Education, Technology and Relationships

Friends are great. Really. The quality of the life you live depends greatly on the quality of your relationships, the moments spent with friends, family, even pets and the environment. This blog was inspired by a friend who sends me articles she thinks might interest me.


Our brains prioritize human relationships. We make judgments about other people much faster than with other things. If you pay attention to what thoughts fly around in your mind, most of them involve other people, how you appear to others, and such. Relationships are crucial to our very sense of ourselves and what is real. Dr. Daniel Siegel conceptualizes mind, including conscious awareness and subjective experience, not just in terms of an embodied brain, but in terms of the relational processes, the exchanges of information we are involved in.  So any education, especially K-12, must prioritize relationships—the quality of relationship that a teacher has with students, how students are taught to relate to peers, other adults, even people on the street. And, of course, with themselves. Many people grow up thinking their own self is as foreign to them as a random person on the street, except with your self you get to listen in to intimate experiences, conversations and memories.


If you spend several hours a day relating to a virtual reality, does this undermine your ability to relate with a flesh and blood one? For years now, schools have been pushed to increase the use of computers and other digital technologies with little reflection on the affects of the technology use. Many school districts already have or are aiming at giving each student and teacher a laptop or other device. They imagine great learning will ensue from this “21st Century” approach to education. Many politicians, media experts, and corporate executives who attack American public schools as falling behind other nations often push digital devices–while leaving out the fact that those nations which outperform us on standardized tests, like Finland, spend less on computers, and other forms of technology in the classroom, than we do. Compared to the salaries of other professionals, they do spend more on teachers. In other words, it’s not the technology that is helping students from those nations supposedly outperform us on tests. Isn’t it about time to question that priority? How and how much should technology be used in education? Should we teach not just digital literacy, but digital mindfulness, mindfulness of the affect media has on our emotions, thinking and attention to the world around us?


Psychologist Susan Pinker wrote a great article for the NY Times opinion pages called “Can Students Have Too Much Tech?” The answer she gives is a definite “yes.” She says, for example, “Students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores.” The impact on students from poorer families is far worse. I haven’t, yet, read her book The Village Effect, on the importance of face-to-face contact, but I plan to. I decided to independently check out her basic conclusion. I found out that, according to USEIT, a study funded by the US Department of Education which analyzed the relationship between student computer use and test performance, the “recreational use of computers to play games, explore the Internet for fun, or chat with friends at home had a negative effect on students’ MCAS [Massachusetts standardized test] reading scores.” However, when computers are used through the full writing process, from rough draft to editing and final draft, this positively affects test scores.


Since I don’t think standardized test scores are an accurate or educationally positive way to assess student learning, I looked at other indicators. For example, how does technology affect us emotionally? How anxious do you get when you can’t check in with your technology? One study showed that, for example, 51% of people born between 1990 and 1998 get anxious when they can’t check their text messages. 62% of those same people check their technologies every 15 minutes, or even more frequently. People feel deprived and wonder what they’re missing if they can’t check their phone. How often do you see people walking through a beautiful natural environment, or even sitting at dinner with a loved one or friends, and instead of talking with the person in front of them, they’re on their phones? For these people, the phone, the virtual reality, has become valued equal to or more than the flesh and blood one. If you can’t let go of the virtual world, how can you learn in, or feel fully present, feel meaningfully engaged in, the world outside that realm? Many teachers I know have noted the increase of anxiety in their students. Is technology a major culprit?


If administrators and others were serious about improving the lives and education of students, they would spend more time and resources on improving equity of resources between schools, and on social-emotional learning and mindfulness, so kids could learn to better self-regulate their emotions, their attention, their time spent in different activities. In order to develop the empathy needed for good relationships, emotional regulation is crucial. In order to think more critically and clearly, empathy and mindfulness are important for enabling the student to better reflect on and direct their thinking. Money spent on tech and tests is money not spent on social-emotional learning (or teachers), yet our children need to learn both about emotion and computer technology. Maybe one reason tech is pushed is the same reason some politicians and educational corporations attack and try to undermine public schools: greed. Attack teachers and public schools and you sell the idea of charters, standardized tests and programmed lessons produced by educational corporations—and sell technology. I probably do not need to say this, but I will: technology is big money.


