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.