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Postcard from Alaska: The Dream of an Arctic Winter August 25, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Social Ecology.
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from Carol Birrell

Have you ever had a dream of doing something in your life so so special that you can hardly imagine it? We ask young children, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ In classrooms, we explore imagination, through reflecting on dreaming the future. We smile at those grandiose plans, and reflect on our own lives where many of those dreams were shattered.

I was recently in Alaska, on a very small island in the south-east of the state, as part of a month long Writers’ Fellowship through The Island Institute. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to come to Alaska- in winter! Many think I am crazy, but trained as a geographer, landscapes vastly different from our own have always fascinated me. But most of all, I have harboured this desire to see the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, as they are more commonly known.

Twenty years ago I bought a book on the Aurora, hoping and wishing that one day I would get to see it. Of course, there is a snag here. Even if you do make it to Alaska, there is no guarantee that you will see the Lights. First of all, it depends on the sunspot activity of the sun, producing streams of charged particles hurtling towards earth at a great pace, and this happens in 11 year cycles, with a peak at about 5 years. 2014 was the peak. Ok so cross that one off the list. Next is the weather itself. Clear skies, no wind, and that usually means temperatures below freezing. And where do you find that? Best chance is inside the Arctic Circle with temps at this time of year down to minus 60F. Now the exact translation of that extreme temp to Celsius is beyond me, but I do know that at about minus 40 both F and C scales converge. I am no scientist, but I can tell you that it is some of the most extreme cold on the planet. What is the coldest I experienced? Maybe minus 1C, hardly in the same category.

Next box to cross off? Even when those conditions have been met, you never know what time the Aurora will turn up, if at all. It is more likely in the wee small hours of the morning, like 1 or 2am, when the temp has dropped even further. A 15-20 min stint is all our human body can take at that temp. Eyeballs can freeze then, so you have to constantly blink, and whatever you do, don’t cry! You cannot breathe in that cold air, or ice could freeze not only the back of your throat, your nasal passages, but also your lungs.

The place I chose to stay was a hop in a plane over the Arctic Circle at a little village called Bettles, occupants 14 in winter, swelling to 30 in summer. No roads in or out. Sometimes it is too cold for planes to fly as the fuel freezes, or the engine freezes, or everything freezes. We were doing well to get in and out of Bettles in a small 6 seater. This is the only way food and provisions get to small places like this in winter. Imagine the costs! Naturally, not much in the way of greens provided but we had hearty bowls of moose and reindeer sausages.

Now, even if the Aurora does show, it may be a weak night of only one colour (mostly green), or it is rather a still show- more like bands of green light that are stationary across those starry night clear skies…

All this is to say, it is quite a palaver to get to see the Northern Lights.

Besides being a Geographer, I have a commitment to experience based learning. In most of my classes at university, I take advantage whenever I can, of introducing experiential learning. There is no substitute. You can ply me with all the apps in the world that simulate all the things that we cannot directly experience, but I know that the direct encounter leaves the most profound imprint. It is learning par excellence.

And there is no comparison between reading about the Aurora Borealis (or seeing youtubes of it) and experiencing it. Sometimes those experiences do not have words, cannot so easily be translated into language that others can comprehend. But they exist, nonetheless, and you know it has changed you, in the deepest way possible.

So I cannot, and would not, try to describe the actual experience to you of being present with the Aurora Borealis on a night so clear and burning that all my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, became frozen solid. Rather, I want to encourage you to hold on to your own dreams, and chase them, encourage our children and young (and older) students in our classes to seek out their dreams first hand, rather than vicariously, through others. And never, never lose hope.

 

Dr Carol Birrell is a former lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other posts for this blog.

Anaesthetized by screen or energized by green? August 4, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Role of the family.
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 from Tonia Gray

 

At the recent School Principals’ Conference in Australia, a tweet went out:

Students need technology to thrive, “home is where the wifi is “‪#SPCConf15″‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

The tweet gave me pause; it was at odds with what parents and teachers report to me. Many are increasingly concerned about technology’s broader impact on their children, in both dramatic and subtle ways.

Before I give the wrong impression, I am no Luddite. Like so many academics, I am heavily reliant on Wi-Fi and connectivity for my day-to-day work and even my social life; however, my concern arises from a convergence of factors. To illustrate, I’d like to share three recent stories that suggest technology is not an unmitigated benefit, no matter what a tweet might tell us.

First, I was recently speaking to a mother of a teenager (aka ‘screen-ager’) who recounted that her children’s friends had a very different understanding of how to treat Wi-Fi as home. She told me:

As soon as my son’s friends walk through the front door of our ‘home’, the first thing they say is:

“What’s your Wi-Fi Password?”

She was struck by the way that hunger for technology had overridden the desire for direct human interaction; friends gathered to share access to the Internet rather than to actually interact.

As educators, do we really want to force more internet-based interaction on our students? Do we think that they are not getting enough electronically-mediated connection? Or are we more concerned that they are engaged in two-way dialogue, with face-to-face interaction and human connection?

tania

The same parent was dismayed at the way teenagers addressed one another when they met. She felt that gone are the days where we said:

“Hello. Thanks for having me over. How have you been?”

On the contrary, she worried that Wi-Fi has subsumed their world. Or in simple terms – it is their world.

As a health and outdoor educator, my concern with screen addiction is that interpersonal relationships are being affected in insidious ways. Wi-Fi and screens compete directly with channels of authentic communication, with first-hand and visceral experience.

In our 21st Century ‘Brave New World,’ I constantly notice parallels between Wi-Fi and ‘Soma.’ For those not familiar with Aldoux Huxley’s (1932) novel, A Brave New World, Soma was the fictional drug administered to keep the masses placated, unquestioning and inert – a source of pleasure that dulled people’s senses and capacity to reflect on their own lives. In short, society was tranquilised by Soma. Are our screens the electronic equivalent, anesthetising us and removing us from more intense connection with the world around us?

