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Look up from your screen

2 August 2018

From Aeon:

A rooster crows and awakens my family at the farm where we are staying for a long weekend. The air is crisp, and stars twinkle in the sky as the Sun rises over the hill. We walk to the barn, where horses, cows, chickens, pigs, dogs and cats vie for our attention. We wash and replenish water bowls, and carry hay to the cows and horses. The kids collect eggs for breakfast.

The wind carries the smells of winter turning to spring. The mud wraps around our boots as we step in puddles. When we enter a stall, the pigs bump into us; when we look at the sheep, they cower together in a corner. We are learning about the urban watershed, where eggs and beef come from, and how barns were built in the 19th century with wood cauls rather than metal nails. We experience the smells of the barn, the texture of the ladder, the feel of the shovels, the vibration when the pigs grunt, the taste of fresh eggs, and the camaraderie with the farmers.

As a parent, it is obvious that children learn more when they engage their entire body in a meaningful experience than when they sit at a computer. If you doubt this, just observe children watching an activity on a screen and then doing the same activity for themselves. They are much more engaged riding a horse than watching a video about it, playing a sport with their whole bodies rather than a simulated version of it in an online game.

Today, however, many powerful people are pushing for children to spend more time in front of computer screens, not less. Philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have contributed millions of dollars to ‘personal learning’, a term that describes children working by themselves on computers, and Laurene Powell Jobs has bankrolled the XQ Super School project to use technology to ‘transcend the confines of traditional teaching methodologies’. Policymakers such as the US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos call personalised learning ‘one of the most promising developments in K-12 education’, and Rhode Island has announced a statewide personalised learning push for all public school students. Think tanks such as the Brookings Institution recommend that Latin-American countries build ‘massive e-learning hubs that reach millions’. School administrators tout the advantages of giving all students, including those at kindergarten, personal computers.

Many adults appreciate the power of computers and the internet, and think that children should have access to them as soon as possible. Yet screen learning displaces other, more tactile ways to discover the world. Human beings learn with their eyes, yes, but also their ears, nose, mouth, skin, heart, hands, feet.

. . . .

To better understand why so many people embrace screen learning, we can turn to a classic of 20th-century French philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945).

According to Merleau-Ponty, European philosophy has long prioritised ‘seeing’ over ‘doing’ as a path to understanding. Plato, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant: each, in different ways, posits a gap between the mind and the world, the subject and the object, the thinking self and physical things. Philosophers take for granted that the mind sees things from a distance. When Descartes announced ‘I think therefore I am’, he was positing a fundamental gulf between the thinking self and the physical body. Despite the novelty of digital media, Merleau-Ponty would contend that Western thought has long assumed that the mind, not the body, is the site of thinking and learning.

Link to the rest at Aeon

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10 Comments to “Look up from your screen”

  1. They are much more engaged riding a horse than watching a video about it, playing a sport with their whole bodies rather than a simulated version of it in an online game.

    My kid spent all summer on his horse moving cattle. At the county fair, he’s demonstrating a trick photography project and a rocket simulator, projects he did on his computer.

    I think he’s more engaged on the computer, probably because when he’s working on the computer, he doesn’t have to sit in the hot sun and watch a bunch of cows for half an hour while his mother brings in a second bunch. I’m sure if he had a laptop he could use while watching cows, he’d see that as ideal. (It would not be ideal. He needs to learn to sit and watch cows.)

    His horse will not teach him how to type, how to read, or how to program a computer. His computer will not teach him the ecology of grassland ecosystems. Kids need both things.

    We are learning about the urban watershed, where eggs and beef come from, and how barns were built in the 19th century with wood cauls rather than metal nails.

    This, of course, is awesome. Everybody should understand where food comes from. And where their food’s food comes from.

    • Ah, that brings back memories. For those who haven’t done it, sitting and watching cows is a difficult lesson, indeed.

      Fortunately, I had an extremely experienced horse (actually, he was teaching me how to herd, not the other way around). Didn’t twitch a muscle even with a fidgety kid in the saddle, unless he sensed that one was about to have the bright idea to wander off.

      Of course, that was back in the days when my favorite occupation, a paperback SF novel, would have made a telltale bulge in the Levis. A cell phone with a few ebooks loaded might have gotten past the parental units…

  2. I grew up watching cows. Didn’t do me any special good and it took decades to make up for too much enforced cow watching and not enough engagement with the larger world. I may still be behind.

    A kid who has never been slapped in the face with a manure-soaked cow’s tail has missed something for sure, but not as much as one who never learned how to insert a new link at an arbitrary position in a doubly linked list.

    • Democritus Jr, Yeah, city-slickers come to a working farm for a long weekend or even a week and wax poetic in praise of the pastoral life, but it’s another damned thing entirely when you have to do it every day, day after day, for years on end. Vacation? What is this ‘vacation’ thing of which you speak?

    • Perhaps it would be easier for the city kid to get a job digging spotting holes for underground cable installation along the city streets? Dig two feet down, find the cable, walk 100 feet, dig two feet down, find the cable, walk 100 feet, dig two feet down, find the cable…

      And the next day? Dig two feet down, find the cable…

      He’ll gain first hand knowledge of the wonders of out modern communication society, and the network of connections that brig us all together.

  3. Personalized learning can work if it uses instructional time better for each child. I count a good 95% of the time I spent in classrooms as a complete waste – the pace was never right for me, the teaching designed for some average I was never near. It shouldn’t be used to supplant the other uses of time in real 3D space.

    But it has to have a human around for reference for when a kid gets stuck, and the kids have to acquire good reading skills. Computer programs can be deadly boring experiences.

  4. True, given a chore of jest sittin is a meditation for some, boring for others.

    A relationship with a horse, chores or no, is a whole different thing.

    I think ‘modern’ kids can have many lives at once spiritual, naturewise, intellectual, tech, and more. Renaissance kids I would call my grands; I think that is good .

    And yes, the realities of farming and ranching, in odors alone, is hard to unsmell for instance. And yet when it is for sustenance, and to make a living, compared by some to indoor work, they’d rather have all the sounds and smells and stars and moon and sun.

  5. Motivation, access to materials, and freedom. That’s all it take for a kid to learn.

    Give a kid a smart phone with zero instructions and no booklet and in 3 days or less he will have it loaded with the names and numbers of all his friends, a hundred apps, and a dozen games.

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