When we hear or read about computers in our schools, the subject is usually the dearth of them, the fact that we need more or that children should be exposed to them at a younger age. The assumption that computers belong in the classroom is rarely questioned.
But some argue that the new technologies made available through the computer are being overused and that the losers are our children.
"If education is about anything at all, it is about helping us to meet, understand, embrace and enlarge our destinies," Talbott writes.
Stephen Talbott, the editor of a free Internet magazine called NETFUTURE (www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture/) is one such voice. The topical index on the site lists many articles on computers and education for those who want to explore the subject further.
One place where teachers might be most tempted to use a CD-ROM or video footage is in science or nature study classes. After all, if you can bring the majesty of the Sahara desert or the intricacies of an ant's world into your classroom, why not do it?
SNAKE IN THE WOODS, SNAKE ON THE SCREEN
In answer to that question, Talbott quotes a true story written by Barry Angell, the father of an 11-year-old boy.
"Yesterday my...son and I were hiking in a remote wood. He was leading. He spotted a four-foot rattlesnake in the trail about six feet in front of us. We watched it for quite some time before going around it.
It is not so much content that stays with us then, it is experience; it is our inner connection to the matter at hand
"When we were on the way home, he commented that this was the best day of his life. He was justifiably proud of the fact that he had been paying attention and had thus averted an accident and that he had been able to observe this powerful, beautiful and sinister snake."
Angell goes on to ask: "I wonder how many arm-chair nature-watchers have seen these dangerous snakes on the tube and said, 'This is the best day of my life.'" He concludes, "Better one rattlesnake on the trail that a whole menagerie of gorillas, lions and elephants on the screen."
It is easy to recognize the dramatic difference for the child between the snake on the trail and a snake on the screen, Talbott claims in the education journal, Renewal (3911 Bannister Road, Fair Oaks, California, 95628 U.S.A. or firstname.lastname@example.org). Talbott argues that this difference has profound implications for education.
THE REAL THING
If Angell's son had encountered the snake on a CD-ROM, "He would not be at risk of spraining a toe against the exposed roots in the trail. He would not find the tree trunks rough and creviced, but rather smooth as glass. The musty smell of moss and pregnant decay would not greet him. That fullness of being...would not be there for the little boy. The slithery snake consciousness that looked out through those baleful, unblinking eyes on the trail do not look out through the illuminated pixels on this screen," Talbott writes.
On the trail, Talbott maintains, the boy met a part of his personal destiny -- a destiny that might have turned out differently had he not been as sharp in his observations. "If education is about anything at all, it is about helping us to meet, understand, embrace and enlarge our destinies," Talbott writes.
And for this, children also need living, breathing teachers. The father's feelings during the experience -- of wonder, curiosity and a respect for the snake's beauty and power -- helped shape the boy's experience. "The boy learned about the snake by seeing his image, not upon a screen, but as reflected in the response of a living teacher," Talbott writes.
To further back up his stand, Talbott cites research about the backgrounds of people who choose careers that show concern for the natural world, such as ecologists, naturalists and environmentalists. Two of the most important influences on these people were an exposure to wild places as children and the availability of adult mentors. (For a review of the literature see Louise Chawla, "Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources on Environmental Sensitivity" forthcoming in Journal of Environmental Education.) The findings, Talbott writes, "raise serious questions about today's powerful drive toward technology-mediated education."
What do you remember from all your years at school? Chances are that what's stuck with you is a book read to you chapter by chapter by your sixth grade teacher, or being turned on to literature in junior high by a teacher who acted out the part of Grendel, or beginning to re-evaluate your faith in your government because you were inspired by a 10th grade civics teacher who taught you the value of asking critical questions.
It is not so much content that stays with us then, it is experience; it is our inner connection to the matter at hand. And this experience needs to be direct, not mediated by technology. This connection can be facilitated by a caring adult -- but not by a machine.
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000