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Virtual Un-reality … A Cautionary Tale

Last summer was so “unreal” it caused me to look at one of the fastest growing trends in public and private education with new eyes. First, my husband and I spent a week at Disney World where unreality has been raised to a science. As if having breakfast with a huge mouse isn’t enough, we were able to subject our bodies to stomach-churning, heart-stopping trips through the human vascular system and a meteor shower while trying to convince our brains that we really weren’t moving outside the flight simulator ride. Mr. Toad-wild roller coaster rides without the roller coaster!

Later in the summer, Tom Hanks took us with him to orbit the moon and return safely in Apollo 13. He wasn’t really there, of course, but it was hard to tell where documentary film stopped and acting and film special effects started. Maybe my father was right after all — Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon in a secret laboratory in Arizona.

Perhaps it’s time those of us in the business of guiding children through life’s experiences need to look closely at some technological trends that seem destined to replace reality.

Don’t get me wrong — I think computers are wonderful! As a person who started teaching when we still used paper and pencil to compute grades, paid $85 for my first calculator, and now can give each of my students an up-to-the-minute computer print-out showing how important those homework grades are to the overall picture. I’m a firm believer in technology. I have one computer at home, two in my classroom at school, and I’m writing this on my laptop as I fly over Kansas. But, there have been a few incidents lately that have made me a little uncomfortable.

First was the salesman who wanted me to buy a $245 piece of software that would enable my science students to simulate an electrical circuit. If they did it right, a little light bulb drawing lit up. Of course, they were doing the same thing already with two pieces of wire, a bulb, and a 1 .5 volt battery for a couple of dollars … and enjoying the process a lot more.

Then, I took my class to a nearby science museum (one we visit every year because it has great “hands-on” exhibits and terrific docent-led programs). We went to see an exhibit on sharks. The decent part of the program consisted of an hour lecture, puzzles, and computer games about the sea. We were then directed to the exhibit and told to enjoy ourselves. Surely this was a fluke!

The final straw was a speaker at one of our in-service workshops on the 21st Century Classroom — all individual computers, CD-Roms, and state-of-the-art electronics. He remarked that because today’s young people spend so much time in virtual reality situations with electronic games and interactive television filling their free time, it was incumbent on today’s educators to use virtual reality in order to reach and teach Little Johnny.

Am I the only one who finds that premise highly illogical?

And, finally, I come to my point. Museums, zoos, nature centers, and other such institutions may well be the last outposts of the “real stuff.” It is possible to select your own level of reality. Consider a grizzly bear — would you like a computer-generated CD-Rom encounter, a stuffed giant towering above you in a museum, a real bear in the newly-natural setting of a zoo, or the actual “Griz” approaching you in a wildlife park?

The National Science Resources Center (NSRC) and the Smithsonian run a twice yearly conference called the Elementary Science Leadership Institute to help educational leaders learn how to improve science education by making it a hands-on experience. Scott Stowell, a member of the NSRC, was recently quoted in Smithsonian magazine:

One of the United States’ eight national education goals is being first in the world in science and math. The only way is to have a strong kindergarten through 12th grade program. Computers are just one tool. To understand the ideas of science in a meaningful way you need to do experiments.

The key, of course, is to see computers and other technology as tools, not as ends unto themselves. A computer data-base is a most efficient way to provide curious museum visitors with information beyond the limits of exhibit label copy or even the best-informed docent. Computer simulation games make possible experiences that cannot be “real” because of time, space, or budget limitations. Computer animation provides ways to apply new knowledge. But, just because someone’s hands are on the keyboard, doesn’t make computers “hands-on” learning!

Another trend I noticed last summer as I visited a number of science museums across the country is what I call the “mall-ing” of America. Just as I can go into a shopping mall in Minneapolis, Boston, Dallas, Seattle, or Chattanooga and find the same stores and nearly identical merchandise, I can expect to find many of the same “technological toys” in science museums from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. When those computers, Foucault pendulums, bicycle-powered generators, potential-to-kinetic energy ramps, and bubble machines are part of a solid educational program, they are powerful tools. However, when they are merely objects for the entertainment of an audience, I believe they lose their claim to “hands-on” learning.

Leon Lederman, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for physics and founder of the Teacher Academy for Mathematics and Science, said in an interview with Science Year:

I love going into an elementary classroom and seeing that the teacher is comfortable and having a good time with the lesson, and the kids are laughing and enjoying themselves. That ‘s what school should be like. If you could get that atmosphere in every classroom, or 90 percent of them, what a change that would be!

Back in the 60′ s, when technology was just beginning to take hold of the imaginations of educational planners, there was talk of replacing teachers with “learning machines.” Kids could “do” their lessons at home, sending them by wire to a central machine for correcting/ grading. Computer games and educational software still work on the Pavlov’s dog idea of conditioned response — kill the villain and the computer plays you a song and pats you on the psyche. But, it wasn’t only teachers’ unions that recognized that learning machines were never going to take the place of teachers. Only a very narrow kind of learning takes place without human interaction.

The best museums, too, realize that learning must involve interaction with objects and with other people. It’s tempting, volunteers being harder and harder to find, to replace a good docent program with a lot of hardware. But, good educational programming still includes docents to facilitate learning — to direct and focus hands-on experiences, to ask the right questions, to guide learners to create their own reality within the context of their unique experiences. Museums, zoos, nature centers, and historical sites are still places where the answer to “Is this real?” is a resounding “Yes!”

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Virtual Un-reality…A Cautionary Tale,” The Docent Educator 5.2 (Winter 1995/96): 18-19.

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