As students across most of America enter the classroom this month, they will be met with the latest technical assistance for learning – personal computers, large video screens, calculators, audio headsets, well-lighted classrooms and indoor restrooms. There will be comfortable facilities and equipment for just about any sport desired. Even young children will have a cell phone with internet connection so that Google is one voice command away.
As I reflect on this, and then ponder the scene of my early days in school, I wonder how we learned anything at all. At that time, we did not have even one of the items listed above. There was one room with desks varying in size to accommodate students from first to eighth grade. Windows were opened on warm days, and during winter, a pot-bellied stove was fired up by the one teacher, who arrived early. Parents supplied the wood and coal.
There were no electric lights – actually no lights at all except what came through the windows. For evening functions like the Christmas program, each family brought a lamp. Running water involved a thermos canteen brought by the teacher. And there were two outhouses.
The alphabet was posted on cards around the room. There was an American flag and two pictures on the wall – President Washington and President Lincoln. The chalkboard was the major visual assistant – we called it the “blackboard.” And there were textbooks featuring Spot, the dog, who “wants to run, jump and play.” We learned history, spelling and arithmetic. The only calculus I knew was when I got into trouble and “calculated” that I would be in even bigger trouble when my parents found out.
So how did we learn anything in that limited environment? The tools and helps today are wonderful, and I am grateful for each of them. Visuals, contact with the entire world, a peek into space and immediate access to Wikipedia are available to anyone who desires to use them. This is amazing.
It is important to remember that we did learn a lot. In fact, many of the inventors of today’s technology probably have roots in that non-technical learning environment. The volume of information today far exceeds what we had, but the basic principles for learning really have not changed. We need a teacher to guide the learning process, a student who wants to learn, a sense of discipline to put effort into the journey and a commitment to finish.
We learned how to learn together. Older students helped the younger ones. There was a family atmosphere. Independent learning was not really an option. We had to concentrate on our assignment while the teacher talked to other students. Distractions had to be overcome if we wanted to succeed.
Our non-technical environment facilitated communication because we had to talk and listen. There was a sense of community and togetherness. I recall a girl jumping out of a swing and breaking her arm. Someone must have run to the families living closest to the school. Within a short period of time, they were on their way to the doctor – probably at least 20 miles away. I am guessing the first her parents knew about the accident was when she arrived home wearing a cast.
I appreciate technology. I like the privilege of sitting in the comfort of our home while learning about life taking place half a world away. I do not wish for a moment to return to “those good ol’ days” of my growing up years. The tools we enjoy enhance education today. But when we allow them to take the place of face-to-face communication and the benefit of community connections, we miss a part of education that technology cannot fill.