Unplugged Schools

Art by Fran Forman
Art by Fran Forman

Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, “Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.” Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, “That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.”

Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.

I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat — to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.

Postman and Weingartner recognized that there are limits to this role. Schools can’t be expected to solve all of our social ills. But one place where we would do well to employ this thermostatic approach is in our relationship to technology and the fundamental ways that a vast number of electronic tools mediate and shape our children’s experiences.

Let me give an example. Several years ago a study found that young people actually prefer ATMs and automated phone systems to bank tellers and clerks. I presented the study, with unconcealed scorn, to a graduate class I was teaching at the time. The next day a student sent me an e-mail that included the following:

I do feel deeply disturbed when I can run errand after errand, and complete one task after another with the help of bank clerks, cashiers, postal employees, and hairstylists without ANY eye contact at all! After a wicked morning of that, I am ready to conduct all business online.

In a society in which adults so commonly treat each other mechanically, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our youth are more attracted to machines. It seems to me that in such a society one task of schools would be to stress the kind of deeply caring, fully present, and wholly human interaction that long ago disappeared from ordinary public life and is now rapidly evaporating from private experience as well. By helping our youth become good at and appreciate the value of profound human engagement, we may help cool the attraction to mediated experiences expressed by my student.

To be sure, this effort would represent a radical reversal of schools’ traditional relationship with media. To a large degree, American schools were invented out of a need to heat up children’s access to media. From the seventeenth century through the first half of the twentieth, schools were places children went to gain entry into the world of symbols. The abstract character of the texts and numbers found in schools complemented the intensely physical character of life outside. Rarely, however, was it allowed to supercede it. Those children who spent an inordinate amount of time in the world of abstractions were typically chastised for being “bookworms” and pushed outside to get some fresh air.

All of this changed with television, which threw iconic rather than textual representations at children (and adults) at a mind-numbing pace. A few observers quickly recognized the significance of this inundation. Marshall McLuhan, for example, proposed that schools would have to serve as “civil defense against media fallout.” That didn’t happen, of course. Even as city streets became unsafe for exploration, as a mostly rural environment gave way to a relatively sterile suburban one, and as physical labor gave way to the information age, schools never responded to the cultural shift toward abstraction by moving in the opposite direction. Indeed, by the time television’s brawnier, more powerful symbol-manipulating cousin, the computer, came along, schools were fully committed to reinforcing rather than compensating for the symbol-saturated world in which children lived.

Of course, symbol manipulation — reading, writing, mathematics — is the unavoidable nuts and bolts of schooling. But it is not the sole purpose of education. Education must help children come to know themselves, become good citizens, and (with increasing urgency) come to terms with the natural world around them. It is possible that a school system wholly devoted to developing technical skills would not be particularly damaging if other institutions compensated for children’s severely mediated lives. Unfortunately, the institutions that could serve that function — church, family, community — have been diminished by technology’s cultural dominance. School is about the only institution left that has the extensive claim on children’s attention needed to offset that dominance.

THE HEALTH OF OUR CHILDREN’S INNER LIVES, their civic engagement, and their relationship with nature all would be improved if schools turned down the thermostat on that technologically overheated aspect of American culture. Schools dedicated to that task — we might call them “unplugged schools” — would identify the values associated with technological culture and design curricula and an environment focused on strengthening the human values at the other end of the scale.

The most obvious thing schools can do in this regard is give children experiences with the real things toward which symbols are only dim pointers. Unless emotionally connected to some direct experience with the world, symbols reach kids as merely arbitrary bits of data. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but to a second grader who has held a squiggly nightcrawler in her hand, even the printed symbol “worm” resonates with far deeper meaning than a thousand pictures or a dozen Discovery Channel videos.

Nature is, of course, the richest resource for firsthand experience. Individual teachers have long tried to provide some contact with the natural world by bringing plants and small animals into their classrooms — a limited approach yielding limited results. Many schools are beginning to think on a larger scale. They have torn up the asphalt surrounding the schools, planted trees and flowers indigenous to the area, and even established ponds and waterways that quickly attract a remarkably diverse number of critters. In 1997, for instance, Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Missoula, Montana, began creating the state’s first schoolyard habitat. Working under the guidance of Kent Watson, a local landscape architect, the school turned a large section of its playground into a habitat that included a native-grasses mound, a waterfall, stream, and pool, a plot of plants “discovered” by Lewis and Clark, a rock garden, a variety of native trees and shrubs, and a butterfly garden. Not only do students at the school use the area for environmental studies, they were directly involved in the original design and development process: mapping the soil, surveying existing plants and animals, studying the history and culture of the region, determining what seeds to plant, designing and building benches and pathways.

A different type of habitat project is currently getting under way where I live, in Springfield, Ohio. It involves creating “curricular gardens” in front of the newly built high school as an alternative to the vast grass lawn planned by the original architects. A colleague of mine at Wittenberg University, Stefan Broidy, is working with teachers at the high school and nearby elementary and middle schools to connect the curricula of various departments, ranging from art to science, with corresponding gardening projects. This is the first step in a long-term effort to eventually revitalize a long-neglected fifty-acre land lab that lies adjacent to the schools.

These are just a couple examples of thousands of innovative local nature habitat programs being developed by schools all over the country. (A number of other examples can be found in Richard Louv’s article in the March/April 2007 issue of this magazine.) As one reads about these programs, it becomes clear just how important it is that we help children get beyond the environment we have built to fit humans and experience the larger environment within which humans must learn to fit. Only nature can suffice for that, of course, but more specifically, the wild — that which has not been entirely tamed and domesticated by human intervention — is vital. By helping children understand the limitations of human power, the wild provides some inoculation against the day-to-day charm of a technological milieu that seduces us into believing that those limitations do not exist.

In Europe, recognition of the benefits of being in the wild is behind one of its fastest-growing educational movements: forest kindergartens. They originated in Denmark in the 1950s but only recently began to attract attention because of their rapid expansion throughout Germany in the 1990s. These multi-age, year-round outdoor classrooms are designed to foster a love and knowledge of nature, while using the forest to encourage children to imaginatively create fantasy play worlds. Few full-blown forest kindergartens have been created in the U.S., but they have inspired a number of schools to establish forest weeks or weekly forest days. And, of course, where there are no forests, prairie weeks, pond months, or desert days can serve as well.