Technology is not only addictive to young people. If you’re old enough, consider how much more you pay for your phone, television, etc. than you paid in the 1970s or early 1980s. For me, it’s about 10 times more, and I have a flip phone. Of course, I love my computers, I love the new television programming, DVDs, etc.. I only bought a television in 1980 to watch the television series Shogun. But since the 1980s, the amount of money most of us spend on technology has gone up, while the average income for 90% of us has remained stagnant. (According to the IRS, the average income in 2008, adjusted for inflation, is $400 less than 1988.) Does the technology function to make us forget that the quality of our media has gone up, but our freedom to earn a good wage, to influence political decisions, to attend college without indebting ourselves for decades, etc. has gone down. It’s important to teach students how to use and create technology. But we can’t improve understanding of life and death, of our place in the world of other people and other species, by diminishing how much we value actual face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact with those others. We see so many more people on Facebook. (I even share this blog on Facebook and other media.) Facebook is great for keeping contact and sharing information. But has the quality of our lives and relationships improved? Have we moved closer to substituting virtual contact for face-to-face presence? And is the price worth it?

Politics, Greed, and the Welfare of Our Children

Last week, teachers and administrators were given jail terms for fixing test scores. I think this crime pales before the gross lack of human caring, feeling, and worse carried out by politicians, with the support of corporate executives and hedge fund managers, who distort and overemphasize the meaning of standardized test scores while forcing their use in public schools throughout the U. S.. They force teachers, who know the exams cause needless suffering to students, to give them anyway. And to whom have these politicians been giving the power to judge how much students have learned, how well teachers have taught, and even who can become a teacher (and sometimes how a subject can be taught)? Corporations like Pearson Education, which is now being investigated by the FBI for various possible crimes including insider dealings with the Los Angeles Unified School District and Apple.


Diane Ravitch describes in her book Reign of Error how various corporate interests, working with individual politicians, have been leading an effort for years to undermine public schools. They have been working to undermine teachers, teacher unions, and the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, could manage and direct an educational system. The strategy calls for publicizing deceptive information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, the A Nation At Risk report, produced by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education was responsible for everything from a decline in academic achievement, college graduation rate, to the loss of manufacturing jobs. All later proved untrueAcademic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. In 2001, President Bush pushed the No Child Left Behind legislation. Since NCLB, the number of standardized tests given to our students was increased to the point where the US is now number one in the world in the number of tests we force on our children.


Should the politicians who have pushed this agenda be punished? There is no reliable evidence that standardized testing improves education. In fact, even years ago reliable evidence showed the opposite– students who graduate from schools that rely on such testing for assessment are less creative, less able to apply what they learn than students who go to schools who use more alternative assessments. These tests increase student suffering by teaching through fear. Students do not take these tests because of what they teach. They take them because they are threatened into doing so. The tests support inequity (see Fair Test) and narrow the range of what is taught. They serve no real diagnostic value, since they are in many cases “poorly designed” and the results are long delayed, often until after the school year has ended. By narrowing the range of what is taught they rob students of a well-rounded education. Yet, these tests are still pushed. Why?


What about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo? Cuomo has been pushing to increase how much scores on standardized tests will count in judging which teachers are given tenure. He wants test scores to count as one half of a teacher’s effectiveness score. To get this through the legislature, he proposed: “Pass that evaluation change, and school funding will go up 1.1 billion dollars…in the 2015-16 budget. Leave it out, and there will only be a $377 million increase…” Why do this? If Diane Ravitch is correct, he does it so he can turn schools over to entrepreneurs who can use them for financial gain. According to Hedge Clippers, Governor Cuomo’s campaign received “$4.8 million from hedge fund billionaires.”


