Thinking About an Elementary Science Education Curriculum:
Continuing the Conversation

Educational Technology In General and in a Quaker Context
Background for 8 June 2006 Discussion

In her initial project thoughts, Deb Hazen briefly alluded to a concern about computer usage that has arisen during several of our conversations "we have discussed concerns around children's diminishing first hand knowledge of the world (essentially a dearth of background knowledge that they can use to make connections) as more students spend more of their time in front of television and computer screens. On the topic of computer technology, I am torn. Last year I read and shared with teachers an article that was published in Orion. An abridged version of the article can be found at I admit that much in this article resonates with me, and I would hope to have continuing dialogue on this topic as we develop the curriculum." Relevant to that conversation are several existing Serendip items, including as well as the following emails that were triggered by Deb's essay and related conversations. Ann Dixon is Serendip web master and an active Quaker, as is Anne Dalke who will be joining us for the discussion on 8 June.

Further thoughts can be posted in our on-line forum or emailed to me for addition to this page.

Ann Dixon, 17 May 2006

Hi Paul,

Thanks for sharing the article in Orion Magazine about technology. I was especially intrigued by the argument that the author made about the drawbacks of allowing computers to replace "real" experiences in the world:

"Structured learning certainly has its place. But if it crowds out direct, unmediated engagement with the world, it undercuts a child's education. Children learn the fragility of flowers by touching their petals. They learn to cooperate by organizing their own games. The computer cannot simulate the physical and emotional nuances of resolving a dispute during kickball, or the creativity of inventing new rhymes to the rhythm of jumping rope. These full-bodied, often deeply heartfelt experiences educate not just the intellect but also the soul of the child. When children are free to practice on their own, they can test their inner perceptions against the world around them, develop the qualities of care, self-discipline, courage, compassion, generosity, and tolerance - and gradually figure out how to be part of both social and biological communities." The implied correlation between cancelling recess and technology spending is interesting, but not causal, or at least I don't believe that technology is causing the elimination of recess. There are many forces at work which are driving the elimination of unstructured experience from children's (and adult's!) lives, and we could easily name the symptoms, e.g. the importance of teaching to tests, the pressure on children to succeed and be exceptional, the pre-K Harvard track. Do I really need to think about sending my 2 year old to nursery school already? (I'm not! but I am, apparently, non-normative in this area.) What is causing all this? I think that it is fear, fear of the unknown future, fear that our children will not have a place to thrive, fear of how risky society appears now, fear of our own (parent's) future when social security looks busted and the fallback retirement plan, our children's economic prosperity, appears threatened by many things too. It seems like people are grasping for the "right" way of raising their children in a climate of fear in order to guarantee that things will work out ok in the end.

That "right" way is a prescribed way of doing things to attain a desirable result, and I see that there are plenty of people who are writing about how to structure children's learning experiences the "right" way. I rarely hear people write about the value of unstructured learning experiences, and it is refreshing that this author articulates the real benefits of them. I think that setting up technology as the straw man, however, doesn't necessarily follow from that argument, and I would suggest two points here:

"Computers not only divert students from recess and other unstructured experiences, but also replace those authentic experiences with virtual ones."

Isn't it interesting how this argument could be applied to reading novels? (says the English major) When we read a novel, we replace an authentic experience with a virtual one, don't we? And do we then close the novel with unrealistic expectations of the world? I'm smiling remembering some of my favorite books in elementary school for pleasure reading -- Pippi Longstocking, Encyclopedia Brown, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- by this argument, I was having virtual experiences of mystery and adventure and The Real World is Not Like That!

But seriously, I'm thinking that there can be some productive distinctions made here. Perhaps all virtual experiences are not as negative as this author portrays them to be? Perhaps there are qualities of virtual experiences which are useful in some ways and not so useful in some ways? The quantity of virtual experiences might be a concern. The author cites 5 hours of computer time per day, for instance. But again, I think back on my own experiences, how much I read as a child (one summer vacation I read 100 books), and can't conclude that that quantity of virtual experience is necessarily a bad thing. I would rather we think further on the qualities of virtual experience that are useful, and if we agree that reading as a virtual experience is a positive thing, reflect on how some computer use could also be a positive thing.