A SECOND IMPORTANT COMPENSATION would move in the opposite direction of nature — toward the conscious investigation of the tools that mediate our lives. With “magical” black boxes so integrated into our lives that they have become nearly invisible, unplugged schools would disintegrate technology, first by surrounding young children with only those tools whose working principles are visible and understandable and then by gradually bringing more complex, opaque technologies, from radios to eventually computers, into the educational arena — not just as study aids but objects of study.

Montessori schools are noted for their reliance on devices that make learning very much a hands-on activity. However, I know of no schools that incorporate into their curricula the kind of systematic, progressive study of tools I have described above. The trend has been in the opposite direction, as even rural schools eliminate the middle school shop and home ec classes that once gave students at least some experience with simple tools. Children now have to go to “children’s museums” to get hands-on experience with common hand tools. The fact that these places are called museums perhaps explains why good models of this kind of learning in schools are hard to come by. Our society seems to have decided that in the age of powerful mental tools, working with and understanding physical tools is a thing of the past.

Of course, computers are physical tools of a sort. But their physical workings are so concealed from view that mainstream schooling has simply defaulted on helping youth dispel this quite consequential ignorance. Education is hardly improved by revealing the world to kids through the use of tools whose workings cannot themselves be revealed. It doesn’t have to be this way. Learning the fundamental principles of computer operations is not beyond the capabilities of most high school students if approached appropriately. For years, Valdemar Setzer at the University of São Paulo has taught high school seniors the principles of computer operations by first having the students as a class act out physically what takes place inside the computer during a simple computation. The idea is not to make everyone a computer programmer — it is to help youth comprehend why our increasingly computerized environment functions the way it does. Only if they possess that understanding will they be able to decide which human powers are appropriate to hand off to computer calculation and which should be reserved for our own judgment.

So much daily communication is now mediated by machines that the U.S. News & World Report has estimated that youth graduating from schools today have had about one-third fewer face-to-face conversations than their parents had when they came out of school. Unplugged schools would compensate for this by creating an environment teeming with adults and older students conversing with, telling stories to, and working directly with younger students. Resources and time spent by other schools to integrate technology into the classroom would be spent integrating community members.

This is just what Ron Berger and his colleagues did for over two decades at Shutesbury Elementary School, in western Massachusetts. In An Ethic of Excellence, Berger writes, “Town citizens of all ages are in the school every day as mentors and tutors for children. Senior citizens are guests at concerts and annual Valentine and Thanksgiving meals hosted by the Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten. We invite town citizens to our work exhibitions, to be panelists at formal portfolio presentations, and as experts, helping our classes in their learning.”

Berger notes that senior citizens have also suffered from the effects of a technological culture that favors mobility and individuality over stability and continuity. They have become so isolated from the rest of the community that children rarely see and hear the wisdom and dignity encased in creaky joints and weathered skin. Bringing these elders into schools would benefit both generations. Salt Lake City is one of a number of communities that has worked at this intergenerational integration. It instituted its Senior Motivators in Learning and Educational Services program in 1977 with 15 volunteers. Today there are over 250 seniors in the district schools involved with tutoring, story reading, field trips, sports, art, and music. They are encouraged to share with children the vast variety of skills, knowledge, history, and traditions accumulated during their lives.

Combined with the emphasis on direct contact with the physical world, forging connections with older generations can help unplugged schools offset a glorification of constant change by fostering an appreciation for what is enduring and mature. It would help balance our hard-charging, future-obsessed culture with an environment that fosters compassion, reverence, and a sense of obligation toward those who have come before.

As much as they need direct contact with caring adults, children also need quiet places that give them a respite from the din of adult-generated electronic media constantly assaulting their eyes and ears. In past generations, playhouses, treehouses, forts, or even a sheet thrown over a card table served as places to escape adult intervention for a time. Children’s studies author Elizabeth Goodenough calls these places “secret spaces,” where children retreat for undirected fantasy play, security, and quiet contemplation. With ubiquitous media making these places harder to come by, enlightened schools are creating their own quiet (if not secret) spaces for their students. I have visited a preschool and kindergarten in West Des Moines, Iowa, that has a loft with an adult-unfriendly five-foot ceiling. Children go there to rest, play, or just withdraw for a while. The imaginative powers of children being what they are, these quiet spaces don’t always have to be physical. In Goodenough’s book Secret Spaces of Childhood, Harvard professor John Stilgoe recalls putting the leaves of sweet fern in his math books when he was in junior high so he could take a whiff of it during school, which would transport him back to the gravel bank where he spent so much idle time in summer. Evidently, the concern for keeping students “on task” had not yet reached the point that it prevented his teacher from giving him some space for daydreaming. This and the kindergarten loft are just two ways that schools can, in remarkably simple ways, give children the opportunity to withdraw from the ceaseless noise of high-tech life and do the kinds of things that their childish nature calls to them to do.

IT SHOULD BE CLEAR BY NOW THAT ALL of the compensatory activities of unplugged schools have ideological implications. For example, our plugged-in society values the Internet for its capacity to overcome time and space — to allow us to “go anywhere at anytime.” Unplugged schools would recognize that this benefit has been accompanied by increased difficulty among children in feeling that they belong to any place at any time. According to educator R.W. Burniske, belonging is just what kids need to survive a media-saturated environment. “When you are drowning in a river of information,” he once wrote me, “the last thing you need to know is the temperature of the water. What you need is a rock to stand on.” One way to find that rock is through what has come to be called place-based education. By using the local community as a primary means of learning, place-based learning counteracts the alienation generated by too much of what Postman called “information from nowhere.”

Berger gives a good sense of the expansive character of place-based education, along with its impact on school-community relations:

Students clean town roads every year, raise money for town efforts, and engage in other serious projects to benefit the community: testing homes for radon, testing streams for pollution, testing wells for water quality, conducting research to contribute to town historical records, taking a census of local animals for state officials. It’s not by chance that we’ve earned trust and support for the school.