The lack of empathy for how these policies affect students, teachers, parents and the communities that most of us live in, is appalling. Just imagine you’re a teacher. To teach well, where must your focus be? On your students, who they are, what they need educationally and as a total person. If you understand who the students are, you can shape educational methods to fit them. If you fear punishment, job or salary loss based on test scores, you will feel pressure to shift your concern to pleasing authorities and focusing on test scores. A student who does poorly on a test, or might do poorly on a test, becomes a threat. Only assessments that are authentic demonstrations of how much an individual’s skills and knowledge, in a particular course, grows in a school year unite the student, teacher and community’s interests together. High stakes tests must be de-emphasized in favor of assessments which come from the individual teacher and school, and must give immediate feedback so effective remediation, when needed, is possible.


Our public school children are being held hostage to the financial and political agendas of the few. Isn’t it about time to shift the focus back to the greater good of students and their communities?


My cats Milo and Tara often wander the world with me. If I sit at my computer, they sleep nearby. If I go outside, they follow me. They seem to like simply being in my presence. I sometimes feel a very silly sort of happiness seeing them sleeping by my feet. This happiness doesn’t just happen with cats, although the people I know luckily don’t follow me around or sleep at my feet. I love simply being with my wife, family and close friends. When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I lived in a big house by myself in a relatively small village in the bush. When I first arrived, there were no other Peace Corps people or friends within miles. A few of the villagers liked to come and sit with me. If I talked with them, they would often leave. When asked why they came, the response was that they didn’t want me to feel lonely. Talk was unnecessary, even an obstacle. What is it about presence that is so satisfying?


What is presence? It is certainly not well defined. Is it about feeling safe? My cats feel safe with me, I hope. I certainly feel safe with them—and certainly with my friends and wife. I can relax and open up. There is little or no need for pretense. Presence is an absence of pretense, a type of mirroring back. One party opens, trusts and the other feels it and gives it back. One hears, sees, feels and is in turn heard, seen, felt.


Presence is not just being in the same space with someone, and not just with other beings. It can be on one’s own or with any place, object or situation. Recently, there was an opinion piece about presence in the NY Times called, “Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters.” The author, Lawrence Berger, said many cognitive scientists argue that, “We are information processors rather than full-bodied human beings.” For these cognitive scientists, human beings don’t experience anything “outside” us, like another person or a tree, directly but only some sort of “internal” representation of it created by our senses and brain. We supposedly respond not directly to the tree or person but the representation. We are, in principle, locked away from the world. What is ultimately real are the physical and physiological processes, synapses, neurons, myelin sheaths, not presence. But on other “levels,” we can speak of electrons jumping around, or on another there are chemical interactions, etc.. So, isn’t each person a universe of multiple perspectives? Aren’t each of these perspectives equally about what’s “real”? And isn’t one of these perspectives, and an important one, the sense of a face lighting up in your presence?


One neuroscientist mentioned by Berger said that conscious awareness is “a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.” These cognitive scientists remind me of different, older theories which “reduce” consciousness to something mechanical, physical and measurable. For example, the behaviorists of the early twentieth century argued that consciousness could not be studied and was irrelevant to explaining human behavior. It had no causal significance. Human behavior, they theorized, is conditioned, basically “programmable,” like machines. This position led to some important discoveries but also abuses.


The cognitive scientists focus on the mechanisms of what happens in the body when we attend. For Heidegger, a 20th Century phenomenologist philosopher, attention is not just selecting what in the world we take in, but what becomes present to us, or what takes on life, being. The “beingness,” or the mere sense of aliveness becomes primary. Attention is not just selecting what we pay attention to and with what strength or intensity, but the quality or the “feel of” that attention. So, if this is true, isn’t presence crucial for constructing meaning, understanding, and clear thinking?


