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Unplugged Schools

Education can ameliorate, or exacerbate, society's ills. Which will it be?

by Lowell Monke

Published in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Art by Fran Forman

Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, “Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.” Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, “That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.”

Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.

I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat—to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.

Postman and Weingartner recognized that there are limits to this role. Schools can’t be expected to solve all of our social ills. But one place where we would do well to employ this thermostatic approach is in our relationship to technology and the fundamental ways that a vast number of electronic tools mediate and shape our children’s experiences.

Let me give an example. Several years ago a study found that young people actually prefer ATMs and automated phone systems to bank tellers and clerks. I presented the study, with unconcealed scorn, to a graduate class I was teaching at the time. The next day a student sent me an e-mail that included the following:

I do feel deeply disturbed when I can run errand after errand, and complete one task after another with the help of bank clerks, cashiers, postal employees, and hairstylists without ANY eye contact at all! After a wicked morning of that, I am ready to conduct all business online.

In a society in which adults so commonly treat each other mechanically, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our youth are more attracted to machines. It seems to me that in such a society one task of schools would be to stress the kind of deeply caring, fully present, and wholly human interaction that long ago disappeared from ordinary public life and is now rapidly evaporating from private experience as well. By helping our youth become good at and appreciate the value of profound human engagement, we may help cool the attraction to mediated experiences expressed by my student.

To be sure, this effort would represent a radical reversal of schools’ traditional relationship with media. To a large degree, American schools were invented out of a need to heat up children’s access to media. From the seventeenth century through the first half of the twentieth, schools were places children went to gain entry into the world of symbols. The abstract character of the texts and numbers found in schools complemented the intensely physical character of life outside. Rarely, however, was it allowed to supercede it. Those children who spent an inordinate amount of time in the world of abstractions were typically chastised for being “bookworms” and pushed outside to get some fresh air.

All of this changed with television, which threw iconic rather than textual representations at children (and adults) at a mind-numbing pace. A few observers quickly recognized the significance of this inundation. Marshall McLuhan, for example, proposed that schools would have to serve as “civil defense against media fallout.” That didn’t happen, of course. Even as city streets became unsafe for exploration, as a mostly rural environment gave way to a relatively sterile suburban one, and as physical labor gave way to the information age, schools never responded to the cultural shift toward abstraction by moving in the opposite direction. Indeed, by the time television’s brawnier, more powerful symbol-manipulating cousin, the computer, came along, schools were fully committed to reinforcing rather than compensating for the symbol-saturated world in which children lived.

Of course, symbol manipulation—reading, writing, mathematics—is the unavoidable nuts and bolts of schooling. But it is not the sole purpose of education. Education must help children come to know themselves, become good citizens, and (with increasing urgency) come to terms with the natural world around them. It is possible that a school system wholly devoted to developing technical skills would not be particularly damaging if other institutions compensated for children’s severely mediated lives. Unfortunately, the institutions that could serve that function—church, family, community—have been diminished by technology’s cultural dominance. School is about the only institution left that has the extensive claim on children’s attention needed to offset that dominance.

THE HEALTH OF OUR CHILDREN’S INNER LIVES, their civic engagement, and their relationship with nature all would be improved if schools turned down the thermostat on that technologically overheated aspect of American culture. Schools dedicated to that task—we might call them “unplugged schools”—would identify the values associated with technological culture and design curricula and an environment focused on strengthening the human values at the other end of the scale.

The most obvious thing schools can do in this regard is give children experiences with the real things toward which symbols are only dim pointers. Unless emotionally connected to some direct experience with the world, symbols reach kids as merely arbitrary bits of data. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but to a second grader who has held a squiggly nightcrawler in her hand, even the printed symbol “worm” resonates with far deeper meaning than a thousand pictures or a dozen Discovery Channel videos.

Nature is, of course, the richest resource for firsthand experience. Individual teachers have long tried to provide some contact with the natural world by bringing plants and small animals into their classrooms—a limited approach yielding limited results. Many schools are beginning to think on a larger scale. They have torn up the asphalt surrounding the schools, planted trees and flowers indigenous to the area, and even established ponds and waterways that quickly attract a remarkably diverse number of critters. In 1997, for instance, Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Missoula, Montana, began creating the state’s first schoolyard habitat. Working under the guidance of Kent Watson, a local landscape architect, the school turned a large section of its playground into a habitat that included a native-grasses mound, a waterfall, stream, and pool, a plot of plants “discovered” by Lewis and Clark, a rock garden, a variety of native trees and shrubs, and a butterfly garden. Not only do students at the school use the area for environmental studies, they were directly involved in the original design and development process: mapping the soil, surveying existing plants and animals, studying the history and culture of the region, determining what seeds to plant, designing and building benches and pathways.

