of screen time don’t develop necessary real-world skills, a lively imagination, or develop an appreciation of the natural world.

This view is reflected in my own parenting practice. I have always said I would never allow a gaming system into my house. Why? Because I didn’t want to raise kids who were addicted to video games, that’s why! So video games are my own personal bugaboo, the part of the picture that most rubs against my grain. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how that fits into the tech-in-ed picture.

I have seen these systems move into a house and take it over; nice kids became obsessed, and family friction increased exponentially. I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

As it turns out, my kids don’t really miss it. When they want games, they play Internet games.

Of course, that means I’ve stopped them from having experiences with the kinds of complex games that Mark Prensky writes about, games that require constant learning. I’ve relegated their gaming to the kind of super-simple Bejeweled-type games that I’m addicted to myself. But for better or worse, that was our decision. Other parents -- some of my best friends, in fact -- brought video game systems into their house, and their kids are neither robots nor shallow and disconnected.  

So what’s the difference between the household that manages to keep the peace in spite of complex video games? If I had hidden cameras, I could tell you...but I don’t, so my best guess is that conflict is avoided through lots of talking, lots of respectful listening, agreement reached on mutual priorities, and in the best-case scenario, self-imposed limits on game play.

There is a pattern that I see in a lot of arenas where computer use causes friction, including school systems: the tools are blamed for what is, in fact, a liveware problem.

There’s a lots of material supporting the idea that complex video games are an engaging and beneficial form of learning.  Parents need to weigh this against the oppositional material that claims that video games “rewire” the brain. Actually, the idea of “rewiring” the brain is misleading, according to Marc Prensky in his article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part 2: Do they really think differently?

“The brain is, to an extent not at all understood or believed to be when Baby Boomers were growing up, massively plastic. It can be, and is, constantly reorganized. (Although the popular term rewired is somewhat misleading, the overall idea is right—the brain changes and organizes itself differently based on the inputs it receives.) The old idea that we have a fixed number of brain cells that die off one by one has been replaced by research showing that our supply of brain cells is replenished constantly. The brain constantly reorganizes itself all our child and adult lives, a phenomenon technically known as neuroplasticity.”

The idea that video gaming and excessive computer use changes the brain in ways that are permanent and detrimental to learning may seem right to us (50-something quasi-boomers), but it simply may not be true. We do compartmentalize learning, don’t we? This kind is good, this kind is bad. The Waldorf philosophy of education is so certain that technology has a negative impact on children that they eschew any exposure to computers in their schools. I admire that kind of certainty. I don’t have it.

I’ve read a lot of the materials that claim that serious computer gaming is far from unhealthy. Keep in mind, however, that I  am aware of my position as a someone who believes that anything invented in the last 15 years is against the natural order of things. In other words, I know that because of generational positioning, I am hard-wired to mistrust the role of technology (in my case, video games) in the lives of children.

If kids are learning how to evaluate quickly changing situations and perform rapid decision-making through gaming instead of an analog venue, is it still valid learning? To discover that failure is only an iteration and not an end, is that “bad learning?”  To see success followed by new and different challenges, to understand that success is more likely when you collaborate, are these useless skills?

You know what, according to Prensky, really rewired the brain? Reading. The advent of books. Words on a page. That required a much more dramatic rewiring, and I can imagine folks -- probably over 50 or the equivalent -- lamenting the coming loss of the art of storytelling with this newfangled “written word” fad!  

A bit facetious maybe, but here’s the thing...brains get rewired all the time. We have to try to stop thinking of it as losing something. It’s simply a matter of changing. But by refusing to take an objective look at what’s really happening, we make the situation worse.

And here’s another thing, which I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts: this thing that is “rewiring” our kids’ brains? We made it. Us, the “digital immigrants.” Maybe not you or me personally, but if you’re seeing a kid on a computer, it’s because no matter how much we hate it now, we failed to suppress it in time; hence, it exists, and our kids are using it.

Our own brains were rewired by television, invented by our parents, and we returned the favor by inventing the intense interactivity of video games and the Web (we had by far the worst of the deal). In other words, we designed the world that they live in; we can’t, then, insist that kids who have Digital Native minds live bored to death because we don’t approve of the learning they prefer.

We try to steer our kids to be the people we want them to be, in ways we can’t even realize. For better or worse, who we are and what we value is reflected in our parenting and seen in our kids. My friend valued outside play for children, and her children value it as well.

But it doesn’t always work that way. We often see the values we try to instill reflected back in opposition to us, rather than in accord. In other words, they may love something just because we hate it. It doesn’t hurt to look more closely into what kids are doing; to investigate what it means to them and why, and what they are learning. The conflict here wasn’t born the day the first kid got the first Playstation. In this situation, as with cell phones, texting and social media, tools are only tools, and behavior is behavior.