Berger said, “When we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters.” Presence is a recognition of our subjective experience as an event in the world, not separate from it. It is not just internal physical mechanisms or processes which have an effect. The quality of our awareness, our presence has an effect on the world.


And for scientists to say that conscious experience has no causal relationship to our behavior, or is merely a representation separate from a reality it simplifies and depicts, is untenable. To date, there is no clear or definitive understanding of consciousness from either science or philosophy. Anyone can theorize or have an opinion, of course, but must recognize the tentativeness of their position.


In my high school classes, I sometimes asked students: What are the implications of these different theories of consciousness on how you act or feel about yourself? If humans are totally programmable, would it be ethical or humane to hurtfully experiment on them and then just wipe away the memories of pain? What happens to how you treat other people when you conceive of them as machines, even computers? Which understanding of your own mind would best enable you to do school work—one which conceived mind as a cartoon, or one which thought of mind, consciousness as powerful?


And, you are never separate from the physical universe. If what you experience are representations you construct or cartoons you draw or theorize, this is an event inseparable from the universe that you construct. Thus, when “I” see “my” cat Tara, the perception is inseparable from me, Tara is inseparable from me. I and cat, (I-Thou) arise together. The theory by which I explain the universe is a metaphor I use to view and act in that universe. Thus, shouldn’t the effects on behavior of the theories you use be considered as part of the evidence by which a theory is evaluated?


If you’re a teacher, you must do the physical things, like prepare, bring in supplies, give clear directions and ask meaningful questions (and eat a good breakfast). But, as Berger said, you must also remember your “worldly presence matters.” For the student, the aliveness of the teacher, the caring, the “being heard,” the feeling that your is life mirrored, held and valued by the other—these matter. You model and teach presence and how to make theoretical questions “present’ or alive to your students. And when you do so, the mere act of listening with your whole being means you are heard, you matter. You give, you receive. This, I believe, is clear.



**The photo is of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey.

How Can You Discuss Controversial Subjects In Schools, Like Religion?

I recently published a blog on why religion needs to be discussed respectfully and openly in schools. Now, the question is how (hopefully) this can be done.


People often assume they know what religion is, but in actuality there are many different conceptions and definitions of it. So, to begin the discussion, ask: What is religion? What is it for you? For many, it is a system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things or beings (Emile Durkheim), or the worship of God or a deity. To others, it concerns whatever is the deepest value in your life. The roots go back to a word for obligation or reverence. An older root is religare, re means back, again, anew; ligare (as in ligament) bind or tie. So, religion is to “bind back”. Bind back to what? To God? The universe? Yourself? To purpose or meaning? To full awareness? To your community? How is being religious different from being spiritual, if at all? Is it necessary to have a belief system or a God to be a religion?


What you teach must be adapted to where you teach, who your students are, and who you are. If you are in a community where parents and the school administration would vehemently oppose such discussions, instead of discussing religion, discuss related philosophical and psychological questions that students think are important. My students often chose to discuss why be empathetic or how to live a meaningful life, what love is, and mind.  And, many ethical questions, like: Why is there violence and how should I respond to it? On what basis can I make ethical choices? How do I humanize even those who disagree with me?


Then you need to ask yourself what your intent is in discussing religion. Is it to push a specific belief system? Is it to increase understanding of the diversity of religious or spiritual viewpoints? Is it to help students better understand themselves and their world? Are you committed and open to learning about several religions and studying philosophical methods? What is your story of religion? The first person to question is you. What are your values? Beliefs? Questions? Would you feel comfortable sharing these with students?


If you think you can discuss religion, how do you do it? Since religion is so important in so many people’s lives, you must obviously be sensitive, respectful, open and empathetic. People tend to strike out when their core beliefs are threatened. So you must be strong, ready to protect students, and real. You must model empathy so students can learn to do the same, both to people of different religions or no religion and in the face of new ideas. You need to present ideas and questions, not dictate answers.