A different type of habitat project is currently getting under way where I live, in Springfield, Ohio. It involves creating “curricular gardens” in front of the newly built high school as an alternative to the vast grass lawn planned by the original architects. A colleague of mine at Wittenberg University, Stefan Broidy, is working with teachers at the high school and nearby elementary and middle schools to connect the curricula of various departments, ranging from art to science, with corresponding gardening projects. This is the first step in a long-term effort to eventually revitalize a long-neglected fifty-acre land lab that lies adjacent to the schools.

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.

In Europe, recognition of the benefits of being in the wild is behind one of its fastest-growing educational movements: forest kindergartens. They originated in Denmark in the 1950s but only recently began to attract attention because of their rapid expansion throughout Germany in the 1990s. These multi-age, year-round outdoor classrooms are designed to foster a love and knowledge of nature, while using the forest to encourage children to imaginatively create fantasy play worlds. Few full-blown forest kindergartens have been created in the U.S., but they have inspired a number of schools to establish forest weeks or weekly forest days. And, of course, where there are no forests, prairie weeks, pond months, or desert days can serve as well.

A SECOND IMPORTANT COMPENSATION would move in the opposite direction of nature—toward the conscious investigation of the tools that mediate our lives. With “magical” black boxes so integrated into our lives that they have become nearly invisible, unplugged schools would disintegrate technology, first by surrounding young children with only those tools whose working principles are visible and understandable and then by gradually bringing more complex, opaque technologies, from radios to eventually computers, into the educational arena—not just as study aids but objects of study.

Montessori schools are noted for their reliance on devices that make learning very much a hands-on activity. However, I know of no schools that incorporate into their curricula the kind of systematic, progressive study of tools I have described above. The trend has been in the opposite direction, as even rural schools eliminate the middle school shop and home ec classes that once gave students at least some experience with simple tools. Children now have to go to “children’s museums” to get hands-on experience with common hand tools. The fact that these places are called museums perhaps explains why good models of this kind of learning in schools are hard to come by. Our society seems to have decided that in the age of powerful mental tools, working with and understanding physical tools is a thing of the past.

Of course, computers are physical tools of a sort. But their physical workings are so concealed from view that mainstream schooling has simply defaulted on helping youth dispel this quite consequential ignorance. Education is hardly improved by revealing the world to kids through the use of tools whose workings cannot themselves be revealed. It doesn’t have to be this way. Learning the fundamental principles of computer operations is not beyond the capabilities of most high school students if approached appropriately. For years, Valdemar Setzer at the University of São Paulo has taught high school seniors the principles of computer operations by first having the students as a class act out physically what takes place inside the computer during a simple computation. The idea is not to make everyone a computer programmer—it is to help youth comprehend why our increasingly computerized environment functions the way it does. Only if they possess that understanding will they be able to decide which human powers are appropriate to hand off to computer calculation and which should be reserved for our own judgment.

So much daily communication is now mediated by machines that the U.S. News & World Report has estimated that youth graduating from schools today have had about one-third fewer face-to-face conversations than their parents had when they came out of school. Unplugged schools would compensate for this by creating an environment teeming with adults and older students conversing with, telling stories to, and working directly with younger students. Resources and time spent by other schools to integrate technology into the classroom would be spent integrating community members.

This is just what Ron Berger and his colleagues did for over two decades at Shutesbury Elementary School, in western Massachusetts. In An Ethic of Excellence, Berger writes, “Town citizens of all ages are in the school every day as mentors and tutors for children. Senior citizens are guests at concerts and annual Valentine and Thanksgiving meals hosted by the Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten. We invite town citizens to our work exhibitions, to be panelists at formal portfolio presentations, and as experts, helping our classes in their learning.”

Berger notes that senior citizens have also suffered from the effects of a technological culture that favors mobility and individuality over stability and continuity. They have become so isolated from the rest of the community that children rarely see and hear the wisdom and dignity encased in creaky joints and weathered skin. Bringing these elders into schools would benefit both generations. Salt Lake City is one of a number of communities that has worked at this intergenerational integration. It instituted its Senior Motivators in Learning and Educational Services program in 1977 with 15 volunteers. Today there are over 250 seniors in the district schools involved with tutoring, story reading, field trips, sports, art, and music. They are encouraged to share with children the vast variety of skills, knowledge, history, and traditions accumulated during their lives.

Combined with the emphasis on direct contact with the physical world, forging connections with older generations can help unplugged schools offset a glorification of constant change by fostering an appreciation for what is enduring and mature. It would help balance our hard-charging, future-obsessed culture with an environment that fosters compassion, reverence, and a sense of obligation toward those who have come before.

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.”

Berger gives a good sense of the expansive character of place-based education, along with its impact on school-community relations:

Students clean town roads every year, raise money for town efforts, and engage in other serious projects to benefit the community: testing homes for radon, testing streams for pollution, testing wells for water quality, conducting research to contribute to town historical records, taking a census of local animals for state officials. It’s not by chance that we’ve earned trust and support for the school.

