Monday, July 30, 2007

Monke Ain't No Monk (No Matter His Disguise)

It's one of the blessings of my life and occupation that interesting folks are always sending me interesting things: books, music, movies, magazine articles. This week, I received in the mail at school an article from Orion Magazine (September/October 2005) called "Charlotte's Webpage," by Lowell Monke. The subtitle: "Why children shouldn't have the world at their fingertips." A parent I met at one of my speaking engagements wanted to know what I thought of it.

Well, I have to say, I can't really comment objectively about it. Of course, before I offer any opinion at all, I always consider the source, so I Googled him. Lowell Monke is a notorious critic of technology education--after having spent 15 years in the field himself. Here's why I can't really comment objectively (but, oh yes, I will comment...later): Imagine you're a chef who really loves her job. You get up in the morning psyched to go to your restaurant and you feel fulfilled at the end of the day. Imagine someone hands you an article about how all of society's ills are caused by folks eating out too much. You're going to have quite a difficult time reading the article, but you'll do so because you know you can't (shouldn't) just block out things that don't reinforce your worldview. Then, you'll concoct a brilliant defense because, after all, debate is nothing more than making the other person wrong--not necessarily to show yourself to be right. You just end up being "right" by default (which is why typical debates bore me.)

Here's where my opinion of the article begins. At it's core, behind all of the stinging rhetoric and giant leaps of logical fallacy, I agree with Monke. He's not the iconoclast he appears to be. After we get past all of his false comparisons (placing a sentence about a decrease in the number of minutes children get for recess these days right before a sentence about the national increase in technology spending--proximity in language does not equal correlation) and all of his self-righteous, didactic rants that only serve to demonstrate how his thinking is radically different from 21st century learners, we get to what he really thinks. He thinks the real problem lies in the fact that schools often try to substitute computers for inspired teachers. "Poorly trained, unenthusiastic teachers, using poor methods based on faulty philosophical foundations to teach irrelevant material makes for boring education. The computer has sounded the alarm for all to hear, but that does not meant that in it lies the solution to the problem."

Monke is right. Without question, the largest challenge I face as a technology educator is helping teachers to understand how to design curriculum that requires students to synthesize information--not just to report it. The world is a different place than the one in which Monke grew up in (rural Iowa), where it was considered a skill to be able to locate information in the library. We are all awash in information. Thinking critically about that information is the skill we need to teach children. Admittedly, most teachers have not yet begun to design their curriculum differently to suit "digital natives."

Monke's real thesis comes in after six needless pages: "It is crucial that we increase our efforts to help people recognize and accept the immense responsibility they have to use those machines for the good of humanity." He is absolutely right and this societal responsibility applies to more than just applies to all media. Not to get all esoteric, but isn't this the primary struggle of humanity? To overcome our baser instincts and rise to the challenge of creating and sustaining a peaceful and honorable community? Monke references a Descartes quote about his desire to "seize nature by the throat." It's really man against himself, not man against machine.

Near the end of the article, Monke concedes that "it's not necessary or sensible to teach children to reject computers. What is necessary is to confront the challenges the technology poses with wisdom and great care."

Now, if Monke had just started out with that thesis and dropped the inflammatory rhetoric, I would have answered with a resounding, "ABSOLUTELY." Most technology educators would. But then, that wouldn't be quite as sexy or alluring in the age of sensationalistic media, hmmmmmm? Wouldn't sell as many articles, hmmmm? He's just an idealist in disguise as a naysayer. Guilty as charged, I judge.

(Thank you to D.T., the parent who sent me the was great fun to read and consider.) Image credit:


RunSingTeach said...

I completely agree with your challenge regarding synthesis versus regurgitation. I struggle with focusing on higher level thinking skills because in all areas, not just technology, it requires such a release of control. So many teachers, myself included, feel safe in the realm of "I park and bark, you park and bark back to me". Technology, like all creative functions, provides such a good catalyst for teaching in this higher level thinking. Now, if I could just stop being a control freak???

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