Beyond Gutenberg

Earlier, I posted about a conversation I had with the head of a new school opening up in town.  Let me reiterate, I really enjoy these conversations, they cause me to think and confirm my convictions about the teaching/learning process.  This is the follow-up conversation that took place (in bits and pieces).  Everything in green is the response to my initial email.

I appreciate your example of the use of technology in learning.  What I love about your example is the technology served to get the students closer to the real, hands-on source.  The only way that the situation could be better is if the students could go and experience Antarctica for themselves. When technology is a tool used to put children in closer touch with the real thing, of the original source, that is wonderful.

On my way home I was thinking about technology, and thought of cell phones.  They are wonderful, essential, and central to our communication today.  But, for example, I’d suggest that for a 4 year old, communication that is face to face, with hugs and facial expressions, is much more important than having a cell phone (unless it is to talk to grandma far away, bringing the child in closer touch with the real thing.)

One caution I would have with bringing I-pads to a school like yours (and feel free to argue with me here) is that the students are so steeped in a culture of having and consuming and being entertained, that the technology that could be a tool to bring them into closer relationship to many real things could actually represent or embody for them the things (consumerism, materialism, “entertain-me”-ism)  that are their primary barriers to having deep relations with people, ideas or the world around them.  So, a student with the wrong mindset would pick up that I-pod and think “Aren’t we great and cool that we have this?”,  “What can it do for me?”,  “How can it entertain me?”,  “How can I find cooler stuff than other kids?”,  etc.  Their initial context could shape how they view the tool, and that could impact their use of it, and more importantly, reinforce that erroneous initial context.

As I have picked up the kids from school, I’ve had the student say “hi” without looking me in the eye, and then continuously text as we drive, not really be able to carry on a face-to-face conversation through the day, and then ask what video games we have.  They have little ability to enjoy the real world around them, other than through comparing what they have to what someone else has, or to compare their performance to the performance of someone else.  I think we have gone wrong somewhere.  These students have detached from real people, they do not notice real beauty in creation, they lack true joy, they are starved of nourishing ideas and nourishing relationships.  Yes, this is a broad brush generalization, but it is pretty pervasive.  I don’t think technology is the fix for this problem, and sometimes it makes it worse.  Once a child is connected in close terms, then I think technology is wonderful for bringing them into closer touch with real things far away.  But if we ignore the “close things”, and especially if we substitute technology for the hard work of really training them in habit (it is much easier to have a child interacting with thier own individual entertaining system than it is to do the messy work of really interrelating together, as we have witnessed on many car rides), I think we end up with a less nourished, less creative, less connected, more distracted child.

So, yes, I agree that technology is a useful tool, and amazing in its place.  I love that we can daily come up with questions and curiosities and find answers in seconds that bring us into closer touch with real things and diverse ideas.  And I love the variety of ways we have to communicate creatively.

I put a bit less faith in technology than you do, which may come from time I’ve had to see that, at its base, the human condition hasn’t changed much, and our needs as people aren’t vastly different than they have ever been.  So, if my 6 yr. old daughter can paint a flower with watercolors under a tree while a warm breeze blows, I will chose that over having her paint on the computer. (Though she does some of that too.)  Also, something spiritual takes place as we read a book together as a family — a bonding, a common understanding, a common vocabulary, that doesn’t seem to happen by watching a movie, a YouTube video or any other way (and perhaps it would have been even more rich before the introduction of books since we would need to make up stories, but I grew up without that level of creativity!).  And, while the friends I have through electronic media are stimulating and interesting, they are still not a substitute for the ones who bring a meal my way and hug me in my joys.   As I read Charlotte Mason’s material, I am amazed by what she came to, by the wisdom and depth and deep truths, many of which our culture has simply forgotten.  I don’t plan to forgo the newest technologies, and my freshman son is as much a “techy” as anyone (7 years of this schooling didn’t seem to hold him back at all that way), but I want to leave breathing room to not forget roots of wisdom that can nourish our lives.

Looking forward to talking more.

