The New Education: Digital Media Enables Whole Bodies[1]

The New Education:

Digital Media Enables Whole Bodies[1]

August 10, 2009

Sam Gill, PhD

The day that digital media will replace paper textbooks is rapidly approaching as financially distressed States measure the cost savings of digital delivery of information to students.[2] The issue is setting off a debate about the dangers, values, and costs of going digital.  I suspect that the debate will grind on for a few years, yet can anyone doubt the outcome?  Just think of the shifts in the last few years that have quickly been absorbed by society.  Hang out with a six year old (like my granddaughter) and be amazed at the skill and acumen he or she demonstrates at engaging electronic forms of learning and you will glimpse the future role of electronic media in education.  This much is clear, there will be rapidly increasing use of digital means in education at all levels.

The future of education at all levels is changing, yet I believe few school systems are taking bold enough steps to positively embrace the challenge this shift offers.  It is my impression that society simply assumes that, even with a shift to digital media, schools will remain otherwise pretty much as they are now and as they have been for the last century or so.  In this narrow-minded frame the debate is limited to the merits and dangers of digital delivery of textbooks.  This isn’t really a significant issue because the result of this debate is a foregone conclusion.   On this issue it is only the time frame for the transition that remains in question.

Embracing digital media must quickly lead to a New Education, should we imagine it, that might be characterized in these terms:

  • Young people will learn much more and do so faster and more effectively
  • Computers will track the progress of individual students on a real time basis and adjust teaching programming to assist individual student needs and personal interests
  • Based on public expectations for learning, computers will evaluate the whole population and any relevant population segments on a real time basis so that adjustments can be promptly made
  • Students will cease to be grouped with conglomerates of students based on broad age groupings and crude measures of educational progress
  • Students will progress at individual pace rather than an average pace for a group they are somehow identified with
  • Students will learn from internationally renowned teachers and constantly updated methods and materials delivered to them electronically
  • Student learning will be constantly interactive and demanding
  • Students will receive real time evaluation of their work so that mistakes and errors will be immediately identified
  • Student will receive constant positive reinforcement
  • Students will learn in comfortable informal learning environments so that the traditional classroom with aligned chairs and a formal division between teacher and students will disappear
  • New educational furniture and architecture will be designed and built
  • Teachers’ roles will shift in many ways.  Some teachers will be devoted to designing and preparing electronic materials.  Some teachers will serve as local mentors and can be electronically directed to students who need individual personal assistance.  Many teachers will be involved in activities that are not present in current educational environments providing educational and developmental activities that are not currently part of the school system.  I will describe these below.

While the New Education does not presently exist, the technology to accomplish all of this does.

This is but an imaginative sketch of what I believe will unfold in educational environments over the next few years and decades.  It describes what might be called the New Education.  What need be recognized is that education has already shifted as it is practiced by most students of all ages from pre-school through university.  Most students are learning much of what they learn through such media as YouTube and social networks, through games and gaming sites, through blogs and chat rooms.  Students use computers, iPods, cell phones, and gaming devices to learn.  Unacknowledged is the proportion of students in college and university classrooms who spend their time during lecture on such digital media activities rather than taking notes on the lecture.  These students usually do as well as any in their course performances.  Also unacknowledged is the educational importance of these activities, even though they are rarely acknowledged as playing any educational role at all.

Rather than debating the current concern with the use of digital materials and methods, we must boldly and imaginatively accept the challenge to embrace these media and materials and take this as an opportunity to re-invent education at all levels, to create a New Education.  The cost of avoiding the challenge or even delaying our action will result in increasingly ineffective and irrelevant educational systems.  Most current educational institutions have, in my view, already been left behind.   The goal should be “No school left behind.”  So we might embrace an educational system that incorporates the elements I have included above.  But is that enough?

The use of electronic media to deliver content and theoretical materials and ideas to students will free educators to take on a currently little known and broadly ignored, yet absolutely fundamental, dimension to human development and learning, learning and development based on movement, touching, and fun.  Over the last thirty years there has been an increasingly powerful stream of scientific research documenting the importance of these aspects of human development and education.

Research indicates that human development depends on self-actuated movement.  From birth throughout life we realize ourselves in movement.  Research indicates that human development depends on healthy and appropriate touching.  From birth throughout life we respond to healthy and appropriate touching by growing and developing empathy and feelings.  Research indicates that human development depends on bodily personal experiences of community, human relationships, play, and fun.  From birth throughout life we develop along a trajectory of interest, feeling, emotions, and play.   See www.SalsAmigos.org lecture series for some information on this research and how it might be incorporated in education.

In current educational environments there is little opportunity for or encouragement of self-actuated movement, appropriate and healthy touching, emotion and play.  Indeed, the current traditional approach to education actively prohibits these human actions and experiences.  School furniture and architecture inhibit most bodily activity.  Touching is commonly strictly forbidden.  The limitation on movement and touching commonly results in fostering student emotion related to education that might be described as flat or boredom.  Intrinsic motivation associated with words like play and fun are uncommon.

Currently these important developmental elements have been increasingly marginalized for a number of reasons:

  • failure to understand and acknowledge the importance of these elements to human development
  • an antiquated theory of education that focuses on brain/mind paired with the exclusion of the whole body
  • the view that bodily activities are limited to reward for good behavior and extracurricular activities that are secondary in importance and dispensable
  • a practice of the progressive decrease and distance of bodily activities correlating with the advancement of education
  • the embracing of an objectivist understanding of knowledge and reason that eliminates any place for emotion, feelings, empathy, subjectivity, personal engagement, passion
  • increasingly limited funds for extracurricular activities, so that even those in the current educational system who recognize the importance of these elements have decreasing funds to do anything about it

These reasons must be eliminated, giving way to the New Education.

There is no question that with the development of electronic media we are increasingly becoming a sedentary society.  Children play outdoors less than ever before.  Children and adults socialize electronically rather than physically.  Students in schools “text” one another even when physically close enough to speak with one another.  “Friends” has come to be a term almost universally understood to refer to electronic social contacts on Facebook and other social networks.  In light of all the research on brain development and human development these forms exclude elementary features essential to human development, even to being fully human;  these are movement and physical touching contact.

An enormous opportunity exists in embracing the electronic delivery and educational processes.  The efficiency and effectiveness of these media can allow us an opening to reinvent education, to create a New Education that will support fuller human development including human movement, healthy and appropriate touching, and intrinsically motivated (fun and playful) activities.  Electronic delivery and processes should also be complemented by embodied experiential learning experiences where students have challenges to apply and engage their knowledge in actual, rather than virtual, actions and environments.  Freeing up resources currently devoted to traditional delivery of education will readily be used in these bodied experiential activities that will greatly enhance what we understand as educational.  My experience with and development of the dance form SalsAmigos is an important example of the type of activity that must be included in the New Education (see www.SalsAmigos.org especially the six-part flash video lecture presentation series).

The New Education will produce highly educated and broadly developed people more physically and mentally fit than we can perhaps currently even imagine.


[1] Copyright © by Sam Gill

[2] See Tamar Lewin “Moving Into a Digital Future, Where Textbooks Are History” in The New York Times (front page, August 9, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/education/09textbook.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=moving%20into%20a%20digital%20future&st=cse .

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