This is not just the fairly widespread practice of community service, done in the students’ spare time. This is the day-to-day work of the school, integrated into the very core of the curriculum and evaluated by the quality of the results. Schoolwork takes on deep meaning as students recognize themselves as valuable community members.

Technological culture promotes a doggedly instrumental orientation to life in which every act is calculated as a means to something else. Even something as intrinsically rewarding as childhood play now must be considered useful in order to be scheduled into children’s frenetic lives. Adults intent on teaching techniques of dancing, sports, music, art, drama, etc., squeeze free play at one end while video games and television — both ultimately adult directed — squeeze it from the other end. Children, and their teachers, have so lost their intuitive sense of imaginative free play, undertaken just for the sheer joy of playing, that for the past two summers Penny Wilson, a “playworker” from London, has toured the U.S. under sponsorship from the Alliance for Childhood, training recreation personnel in major cities on how to help children recover their natural capacity for unstructured play. Providing opportunities for that kind of play is yet another way unplugged schools would compensate for what our culture leaves out of childhood.

Yet compensation for an overheated technological culture should not be mistaken for rejection of it. With years of unplugged experiences anchoring youth against the current of technological overindulgence, high school students should be capable of making much richer connections between the symbols encountered on computer screens and the real things those symbols represent. Learning with and about high technology then becomes a very different experience.

Ten years ago Burniske and I designed and coordinated a telecomputing project we called Media Matters. We enlisted high school students from various parts of the world to analyze how different media told the stories of several global events. While the students were figuring out how the character of radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, and a new form of communication called the World Wide Web shaped how information was conveyed, we were discovering that even though these students were sophisticated in putting media to work for them, they were naïve about how it worked on them. Today, in the age of cell phones, instant messaging, MySpace and YouTube, this naïveté is even more consequential. Thus, not only should schools help students understand how these media work, they should also help them understand how such tools shape their appetites, relationships, and very conceptions of the world in which they live.

There are many other specific things that schools could do to compensate for the lack of balance children experience in our overmediated culture. But one thing they must do is provide an alternative to the current penchant for viewing children as little biological machines whose knowledge and skills can be “constructed,” assessed, and labeled in schools according to the same cold logic of the spreadsheet that businesses use in producing commodities. This intensely mechanistic view of children is central to the belief that a very meager set of numbers can determine their abilities (and future opportunities), to the confidence that a single curriculum can serve children just as well whether they live in Jackson Hole or Brooklyn, and to the conviction that a child’s failure to adapt to the inhospitable clockwork machinery of school operations can be “fixed” by applying a little chemical grease (like Ritalin) to a malfunctioning gear inside her head.

The efforts to label and sort children while constantly seeking technical means to accelerate, enhance, and otherwise tinker with their intellectual, emotional, and physical development are acts of mechanistic abuse (there is really no other name for it) committed against children’s nature. There is no more critical task for schools than to counter this unfolding tragedy. Schools can make headway simply by patiently honoring and nurturing each child’s internally timed, naturally unfolding developmental growth, by abandoning anxious efforts to hurry children toward adulthood, and by giving these young souls time to heal from the wounds inflicted by a culture that shows no respect for childhood innocence. As Richard Louv and others have argued, nature is a particularly effective antidote for this condition. Eliminating the clock as the means of governing everything is another more modest but important move. However it is undertaken, what is important to recognize is that compensating for the dominant view of children-as-mechanisms is, at its core, spiritual work. It acknowledges that some facet of a child’s inner life must remain sacred — off-limits to our machinations — to be viewed not as new territory for scientific investigation and technical manipulation but simply with awe and reverence and our own best, most human, expressions of support. To grant the dignity of that inner core is perhaps the most important gift unplugged schools can give children in the technological age. And, in turn, to foster within children those once universal but now nearly extinct childhood qualities of awe and reverence is spiritual education in its most elemental sense.

The list of schools that have directly and comprehensively tied children’s overmediated lives to spiritual health is a very short one, I’m afraid, limited mostly to a number of Waldorf schools, whose philosophy has long coupled spiritual development with a critical stance toward the use of electronic media by young children. The Washington [D.C.] Waldorf School just completed a year-long series of public seminars and staff meetings investigating how best to bring computers and other high-tech devices into the high school curriculum so that students not only have the skills they need to go on to college or work, but understand the full impact of technology on human culture, the environment, and their own inner lives. The faculty has discovered that an effective program requires paying attention to the curriculum and methods not only at the high school level but at the elementary level as well (where children do not use computers). They understand that there is much inner preparation that young children need to do if they are one day to give mature direction to the enormous power these external tools provide.

IF ONE STITCHED TOGETHER ALL OF THESE examples and concerns, one might be able to imagine at least the contours of an unplugged school. Certainly, unplugged schools would get children deeply involved with nature and community; they would give a prominent place to the expressive arts; they would determine tool use according to developmental readiness; they would study technology explicitly; they would give children time and space to look inward; and they would rely on assessments that are rigorous and multifaceted rather than reductionist and multiple choice. But there are a vast number of ways all of this could be done. The compensatory activities of any particular unplugged school could not be standardized. They would have to depend heavily on the specific children, educators, parents, geography, and culture of the communities they serve.

Of course, right now there is no escaping, at least in public schools, a whole host of technocratic fetters, such as standardized curricula and testing, that are turning teaching as well as learning into intellectual factory work. Still, educators and parents can always find some wiggle room within technocratic structures and it is in these gaps that a wide variety of subversive unplugging can gain a foothold.

Ultimately, though, if schools were to throw off those fetters and restore balance to children’s lives, they would have to establish goals that reflect our best sense of what it means to be human. Producing workers adapted to the demands of a high-tech economy would no longer drive what these schools do. Schools would establish life as the measure of value, not machines. They would be dedicated to showing young people how to live as dignified members of an increasingly mediated and fragile world. And they would consciously work to cool down society’s infatuation with technology while heating up our concern for those we live with and the Earth we live on.

Lowell Monke taught young people with and about computers for almost two decades. He is an associate professor of education at Wittenberg University. He is co-author of Breaking Down the Digital Walls.


