Treating Nature Deficit Disorder

Canadian children, apparently, now spend 6 hours a day in front of a screen but just 6 minutes a day on outdoor activity.  This has given rise to the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, to which is attributed all sorts of physical, psychological and social failings.  The culprits are generally identified as television, computer games, X-boxes and smart phones, and no-one could doubt these devices’ addictive hold over the leisure hours of the young (and the old, of course;  once the kiddies have been sent off to bed, how do most parents spend the rest of the evening?)

Campaigns such as David Suzuki’s ‘30 x 30’ (challenging everyone to spend 30 minutes a day outside for 30 days in a row) are admirable, and Suzuki may be right in believing that once we all experience the benefits of life in the open air, we will mend our ways (http://30×30.davidsuzuki.org/2013/05/five-reasons-to-get-outside-like-now/ ).  However, it is a mistake to think that the problem lies solely with the imbalance of family life between active and passive leisure.  I would also argue that we have fallen into a similar imbalance between active and passive learning;  schools could, and should, push back against the remorseless tide of technology that has engulfed our classrooms, and get children outside, experiencing the world first-hand rather than on screen.

I don’t question that, used well and judiciously, technology can aid learning.  I do question whether it is always used well, and I know that it is not used judiciously.  The literature put out by the IT industry always focuses on ‘learning’, but the bulk of the content often revolves around convenience, entertainment, and the universal  appeal of exciting new toys.  Children certainly respond to crisply presented graphics and images, and enjoy interacting with the screen, but are we training them to be passive and only superficially engaged participants in the world presented to them on screen?

In a fascinating TED talk, Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington (http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html ) shows how babies can acquire the ability to pronounce different languages simply by hearing them spoken.  This is well worth watching in its entirety, but for this blog post the significant moment occurs at 7m 40s, when it is demonstrated that this only happens if the language is spoken by a real person who is physically present, not by someone (real or animated) on a screen.  As Dr. Kuhl states:  ‘It takes a human being [for babies to learn from];  the social brain controls [the babies learning]’.  There is plenty of other evidence that children learn by engaging with people on a personal level; this is why I have always maintained that the teacher is more important that the curriculum.

I recognize that schools are under great pressure to make maximum use of technology, as somehow not doing so has become regarded as handicapping children in the competition for qualifications and jobs.  (Note: A more cynical person than me might think that the unbelievable amount of money to be made through the sale of hardware and software has led IT companies to encourage that belief.  I, of course, would refrain from any such judgement.).  Let me repeat that I full support the judicious and selective use of technology.  There are many contexts in which it can and does make a significant contribution to learning;  I am concerned, however, that IT has become an end rather than a means.  Curriculum documents and accreditation standards often now require teachers to utilize technology in their classes, rather than asking whether or why they will use it.  This has created the situation whereby using a graphic calculator, PowerPoint or a Smart Board is regarded as the default expectation;  teachers are expected to justify their non-use rather than their use.  I am reminded of a colleague who was possibly the best History teacher I have encountered (and he definitely taught History, not Humanities or Social Studies!)  Despite being an unapologetic practitioner of ‘chalk & talk’, he had the ability to connect and communicate with a class that was unequalled, and other staff members would occasionally pop in to sit at the back of his classes just to enjoy the performance.  However, he did not use technology, and eventually took early retirement rather than abandon his preferred and proven style.  Students in the classes of his successor undoubtedly received a fine education, enlivened by the full spectrum of interactive technology, but they also missed out on a unique personal learning experience delivered by a true master of his craft.  Our schools should have room for both.

What, then, is the alternative?  Schools are not about to abandon technology, nor should they.  They could, however, do more to make sure that teachers are not reduced to technicians who manage the IT for students.  IT can be used to release teachers to do what only they can do – relate to kids.

If Nature Deficit Disorder is to be countered, it must start early, before the young mind is taken prisoner by the screen.  Just how effective this can be is demonstrated by the success of Waldkinder (‘forest children’) programmes in parts of Europe.  3-, 4- and 5-year olds spend the day tramping around the woods in all weathers, exploring, playing, questioning and, throughout, learning.  An example can be seen here in a video clip of the Early Years class at an international school in Zurich: http://vimeo.com/groups/192790/videos/29831882 .  (Warning:  Waldkinder classes are unstructured, and can lead in some surprising directions.   I once sat in on a class ‘debriefing’ at the end of the day, during which the teacher directed a student to go and fetch from her bag one of the interesting objects that had been found;  the student’s hand instead emerged clutching a Playboy centrefold which the teacher had alertly spotted littering the trail in a most un-Swiss way, and quickly scooped into her bag before the children noticed. )

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly support the efforts by David Suzuki and others to encourage the re-balancing of family time, but 6 or 7 hours of a child’s day are under the full control of schools, and if that time were also to be rebalanced, then Nature Deficit Disorder could really be addressed.  I also suspect that, as a side effect, many children might find that their other Deficit Disorder (ADD) might be helped!