This is not just the fairly widespread practice of community service, done in the students’ spare time. This is the day-to-day work of the school, integrated into the very core of the curriculum and evaluated by the quality of the results. Schoolwork takes on deep meaning as students recognize themselves as valuable community members.

Technological culture promotes a doggedly instrumental orientation to life in which every act is calculated as a means to something else. Even something as intrinsically rewarding as childhood play now must be considered useful in order to be scheduled into children’s frenetic lives. Adults intent on teaching techniques of dancing, sports, music, art, drama, etc., squeeze free play at one end while video games and television—both ultimately adult directed—squeeze it from the other end. Children, and their teachers, have so lost their intuitive sense of imaginative free play, undertaken just for the sheer joy of playing, that for the past two summers Penny Wilson, a “playworker” from London, has toured the U.S. under sponsorship from the Alliance for Childhood, training recreation personnel in major cities on how to help children recover their natural capacity for unstructured play. Providing opportunities for that kind of play is yet another way unplugged schools would compensate for what our culture leaves out of childhood.

Yet compensation for an overheated technological culture should not be mistaken for rejection of it. With years of unplugged experiences anchoring youth against the current of technological overindulgence, high school students should be capable of making much richer connections between the symbols encountered on computer screens and the real things those symbols represent. Learning with and about high technology then becomes a very different experience.

Ten years ago Burniske and I designed and coordinated a telecomputing project we called Media Matters. We enlisted high school students from various parts of the world to analyze how different media told the stories of several global events. While the students were figuring out how the character of radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, and a new form of communication called the World Wide Web shaped how information was conveyed, we were discovering that even though these students were sophisticated in putting media to work for them, they were naïve about how it worked on them. Today, in the age of cell phones, instant messaging, MySpace and YouTube, this naïveté is even more consequential. Thus, not only should schools help students understand how these media work, they should also help them understand how such tools shape their appetites, relationships, and very conceptions of the world in which they live.

There are many other specific things that schools could do to compensate for the lack of balance children experience in our overmediated culture. But one thing they must do is provide an alternative to the current penchant for viewing children as little biological machines whose knowledge and skills can be “constructed,” assessed, and labeled in schools according to the same cold logic of the spreadsheet that businesses use in producing commodities. This intensely mechanistic view of children is central to the belief that a very meager set of numbers can determine their abilities (and future opportunities), to the confidence that a single curriculum can serve children just as well whether they live in Jackson Hole or Brooklyn, and to the conviction that a child’s failure to adapt to the inhospitable clockwork machinery of school operations can be “fixed” by applying a little chemical grease (like Ritalin) to a malfunctioning gear inside her head.

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.

The list of schools that have directly and comprehensively tied children’s overmediated lives to spiritual health is a very short one, I’m afraid, limited mostly to a number of Waldorf schools, whose philosophy has long coupled spiritual development with a critical stance toward the use of electronic media by young children. The Washington [D.C.] Waldorf School just completed a year-long series of public seminars and staff meetings investigating how best to bring computers and other high-tech devices into the high school curriculum so that students not only have the skills they need to go on to college or work, but understand the full impact of technology on human culture, the environment, and their own inner lives. The faculty has discovered that an effective program requires paying attention to the curriculum and methods not only at the high school level but at the elementary level as well (where children do not use computers). They understand that there is much inner preparation that young children need to do if they are one day to give mature direction to the enormous power these external tools provide.

IF ONE STITCHED TOGETHER ALL OF THESE examples and concerns, one might be able to imagine at least the contours of an unplugged school. Certainly, unplugged schools would get children deeply involved with nature and community; they would give a prominent place to the expressive arts; they would determine tool use according to developmental readiness; they would study technology explicitly; they would give children time and space to look inward; and they would rely on assessments that are rigorous and multifaceted rather than reductionist and multiple choice. But there are a vast number of ways all of this could be done. The compensatory activities of any particular unplugged school could not be standardized. They would have to depend heavily on the specific children, educators, parents, geography, and culture of the communities they serve.

Of course, right now there is no escaping, at least in public schools, a whole host of technocratic fetters, such as standardized curricula and testing, that are turning teaching as well as learning into intellectual factory work. Still, educators and parents can always find some wiggle room within technocratic structures and it is in these gaps that a wide variety of subversive unplugging can gain a foothold.

Ultimately, though, if schools were to throw off those fetters and restore balance to children’s lives, they would have to establish goals that reflect our best sense of what it means to be human. Producing workers adapted to the demands of a high-tech economy would no longer drive what these schools do. Schools would establish life as the measure of value, not machines. They would be dedicated to showing young people how to live as dignified members of an increasingly mediated and fragile world. And they would consciously work to cool down society’s infatuation with technology while heating up our concern for those we live with and the Earth we live on.

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Lowell Monke taught young people with and about computers for almost two decades. He is an associate professor of education at Wittenberg University.

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