One key, I think, is moderation. Direct, unmediated experiences with the world are important for children and adults alike. And just to name a personal example, I enjoy community gardening, but have never enjoyed gardening books or PBS shows about gardening. For me, the virtual experience can't replace the physical and spiritual experience of the real thing. However, if I were intellectually serious about botany, I would need instrumentation to assist me with measurement and identification. To think more deeply and broadly outside the limits of my personal experience, I need help with external comparison and analysis. Using a computer, just as with a microscope and other instruments, is a way to expand my vision which can still be grounded in direct experiences of the world.

Thanks for sharing the article; I enjoyed thinking about these things.

Anne Dalke, 26 May 2006

Thanks for inviting me to participate in this conversation.

I'm really struck by Deb's queries about direct, unmediated engagement with the world, and even more by Ann's thoughts about what the value of the "virtual" might be, in expanding our vison beyond what it is we can experience directly. What I have to add, @ this point, is some problematizing:

There are a couple of conversations about Quakerism, education and technology, already archived on Serendip, that speak to these concerns. The first is a page of "further reflections" on Serendip's 10 years of experiences in education and technology, which highlights the sociality, playfulness and openendedness of the web, and emphasizes the "playground" quality of sites like Serendip:

The second, which speaks more directly to Quakerism, is a panel discussion about using the web for educational purposes, which Paul and I participated in @ FAHE last June, along w/ Steve Gilbert (a Quaker who runs TLT, a non-profit Teaching, Learning and Technology Group):

The most striking/provocative/useful thing which arose for me out of that discussion was the idea that "intermittent"/"a-synchronous"/"disconnected" exchange (like that which takes place on the web) actually encourages a very useful kind of self-reflection/freedom of thought that becomes restrained when we talk face to face/in direct contact w/ others. That discussion also highlights the useful (humbling/clarifying/clearness-committee-like) exercise of posting on-line, sharing thoughts in progress, "leaving imperfect traces of ourselves there," as well as the extraordinary capacity of the web to locate people we'd like to work with, since it "casts the net so widely."

Another Serendip resource on Quakerism and technology is a talk about "making community in public," which looks @ the parallels between "the grace of revision" and "continuing revelation"--being open to the unconscious, to the spirit, being willing to take risks, not being mired in dogma and concretized ways of thinking and teaching and learning.

That talk also looks @ the role of web-based forums, in prodding students to acknowledge both the importance of claiming what they know themselves, and their usefulness to one another's thinking. The trick here is another Quakerly one: claiming what we know experientially, and doing so with a willingness to be revised by our encounters with others.

Serendip's web principles (listed @ the end of that talk) also have (to my ear) a decidedly "Quakerly" tone:

"The disorder of the Web is one of its greatest virtues. As a fundamentally decentralized system of information exchange, it makes available, to a much greater degree than any prior human institution, the widest possible array of information/ideas/perspectives in a diversity of forms which, for the first time, approximates the diversity of human users....

The interactivity of the Web is perhaps its most important characteristic. For the first time in human history, it is becoming possible for all humans to play an active role in world-wide cultural and intellectual interchange."
In fact, I think I find the web so compatible because it seems to me such a Quakerly sort of place, a place for self-determining exploration, in always-expanding conversation w/ others...


Alice Lesnick, 31 May 2006

Hello Anne and everyone,

I appreciate these thoughts and links. I've enjoyed perusing them and look forward to more conversation about the relation between Friends education and the use of computer-mediated communication. As I shared at Lansdowne, while I am not a Friend myself, I was educated in a Friends School and attended Meeting throughout that time and into my young adulthood. I have long appreciated the role of Friends schools in upholding progressive values, challenging their participants and witnesses to respect every person (of whatever age and origin), and constructing learning as a search rather than a destination.