What is the history of religion? If you believe the earth and human history begins 6000 years ago with Adam and Eve, maybe the question ends there. But if you think the evidence for the age of the earth being billions of years old is reliable, and that humans evolved into what we are now, this is a very interesting question. You need to discuss what constitutes evidence and what is a theory and a fact versus an opinion. There is evidence that even Neanderthal had some kind of religion. Shamanic, animistic and then polytheistic religions all appeared before monotheistic religion (as we know it). There are myths from around the world–Greek, Norse, African, Japanese, etc. which are filled with religious content and purpose.


So, if cultures throughout history had a religion of some kind, why? Why is religion so ubiquitous? What purposes does it serve? I mentioned in an earlier blog that one answer people give is that religions provide answers, often comforting answers to difficult or uncomfortable questions. I argued that this is a partial answer, at best.


David Loy, a Buddhist philosopher, speaks of two major purposes religion fulfills. The first is that it provides a social canopy. The second is transformation.  We have already begun to describe the social canopy, which many people think is the entirety of religion. Picture a canopy. It shields us. In Loy’s analysis, it consists of the reassuring answers mentioned earlier, ones which tell us what is real or true, now and even beyond death. It tells us how to live, what’s important. Some of my students thought religion was the glue holding a culture together. It ties humans in a community of shared meanings and practices. When social and political institutions fall apart or fail to provide needed support services, religions often step in to fill that need. Of course, many think the religious also have undermined cultural cohesion at times; one recent example is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana and Arkansas. One question to ask and carefully study is: what happens if you are religious and think the canopy is falling or being taken away?


The second purpose is transformation. Transformation might help answer another question about religion: would religion have continued if its only purpose was to provide the social canopy?  All religions that I can think of talk about individuals transformed in some way, by God, grace, insight, a journey, experience or some practice such as a ritual or meditation. There is Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, Mirabai, etc. Whether these figures are also God, a prophet, an awakened individual or a saint, they are important or central to a religion. What exactly ‘transformation’ means needs to be analyzed and discussed. It might involve a change of ethical behavior, or how you are with others, your compassion. It might involve understanding or wisdom. It might involve a deepening of awareness or how you experience life. It might involve all three or more. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called it “self-actualization,” Carl Jung “individuation.” It can involve learning how to end suffering. A big question is: can the social canopy interfere with transformation?


I recommend studying the science of empathy and compassion. Discuss what thinking means and how to do it clearly and critically. How do you know what’s right to do and true? You might discuss the various meanings of logos and mythos. You might discuss framing metaphors, and the role of stories in thinking. What is the role of doubt and questioning, as well as revelation, belief and faith? What do these all mean? Carefully differentiate self-doubt, or doubt in your ability to think, from having faith in yourself to doubt, question, analyze, and empathize with other people’s answers as well as your own.


Here are a few of the books I have used. I have left out books that are fabulous but speak of only one religion. Always try to provide different viewpoints on each topic or question you discuss. I would suggest reading select chapters from the following.

Karen Armstrong’s books, particularly The Case for God. This is a profound book about God and religion, in the past as well as in today’s world. It has insightful analyses of faith and belief and how our understanding of these has changed over time.

Philosopher Philip Novak wrote The World’s Wisdom, a collection of short excerpts from the spiritual writings of many religions.

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions provides a comparison of religious doctrines, philosophy, history and practices. Although students find it a bit dry, it is a great resource and has been used for decades in comparative religion classes.

Ken Wilber’s exciting synthesis, No Boundary, explores both a philosophical and psychological analysis of religious experience.


To provide artistic and emotional insight and some fun, and to stimulate students to come up with their own syntheses, add books such as:

Roger Housden’s collection: Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation.

Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield’s collection: Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from Around the World.


**Photo: Goreme Open Air Museum, Turkey. Church carved into rock.