While I appreciate the ideas that are being expressed here, I have some major disagreements with these premises.  Now this may be one of those instances when we are looking at the same elephant but describing different attributes based on our respective vantage points, but none the less, here is my response:

A few years ago I was reading about Gutenberg’s Printing Press and was surprised to learn about the sheer panic that the new technology set off in society. There were real concerns that it would be the downfall of society and relationship.  The church was concerned that it would no longer have a place in society if everyone could read the Bible for themselves, there would be no need for the meetings with a relaying of the stories orally. Without a gathering, the relationships would break down.  There was also a concern that the very church building structure would change.  Stained glass windows had an important function in the pre-Gutenberg church, the glass was used to tell the stories of the Bible to an illiterate society.  They were put in place as a reminder of the truths being taught.  With the invention of the printing press, there was no longer a need for the building to tell the stories of scripture.  Did society lose something? Of course, but I would argue with the advent of the printing press and as a result a literate society, much more was gained.

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner wrote a book where he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with too much information and that the overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind.  Gessner died in 1565. He warned about the flood of information unleashed by the printing press.  We hear similar concerns today about the flood of information that the Internet provides.  The concerns date back to the birth of literacy.  Socrates warned against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learn’s souls, because they will not use their memories.” (As recorded by Plato)  Others speculated that the written word would be the downfall of society and relationship because there would no longer be a need for oral tradition.  People wouldn’t have to communicate with language and carry on deep and meaningful relationships because they would forever have their noses buried in a book.

New technologies have always brought about speculation about the ways that it would change society.  The digital technology age is no different.  However, like the printing press, I believe that although digital technology is changing the ways we communicate, we have much to gain from this technology.

You allude to children naturally picking up technology regardless of its introduction in the classroom.  I would argue that technology plays an integral part in both school and learning because of its prevalence in our society, because of its ability to increase relationship and connect us, and its abilities to connect us to the world around us in new and important ways.

I am currently reading Sir Ken Robinson’s book The Element in it he reminds us that children starting school this year will retire roughly around the year 2071.  We have no idea what the world will look like in ten years let alone in 50. Technology is developing at breakneck speed.  It is contributing to a huge generational gap.  People over the age of 30 were born before the digital revolution really started.  Those over 30 have learned to use digital technology like laptops, cameras, cell phones, the Internet as adults.  Mark Prensky calls these people digital immigrants. Under the age of 20 you have a generation that was born after the digital revolution had already begun.  These kids have never known a world without digital technologies. Mark Prensky calls these digital natives.  Just because natives are born with digital technologies in their hands, doesn’t mean that they will naturally learn and understand how to use them appropriately.  The same way a child doesn’t automatically figure out how to interact with other children, or read, or write naturally. These things must be taught and nurtured.   The revolution  is just beginning.  We are in the equivalent of the time just after the invention of the printing press.  I don’t believe that Gutenberg himself would believe the ways that his printing press forever changed society, communication, and learning.
Now consider the impact of population growth.  The world population has doubled in the past 30 years! We have grown from 3 billion to 6.  Humanity will be using technologies that “have yet to be invented in ways we cannot imagine and in jobs that don’t yet exist” (Sir Ken Robinson).   These cultural and technological forces are creating a seismic shift in world economies and introducing new diversity and complexity into our lives.  We are in another pivotal point in history where major global changes will take place.  Commerce and economies are being globalized. People are communicating in dramatically different ways than ever before.  Technology is altering the way that we conduct our lives.  (As evidenced by the texting boy you mention in your email).  No one would have been able to predict the way that the Internet and mobile technologies would change the landscape of society.  We can’t predict what technologies the future will bring.  “The only way to prepare for the future is to make the most of ourselves on the assumption that doing so will make us as flexible and productive as possible.” (Sir Ken Robinson)  It is up to us to help shape students understanding and thinking about new digital technologies and their uses.

During every stage of history, from the printing press to the written word,  there has been a fear that technology breaks down relationships.  Technology doesn’t ruin relationships, but it does change them.  This is the reason that technology and communication with technology must be explored and educated.   When books were first introduced, there was a worry that people would stop interacting and engaging in deep meaningful conversations and relationships.  That they would be so busy reading that they would ignore their relationships.  We know now that this is an extreme view of literacy and that books don’t diminish relationship, but serve to connect society in new and meaningful ways.  Those kids who are glued to their mobile devices and constantly texting are communicating in ways that are meaningful to them.  What isn’t being properly taught and fostered, are how to manage those relationships with the real life relationships.  I don’t blame the technology for his lack of courtesy in making eye contact and engaging in conversation, I blame a lack of education in etiquette and responsible use of technology. These kids aren’t detached from real people, they are making new attachments to people in ways that are meaningful to them.
In some ways I think the age of Twitter, You Tube, instant messaging, blogs, texting, and Facebook are a throwback to earlier times.   Where printed text contained information and communication to the printed page, the Web 2.0 age frees that information and communication again.  There is a flow of information, a sharing of ideas.  It is constant, it is moving.

