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!

The Graduation speech I never gave

Dear Graduates,

I’ve given many graduation speeches during my career, and I have always been careful not to spoil the day by upsetting or offending any of the students, parents, Board members or teachers who make up my audience (well, nearly always!)  Inevitably, this has put a constraint on the possibility of saying anything worthwhile, although I’ve done my best not to be too bland.

No longer!  I can now tell you what I have wanted to for the last forty years!

Point 1: despite what your parents and teachers might have told you, most of you have not yet accomplished anything at all. All of the benefits in your life so far have flowed in one direction, from your parents and teachers and towards you, allowing you the luxury of following your prescribed courses with varying levels of interest and enthusiasm while enjoying the freedom of youth. This is not a criticism, it is simply the nature of school and of youth; you will not know what you have really learned until you go out into the world where the consequences of your behaviour will be felt by you and by others.

Point 2: don’t be fooled by your grades, whether they are good or bad.  Rarely in life will you be faced with test questions for which you have been taught the answers and given the opportunity to study for; your success in such tests will have little bearing on your future happiness.

Point 3: much of what you learned in class is less important than what you learned out of class.  The ability to solve equations or write an essay may be useful, but not as much as the ability to make a friend laugh, comfort someone in distress, resolve a confrontation, or stick to your principles. Unfortunately, none of these things fit easily into a formal curriculum, but I hope that you have learned them by observing them in the behaviour of your family and teachers.

Point 4: although school is supposed to prepare you for life, it actually only prepares you for more school.  We have now recognised that learning should not stop at graduation, and you have been urged to pursue ‘lifelong learning’; we have yet to reach the logical conclusion that real-life experience should not be left until after graduation, and there is a dire need to bring ‘lifelong experience’ to your student years.

Point 5:  whether you realise it or not, you have an innate love of learning. Some of you are lucky enough to have had this nurtured and encouraged, but in some it has been neglected, or even squashed out of existence by the rigidity of the curriculum. Humanity is naturally curious and people enjoy learning, unless they are forced to study things that do not interest them and have no relevance to their lives.

Over the last year, thanks to the power of Facebook, I have been making contact with many students whom I taught and/or coached in the past. As I enjoy vicarious glimpses into so many diverse lives, I am been struck by the impossibility of extrapolating from the teenager to the adult. These ex-students, regardless of their degree of ‘success’ at school, have careers, friends and families which are a reflection of their own talents, choices and decisions, and which add up to something so much richer and more complex than their teachers could have foreseen. They have discovered what you will discover: that unlike school, life has no final grade, no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, and no ranking system that you have to accept. You will enjoy a mixture of happiness and despair, and some of each may be shaped by your school years. On behalf of your teachers I hope that we have not hindered your progress too much, and that you have managed to learn something while in our company.

I will close with an extract from a graduation address that I had the privilege of delivering from the podium of the General Assembly chamber of the United Nations when I was Principal of the UN International School in New York:

No graduation speech would be complete without at least one metaphor, and I found my metaphor on an extremely educational class field trip to the 6 Flags Theme Park. There is a device there called the ‘SkyHoist’, which involves three people being strapped together and hoisted 200 ft up into the air on the end of a 200 foot wire, where they then pull a release cord to be dropped and become a 200 ft pendulum swinging at horrible speeds. (Why they would want to do this remains a mystery to me, but that is not my point.) My metaphor is the image, frozen in memory, of three students: a young French-Canadian, a young man from the Gabon, and a young woman with a complicated ancestry involving England , Tanzania and the US, all hanging onto each other for dear life as they plummeted towards the ground, because each other was all they had to hang on to. Though they were terrified, they clearly loved every minute of it.

And so here is my message for the students: If you can see beyond your fears and your superficial differences, pull the release cord and hang on to each other – you will find that life is going to be a pretty exciting ride.

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.

‘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!)

“The world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.” Helen Keller

Before this week I, like most people in the world, had never heard of Newtown, Connecticut  The lives of the teachers, students and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School had no special significance beyond their immediate family circles.  I wish that were still the case.

I imagine that the atmosphere at Sandy Hook during the final lead up to the Christmas holidays was the same mix of excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation as in schools all over the world.  Anyone who has worked in schools would have felt at home.

No more.  Henceforth, the name ‘Sandy Hook’ will be a short-hand prompt for despair and outrage.  Each of us will feel the guilty conflict between our horror at the realisation that it could so easily have happened in our own community, and an awful feeling of guilty thankfulness that it did not.

When faced with a natural disaster such as famine, flooding or earthquake, we know how to respond:  we try to mobilise resources and send help;  we contribute to the Red Cross; we hold collections for blankets, food, clothing, or simply money.  But this week there is no help we can send; there is no outside support we can offer.  There is simply a school community that has been devastated because of a personal narrative that turned violent, and in which they have played no part except that of victims.

However, though we cannot offer help, we are not helpless.

We have been told that right now is not the time to debate the issue of gun control, and it is a safe assumption that the gun lobby will soon move into high gear to argue that the easy availability of firearms had no direct bearing on this tragedy.  We will also hear the usual defence of personal liberties and constitutional protection of the right to bear arms.  In addition, non-Americans like me will be told that this is a domestic debate in which we have no legitimate voice.

My response is that I claim a voice because I have worked in schools; I claim a voice because I know and have taught American children;  I claim a voice because I have enough working brain cells to recognise that the correlation between easy gun ownership and sky-high levels of gun crime is not a coincidence, and that a constitution written two hundred years ago for a society in which the survival of the nation was under threat may not provide a perfect blueprint for today;  I claim a voice because I view what happened at Sandy Hook in the same way I view apartheid, or the suppression of free speech, or the oppression of women, or the exploitation of children, i.e. as a violation of the standards to which the human race should aspire.

President Obama has promised ‘meaningful action’.  I hope that my voice will be added to the voices of millions around the world, rising to a deafening volume that cannot be ignored, and that will strengthen his resolve to prevail against those who will want to resist any action.  The US claims the right to exert influence beyond its borders in support of human rights, and when it considers a government is failing to protect its people.  It is time for them to hear that the rest of the humanity claims the reciprocal right.