Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hi-Tech / No-Tech

Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers. --Josef Albers

Through some magical childcare intervention, I managed to stay for Gretchen Feiss's talk yesterday on the importance of technology in children's science education.

She opened with a review of the No Child Left Inside movement. Inspired in large part by Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods, the movement is working to make sure that outdoor time is part of our national curriculum and that parents, teachers and other caregivers recognize the importance of nature in children's lives.
Gretchen argued for the biophilia hypothesis -- that we all hold a relationship to nature as part of our core identities and need time in nature to feel whole.

She also argued that time in nature leads kids to natural inquiry. She supports inquiry based learning and reported that the Maine Learning Results also supports teaching kids scientific process and skills building over pure content.
I followed Gretchen easily to the end of this part of the talk. My kids attend the Friends School of Portland, and similar values in education have been stressed there. The importance of outdoor time, of following children's curiosity and inquiry, of place based education... these are starting to almost seem like givens in contemporary progressive education.

Gretchen went on, however, to bridge this stance with support for some screen time. She argued that many of us want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, when we see nature and technology as a zero-sum game. She argued that well chosen technology can increase children's interest in nature and better help them answer the questions they raise. She pointed to the GPS starfinder as an example -- when a child wonders what star she's looking at, she can be a) distracted by a tired and unknowing parent, b) told to figure it out with a book, which can be really hard, or c) can use the gps starfinder to immediately learn all kinds of things about astronomy. Similarly, she argued that the simulations found on most Maine school-granted laptops are good for kids science education.

I was influenced by the work of Jane Healy, who made a sensible argument (in my view) that most computer use is low-skill, and that the early introduction of computers is at best a waste of time and at worst a replacement for the learning activities children need for healthy development. But even she, a fairly outspoken critic of computers for children, says that around age 7 computers can be useful in kids lives. (read a segment of her book here). As a parent of a 9 year old, I like the idea of creating a relationship between her questions that rise from her lived experience and the vast amount of interesting information that we can access with technology. Figuring out what counts as high quality web site, software, gadgets, etc. however is almost a full-time job, and I worry that we will be constantly bombarded with more stuff in our attempt to do this well.

A question in the audience spoke to this issue, a bit - we have such profound income inequality in our country, that we have a gigantic digital divide and nature divide. How do we keep these questions from simply being the province of the upper middle class?

Also, how do we know "how much is too much" in terms of time in front of the computer, even if it is in pursuit of high quality info?

Should kids learn about how computers work and how programming works? What media and computer literacy should accompany the use of computers?

Clearly, technology use will continue to be a part of our children's lives, but there is a lot for parents and educators to consider as we integrate hi-tech and no-tech into our days.

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