I think that the vision of technology as merely one of consumption and entertainment is a misunderstanding of technology.  I would argue that the written book fits that category more neatly than technology does.  In a book, all you can do is consume the information and be entertained (and yes informed).  But that is where the book ends.  There is no exchange of ideas, there is no communication or creativity.  To make a book a living breathing thing, one must DO something with it, create something new, discuss it with others.  Technology is no different.  With technology there is some consumption and entertainment, but there is so much more.  There is the ability to exchange ideas, collaborate on projects (with people from around the world), communicate, create something new.  Technology has become largely social, nothing about it is static. It is a dynamic, living entity where ideas are exchanged, challenged and made new.
If a student is using an iPod for the “what can it do for me?”, “how can it entertain me?”, and “how can I find cooler stuff than other kids?”, then its use is very shallow and underdeveloped.  Those attitudes tell me that the child has never been taught to use technology. That they are using it very primitively and not for its created purpose.  When technology use is properly fostered, it is used for so much more.  It is used to chart a unique learning journey, it is used to explore and discover, it is used to discuss, it is used to challenge, it is used to collaborate and communicate, it is used to connect them globally and give them a bigger understanding of the world they live in.

There doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between technology and literature, and art, and nature.  It isn’t an either or scenario.  It is an and both.  Each of those things is important to the development and growth of a child.  Leaving any one of those out doesn’t develop the whole child for the world they live in.  Using technology shouldn’t mean that the “close things” are ignored.  If anything, technology should provide a new way that those “close things” can be understood and appreciated.  For example, if I am in the middle of the forest on a hike with my husband, I bring along our digital camera.  It isn’t because I am so technology minded that I can’t imagine being without it, it is because I am surrounded by such beauty that I want to capture it and remember it.  Technology can be used to help us stay close and remember.  When I get home I am likely to do something with that photograph so that I stay connected to it, I may create something new whether that be a painting, a sketch, a scrapbook, sharing it with the world via Flickr or a digital slide show with music.  Technology can be used to help nourish relationship with both other people and creation. It can be used to increase creativity and increase connections with others.

My philosophy of education includes technologies of all kinds.  I believe that without technology in education, the whole child isn’t being educated.  Without technology kids aren’t adequately prepared for life beyond the walls of the classroom.  Of course children will be users of technology whether it is taught in school or not, of course they will.  Technology saturates our lives.  But without proper guidance and understanding of how to use technology, it will be misused.  If children only know how to use technology as entertainment and consumption devices, that is how they will be used.  Understand, the same is true of books. If kids are never taught to interact with what they read and encouraged to discuss it, they will likely grow up to be adults who read purely for entertainment and their own consumption.

You are right, the human condition hasn’t changed much, our needs haven’t changed.  At our core we are social, creative beings.  Technology is so wildly popular and quickly growing because it feeds those needs.  If technology didn’t answer the call of the human condition, then it wouldn’t be so popular.  You Tube isn’t popular because it is a form of entertainment, You Tube is popular because it provides a place for everyone to create and have a voice. It is popular because of the interaction that it makes available after the entertainment.  Without the social aspect of You Tube, it would fade into the background as a low-budget television channel.  The power is in knowing how to use that technology to make us better, to encourage creativity and social interaction.  The friends I have online are in no way a substitution for the rich real life relationships I have, they are an addition to them.  I now “know” people from every continent in the world.  I have an understanding of the world I live in that can’t come from the static pages of a book or the flatness of the evening news.  I have a very fulfilling relationship with my husband, family, coworkers, and friends. But they don’t all have the same interests and passions I have.  They may be willing to indulge my wanting to talk about technology and education but because they don’t share that passion, I can’t have the same deep conversations about it that I can have online with the teachers around the world who share that passion.