Life at our house has always been pretty loosely constructed; our kids are free-range. If they want TV, they can watch it. Internet use is open. We have 4 laptops (everyone in the family has one but me, but that’s a different issue) and our dinner table and living room are the main family hang-outs -- nobody has complete privacy when they surf. Both kids have gone through Runescape phases, and we even ponied up the $5/month for membership for awhile.

And my kids are exposed to a diversity of experiences. Eli is 15 and he can no more live without his outside time than he can stop programming games and physics simulations in Action Script, the game language of Flash.  Francie is very much attached to YouTube but she also spends a healthy amount of time in face-to-face contact with friends and with the outdoors.

“Using computers,” it turns out, is a vague catch-all phrase that is so broad and general that it means nothing. Do they learn by writing in collaboration with others? Do they use Google Hangout to have a meeting with other kids who are learning the same stuff, but in different countries? Do they share videos, process their photographs in Photoshop for publication on their blogs? Compose music and lyrics? Discuss a problem in Facebook groups? Do they follow issues using Twitter? Teach basic guitar chords via Skype? Organize an online school newsletter using a Wiki, which they share with a sister school in a different country? Fundraise using online auctions to support a local family who lost their home due to a fire?

What looks like a face in a screen could be one of hundreds of activities.

At the point at which we adults feel that kids’ screen time is becoming a problem, a couple of things are needed from us as the adults in the situation: a serious reflection on our judgment; and serious, respectful, ongoing talks with our kids.

The idea that cell phones have a use in a classroom has raised more pairs of eyebrows than I can count, but start digging into the possibilities and realize that they are nearly endless. The point is, are we willing? Are we able, from our perch as the folks in charge of kids, to observe them objectively and figure out how to meet them where they are? We look with disdain and discouragement at a kid who is in a crowd of people, glued to her phone, oblivious of what’s in front of her, thumbs a blur. It’s nothing new. Again, it’s technology taking the fall for a condition of life that predates its invention.

I try to transcend the skepticism, and remember how rock’n’roll ruined my own generation.... not. The new is not necessarily the bad, even though you might have to perform surgery on your deeply-held notions of what is healthy and what is not in order to gain that perspective. (“When you take a cat apart to see how it works, what you will have is a non-working cat.” --Douglas Adams. It’s risky to dissect a foundational belief.)

(Many artists were scandalized by the advent of pre-made paint, made possible by the invention of the metal tube in 1841. While this development opened new doors, such as the ability to spontaneously paint scenes out-of-doors, it was also felt that the lost art of making one’s own paint would mean the decline of civilization - or, at least, the art of painting. I have to mention that when I first encountered the electronic tuner, I thought that we were only a generation away from becoming unable to tune a violin using our ears alone. I called those tuners the Antichrist. We all have our little peccadilloes.)

We need to re-examine our inherent mistrust of the medium and the perceived loss of what we, as adults, value. Banning or even seriously limiting Internet use prevents your child from connecting to the world; to explorations and discovery. It is as real as your backyard ecosystem; as essential as discovery of a tide pool or vegetable garden. In fact, it’s a connection to the tide pools of China and the vegetables of Uganda -- and the people who grow them, and study them.

Passionate kids are using the Internet to find others who share their passions, whether it is for World of Warcraft, new music or a rare breed of dog. It doesn’t detract from your child’s experience; it enriches it.

What I want is for kids to learn in a way of their own choosing. And I do mean their own choosing...not mine, and you know what? If they play in tune by using an electronic tuner, why do I care? Have we continued to produce brilliant artists who contributed to the development of our culture despite the fact that they can go buy their own paint?

By following passions from early in their education it is more than likely that their learning will be diverse. What I've learned is that the (literally) old-school top-down education ("we know better than you do what you need to learn") is irrelevant to our kids; boring.  To accept technology as a critical part of education is to support true student-directed, passion-driven learning.

How connected kids learn is different from how we or any preceding generation learned. But by increasing our understanding through good information, and respectful communication with our connected kids, it isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but the beginning of a better one.


  1. I always scoff at research that says such and such is rewiring the brain, and mean it in a bad way. Last I heard "rewiring" meant learning. ;)

  2. That's absolutely right! Now, I'm not sure that TV didn't rewire the brain in a totally bad way; it's passive, and the messages, the images, especially body images, the commercials that give us this idealized view of what people are spozed to look like and what life is spozed to be like -- now THAT'S bad rewiring.