Tuesday, November 29, 2022

We're Probably Wrong


My earliest memories of television were of watching our family's black and white Zenith set. I remember the day dad climbed onto the roof of the house to install the antennae which allowed us to receive two broadcast channels with relative clarity and one, very fuzzy, UHF channel. We didn't have a lot rules around TV viewing, mainly because it wasn't all that attractive to us kids. Most of what was on during the day were news shows and soap operas, boring stuff that filled up all that time between the worthwhile programming like BatmanThe Brady Bunch, and The Wonderful World of Disney.

Television was my introduction to the concept of schedules. In a world without video, not to mention on-demand programming, if we were going to catch our shows we needed to understand such things as days of the week and how to read an analog clock. It was a big deal, it changed me. I diligently saved up my pennies to purchase a wristwatch, which I needed if I was going to live in the television age. We neighborhood kids would plan our play around the television schedule, disappearing indoors to watch the latest episode of Batman, for instance, then reconvening in our capes (made from our fathers' old dress shirts) to reenact and connect over what we had just seen. Mom called it the "boob tube" and promptly fell asleep whenever she watched it. Adults warned us we were ruining our eyes, our ears, our brains, but television was here to stay and we knew it.

Many of us have now grown up to express those same concerns about the kids of today who are too absorbed in their screens. We've been particularly traumatized by the pandemic, which made even school a screen-based activity. Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled on the tragedy of it all. Those poor kids, we fret, they're having their brains re-wired and their young parents don't know any better. If only they would read books! 

Of course, two hundred years ago our parental counterparts were expressing similar worries about the reading of novels. The common wisdom was that young women in particular were destroying their brains, becoming incapable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and dirtying their hands with library books. And long before that, people like Socrates and Chaucer were concerned that literacy itself was robbing our youth of the ability think and feel, making them into lazy oafs and even liars. In other words, it's in the nature of adults to fear that the latest technological advance will destroy us all. So, if we are to be intellectually honest, we must be wary of our knee-jerk reactions. Oh sure, this time, we might be right. Maybe the digital age really will turn our children square-eyed and mushy-brained. 

But, history tells us that we're probably wrong. Or at least, not entirely right.

"I don't think online education is going anywhere," says Caitlyn McCain, artist, educator, creator of the New York City Children's Theatre's "Creative Clubhouse Stories," and presenter at the most recent Teacher Tom's Play Summit. For one thing it's incredibly efficient. "As a student, there's a great convenience to being able to learn online and then, as an educator, I'm like, 'There's a great convenience of being able to educate online.'" But it's more than just convenience that makes Caitlyn so certain that digital space is here to stay. For her it's about accessibility. "It goes a lot further than what I do in a physical room . . . I have students in California, and I would have never reached those young people. Or, even in New York, I mean, we're so separate that I have kids in the Bronx who would probably not get down to Manhattan for a class."

It's natural for those of us with decades of experience with young children to worry, and we no doubt make some good points, but I also have no doubt that Caitlyn, a digital native like the children we teach, is right. The pandemic merely accelerated something that was inevitable. I've heard stories from educators and parents who have been pleasantly surprised at how well the children adjusted during the pandemic. Caitlyn's stories of children who not only love their online time, but who actually connect with her through the screen is a testament to children's adaptability and Caitlyn's skills as an educator and actor. Will this become the norm for education? Of course not, but like television, novels, and literacy itself, it's not up to us, but the "natives" who will ultimately determine its place in our world.

As we've returned to our classrooms, we do so as changed people as will the children, but what hasn't changed, and what will never change, is that most children, most of the time, will take change in stride, adopting it and adapting it. I can't imagine what online learning will look like in the coming years, let alone the coming decades and centuries, but I do know, as Caitlyn says, it's here to stay. And children will continue to surprise us because the two things that won't go away is their instinct to learn and connect through any all media available to them. It's part of the glory of humans. 

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"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here


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