Earning our applause

I have probably spent more than two thousand hours in school auditoriums watching and listening to student performers.  They have spanned the full spectrum of talent, and if I were to judge solely on the quality of performance some would have prompted me to leap to my feet in ecstatic applause, a few would have caused me to doze off, and a very few would have made me cringe in my seat.   Regardless of talent, however, what all of the performers shared in common was the courage and determination necessary to meet the challenge of going on stage and exposing their skills to the scrutiny of an audience.  Few things are as terrifying, especially to a young person, and so every performance, without a single exception, has given me pleasure and provoked my admiration.

These feelings were rekindled this week at the Powell River Festival of the Performing Arts.  This is a community rather than a school event, but students nevertheless constitute the great majority of the participants.  The Gala at the end was a showcase of exceptional talent and as entertaining an evening as I have enjoyed anywhere, but just as impressive were the massed ranks of students of all ages who sang, danced, and recited, individually or in groups, throughout the week.  This brought home once again the vital role the performing arts play in education.

Very few of the performers will ever make a living from their art, and so educational reductionists might say that such activities are an unproductive use of school resources.  However, memorisation, self-awareness, poise, confidence, commitment, persistence and a willingness to take risks were all evident in abundance alongside the talent, and without those learned qualities the talent might never have made it on to stage.  These are also the skills that will enable these students to aspire to, and achieve, ambitious goals in any sphere of life.  Perhaps even more importantly, life should be about far more than economic productivity;  it should be about humour, anger, joy and despair, and it is through arts education that students learn to explore, understand, communicate and evoke these emotions.

I congratulate all of those in Powell River who have given their students such an arts-rich environment in which to grow and learn.  While on the topic, let me send a shout-out to my ex-colleagues in Zurich who have been investing unquantifiable time, energy and skill in guiding the school production of ‘The Sound of Music’ which shows later this week.  Whenever a young person is able to stand on stage and hear the applause, anywhere in the world, it is thanks to a teacher who deserves our congratulations and support.

The world is a complicated place

In a recent column in the Observer newspaper, humorist David Mitchell took aim at the Heads of English Public Schools who, apparently, are fed up with not being recognised for the good work their schools do (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/03/private-school-teachers-david-mitchell).    (For those not familiar with the oddities of British labelling, in the UK the term ‘Public School’ is reserved for private institutions catering to those who can afford them; the remainder attend ‘state’ schools).   Like Mitchell, I attended an independent school (only a mile or two from his, as it happens), where I benefitted from an excellent education;  I concur with his suggestion that ‘if there was no independent sector, our state school system would serve us better’, and with his characterisation of the privileged tax status accorded to UK independent schools as ‘the establishment taking care of its own’.

Mitchell’s purpose is to entertain, but his sarcasm makes a serious point:  independent schools are, by and large, far more comfortable places to teach than state schools, and those who work in them must live with the fact that the moral high ground is reserved, rightly, for those who struggle daily to educate the most needy in society in the most difficult circumstances.

Mitchell mentions Anthony Seldon, the Head of Wellington College, who has complained of jealousy and hostility towards Public Schools.   Writing in the Guardian newspaper last year, Seldon also stated that ‘British public life would be unthinkable without the contributions made by [Public Schools]’.  He was quite right, but I question the assumption that British public life, as shaped by the Public Schools, is an asset to the nation.  After all, as he points out:  ‘…many senior politicians, newspaper editors and proprietors attended them’;  the list should also include bankers and financiers, and comprehensively covers those segments of society which are widely held to have failed!

Mitchell rant singled out for particular attention the ex-Heads of Roedean and Cheltenham  Ladies College, who are ‘flouncing off to the moral sinkholes of the world’  (such as Switzerland and Saudi Arabia) to take charge of international schools, and it is here that he goes wrong.  His lack of awareness of the international education scene leads him to assume that all international schools are similar in nature, the sort of ‘cushy school for the rich’ to which he would expect the Heads of Cheltenham Ladies College and Roedean to migrate.

