If Jane Goodall Were An Alien

view of U.S. childhood, impeding humanity, how to better raise our children,

Imagine someone with Jane Goodall’s observational powers coming from outer space to observe us for a few days.

Let’s narrow this alien’s study down to something relatively simple. Our imaginary alien doesn’t have time to report on Earth’s progress toward peace, justice, and environmental balance. Our imaginary alien doesn’t even have time to cast her gaze across the whole planet.

Instead, the alien watches a few children in a typical American suburb before filing this report. (Alien disclaimer:  this report isn’t representational of all humans or all time spans on Earth.)

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How to Impede Humanity

Each human is born with vast potential which unfolds in ways unique to that person’s talents and experiences. Human culture starts immediately to prevent that newborn’s potential from being fully realized.

The smallest humans are kept for much of their waking day in devices called car seats, booster seats, high chairs, playpens, cribs and strollers. Without sufficient and varied movement, learning can be impeded.

They are kept indoors most of the time. This limits their vision, their sense of connectedness, and their happiness.

Instead of foods harvested directly from nearby sources, the taste preferences of these small humans are developed on diets of lower nutrient but more expensive packaged substances. The health effects of these foods is beyond the scope of this report. It is, however, noted that transporting and purchasing these foods has an economic impact on the families of these small humans.

Humans are a people of story and image. As small humans get older they more readily absorb the lessons surrounding them from such objects as billboards, magazines, television, video games, and toys. These stories and images teach humans that success and happiness come through power, the right possessions, perfect appearance, rare skill, and of course, wealth. Small humans learn this quickly.

For example, appearance. They are repeatedly exposed to images of impossible bodies.  Note evidence—-a process called retouching applied to human Jennifer Anniston and to humans Twiggy and Keira Knightley.  As a result, five year old females judge their bodies harshly. By what humans call adolescence, 92 percent of females are unhappy with their bodily appearance.

Males also experience self-loathing due to impossible body images and behavior of heroes in movies, video games, and comics.

Movies, television, politics, and pundits teach small humans that the world is more violent than it is and games teach them that aggression is the best response.

The whole market-driven culture pushes materialistic values on young humans, which can leave them depressed, anxious and unhappy when they most need the powerful boost of optimism.

Even though young humans are perfectly suited to learn in ways matched to their abilities and interests without coercion, even though humanity has evolved throughout time by learning directly from wisdom-bearers in their own fields, these youth are put in institutions called schools. There each young human is judged by pre-determined standards. A large percentage don’t measure up.

It has been determined that the primary need of young humans is for self-expression, reasonably consistent guidance, and what on Earth is called love.

It is beyond the scope of this field report to discuss all the factors impeding humans but this observer notes that humanity flourishes due in large part to the overwhelming ability of human families to raise children using tools of kindness, laughter, and true affection. These behaviors are observed every moment, shared freely. This seems to be the essence of this species, so the report overall views humanity’s progress as positive.

(We prefer, however, that humans stick to their own planet. See the following video update.)

Image courtesy of Jean Kern’s flickr photostream 

To Be, Or To Multitask

multitasking, busy, mindfulness, I.Q., cell phone, distraction,

I did it again. Deleted unwanted emails while on the phone, just trying to be efficient. No, I wasn’t reading the emails. Honestly I started out just deleting. But I had to scan quickly through a few to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And next thing you know it was time to end the conversation. Sadly our entire interaction felt flat, as if we never really connected. I know why. I wasn’t really part of it. Chances are the very busy person I was talking to wasn’t either. Yay for multitasking.

This is the opposite of my true intentions. I keep writing about the importance of paying attention, connecting with nature, and centering our lives on what’s positive.

I try, I really do. But even when we live simply it takes real effort to avoid being rushed and over-obligated.

My mother was an early adherent of multitasking. She liked to say there was no sense doing just one thing at a time. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, however, when she spent requisite quality time playing a board game with me while heating her curler-bedecked head under the hairdryer (those 70’s models were as loud as leaf blowers) and talking on the phone. I was never sure how the person on the other end of the phone heard her over that hairdryer; that person may have been loudly washing dishes, making them both disconnected multitaskers.

It’s much easier to multitask now. In fact, we’re rewiring the way we operate minute-to-minute. We’ve tuned ourselves to distraction. That seems to make us uncomfortable with distraction’s opposite—-the powerfully real time spent in contemplation or conversation.

A recent study found that people asked to forgo media contact for 24 hours (no texting,email, Facebook, TV or cell phone use) actually suffered withdrawal symptoms. They experienced anxiety, cravings and preoccupations so overwhelming that their ability to function was impaired.

When we multitask it feels as if we’re accomplishing more. Who can’t stir a pot of noodles, listen to music and still maintain a decent conversation?  That’s easy.  Although we’re not really paying attention to that music or honoring the conversation with eye contact and full awareness (let alone mindfully attending to the noodles).

The major multitasking whammy comes from doing similar functions at the same time, as I was doing by talking on the phone and checking email. That’s because the brain doesn’t really do both task simultaneously, it goes back and forth, relentlessly switching attention.