At this moment, I am thinking about how, whether in an online forum or in a Meetinghouse, people have both freedom and responsibility -- a great deal of both, as it seems to me. In both settings, nothing assures inclusiveness, open-hearted listening (or, in your terms, Anne, a willingness to be revised and to admit of ongoing revision of one's world) or over-time caring, though both, dwelt in conscientiously, may contribute to such orientations. So I'm wondering whether it is useful to think of both of these as possible (though not assured) media for community-building, as particularly public parts of broader, multiply-located and multiply-sourced community-building projects (making a stronger or softer distinction as people see fit between spiritual and educational community), and, if so, whether this is a useful way to see them as parallel in at least some sense, rather than opposed.

I'm also thinking about how different are the histories leading to Friends Meetings and Web communication, and wondering what kinds of impact these differences have in our ways of thinking about them.

All best,

Anne Dalke, 1 June, 2006

Hello back Alice and everyone else,

I appreciate your thoughts, too--your nudging-on thoughts (as always). Here's what you've nudged me to think, in response:

re: "in an online forum or in a Meetinghouse, people have both freedom and responsibility--a great deal of both....In both settings, nothing assures inclusiveness, openhearted listening or over-time caring...."

Yes--and I'd add that the relation between freedom-and-responsibility (=inclusiveness, listening, caring) is directly reciprocal: the more freedom, the more responsibility (am thinking here of Erich Fromm's classic "Escape From Freedom," which is so acute in its description of the "panicky flight from freedom" that each of us engages in once we realize that we really are free to make choices, and that those choices will have consequences).

re: "how different are the histories leading to Friends Meetings and Web communication."

Hm--different time periods, of course, different media, different individuals. But it occurs to me that there is also a very striking congruence between Meetings for Worship and Web forums--both in belief and in practice. That "intermittent/a-synchronous/disconnected" exchange of web forums is not unlike the sort of "popcorn Meeting" that we experience when folks stand to speak what they know, irrespective of whether it follows from/leads to another message. And the "fundamentally decentralized system of information exchange" that is the Web also seems to me deeply, deeply Protestant/Antinominian/Quaker in its (if the secularists will forgive my language) theology: there is no central authority, no central dogma, only the deepest self as guide. It's a religion--as the Web is a format inviting--first-hand experience, claiming the power to define oneself and what one wants-and-needs to know, intent on finding a direct way to gain access to the information one needs, "without going through someone else's gates."


Alice Lesnick, 2 June 2006

Thanks, Anne -- and here's one more thought, prompted by your final line: the Web also sometimes gives people more direct access to others' gates -- as when, twice this year, parents in a school district my kids go to concertedly used email as a political mode of address to our school superintendent. The ease, speed, and ready replicability of email communication proved potent in these cases.


Deb Hazen, 2 June 2006

Greetings to all!

I have been catching up on the e-mail conversation since returning from three days in Washington with my sixth graders. Driving to and from work today, I found myself laboring with reactions that I couldn't quite explain--I'm not sure I've got a real handle on it yet--but will share where I am in what I hope is a reasonably coherent manner!

First, the idea that the Web is where many young boys/girls now have their "Huck Finn" moments is problematic for me. To me "Huck Finn" moments connote rites of passage and an acknowledged widening of the sphere in which kids operate. For example, the early elementary student is focused on self and home. The upper elementary student's explorable landscape is much broader and may include their neighborhood or town. I sense that "Huck Finn" moments bridge and acknowledge this changing landscape for kids and I don't find that the Web has measurable stages of widening landscape or discernable rites of passage. "Huck Finn" moments also seem to carry some perceived risk and I just don't see how that is possible given how anonymous the Web is. Some of my students have My Space accounts--on these boards they describe themselves as 18 year olds living in Texas. As kids we were physically limited by our physical/emotional abilities--we could get to the end of the block but not off to California. I remember the first time I managed to go beyond my own neighborhood and make it to my great-grandmother's house in the next town--as trivial as it may seem that was an accomplishment and it marked something significant for me. My sense is that the unbounded nature of the Web actually robs kids of "Huck Finn" moments, especially in a society in which there seems to be so much fear--I'm thinking of the latch-key kids who lock themselves in their homes with the computer because the parent feels that's where they are safest. One of the really cool features of Friends education is that we hike them around town, to the park, through the stream, take them camping, give them space and time to ask questions and listen to their own answers. (Don't you sometimes feel like there are just too many answers and not enough questions on the Web?)