  1. I have a chapter from my thesis, a memoir on this very topic. It is called, “Snow Jobs” which refers to the ways in my childhood that we played. I am 71. Not all was better, and I make this clear as well in my memoir, but this aspect of free play was I think. Children were “released” to the school yard, to after school pursuites into the outside world to find friends and pursuits with
    much, much less notice from their
    elders, and as a result learned
    self motivation, self soothing and
    social integration strategies that
    did not have to get so intense
    since the adults were, in effect
    “not in the room.”

  2. Thank you for this piece Mr. Monke. I agree with the need to engage the natural world in our classrooms. I would also say that we can engage simpler and more organic methods as well.

    I teach at a historically black college in urban Jacksonville. While we are realistically trying to “catch up” in getting 21st century technologies and teaching and learning aids on campus, I have chosen also to go back to early society community and leadership practices as the primary method of instruction: sitting in circle/council together.

    This focuses attention, requires daily practice of listening and speaking, and gradually builds a core that is more and more present to ourselves and our surrounding.

    The circle has been called humanity’s oldest gathering and teaching form. The ancient wisdom that may emerge in its practice is being reinvigorated as a modern wisdom tool by several mentoring organizations I have been privileged to learn from including, Parker Palmer’s The Center for Courage and Renewal,Christina Baldwin and Anna Linea’s Peer Spirit, and The Berkana Institute’s (Meg Wheatley) The Art of Hosting. Larger and more complicated circle patterning has been successfully utilized by The World Cafe.

    I gently yet strongly encourage all educators and organizational leaders to experiment with this form in their work. And would happily share more with anyone of Orion’s readers on the practice.

    All best to you.

  3. What has happened to education in America, began happening a few centuries ago during the “Enlightenment”. Thus began the standardization, domination and institutionalization of human perception. I suppose that period could of course be deemed the natural response to the dominating oppressive influence of religious dogma becoming corrupted by its own institutionalization. The common threads in either case, were and still are the loss, rejection and fear of being receptive to the direct experience of the natural diversity of life.

    The effect of attempting to globalize, standardize, nationalize and institutionalize human perception has trained us to live our lives conceptually rather than organically. It is difficult to “relate” to the ‘actual Life’ of a place when we are so preoccupied and programmed into creating and seeking security in the sameness of our surroundings.

    I was never actually ‘taught’ how to actually appreciate diversity and difference. I was given a concept, a rule, that I (should) tolerate differences, but my experience was that discrimination, competition and rejection was more satisfying, more acceptable, even powerful. Of course tolerance is a valuable virtue, but it is not as nurturing and wise and insightful as appreciation.

    No institutional educator in my formative years had the freedom to actually teach anything about real life. The American ‘system’ of public education succeeded remarkably in detaching me from being human, having any sense of self or place. It was constantly about becoming something I wasn’t and a place was not a place, it was only where you could make money, fit by being like everyone else.

    Shifts in the paradigm of what education is has been creeping into our institutions. It’s good to see. I do appreciate many aspects of my formal education – from a back door perspective I can credit it for what matters to me today.

  4. I loved this piece and was fascinated by the fact that it was included in Orion, an ‘environmental’ magazine. Of course, our environment includes our digital tools and our subjugation to screens, but very few people see things this way. The problem is perhaps larger than Mr. Monke suspects. It is enormous. Children now interact with screens in various areas of their lives to a greater degree than they do with other human beings. Yes, it is more convenient to use an ATM than to visit a branch, because of course it is much faster. But it also appeals to us because it is a much safer interaction. We will not encounter peevishness or bureacracy in an online experience…We trust machines and screens much more than we trust other human beings, and our machine experiences, –iPods, MP3s– are more satisfying and safe than chance encounters with humans. To this we owe the devotion of our leisure time to mechanical devices. Our consumption of the prefabricated entertainment they offer us and the end of the human investment of leisure time in developing ‘personal skills’ like learning to play music or learning to dance, to tell a good story, to cook a good meal, to develop a real hobby, or to acquire a body of knowledge over time… No wonder, we have spent most of our time interfacing with screens. I believe this single fact is responsible for the radical decline of social capital in global society. Schools might/could/should be used to supplement this deficit. After all, do we need to train children in technology, an aspect of society that is already ubiquitous? Instead of additional technological training, schools could be bastions of interaction and ‘people skills’. They’d better do this fast, however, because administrators at the post-secondary level are discovering that with the disappearance of physical classrooms, the low overheads of online education make the prospects for profitability much better. How long will it be before public schools make a similar connection? In any case, thank you Mr. Monke. This and the excerpt from Alan Weisman’s ‘World Without Us’ are the best things I’ve read in ORION in recent months. Unfortunately, I do read the magazine online and have chosen here to respond to it in the same way. :-) Still, if we were in a room together, Mr. Monke, I would stand and clap. The best I can do is to promise now to buy and read your book, Digital Walls. Thank you. Giles Slade

  5. For readers who enjoyed this article, you might check out an author (and former teacher) John Taylor Gatto, especially for more history, answers to WHY things have gotten to the way they are, and what can be done differently.

    He developed and implemented very “unorthodox” curricula which embodied many of the characteristics of “unplugged schools” AND he got away with it.

    Gatto has countless stories that serve as PROOF that “unplugging” is more successful.

  6. It does take more than schools to solve this problem. Schools in northern Michigan are cutting out field trips to nature preserves. We are raising money to subsidize the bussing costs. We are using to model of Chicago Wilderness to encourage the total community to collaborate to solve the “nature deficit disorder” No one seems to do it better than “Chicago Wilderness.

  7. I read this in the print edition right after Rebecca Solnit’s “A Fistful of Time” and while I certainly enjoy the writing for the gorgeous sentences, I have to say I’m shocked and profoundly disappointed in the Monke’s (& Solnit’s) conclusions. This is classic neo-Ludditism and I want nothing to do with it. I remember the pre-tech school era and it was an oppressive ordeal, not a liberative experience.