All that switching causes our performance to plummet.  Studies show multitasking makes us up to 40 percent slower or causes the same lack of concentration as giving up a night’s sleep.

Perhaps even worse, we don’t recognize the stress it imposes.  As our brains focus and refocus, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline.  We may work faster, but also feel more frustration and pressure, and the ability to concentrate becomes increasingly impaired.

Talking on the phone and reading email doesn’t just make me somewhat inattentive, studies find that multitasking can functionally lower one’s I.Q. by as much as ten points.  In my case, I suspect it’s quite a bit more.

So many parts of our lives seem to require multitasking. Parenthood certainly does, nearly every job does too. But I want to be, really be. Multitasking subtracts from that.

I’m taking a vow to walk away from any screen any time I pick up the phone. I’m vowing to spend less time using technology, more time in nature. Any vows you’ve taken? How’s that going for you?

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“To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”

Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living

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photo courtesy of Jayo

All Day Every Day Video Game Learning

All day, every day video game based schooling. Great.

A Popular Science article (print version, Jan 2010) extolls the virtues of a recently opened school in Manhattan designed around a  spanking new videogame curricula. Called Quest to Learn (Q2L) the school is heavily funded by interests (such as Intel) outside the NYC school district. And yes, every subject is taught via the medium of video games.

Another oh-gosh-isn’t-this-fabulous article appeared in the mass market magazine Parade and the flurry of media attention continues to accelerate. Soon every school child will be agitating to replace the boredom of classwork with the excitement of gaming.

Their eagerness will be nothing compared to the frenzy of those who make Big Decisions in education. Anything having to do with technology seems to make these folks feel they’re finally hip. Actually, they toss money at any curricula that promises to keep the little darlings quiet, busy and able to pass proficiency tests. In a few years you won’t be able to spit without hitting a school district boasting a version of this all day, every day video game schooling. Just great.

Q2L sounds impressive. Designed by the (soon to be rolling in bucks) Institute of Play, its curricula isn’t structured around ordinary educational games. Learning is integrated between subjects, offers hands-on components and promises to put the student in charge of his or her education. Q2L promotional materials assure parents their kids won’t be glassy-eyed screen droolers. But, and this is a huge but, it’s all day, every day.

Research tells us that high quality video games are known to promote rapid decision-making, logic, visual-spatial skills, risk assessment and intense focus. Author Steven Johnson notes in Everything Bad is Good for You that today’s technologies offer complex intellectual challenges that engage students in ways never before seen. All great. Except for a little thing we call balance.

Candy substituted for every meal, even with all the required vitamins, fiber and omega 3 fatty acids packed into it by a clever non-profit candy making institute, may make kids wildly happy but it still isn’t a real meal. An all day video gaming educational model may be new, shiny and sound perfectly thrilling but without balance it’s simply another way to train the next generation of workers to ignore the vital need for balance in their lives.

A truly balanced education is one that can’t be prescribed or predetermined by any curricula developer because each child is different. That’s that beauty of Democractic Schools, relaxed styles of homeschooling and unschooling. Those of us who educate this way know from experience that children, when raised in an atmosphere of loving trust and fully involved in the life of the community around them, tend naturally toward balance.

Video games may indeed be a wonderful way to learn but not all day, every day. They can be part of a wider concept of education.  It would be wonderful to see schools reverse the trends that have segregated and stymied the maturation of young people ever since modernization forced them into mandatory schooling.

For starters, today’s students could use a whole lot more of these missing elements to restore balance in each educational day.

Play. Not the sort of play that happens on carefully designed liability-friendly playgrounds or within the limits of       supervised games, but unstructured free play.  This sort of fun is actually essential for the development of imagination and innovative thinking as well as social and cognitive maturation.

Creative, hands-on engagement in open-ended work. The high scoring Icelandic and Finnish schools that keep our educational Big Deciders in a jealous froth aren’t test happy. Instead they include daily arts such as knitting, woodwork and felting while U.S. school kids rarely get to work with metal or wood in shop class let alone have the opportunity to paint at an easel.

Pursuit of interests. There may be no greater motivator than the ability to engage in one’s interests for hours, days, weeks or longer plus the freedom to move on when those interests are depleted.

Community involvement. Schools segregate young people from vibrant adults in the community precisely at the developmental stages when kids are primed to imitate, help and adhere to role models. No rote field trip or Skype interview can come close to collaboration and engagement in the real world around them.

Nature. People of all ages are missing out on the invigorating and focusing effects of spending regular time in nature.  Most of us suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder without recognizing how much is missing from our lives.  Even our eyes indicate that we’re intrinsically structured to be outdoors. New research indicates children who spend more time outdoors are much less likely to need eyeglasses. Something about the intensity of sunlight or the benefits of looking across wide open spaces seems to be a protective factor.

All day, every day video game based schooling. Another example of an educational trend taken too far in one direction. How great is that?

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Creative Commons image credit http://www.glyphjockey.com/pix2/nsg2.jpg