The World We'd Like to Build

Winter 2015

By Mike Vachow

​Throughout human history, periods of great technological change have outpaced the time that the philosophers need for reflection - and the even greater period of time it takes them to get our attention. In doing so, they left us to be swept along by the unabashed boosterism of progress. I’m convinced that we’re in such a time now when it comes to the role that digital technology plays, and might play in the future, in education.

Over the last 20 years or so, there have been two principle influences on my thinking about the role of technology in education (and more broadly on humanity): Langdon Winner, a political science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author of the book The Whale and the Reactor, and Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer, musician, and author of You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?

In his introduction to The Whale and the Reactor, Winner writes, “I am convinced that any philosophy of technology worth its salt must eventually ask, How can we limit modern technology to match our best sense of who we are and the kind of world we would like to build?” Winner penned this prescient statement in 1986, just as the idea of personal computers was becoming unlaughable. But his argument has become exponentially truer in the past 25 years. And, if you entertain this argument, you would agree that no institution bears a greater responsibility for addressing the question than schools. After all, the phrase “best sense of who we are and the kind of world we would like to build” is a pretty fair gloss of all of our mission statements.

Jaron Lanier takes up the same argument 25 years later in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article: “To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.” 1

Implicit in this statement is Lanier’s contention that the finite nature of computer programming, and the inevitability of “lock-in” imbedded in the algorithms that define Web 2.0 technologies in particular, casts the human user in radically diminished visions of personhood and more often than not as an unwitting component (a “gadget”) in a larger machine designed to transform information into money, none of which accrues to the person who has supplied the information.

Early childhood teachers are the people I know who are the most deeply attuned to their role in helping children form their “selves.” After all, their charges are taking their first steps into a social world beyond their families. I work with extraordinary early childhood educators (big-time Vivian Gussin Paley disciples) who hold agency and environment at the center of their work. They believe that digital technology confuses and/or demeans both of these critical elements. They see a fundamental difference between children creating a tower from actual blocks of wood - negotiating the blocks’ size relative to their own strength and hand-eye coordination, the micro-contours of the floor or table, the physics of their own movement and that of their classmates, the world of social learning made available when other children join in - and children who dab their fingers across an iPad, shifting facsimiles of blocks into a pre-conceived, encoded plan for the structure. A good pre-K teacher knows that a three-year-old’s core strength and balance are more critical at that moment to his or her future as a learner than letter recognition. And really good pre-K teachers build letter-recognition activities that are cleverly disguised core-strength activities at the same time. An outstanding pre-K teacher builds in a tertiary social challenge as well. A digital tool in this mix adds nothing.

But early childhood education may be too easy an example. Surely digital tools have more to offer teachers as children become more sophisticated and autonomous as learners. Right?

Even then, I contend that we should choose carefully. Some of the early returns on digital education tools are beginning to roll in. The massive open online course (MOOC) is, by most accounts, a failure, a fate presaged by the dearth of Bob Ross “students” exhibiting work in important art galleries. The pallid interactivity between the MOOC “teacher” and his or her ethereal “students” has led to a 90-plus percent dropout rate in most MOOC courses. Similarly, researchers tell us that comprehension in sustained reading and lucidity in writing, the centerpieces of any serious academic curriculum (or sustainable civilization?), are actually inhibited when digital texts include links, videos, and animations. 2 Likewise, education’s straw man, the lecture, has been blinged up to its desultoriness-on-­steroids cousins, the PowerPoint “stack” and its cynical spawn, Animoto, Prezi, and the like. Or it has been recast into the flipped classroom, a handy solution, perhaps, for universities and colleges trapped by inside-the-giant-lecture-hall/discussion-session model, but of dubious value to independent schools where our small class sizes offer creative teachers a daily opportunity to weave multiple pedagogies into their practice.

I see many examples of this kind of genius in the classrooms at Forsyth School (Missouri), where I am the head. Teachers form supportive classroom communities where challenge becomes the norm and our entire neighborhood becomes the classroom. Across the street on one side of campus sits one of the largest city parks in the nation. Washington University lies across the street on another. Inside Forest Park are not only savannahs and wetlands but also many of the city’s excellent cultural institutions. Students at multiple grade levels conduct a yearly species survey on our campus. When the fourth-graders take up their study of the American Civil War, they walk to the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center and read aloud letters written by St. Louisans who witnessed the Camp Jackson Massacre in 1861. Our art instructor and the curator at Washington University’s Kemper Art Museum collaborate to bring Forsyth students to exhibits throughout the year. Last spring, the third-graders walked across the street to see a Georges Braque exhibit with the curator and some college students, then spent the next week working on their own still life paintings. When the sixth-graders study one of Shakespeare’s plays each spring, they read the play with their teacher, write about it, see it performed live on stage by professionals, and then, as part of their final weeks of school, the kids perform the play (this year Macbeth) themselves — three times.

Digital technology plays parts in many of the projects I reference here. The species survey profited from motion-sensitive digital cameras that captured the campus’s nocturnal creatures, from spreadsheet and presentation applications, and from an online birdsong catalogue. The fourth-graders augmented their firsthand Camp Jackson letter experience by using the Missouri History Museum’s online catalogue. Digital tools also enhance Forsyth’s teaching practice. The iPad has become a critical tool for our PE and early childhood faculty who rely on observation for much of their assessment of children’s growth. The ease with which they can capture brief action sequences and stills, annotate them, and tuck them into folders has been transformative for their practice. Ceiling-mounted projectors in all classrooms and interactive whiteboard tools in some make presentations and demonstrations by teachers and students a regular part of learning as well.

Nevertheless, digital technology at Forsyth serves supporting, peripheral roles, and we frankly don’t see a good reason to change that much. Is an online version of the Camp Jackson letter as good as a child holding the actual letter and resurrecting - from fingertips, up the arms, through the vocal cords - the voice behind that faded ink? Would viewing cubist paintings online and conducting a Skype discussion with an expert from New York City be more satisfying than standing before the paintings in a gallery with the spring light playing off their surfaces? Would watching various filmed versions of Macbeth and then creating interactive Prezi reports be more personally and intellectually rewarding than bringing Shakespeare’s language alive through their own mouths and bodies on stage before a live audience? To choose the former would be a pedagogical felony.

Digital technology has a place in educating children, but there are many more compelling educational tools available to us. The use of primary texts and artifacts, the process of natural discovery, the scientific method employed with real materials, sustained, complex reading and writing in multiple genres and modes - all of these remain the most sophisticated ways that human beings grasp and convey knowledge. Likewise, the social curriculum (the construction of executive skills, the practice of civil debate, the dynamics of teamwork and authority, the mediation of conflict) thrives best in the real world where children build an understanding of their own bodies in space, the power of their own words, and the beautiful and limitless nuances of gesture, expression, and tone.

I believe this deeply, that our job as educators is to help children become productive, active, potentially radical citizens, people awake to beauty and to their capacity to create beauty themselves. We must be present to our own thoughts and expressions and to each other to accomplish this mission.


1. Jaron Lanier, “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 16, 2010.

2. Gail A. Hinesley, “E-learning Today: A Review of Research on Hypertext Comprehension,” AACE Journal, 15(3), 255–265 (2007).
Mike Vachow

Mike Vachow is head of Forsyth School (Missouri).