    Let’s throw out ADA while we’re at it, shall we? Consider for a moment, the tech-free school’s meaning for people with “disabilities” or for those of us who are not wired like you. As someone with Tourette’s Syndrome, technology–depersonalized, evil, nasty, bad, decontextualized as it has been deemed and adjudged–has allowed me an occupation in fiction writing. Before techology, writing anything from a shopping list to a short story was unadulterated torture thanks to the uncontrollably tics in my hand, arms and the rest of my body. Notetaking in school was a nightmare and the pre-computer classroom constrained me and my exploratory-prone brain to mediocre performances and frustrating expressive ordeals. I endured ridicule and intense shame being forced to write by hand and deprived of the hours and hours needed in libraries to locate and document support for my creative insights. The Web changed all of that, opening the world within minutes. In Monke’s school-universe people like me would be relegated to the “undeveloped potential” label I wore like an albatross around my neck.

    Those terrible, evil computers allow my two attention-different children to engage in the world neo-Luddites take for granted. Before bad nasty technology my children were deemed misfits, juvenile delinquents by the “normals.” Technology allowed the “normals” to finally recognize my kids’ genius as they now have a means to express themselves fully, creatively and impressively with few limitations. They are finally taken seriously and accepted for their genius, because there is a tool–for that’s all technology really is, contrary to Monke’s philosophy–they could use to overcome their developmental delays, gaps and other so-called “challenges.”

    Mr. Monke is right that there needs to be a progressive nature-interaction in schools, and generally I like the mediation model for communal schooling. But that’s as far as I’ll agree. The solution lies not in eliminating tech from schools, but in fully and holistically educating people how to use tools and that education necessarily should embody what tech does to people and for people, free of Monke’s moralistic judgment and neo-Ludditish cult boundaries.

    As for free, unstructured play, that works for attention-different children only when that play isn’t subjected to the oppressive yet highly idealized expectations “normals” place on children. Then again, my kids would simply avoid the “normals” children anyway during such free play because they already know that normals see them as criminals or ferals. Without the room to make numerous and multiple social errors free from fear of militarized consequences, attention different kids desperately need mediative interaction during play with others. Monke’s solution sounds to me like a return to the 1970’s hell that was school for me and other attention differents. Tech isn’t the problem, ignorance is.

  8. I would be interested in learning more about the methods Ms. Masturzo uses, as I also work on a Historically Black urban campus.

  9. GRRRR!

    I WONdered where the legions of Luddites were hiding! Apparently it is in “unplugged schools.”

    Such arrogance! “WE will define the Gods of education and society! WE will show your children how to worship them! Shut up, you miserable parents, you know NOTHING!

    “Nemmind that there are lasers in the jungles, WE’ll teach your kids to return to the use flintlocks in the face of those threats, just as we taught millions of Frenchmen and Germans to attack Maxim machineguns with 19th century bolt-action popguns ….”

    Asimov’s most successful model of educational excellence is Arkady Darell, who in Second Foundation uses her computer subversively to alter bad stuff in the universe. Gibson’s Chia McKenzie is the same type of heroine. Her Sandcaster computer is the only tool she needs to successfully navigate the world. Both hardly go to ‘school’ as such, but learn in the organic way Daniel Quinn recommends.

    Burn Monke’s schools! Burn them down to the ground! They’ll only stamp out cookie-cutter little PC pseudo-greenies, searching for sterile ‘spirituality’, hopelessly unable to cope with the speed or the complexity of an endgame world. Ya want that?

    As I have said forever, “Technology is not the problem.”


  10. While reading Monke’s excellent and well-thought-out article, I was very puzzled that he only mentioned Waldorf schools in one instance: commenting favorably on their awareness of the spiritual damage electronic media does to children. Waldorf schools actually address most if not all of the concerns he puts forward in his article, and has done so for the last 75+ years! And it addresses them most effectively. Is it possible that such a well-informed and astute educator hasn’t looked deeply enough into Waldorf Education to be aware of this?

  11. Waldorf Schools clearly and effectively address the needs of our ailing educational system the world over. Anyone interested in an enlightened approach to education children for this age should research the Waldorf curriculum

  12. I don’t think one should blame technology itself for society’s ills, it’s how it’s used that has led the such disconnections (and in my reading of the article, this was somewhat inline with what Monke was saying, he didn’t appear to be a luddite, having taught computers for 15 years and arguing in the article for an understanding of technology).

    I work with a program that uses technology to help foster these connections of students with their communities and their environment, while at the same time preparing them for the technology that IS out there, and providing them with important tools for future careers that are desparately needed in the rural areas where they’re located. So far it’s been successful on both counts, including increased interactions with a wide cross section of community members, and getting them outside in nature.

  13. I agree with Mr. Monke in suggesting we need to balance use of technology with real experiences that involve physical interactions and thoughtful analysis. He isn’t proposing we eliminate technology in the classroom and in fact clearly states, “Compensation for an overheated technological culture should not be mistaken for rejection of it.” More and more the curriculum seems to be emphasizing slick, technology-based projects while sacrificing class discussions and time for synthesis and evaluation. The biggest danger I see in allowing technology to dominate classrooms is that we will fail to build the relationships that encourage and inspire students to explore and exhibit their gifts.

  14. In his comments, Tom Warren states we should burn the schools of which Lowell Monke speaks because they will purportedly serve only to “stamp out cookie-cutter little PC pseudo-greenies…” It should be obvious, however, that the legacy of mass production is due to the technocracy Warren seems to defend, rather than Monke’s schools or even “Luddites” for that matter.

    Warren’s remarks are symptomatic of the fanaticism that arise often in humanist technocrats who, far from allowing free debate, attempt to shut down critical assessment of unimpeded technological growth through means such as Warren’s unwarranted ad hom comment. For these technocrats, any perceived negative effects of such growth are only apparitions in the minds of misanthropes and madmen. The “benefits” of technocracy should be self-evident and speak for themselves born as they are from what technocrats seem to see as man’s greatest capacity: instrumental reasoning.

    Polarizing verbiage such as Warren’s shouldn’t surprise us given that the instrumentalist language of today’s ubiquitous computer technology is based in the dualism of 1’s and 0’s. Such instrumentalism can’t see beyond the “all” and “nothing” of this language and as such cannot enter, or allow for, a critical debate that admits at least the possibility of a multitude of perspectives.