I also want to pick up on the idea that the "Web is a format inviting--first-hand experience, claiming...without going through someone else's gates." You are touching on something that I think is important when considering children and the Web. My experience is that in normal social exchange, kids are more sponge like than they are negotiators. They are learning how to interact, rather than being full negotiators of the interaction. When kids attend meeting for worship they associate messages with personalities, read body language and tone as messages are delivered, and hear the message once from the speaker. They have some awareness that the messages are the experiences of others and those others have identity. When kids access information on the Internet, there are no voice, personality, or body language cues. They can read, re-read and re-experience the same message ad nauseam. It becomes a constant and my students have a really difficult time understanding that they are going through someone else's gates when they access the information---the gatekeeper is the poster of the information and that person or organization may be reputable and unbiased or have an agenda. Just as they don't recognize that when playing a computer game or engaging in a computer simulation that they are not in total control--possible outcomes are pre-defined by the adult responsible for the programming.

Many Friends schools choose not to stick nannies on their servers, instead opting to teach students how to responsibly use the Internet (we are such a school). And certainly teachers can help students understand how to distinguish between a good site and a less worthwhile site--and I do that in class. I use web quests and send students off to do research on-line. However, given a choice between having kids experience things through the Web and experiencing things first hand (in my mind a true "What can thou say" self-guided, experiential exploration) --I'll choose the hands on every time. This influences how I think about and write curriculum. I'm not certain that it is appropriate to develop a science curriculum for elementary students that has them exploring topics so far a field from their lives that the only way that they can access the information is through the computer. Despite this position, our recently adopted LFS curriculum based on North Carolina standards called for me to teach Latin American studies and ecology last year. As part of an integrated study, I taught the kids the socio-political history and ecology of chocolate production and resolved my internal conflict by tying the socio-political to their current consumption of chocolate (placing them squarely in the history of chocolate production) and used growing cacao to introduce a contained ecosystem so they could later apply what they learned about ecosystem requirements to their own playground. The Internet was important in this study--I used a great on-line site from The Field Museum with the kids--but again, I selected the site and the kids only had access to the information posted by the museum staff---double gated! This set of double gates also served to limit what the students were going after on the Web---and this was important to avoid a state of information overload.

I am not averse to computer use in the classroom --I use them across the curriculum--they have many roles in my classroom: juiced-up typewriters, dictionaries on steroids, instant slide shows, really current encyclopedias, presentation tools, storytellers (we got some great Cherokee tales and super language lessons when studying the Trail of Tears)...I'm just not seeing them as experience pathways. Or maybe, given how I use the computers in the classroom, I am but with a tight hand on the reins!

Looking forward to continuing dialogue.


Ann Dixon, 3 June 2006

Hi everybody,

Many of the ideas discussed this week are resonating for me, but I especially wanted to respond to several things that Deb said yesterday:

"Don't you sometimes feel like there are just too many answers and not enough questions on the Web?"

YES! In the article I wrote last year for the Bryn Mawr alumnae magazine, one of the distinguishing characteristics I described about Serendip is:

"Looking for "the answer" to a question? There are plenty of websites out there which will tell you what to think. Unlike other "academic" websites, however, Serendip specifically adheres to non-authoritative principles in engaging with its audience, which makes it a different sort of place. Serendip helps you think for yourself about your question, and in the process of discovery, to formulate new questions." In this respect, I wish there were a thousand different Serendips on the web, and I am proud that we are doing this work in this space. When we look for more questions on the web, and questioners, I suspect that we are just seeing our society and its values reflected back to us; "seekers," whether they be intellectual seekers or spiritual seekers, are a minority, and curiosity is too often squashed.

