Monday, March 14, 2011

Contrasting Two Kinds of Education (Part I)

I don’t know how many people know that I grew up in Northern (West) Germany after the war. For many Germans this was definitely the worst of times. Individuals struggled to survive physically, but I wonder how many are aware of the tremendous number of individuals who were emotionally devastated. Many were in and out of mental institutions and there were many teachers among them.

In the midst of this chaos I had the great fortune to end up with a very exceptional teacher. She was young, gifted and talented and had grown up in this little town which had never been bombed (It had actually been scheduled to be destroyed by Allied bombing, but the end of the war intervened).

What made this teacher and this time so unusual was that everyone had so much freedom. New regulations had not been established for schools and education. Also, there was little money to pay teachers so we only went to school 2-3 hours a day and from 8-10 A.M. on Saturdays.

On many days, too lovely to stay indoors, we would go on hikes to a place she felt to be educational. Most vivid in my memory are visits to the local “Schloss” or castle. This was not like many museums today where isolated pieces are grouped and labeled.

Rooms had been largely left intact and this allowed my imagination to run free as I saw myself living in this kind of environment. Our teacher didn’t teach us things as part of a prepared “lesson,” but rather often pointed things out, or linked items to historical events or told stories.

Either as we walked or back in school she had us recall the type of china (Was it “Dresden?”), and furnishings (“What time period and country did it represent?”, “Where did the carpets originate?”, or “When was the castle built and why here?”).

As a result of this almost casual exchange I became fascinated with stories of royalty, their wars and relationships and other struggles – something that became linking themes and convinced me that I was meant to be an historian.

My entire education was incredibly challenging. For example, we didn’t have spelling tests. Instead she would “dictate” a story slowly and we would write as she read to us. German is very phonetic (spelled largely the way it is pronounced) and I found following with my writing very exciting and challenging.

Despite shorter time spans, many opportunities were provided for us. We didn’t have P.E. every day, but we loved it because it was entirely based on achieving our personal best. I can still remember my little sister and I walking to the local gym to practice on the ropes and do acrobatics.

We did this for fun, inspired by our limited exposure in school.

We learned to sing, went to local “children’s theatre” productions and acted in plays. Math was relatively easy because her instructions were so clear, most science was taught on our walks (types of trees, fauna, weather patterns, etc.).

At the age of 12, when we came to the U.S.A., with the exception of the English language, I was almost three years ahead of students in my classes in academics.

Not until college and graduate school did I once again come across the kind of teaching and “magical challenge” I had experienced early on.

At the end of this month, our new book, “Natural Learning for a Connected World: Education, Technology, and the Human Brain”, will be available on Amazon. I know that much of this book is the result of my own experience of the kind of teaching both Geoffrey and I now so passionately advocate.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Our Tolerance for Violence

When writing this column I often use the word “learning”. But this word has many meanings, the most important distinction being between learning in school and learning from life.

Learning from life is natural for the human brain and body. The brain, especially in children is literally organized (brain cells connect) when children have experiences that include sight, sound, touch or movement, or engagement of feelings. The impact is compounded when such experiences occur more than once, or are particularly violent. Then they lead to the development of “patterns” or habitual ways of seeing or doing something.

So here is my dilemma. At the recent Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema I observed something so disturbing that I had to get up and leave. Before going into detail however I need everyone to understand that we support the film festival and thoroughly enjoy the people who are involved in the film industry. Without exception they strike us as creative, positive and totally committed to their art. And the Festival is great for Idyllwild. It is a young festival and Steve Savage has assured us that the situation I describe here will be addressed next year and should never have happened.

On this particular afternoon the film series began with a thoroughly delightful film intended for adults and children alike. It was called “Libby Girl Online,” produced and directed by a wonderful young woman, Janet Mayson. Everyone enjoyed a very clever computer literate dog and her friends.

But following “Libby Girl,” and with hardly a break in between, came a film of darkness, violence, cruelty, and foul language. I expected parents to get up immediately and take their children outside but instead I saw only one father take his infant out of the Center. These were “good parents” in the usual sense and the children were well behaved.

Even the next film, which could have been funny for an adult audience included sexual content of a very explicit nature. To an adult mind the blatant sexual scenes could have been seen as silly and entertaining, but what were these children experiencing?

In children the emotional system is far more developed than their ability to reason. They have no way of putting things in perspective. Parents may not see an immediate reaction in their child, especially when children are taught to “behave” when in public. But the kids (and sometimes the parents) often have nightmares and what may be seen as unreasonable fears that are never connected to what they saw or experienced.. In my own case I had a dream about human beings being taken over by monsters that had very thick skins with barnacles on them. I have a lot of experience interpreting dreams and it didn’t take long before I realized that my unconscious was saying that we were all becoming “hardened” to watching violence of all kinds. A callousness was taking us over.

Fear and terror act as subtle undercurrents that affect all of us but especially children. Have we as a society become so desensitized to violence and violent language that we no longer see it’s potential to influence our thoughts and actions?

But whether you believe like Isaac Asimov’ character Hari Seldon that “violence is the first refuge of the incompetent,” or you believe that guns should be available for everyone, hopefully you have used your reasoning capacity to decide these things. Children do not have the ability to reason out what they see and experience – they mostly absorb impressions and feel things that ultimately add up to a shift in beliefs and actions. Over time experiencing violence of all kinds will influence their tolerance for violent acts. And children without caring parents present as they grow up are especially vulnerable. In this case, parents should have acted instantly!

We will address issues of fear and helplessness this Saturday, February 12, at the Caine Learning Center. We will be showing a fantastic film. It will begin at 4 p.m. and will be followed by all of us talking about how this is relevant to our lives, communities and what is happening in schools. See you there.