    While the last two sentences were made with (minute) jest, my point is there are more types of reasoning than instrumental reasoning, one of which is communicative reason otherwise known as informal logic and/or critical thinking. Far from being cold and distant, this latter type of reasoning welcomes dialog and as such, takes the opposite approach of instrumental reasoning in that it welcomes others from the outset. While it certainly isn’t a free-for-all, communicative reason acts as a conduit or bridge between a plurality of experiences and perspectives rather than the working-upon-the-world that is instrumentental reason.

    Contrasted to Warren’s (and others) conclusion that “technology is not the problem”, I will assert that technology is a big problem (though not necessarily the problem). It forms the near constant environment most of us in the West now are now enveloped within. From the Internet to television, to radio and newspapers, we are subjected to a constant apologetic for the religion of technology and its so-called “progress”. The old adage to “look before you leap” seems lost on the adherents of this religion, given they tend to only present the benefits of technology as evidence to move “forward” rather than evenly presenting its hidden costs environmentally, socially, politically and so on. Aside from this, they seem somehow blind to the fact that much of today’s technology is based in warding off the negative effects of prior technologies! Rather than “progress” it appears much technology takes the form of an ouroboros. Perhaps, if there had been some critical (and public) dialog beforehand, these negative effects would have been lessened greatly, if not avoided altogether, and much of today’s gadgetry would have been needless.

    The schools of which Monke speaks hardly seem like the Luddite enclaves Warren charges them with being. They do, however, seem to provide far more fertile ground for which our human experience can emerge in its technological, communicative, imaginative, creative and ethical (…) wholeness. The wholeness of human being-ness is an antidote to the drab “cookie-cutter” technocracy that is “stamped out” daily in our public schools for the sake of efficient production driven by a vague utopian vision of “progress.”

  15. I am entirely in agreement with the over-all sentiment of this article, but there is a fundamental contradiction in the presentation. There are one sentence that creates a serious contradiction in Mr. Monke’s approach: “Of course, symbol manipulation—reading, writing, mathematics—is the unavoidable nuts and bolts of schooling.”

    The contradiction occurs on two levels; the surface imagery and the deeper concept. If there are “unavoidable nuts and bolts,” as he claims, then he envisions a machine that is constructed from those fundamental parts and is inherently mechanical. But, he is thus contradicting his argument against having schools that reflect mechanical thinking. We can give Mr. Monke the benefit of the doubt by calling this a metaphoric faux pas but, of even greater concern is the deeper conceptual foundation for schooling that he simply assumes as a given.

    Whatever you create will, in some way, reflect the most basic materials you use to create it. In creating an education system, if you take symbol manipulation as the most basic element, then you will generate a system that is entirely limited by the nature of symbol manipulation. By invoking the image of “unavoidable nuts and bolts” Mr. Monke gives the impression that symbol manipulation is the most fundamental part of the machine, the basic part from which everything else in the machine is made. I argue that symbol manipulation is not basic and that a system of schooling that makes this mistake is (and will always be) incapable of consistently producing the kinds of good results Mr. Monke desires. I propose that the true foundation of good education is optimal states of mind and, therefore, a good school system must use this as it’s conceptual foundation in order to consistently produce good results.

    Here is the URL to the Blog Post in which I developed this idea further:

    In response to other comments:

    re Mr. Page & Mr. Warren;

    Accusing Monke of being a Luddite is over reacting. The whole point of his bringing in the Waldorf example is that they are approaching the challenge openly, not by excluding it entirely but by carefully examining what it’s consequences are going to be. They are considering changes to their approach, not merely accepting the knee jerk response.

    re: Waldorf

    I would also caution against accepting Waldorf as a unified approach. In my limited experience the schools vary widely in their actual practices. The teachers may all share some training experiences via their certification process, but once they are out in the world then reality intrudes on idealism. This is, of course, true for all school systems. Waldorf is worth looking into, but has to be put in perspective, too.

  16. Here’s a link to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) which is an excellent place to find alternative schooling ideas in abundance:

    You can find books by John Taylor Gatto and many others.

  17. Mr. Berg, I enjoyed your insights immenseIy, so much so I was inspired to re-read the Monke piece over again a half dozen more times.

    In my original comments on Monke’s piece I believe I made considerable commentary that went beyond my brief invocation of neo-Ludditism. I believe you have gotten stuck on my invocation and ignored the rest of my commentary regarding the real need for technology in schools for certain types of kids, kids that even a Monke-esque unplugged school would exclude and alienate because of it’s bias against technology. In his article, Monke never once considers the value of technology for kids who, even in previously text-based eras, are iconic wired. So, in light of my substantial comments, my charge of neo-Ludditism stands separate from Mr. Warren’s impassionated comparison.

    You bring up Waldorf, which is interesting, in as much as Monke only briefly mentions it; in like manner he barely mentions advocating some sort of aware or mindful use of technology in schooling, other than to perhaps suggest begrudgingly that tech cannot totally be avoided (presumably because of us bad mechanistic tech-types out there who will only get in his way). My own experience with Waldorf schools, at least the more orthodox theosophic campuses, is that their eschewing of, and moral judgments against, technologies is anything but an open-minded approach. I would agree with you that Waldorf should be investigated for it’s utility in an unplugged or alternative school model but that it also isn’t a panacea.

    When reading the article again, I still get that Monke’s primary and substantial goal is to rid schools of all technology, period, and not to seek some sort of balance. That’s not acceptable to me, as someone who knows and has lived experience in both a highly mechanized a-technological school and a minimally mechanized, technologically lush school environment. That Monke wants to wisely consider the effect of tech on students as well as the use of tech by students doesn’t seem to counter act his highly judgmental language against all technology in schools. When I see continual use of words like “abuse,” “mechanistic,” and an overall frame that is casting a decidely negative moral judgment on technology per se, I’m not inclined to believe a momentary disclaimer purporting to be supportive of a some sort of wise use of tech in schools. The devil for me lies in his framing of the issue(s).