Such schools certainly exist, and in ever-growing numbers.  The ‘for-profit’ sector in international education is a booming business, particularly in the field of franchising the names of famous Public Schools to cater to wealthy elites (either expat. or local) in the Middle East and Asia.   However, many international schools operate on a not-for-profit basis, and in many cases costs are borne by the institutions or companies whose employees insist on the availability of an English-medium school before they will take a post abroad.  This results in such schools having more in common with a good suburban state school, rather than an elite private school.   They take very seriously the idea of diversity, whether of nationality, language, ability or economic status, and they benefit from one huge advantage:  they need not be constrained by political oversight or national curriculum.

The best international schools (and all of my international teacher friends reading this teach in the best international schools!) really do provide a setting in which education and children can thrive.  Of course, expat. parents can be as demanding as any in the world, but the international educators I know find huge satisfaction in simply being treated as professionals and being able concentrate on helping students learn.  The diversity of students, staff and parents also gives them a distinct edge when dealing with global issues;  tolerance and international understanding become a part of daily life rather than an theoretical ideal.

There is no doubt that Switzerland has more than a few moral issues to deal with, particularly in the financial sector, but it also plays host to more than a few international organisations whose moral credentials are impeccable.  International schools in Switzerland cover just as wide a spectrum, from elitist to idealist, and Mitchell’s generalisation is inaccurate and unfair (though, admittedly, complicating his argument with nuance and shades of grey would probably spoil the humour.)  Nevertheless, there really are schools that actively strive to make the world a better place, and those who teach in them consider themselves fortunate indeed.

‘Instead of a gun in every classroom, let’s put a teacher in every gunshop.’

I came across this gem on Facebook while I was still spluttering over the crass statement by Wayne LaPierre, the Vice-President of the NRA, that ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ The NRA advocates putting armed guards in every school as the way to prevent further mass shootings such as the pre-Christmas massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut. (It probably also recommends keeping buckets of gasoline in the house in case of fire.)

I was delighted by the image of every potential gunshop customer being challenged at the point of sale to reflect upon, explain and justify their reasoning in deciding that they needed a gun. The teacher would, of course, only accept properly thought-through answers, would pick up on any logical inconsistencies, and would use astute questioning to guide the ‘learner’ to a proper understanding of the implications of his or her actions. Imagine the effect on sales! (Perhaps others shared this same image, which is why the share price of both Smith & Wesson and Remington plummeted.)

This set me to pondering on just how much expertise teachers bring to their profession. Inexplicably, the public view of teaching seems to be more in line with George Bernard Shaw’s jibe: ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches’ or Woody Allen’s modification ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.’

I would argue the opposite.

Teaching a concept or skill actually requires a far more profound understanding than simply using it, which is why ‘peer-teaching’ is such an effective classroom strategy. Nor does the ability to teach arise automatically from mastery of the subject – witness how the most capable students can flounder when asked to ‘peer-teach’ an item. Naturally gifted mathematicians or linguists do not necessarily make the best teachers of Maths or Languages – quite the opposite. It is often the struggle for mastery, including the analysis of the skills needed, reflection on the difficulties, and the development of strategies for overcoming them, that builds the framework of understanding of the learning process and empathy for the learner that makes for effective teaching. This can be observed very well in sports. The number of top coaches who a) did not reach the highest levels as players in their sport and b) were teachers before they became coaches is far too high to be a coincidence. In international rugby alone the list includes Graham Henry (NZ All Blacks), Declan Kidney (Ireland), Stuart Lancaster (England), Brian Ashton (England), Eddie O’Sullivan (Australia) and Bill Dickinson (Scotland). From soccer can be added Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid), Roy Hodgson (England) and Rafael Benitez (Chelsea). Dig into your own favourite sport and you will find many more. In Shaw’s words, they could not do, so they taught, and I would suggest that it was the skills they learned while qualifying and practising as teachers, combined with the insights gained by having to think about their chosen sport (rather than rely on natural genius or instinct) that enabled them to become such effective communicators and transmitters of skills.

Outstanding teachers are as rare as outstanding ‘doers’. They are also far more valuable, given the number of lives that they help shape. As Shaw and Allen might have said if they had gone for accuracy rather than wit:

Those who can teach make it possible for others to learn how to do (and that applies to gym teachers as well!)