I’ll leave you with one last illustration of technology as a social tool.  Facebook has a video game built-in that has become the most widely played game in the world called Farmville.  In it, people grow and cultivate virtual farms.  There are literally millions of people who spend their days playing this game.  Why is it so popular?  Are people really that interested in farming and use this game as a way to get back to their cultivating roots?  No.  The reason the game is so popular is because there is a social aspect built into the game.  You don’t farm and harvest alone, the point of the game is to get all of your friends involved and helping you. The point is to work together toward a common purpose.  Now this may seem like a waste of time but there is something important happening here.  Farmville gives people a shared experience, something to connect over and work together on. It is a place to practice relationships, responsibility, and teamwork in a place that feels safe and fun.

Technology needs to be taught, proper use fostered.  Without guidance technology can be used inappropriately or used to an extreme.  Isn’t this true of every medium?  We would worry about someone who isolated themselves from everyone and spent their days reading, or someone who did nothing but sit in the middle of a field all the time. These are extremes.

Philosophies and ideas are in a constant state of flux. While believe in some of the basis of the Charlotte Mason philosophy, I believe taking it at its face value as it was written in the 1800’s without taking into consideration the changes that have happened over the centuries would be doing it a disservice.  Just like I wouldn’t want my doctors to treat me with strictly the philosophies held in the 1800’s, I don’t want current education to stay strictly to a philosophy from the 1800’s.  There are roots there that are beautiful and that have stood the test of time, those are what must remain in the school (and medical) system.  We need that grounding. There is wisdom in Charlotte Mason’s writings.  But I do wonder, if Charlotte Mason had lived into the 21st century, wouldn’t her philosophy have evolved with the changing world?  Wouldn’t she stay rooted in deep truths about education and learning while adapting those truths to prepare children for the current world?

Yes it was a long one! Hopefully my response provided a chance to think deeply about what it means to be a child in the 21st century and what it means to be prepared for this world.  What would you have added?


  1. This is a fascinating and very readable post… I found myself agreeing with a lot of what your correspondent had to say. I guess balance is the key.

    I read this the other day:
    “If all you are using technology for in your school is as a means of presenting information to children (“e-chalking”, twenty-first century chalk and talk, boredom for the new millenium – if more often than not you are using your interactive ‘smartboard’ like an ordinary whiteboard, then sell it and save electricity) then you are missing out on one of the most significant breakthroughs in cognitive development for the past thousand years.”

    But, having said that, (and at the risk of stirring up the fire some more), in your response when talking about technology you said children might be…

    “…using it very primitively and not for its created purpose.”

    Is there a risk that, if we are not balanced in our approach to technology (ie. if we send out the message that being skilled in IT is the be-all-and-end-all), we could be developing childrens’ characters and spiritual side “primitively” and “not for their created purpose”?

    That sentence just stuck out for me, that’s all.

    1. Sparky, you and I agree…it is all about balance. Technology isn’t about merely replacing one tool for another. Unless it is opening up new opportunities it doesn’t really belong in the classroom (older technologies will work just as well). What I meant by using technology primitively, was just what you stated above, using it just to replace something older because we can. Because it is newer. I can use my computer like my grandmother does, as an expensive post office. A place to receive and send emails. Or, I can use it to create, to research, to learn, to collaborate, communicate, and expand my world. I would say that my grandmother is using her computer for one of its purposes, but it was created to do much more. IT is not an end-all-be-all but it does, as John stated in his comment, open up additional choices. It is not that we are ignoring a child’s character or spiritual side. It is that we are expanding it to all that it could be. It is that we are giving them additional avenues to explore that character and spirituality. Again I go back to the book, the same case could be made about learning to read. Teaching a child to read isn’t directly about nurturing character and spirituality. But learning to read opens up additional avenues for the child to explore spirituality and character.
      In the world we live in educating the whole child includes technology, but it shouldn’t be included at the expense of character or spirituality. It is not either/or. All of it is important.

      1. As a digital immigrant myself, I know the daily struggle to “keep up” with the breakneck pace of technology. I want my children to learn it as they go. It is and will be an integral part of their lives, both at work and play. I can’t teach them about technology. They actually teach me! But I can and do teach them about common courtesy and manners. It is my job to help my children develop good manners in all aspects of their lives. A child who has good conversational skills, says please and thank you, and knows how to wait for a turn at something will not lose these skills just because technology is involved.

        As parents and teachers we should be teaching all these things every day and at every opportunity. The endless possibilities that technology opens up are to be embraced and explored. Being tech savvy does not make you less human, but it can connect you to more of humanity!

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