    Based on his words, Monke’s unplugged havens still feel, to me, like oppressive backward basements that will only hold human potential back rather than propell it to actualization. And frankly, it is my experience that the current industrial-standards-based model of schooling is no better. Unplugging them isn’t nearly the proper direction nor is it enough to ameliorate a flawed foundation for education.

  18. Mr. Page,

    You are right to call me on that, I was much more focused on Mr. Warren’s response and should not have addressed you in the same way, sorry.

    I believe the crucial point to be made in any case is that technology needs to be considered, evaluated, used, and restricted within a framework that focuses on the states of mind that result. As you point out there are a lot of children who can benefit greatly from appropriate use of technology. When any method, philosophy, or technology becomes a panacea that is applied in a one-size-fits-all manner then we are bound to be putting someone in danger.

    If the framing of the educational enterprise is mechanical and driven by symbol manipulation as Monke suggests then it will be difficult to avoid the same problems. The foundation needs to be the states of mind that the system produces as I explained in the blog post I referenced. Since we access optimal states of mind in a variety of ways then schooling that aims for optimal states of mind will necessarily have to provide a greater variety of options.

  19. As an individual (and educator) who has become increasingly distressed by the disconnect that people have with the world around them, it was a joy to read an article that put my thoughts to paper so well! I have often commented with concern about the fact that it is becoming increasingly more simple to conduct business of almost any kind without human contact. It is disturbing to see the effects this and the maelstrom of media has had on the younger generations (i.e. studies have shown that nature helps fight ADHD). I hope to help change that by working with others in my school to bring such matters to the attention of our fellow teachers, and the information in your article will definitely help make the case. As my own school increases it’s technology building-wide and considers shifting to an overall technology-themed curriculum this information is more useful than ever! Thank you for adding your informative, intelligent, thoughtful remarks to the public dialogue about such issues.

  20. I thought the article underlined the potential and importance for schools to give experience with (and access to) the natural world. My third grade students talk about watching tv and playing video games for multiple hours every day. We know that children, more and more, have lives that are plugged in. This influences the way they develop on every level. It makes sense to diversify their experiences, to give them a multitude of lenses from which to see the world.

    I don’t see technology as inherently evil. I do see that the children I teach have limited opportunities (for the most part) to have open ended exploration of the natural world. There are many reasons that this is the case. We live in an urban part of the Bay Area. Many of the neighborhoods we live in are prohibitively dangerous for students to go outside in. Not all families value a connection with the natural world. Not all families have outdoor space attached to where they live. Children want to play with video games, on computers, and watch tv. I’m sure there are many reasons I’m not thinking of.

    We know that generations of children are being raised on a diet that is technologically based. Much of what is technologically based is closed ended. It tells a person how to think, what to see, how to speak. One example is the difference between watching a cartoon (closed ended) versus making up a puppet show (open ended). I think that Monke’s article justifiably argues that access to and exploration of the natural world is an important antidote to the plugged in nature of much of our children’s free time.

    We go to the community garden once a week in my class. It’s a start. I’m curious to hear what other public school teachers in urban school settings are doing to give children access to the natural world.

  21. 1. They are not “our” schools. Who would attend them if they were not compulsory? Who would pay for them if they were free to choose? Just try “working in the system” to effect change, see what happens in “your” school.
    2. Why assume that “school” is a given, a natural force that always must be? Most of the things I am reading here are what was going on before children were kidnapped into indoctrination: children in the world, interacting with people of all ages and in all situations. School put a stop to it. Tinker as you will with “curriculum”, molding of minds, etc., the form is the lesson. School trains (through Skinnerian behavioral training techniques) obedient incomplete fearful humans, herd animals, replacement cogs and consumers for the managed economy. By all means, please, read some actual history of government schooling.

  22. If kids are buried in video/computer games instead of playing baseball, hockey and tag in their neighborhoods, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they have absolutely no concern over the state of our environment. We sell fantasy as a drug- perhaps because nobody plays in empty cardboard boxes anymore and imagination muscles start to atrophy. The older I get the more I like the good old days when we had nothing to play with but some other kids and some sticks we found. Pro sports, movies, computer gaming, IM ing, cell phones, texting? I’ll take a good game of Hide and Seek on a summer evening any day.

  23. Take heart, Mr. Murray, most kids at my children’s elementary school somehow manage to do both the no-tech and the hi-tech play. Their imaginations are irrepressible. Of course, at school, they’re not allowed to play tag, touch sticks or stones or manipulate the sand (“it’s for walking only”, an actual school rule). The kids still have it more figured out than the fretful and fear-filled adults who lust to control their every move and thought. Just today I came home to my kids and six others from the neighborhood piling old appliance boxes into a castle. One kid had his iPod blaring Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture from the tiny speakers he plugged in to add a live soundtrack while they celebrated the finished construct, conducting the orchestra and belting out the melodic themes full voice. Being unplugged can on occasion use a little plugged-in drama and still be a fine thing.

  24. I really enjoyed reading this article. It took me back to an excerpt I read out of Derrick Jensen’s book “Endgame”.


    He was asked: “What book would you give to every child?”

    Jensen answered: “I wouldn’t give them a book. Books are part of the problem: this strange belief that a tree has nothing to say until it is murdered, its flesh pulped, and then (human) people stain this flesh with words. I would take children outside and put them face to face with chipmunks, dragonflies, tadpoles, hummingbirds, stones, rivers, trees, crawdads.

    “That said, if you’re going to force me to give them a book, it would be The Wind in the Willows, which I hope would remind them to go outside.”

    Children simply need to spend more time outside.

  25. Schools should prepare children for the roles available in our society, the activities or needs of our society. our civilization. Not our “economy”.

    Currently this is not the case: Schools try preparing everyone to go to college. They should be preparing 20 percent or so of students to do the jobs illegal immigrants are doing. In addition, most retail management jobs require little more than an 8th grade education and vocational training.

    The rest of school should simply be civics and arts and sports.

