In education, obviously we talk constantly about learning. That’s our job here, right? Fostering learning, assessing learning, innovating learning experiences, understanding learners.

But as teachers, we have a lot of unlearning to do, too, especially when it comes to how we “manage” our classrooms. Many educators replicate the systems of classroom management that they themselves experienced, without often pausing to wonder whether the underlying philosophy of this “classroom management” is the right one.

I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Beyond Discipline  for the first time. I’ve been familiar with Kohn for a while and my previous school was heavily influenced by his philosophy, but reading his book was invigorating. I highlighted approximately half of every page. Kohn’s overall premise is that a focus on compliance in our schools harms children and adults, and we can do better by developing community instead: “the more we ‘manage’ students’ behavior and try to make them do what we say, the more difficult it is for them to become morally sophisticate people who think for themselves and care about others” (p. 62).

It sounds great in practice – but it takes so much unlearning for educators who have spent their whole lives in systems that value compliance. So many teachers are also in positions where compliance is demanded of them every day by administrators, state decision-makers, federal laws. Kohn quotes de Charms: “When teachers are treated as pawns, they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.” Teachers need not only to unlearn how they were taught, but also actively swim against the tide of compliance that is the reality of many schools.

So how do we unlearn? First, I think we need to connect to the big picture. For me, this could look like reading books from my favorite educational philosophers, or books that challenge my understanding of the status quo, or seeking out articles from diverse perspectives. I need to expand my worldview, and in doing so, take apart and discard the parts that don’t serve me or my students anymore.

Connecting to the big picture can also look like dreaming together with other educators – whether that’s attending a conference, and Edcamp, or simply talking with a teacher friend over dumplings about the dreams we have for our students.

Unlearning also takes practice. I’ve been thinking about both/and – we need to think about and talk about the big picture, but we also need concrete ways to test things out. In thinking about unlearning “classroom management,” a couple of concrete ways to try it out include the CPS model and restorative circles. I find that when I commit to trying something concrete, I can practice not only the actual strategy, but managing the feelings of frustration and uncertainty that come in the midst of a change of philosophy.

Unlearning is difficult, especially when everyone is telling us that the “way it’s always been” is the way it should always be. But as Kohn says, “to create a classroom where students feel safe enough to challenge each other – and us – is to give them an enormous gift” (p. 77). Unlearning compliance and embracing a messier version of community is the foundation of a healthy democracy. That’s the direction I want to move with my students.

Review: Last Child in the Woods

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit DisorderLast Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are separated from nature and it’s dangerous to our children. So goes the thesis of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, a critique of our society’s relationship with nature and a guide to how we can reconnect. Louv describes how unstructured play in nature has given way to regimented, supervised, and risk-free activities like organized sports that take place on artificial turf. Free play has become criminalized or outlawed, parents are overprotective and live in fear of the unknown. Louv acknowledges the legitimate reasons why these cultural norms developed, but pushes back on them with evidence of the benefits of quality time spent in nature – and dangers of times spent without. “Permanent disconnection of the young and nature,” he says, “is not inevitable.”
Throughout this well-researched, broad examination, Louv looks at the micro solutions to the child/nature separation as well as the macro societal changes that need to be made. He offers ways to talk about nature to our children or our students, and ways to reimagine the way that cities and towns across the country are designed, engineered and built. Through the lenses of law, religion, school, civil engineering, design, and environmentalism, Louv covers in great detail the depth of the problem – and ways to fix it.
Louv uses a few psychological theories or diagnoses to explain what happens when we remove ourselves from nature. These emotionally resonant examples, such as “nature deficit disorder” or “cultural autism,” help drive home the point that nature is a powerful force in our lives and its impact runs deep into our hearts and minds. Louv also uses beautiful imagery of the natural places in our collective memory, like the edge of the vacant lot, the natural fort under the trees in the cul-de-sac. These descriptions sent me back to thoughts of my childhood and the ways in which I interacted with nature on a daily basis in my suburban yard. I think this is a brilliant part of Louv’s approach: we must reconnect to the value we experienced of nature in order to reprioritize similar value for our children.
In parallel to learning more about the impacts of technology on our lives, I’ve also been learning about systems thinking, and Louv sketches a complete picture of the system which leads to a deficit of nature in our lives. Because he carries out his thesis in so many detailed and varied examples, Last Child in the Woods avoids shaming or blaming any particular group (parents, educators, politicians) for the problem. Instead, the book is solution-oriented – offering folks in any role ways to start small in making a change. I appreciated Louv’s emphasis on practical advice to parents and institutions. While it can be overwhelming to think about global warming or the degradation of natural spaces in our country, I felt settled to think of small, concrete steps I can begin to take, in my classroom and my community. One classroom approach with which I was already familiar was place-based education, especially through the lens of David Sobel. Louv sketches out ideas and examples of how schools around the country are connecting with place rather than through the internet to develop children’s skills and helping them learn endangered knowledge of how the natural world works.
Reading Last Child in the Woods wraps up my study of the case against technology integration in schools. I expected to feel defensive while reading this book, but I actually agree with Louv on his opinion of computers: “The problem with computers isn’t computers – they’re just tools; the problem is that overdependence on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature.” Throughout my study of the case for and against technology integration, I’ve come to firmly stand behind the “both/and.” Computers are both incredible tools for education, and impediments in the way of learning. Interactions with nature are both essential for development and not the only path toward healthy development. This echoes what I believe about teaching as a whole: there is no silver bullet, single strategy or tool that works or doesn’t work for everyone. After my study, I feel optimistic about balancing my passion for educational technology with all that’s valuable about the unconnected world.