"I am not averse to computer use in the classroom --I use them across the curriculum--they have many roles in my classroom...I'm just not seeing them as experience pathways. Or maybe, given how I use the computers in the classroom, I am but with a tight hand on the reins!

I would say that computers *can* be experience pathways, both for adults and children, but they have to be consciously constructed, and made available in different, age-appropriate ways. It would help if we could collectively think of what a web "neighborhood" would look like for students who are "tweens," and what a web "home" would look like for students who are younger. And as we're thinking about these things, I would really want to think about how those web neighborhoods and homes could offer experiences where the students themselves are the creators. There is so much material out there directed at students as consumers of facts and educational information. Anne sees the true potential of the web when she says it's about "claiming the power to define oneself and what one wants-and-needs to know." Often college students are not even able to articulate these things! What would excite me is to develop something which allows the students to be producers and explorers, and does it in a way that's appropriate to their age and discernment capabilities, developing a richer set of skills of inquiry.

And a final thought today-- when we talk about characteristics of the web, we are over-generalizing, I believe. Like most if not all technology, the web is values-neutral. Alice, this affirms your point about open-hearted listening and inclusiveness. If we want to use technology in a way that is consistent with our values, the web will neither help nor hinder us.

I'm feeling regretful I can't join you all on Thursday; I have child care limitations this week.


Paul Grobstein, 5 June, 2006

Wonderfully rich/generative conversation, not only for the immediate issue of computer use in a science curriculum at Lansdowne but also for thinking about our notion of a hands on/inquiry based/open-ended/transactional curriculum generally at Lansdowne and ... for others thinking about such things elsewhere. Thanks to all for contributions so far. I'm happy to continue my editorial role of transferring emails to this page. But anyone wanting a still more personal unmediated engagement with the web is welcome themselves to post their thoughts directly in our on-line forum.

A few thoughts of my own triggered by the discussion so far ...

I'm pleased that Lansdowne chooses (as per Deb) "not to stick nannies on their servers, instead opting to teach students how to responsibly use the Internet". This very much accords with my feeling that the disorder of the web is not only a challenge but also opens new opportunities, including incentive to develop "the skills of reading critically across wide arrays of material". We should of course always have been doing this, with all materials, but the web and its disorder helps to make it still clearer that students need to learn to not take ANY material as "authoritative".

I share Ann's pride that our own Serendip website explicitly "adheres to non-authoritative principles" and her wish that there were more websites that did so. In lieu of that (and perhaps as a contribution to correcting it), it seems to me we have no alternative but to help kids (and others) learn to become their own evaluators of whatever they encounter. Having said that, I am happy to endorse what I think I hear Ann suggesting, that we might think about creating on Serendip a window on the web that would be designed to fit the needs of Lansdowne (and other elementary school?) students.

Such a site ought to make clear the usefulness of the web not only as an information resource but also as a source of interactive educational experiences, as well as of interactive conversation in smaller communities, and in larger ones. Both because of the physical similarity of a computer and a television (the video screen) and because of more traditional ways that computers are often used, we all have some tendency to conceive of the web as a generator of passive experiences in which subjects are provided with more or less useful information. In fact, as Ann, Anne, and Alice have all suggested, among the greatest potentials of the web is the new opportunities it provides for enriching both personal and collective experiences and creating new kinds of transactional communities.

There are of course potential risks as well as potential benefits in new opportunities of whatever kind. And the web is no exception. I don't fully agree with Ann that the web is "values-neutral" (nothing ever is) but do very much share her sense that it can indeed be used "in a way that is consistent with our values", including those of direct personal experience, non-authoritativeness, and transactionalism. The key here, as elsewhere, is, it seems to me, not to replace an older way of educating with a newer one, nor to replicate with newer technology older practices, but rather to ask how the web opens possibilities that one might have wished were available before and use it for those purposes, to add to and expand the educational experience.

I'm very much looking forward to talking more about how we might work together along these lines.

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