  26. I agree with what Holly Smith has expressed so well. We had our early closing yesterday and were engaged in professional development using “smart goals” and assessment . There was a group of us who pointed that the pendulum has swung too far and discussed this disconnect , and the need to invest in idetity and nature to be global citizens. I have grown plants and maintained an aquarium in my classroom which was tended to by everyone in the class. Today’s classroom are rich in “plugged ” items and it is a rare sight to see involvement with Nature. When I volunteered in the schools in India over the summer , I noticed how well balanced and happy the youngsters were , carrying worms and butterflies while enjoying the view from the window of birds flying around! My own fond memories was my principal requesting us to have a vegetable garden and enjoying the tomatoes we grew! Time to recapture our connection with Nature!

  27. If the suject isnt about overpopulation not worth discussing. How about making the parents pay for their schooling. If they had to Pay the Full Price the bith rate would drop to zero. Same with cost of Birth, the birth rate would drop to zero. Ban all school buse and let them move their fat asses and walk. Save on fuel and does the Kids good!

  28. Some of the points in this article are good. However, considering under funding, class sizes that are huge, and No Child Left Behind this isn’t even plausible. How would they pay for and maintain the gardens? And if technology isn’t used in schools, then we aren’t preparing them for the world that they will face when they graduate. I’m a big proponent of free play for children, and community service; but I just don’t see how the school being in charge of it would ever work.

  29. Regrettably, with early tutorship costs and ongoing headaches with the financial scheme (particularly the quotation markets) it’s probably that some will rely on “alternative” methods to help finance the continuing monetary values after scholarships, grants, and federal loans.

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  30. Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, “Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.

  31. Tom and others who are so upset with Mr.Monke’s article. He is not saying that technology is bad. He is saying that it is instituted so heavily and completely that children are not taught alot of basic skills that will make them a more fully developed human. When technology is used in schools from a young age up through graduation
    students do get less face time communication and learn less about how to work with their hands in tactile ways constructing and understanding our world. Children need to have these skills developed first and foremost and then they will understand technology for what it is, a tool, not an entertainment device that is just another means of escape.

  32. I think this is a great article I enjoyed reading it.I really never put much thought into the benifits my children could gain by not using computers as much.I really think this is a good idea,I mean if a child can look at a picture on a screen and get excited then just think how interested they would be to see it up close and personal.I myself have gotten my children their very own computers thinking I was helping them through school.I did’t think about what it was they could be missing out on.Technology has made life so much “easier”.People don’t speak face to face anymore.Everthing that you need to do can pretty much be done from home these days.I want my kids to have the same experiences I had when I was young.I want them to know the world around them,not just look at pictures of it.

  33. The author says he doesn’t know of any programs that deal with hands-on experiences on which symbolic work is built (beyond Waldorf education). I have been reading a blog by Doug Stowe who created and teaches a wonderful woodworking program at Clear Spring School in Arkansas. The school is private and progressive. It was started to act as a model for other schools. Stowe is a published designer of woodworking books and runs his own craft business as well as teaching. His blog posts regularly include historic information about hands-on learning and a variety of school models as well as descriptions of his classroom experiences and how he relates his woodworking projects to what his students are studying in other subjects.
    Stowe’s most important focus is probably the Finnish woodworking model, Sloyd, still in use in Finland where the schools rate among the highest in the world.

  34. Just over the hill (Teton Pass) from Jackson Hole is a small, independent school that is doing much of what the author suggests schools should undertake. The Teton Valley Community School in Victor, ID is not only place-based but project-based. Classes are small and multi-aged. The school has a garden, greenhouse, goats, and egg-laying chickens (which the children care for and contribute to the annual harvest lunch). The playground is a natural playscape with boulders and trees that the children explore freely 2-3 times a day. The learners build and create for active play and quiet retreat. Children are encouraged to question and explore in and outside the classroom. Their interests and queries generate and direct many of the projects undertaken, with the teacher as coach and guide (skillfully incorporating basic skill development and weaving related subjects and topics into the project learning). Field trips to further learn about and research current projects are not uncommon. Nor are guest speakers (experts) from within the community. You will find tools, even in the Reggio Emilio focussed Center for Early Learners (preschool and PreK). There is lots of valuable work being done with both the hands and the brains. Computers are used within limits – to enhance a lesson or type a child authored piece (all though many of these are hand written and illustrated). This hands on, often student directed learning is turning out problem solvers, creative thinkers and citizens who can successfully work independently and in groups. Tuition is low and the budget tight but dedicated teachers and willing parent volunteers are making it possible. http://www.tetonvalleycommunityschool.org

  35. This article may be from 2007 but it is still just as relevant today, if not even more relevant. Monke is absolutely right! Not only should the schools “unplug”, we should all unplug for a day. People need to spend more time talking to friends or staring at clouds, and less time staring at a screen. UNPLUG!

  36. This very concern has come up again and again at the boarding middle school (7th – 9th grades) where I work. Arthur Morgan School is founded on Quaker values and Montessori methods and all decisions are made in staff meeting by consensus. This past week we began a technology discussion prompted by a student proposal seeking to allow the use of the newest shiniest tablet on campus. Currently we do not allow students to bring or have cell phones, computers, tablets, e-readers, or video games. After much discussion we felt the community the students form together and the growth they have from peer interaction during this fragile time in their lives would be harmed by adding this technology to our campus. We reaffirmed that we feel word processing and internet research are useful and appropriate and that the school will continue to provide resources for these in a limited way.

    Since this article was written in 2007 its relevance has only grown. My 7 yr old has become a 12yr old and I see her peers disconnecting from each other, their parents, their human connections and choosing limited forms or interaction such as texting, and facebooking. It is becoming common for kids to text each other while in the same room rather than speak to one another.

  37. I go to an “unplugged school”. We interact with nature more than technology, we also take educational trips. When I speak to some people from a more technology school they have no idea what is happening to our Earth and how we effect our society. I look at my 5 year old brother and when he came across a computer he tried to touch the screen then asked me why it didn’t work. By this, I’m trying to say that our generations are getting so involved with technology then with the natural world. What lead to this? Was it our government? Society? Or just our way of making the world easier to live in? So in my school we are trying to be very green and work in the field more. Our motto is ” Think Outside The Desk”. For me going to an “unplugged school” makes me feel more aware of our world and how we are living in it.

  38. Environmental studies in school are fine, but we need to watch out for Agenda 21 with its sinister undertones.

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