Tools change, not development

On the Teacher Leaders Network and at The Tempered Radical, a major discussion is taking place around the future of the brick and mortar school building in an increasingly online world, where so much meaningful discourse is possible in virtual spaces. The debate brings to the fore the need to capitalize on the freedom and benefits of online communication, the need to prepare students with the skills they will need to navigate the online world as adults, and at the same time, the irreplaceable power of face-to-face human interaction.

I am currently fairly limited in my use of web technology in my teaching for a number of reasons:

1. Only half of my students have Internet access at home.

2. I share laptop carts at my school with 24 other teachers.

3. Laptops are constantly broken and there is no one on staff trained to fix them.

4. Wireless Internet connection at school is on-and-off, and cannot be relied upon.

Nonetheless, I am a big fan of the long view and am willing to imagine a completely web-integrated future version of public education.

Back to the question of the brick and mortar school building… I can only conclude that since the real world is and will always be a hybrid of online and face-to-face interaction, then school should eventually be the same way.  We conduct certain things on the computer and other things in person based on a number of factors such as the nature and purpose of the endeavor, time constraints and location.  Sometimes we arrange and prepare for face-to-face meetings on the Internet.  Other times we continue a face-to-face discussion using web tools.  Some relationships and groups exist only on the Internet, some only in person, and still others begin online and transition to face-to-face or vice-versa.  Public education should make use of the full range of these possibilities for communication and learning.

The question is, in educating children, when do we use web tools and why? When do we meet in person and why? Though people may be tempted to exaggerate in either direction–toward either the abolition of school buildings OR discontinuation of Internet use in school–I am inclined to look to child development for insight into these questions. While tools and environments change, human development remains fairly consistent over the short amount of time we are talking about (in relation to the whole history of our species). The goal of education is still to guide young people toward activating their full potential as individuals and members of a democracy.

​I see a strong developmental rationale for continuing to have children and adolescents come together routinely in spaces designated and designed specifically for their learning. Learning spaces—though they need not look anything like the classrooms of today—should allow teachers to create experiences for students that facilitate their physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. These four crucial areas of development cannot be separated completely from one another, nor can they take place entirely through computers. I am pretty certain that children need to develop social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills and understandings in the company of other people, and under the care of live parents and teachers.  Then, when they have some experiences to draw from, they can transfer the knowledge acquired to other mediums, which allow for application and further development of the same skills and understandings.

I’m no expert on this topic, so I welcome push-back, but my sense is that adults can conduct much of their professional and social lives over the Internet because they have enough real-life experience to draw from that they can fill in the gaps in the virtual world. They can infer what is not seen and what is not said.  They already know how to conduct themselves in a variety of real-world situations, in the company of many different kinds of people, and while experiencing a wide range of emotions.

Children, on the other hand, are learning it all for the first time.  Lucky for them they have such a wide world to learn from, but they still need the face-to-face experience of being part of a group learning process–such as that which happens when one runs a “three-legged race” for the first time, sings in a chorus, solves a group math investigation, or becomes friends with a classmate.   Finally, children need to gain these critical experiences under the care of skilled teachers, who lead the group process, and whom they come to know and trust.

My students spend a lot of time socializing on MySpace.  But as it turns out, they mostly communicate with each other!  These “digital natives” are continuing the socialization process that has already begun at school.  Without school, how would the process begin and be maintained and monitored?  The physical world does not cease to exist, and for many children, school is the place they feel safest.

We need to dramatically restructure our classrooms and broaden our idea of what learning is and how it takes place to better fit the developmental needs of our students (something that was true even before the digital era).  But we should not rob our youth of live, physical spaces to learn and grow.  We should simply expand them to more closely match the multiplicity of “spaces” that exist in the “real world.”

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