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Relaxing in the Digital Garden: How to Thrive in the 21st Century



Those are the answers to two questions I've been asked more often than any other on this Now You See it book tour that began back in August.  I know those words don't seem as if they are the key to success in the digital future, so let me explain.


“Garden” is the answer I give most frequently to parents and educators when they ask what I see as the most important characteristic of successful schools.  I mean this literally and also as a metaphor.   The teacher or school that invests time and energy—but really very little actual money—in a garden where kids can translate their knowledge into something that grows a little each day and that eventually feeds them, is showing (not telling) kids that what they learn in school makes a difference. 


The operative learning principle goes back at least as far principle that goes at least as far back as John Dewey’s idea that all learning should be related to the actual experiences of the child, to contemporary Project-Based Learning methods, and to the idea reiterated by many educators, including the National Academies that the most important 3 R’s” are  relationships, rigor, and relevance.  ( You cannot have a successful garden without leadership, management, and collaboration skills, without a sense of obligation and discipline where rigor isn’t abstract but literal life and death, and for all kids—but especially those in marginal, disadvantaged lives—the garden literalizes the idea that knowledge is food, for the soul surely but also for the body.   The schools I saw that centered their learning—math to set the rows, natural sciences to discuss soil and climate, biological sciences for nutrition, history to understand the agrarian past, literature for poems and stories about other gardens, and writing for the kids to keep diaries and imagine their own contribution to the planet.    But mostly the garden’s role was not just as a crude translator but as an invitation to participation in a project that matters/


But what does all this have to do with the digital age?  We keep getting ed tech wrong, placing the emphasis on expensive gadgets or on supposedly cost-saving online learning without understanding that the defining principle that inspired the creation of the World Wide Web was participation and contribution.   For the first time in human history, if I have an idea, I can publish that idea for the world to see from any computer terminal to which I have access.   I don’t need an editor or a publisher.  And the down side is I don’t have an editor or a publisher to correct, to warn, to shape what I do.   Rarely are kids today taught about themselves as authors, contributing to the great online garden of the world.  In many schools where kids have access to the gadgets, they are not connected to the World Wide Web.  They are not learning the skills that allow them to flourish in a participatory world, a larger society, online and off.  


I use a version of the “garden method” in my classes at Duke, requiring each student to make at least two public contributions to knowledge, where they translate something they learned in the class to some online forum where others can make use of their learning and respond to it. As a class, we do at least two collaborative projects each term that also contribute.   See those flowers grow!  It makes a difference.


And why “relax”?   Because it is time to breathe deeply and survey all that has changed about how we live, work, and learn over the last 18 years and figure out, together, what comes next.  In the history of technology, it is just about this soon after a major new invention that people get past all the anxious rhetoric to figure out what theyneed and what the new technologies do or do not offer.  It’s time to get rid of that  anxious rhetoric about how the Internet will destroy our kids and make them shallow, anti-social, violent dolts.   As we do more and more actual research on how kids are doing these days, we find increasing confirmation that kids (and adults too, for that matter) have made a quite remarkable adaptation to the new way of sharing and exchanging information that began on that fateful April 1993 day when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was released on an unsuspecting public.   The Internet thereafter was not just for scientists and researchers but for anyone with access.   And this was not just as users but (the garden again) producers of content: YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and all the rest. 


Let’s put our experience in perspective.  A new way of communicating doesn’t happen all that often.  Historian Robert Darnton says there are only three equivalent times in human history—the invention of writing (4000 BCE), Gutenberg’s movable type (in the Renaissance), and machine-era mass publishing (at the beginning of the 19th century).  We are less than twenty years into one of humanity’s fourth great information ages, we’re doing well.


And so are our kids.  According to Scholastic Magazine,  a fifteen year old today reads more books for pleasure than his parents—and more than his parents read when they were fifteen. They may not be able to remember a phone number on a speed dial or a fact they can Google, but ask anything that is relevant to them (say, for a Duke student, basketball statistics), and you see their memory-function is still right on target.  


They are not being damaged by the Internet.   And neither are we.   But 18 years in, we can also ask for more.  We don’t yet have the Emily Post of email, for example, meaning we have to figure out which figurative fork to use (Dear Cathy, Hi Cathy, Cathy, or no salutation!) every time we click on yet another entry in our inbox, including those just plain rude ones copied to all, with a useless, outdated subject line.   We don’t have party manners yet for iPhone use at the restaurant table or in the lecture hall.  We haven’t figured out how to redesign our offices for the information age or to “count” the work we do at home, on vacation, on trips, on planes as part of what most Human Resources add in to our mythical “forty-hour work week.” And we haven’t figured out yet how to open the Internet to school access so our kids can learn wisely and skillfully how to navigate virtual and digital worlds they inhabit, untutored and unprotected, when they are not in school.


 In other words, we need to ask practical questions, about how we can learn to use, for our benefit, this garden-like digital world that, if we tend it wisely, practically, and patiently, can grow and flourish.   If we teach our kids to translate their knowledge to the best practices of the Internet, they can see what grows best and under what conditions.   Their participation can nurture, fulfill, and inspire us all. 





Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization.  For more information, visit [NYSI cover]


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