Which leads me to my second cause for concern: the iPad stroller holder. The ironies of the iPad stroller holder are many: the product forces the screen into the face of a toddler, maybe even before he or she knows how to really use it. It replaces the chance to look about while riding in the stroller with the necessity of staring at the screen.

Are parents are using technology ‘in loco parentis,’ or as an electronic baby sitter to replace the parent?

What compelling evidence is there that children can’t sit in a confined space without having a screen hovering before their eyes? Why don’t parents choose to interact with their children and their surroundings whilst pushing the stroller?

The Baby Beehavin’ stroller holder advertisement exemplifies this concern:

Being a mom is not easy. Raising kids and taking care of yourself can be a lot of work.
If you plan to take your child with you for a walk in the park, you may as well take your iPad with you.
The Baby Beehavin’ Stroller iPad Holder is what you need to attach your tablet to a stroller.

tania 2

Image from Baby Beehavin

Raising a child has never been easy. Although this is true today, our ancestors managed to raise us (and our parents and grandparents) without the labour-saving devices that we now depend upon: no washing machines or dryers, or even disposal nappies. And they managed with much larger families in many cases.

Some are using technology as a pseudo-parenting device, a form of pacifier that keeps the kids sedate in restaurants or tranquil on long trips traveling in cars or planes. Speech development is adversely influenced as a result of low levels of verbal interaction between parent and child. How often do parents hand their children a personal device to play games as a positive reward for silence or complacency? Another stark reminder of analogues between technology and Huxley’s fictional Soma: passivity is rewarded with a pleasure that encourages still more passivity.

Screens replace unstructured, spontaneous play and engagement with the natural world. We run the risk of making play, unhindered by fear, propelled by curiosity and a sense of wonder and discovery, seem too dangerous, too vigorous, or simply too loud.

I have long argued that young people need to actively and repeatedly engage with the natural world in order to mature. Evidence is mounting to suggest a direct relationship between nature and well-being (Children and Nature Network, 2015). Developmentally, children’s senses, their executive function, emotions, and physical, social, and intellectual capacities have been shown to be enriched by nature (for the academics in the crowd, check Bell, Wilson & Liu, 2008; Cohen-Cline, Turkheimer & Duncan, 2015; Gray & Martin, 2012; Kellert, 2012; Wells, Myers & Henderson, 2014, for a few examples). But more importantly, relationships are the key to academic success, especially child-parent or child-teacher relationships (Hara & Burke, 1998). Sadly, child-screen dependence can overshadow our need for quality relationships.

Children have never been so alienated from the natural world due to an increased reliance on technology and hyper-vigilant parental safety concerns. But they are also in danger of being separated from each other and from us, the adults in their lives (see ABC Big Ideas).

This leads to my third concern: screens are fundamentally solitary and sedentary, alone and inert. This combination of solitude and stillness is a recipe for a cocktail of lifestyle health problems. We run the risk of long-term consequences – heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity. Even before the situation gets so dire, we in physical education notice that some school-aged children are simply not capable of doing some of the most basic bodily skills that we once took for granted: running, jumping, skipping, climbing, balancing, throwing a ball.

In terms of solitude, our experiences of electricity blackouts have changed drastically, especially when loss of electricity means the Wi-Fi disappears. For the first few minutes or even hours, we experience withdrawal symptoms. Some families have to rediscover how to communicate – face-to-face without our screens, can we remember how to interact? Maybe we need a ‘digital detox‘?

In this sense, the tweet is correct: home (and school) is where technology dependency starts. Both could instead provide connected “play-able spaces” that offer absorbing and open-ended challenge activities for children rather than screens to reward them for passivity.

Most importantly, home and school should foster social connectedness where children are drawn together into common experiences. Schools and homes should be designed for richness of environment using engaging sensory materials which incorporate a sense of delight and containment. And natural green spaces are essential for both home and school, to energise and delight us.

Has Wi-Fi become the new ‘Soma’ for our ‘Brave New World’? In response to the tweet about home being where the Wi-Fi is, I would suggest:

“Students need quality interpersonal relationships at home and in nature for them to thrive. It starts with their parents and with schools.”

 

References

ABC Big Ideas http://www.abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2014/05/16/4005866.htm accessed 14 June, 2015.

Bell, J., Wilson, J. & Liu, G. (2008). Neighborhood greenness and 2-year changes in body mass index of children and youth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(6), 547-553.

Children and Nature Network (2015). Nature and Children’s Health: Effects of the natural environment on children’s health & well-being https://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/CNN_2015-Nature-Childrens-Health-HANDOUT_-Wells.pdf

Cohen-Cline, H., Turkheimer E. & Duncan G. (2015). Access to Green Space, Physical Activity and Mental Health: A Twin Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 69:523-529. doi:10.1136/jech-2014-204667

Feldman, J. (2015). Health benefits of urban vegetation and green space: Research roundup http://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/cities/health-benefits-urban-green-space-research-roundup Accessed June 15

Gray, T. & Martin, P. (2012). The role and place of outdoor education in the Australian National Curriculum, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education. 16(1), 39-50.

Hara, S. & Burke, D. (1998). Parent involvement: The key to improved student achievement. School Community Journal, 8(2), 9-19.

Kellert, S. (2012). Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven: Yale Press.

Wells, N, Myers, B. & Henderson, C. (2014). School gardens and physical activity: A randomized controlled trial of low-income elementary schools. Preventive Medicine, 69, S27-S33. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.10.012

 

Associate Professor Tonia Gray is an academic in the School of Education, and a senior researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

 

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