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Book review: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Shelly Turkel’s Alone Together I wanted a more detailed look into how technology use actually impacts our biological makeup, not just our social interactions. The Shallows by Nicholas Carr provided me this perspective and helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of how reading and socializing on the internet impacts the way our brains function.

Carr places networked computers in the same lineage as the clock, the map, and the printing press. He describes a human history wherein technology alters the physical networking of our brains and changes the ways we interact with the world and with each other. In this sense, the internet is just one more technology in this constant parade of change. I appreciated how Carr highlighted historical criticisms of technology that we would now consider to be very basic – such as the book. The book is commonly seen as objectively “good,” but Carr reflects that around the advent of the book, people had concerns about the negative impacts of books on society, such as a poet who wrote of the “confusion” and “froth” in the “ocean of print” (p. 71). The inclusion of these critical perspectives addressed one of my biggest objections to Turkel’s Alone Together – current technology is not isolated, nor is the backlash to it, and this book compares these patterns not just to developments over the author’s life, but over the collective human experience.

Using a combination of behavioral and neurological studies as his evidence, Carr clearly lays out the case that frequent internet use, particularly reading online, changes the pathways in our brains, causing a shallower understanding of information and a diminished capacity to make meaning. Humans developed deep reading skills when language became written, and now as language becomes hyperlinked, we develop a different type of skill that is visual and spatial. We become better at skimming and quickly making decisions as we practice this more. As Carr puts it: “we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest” (p. 138). Carr’s argument is complex and the evidence rich; to abbreviate it here wouldn’t do it justice – and is part of why I highly recommend this read to anyone interested in teaching and learning with the brain in mind.

I read most of this book on weekends at a cabin by a lake. There was no cell phone service and weak wireless internet. I read this text as a physical book, laying in a hammock, without a real sense of what time it was or how long I had been reading. While typically I am on the side of defending the internet, espousing its benefits, and pushing for its integration in our schools, I couldn’t help but feel connected to Carr’s message as I swung on the hammock. My brain is practiced in deep reading because that’s what I grew up doing, but as we continue to push for internet use in schools, we push them to practice skimming, evaluating, and decision-making. I would love for everyone to have both of these abilities and to balance them based on the context of the task at hand. Carr is in agreement – we shouldn’t revert to a pre-internet era, nor could we. Yet we should be thinking more intentionally about how and when we unplug, and creating time for ourselves and our children to be quiet and meditative.

After finishing the Shallows I’m moving on to reading Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods to think more about that quiet and meditative space in our lives.

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