Connecting Virtually: The Big Disconnect

This is going to be a bit of a roundabout. In this short essay, I make the point that computer mediated learning is “cool” learning. By “cool” I mean “devoid of felt connection.” I establish a research basis for this conclusion and end with a warning about cookies and baskets. Along the way, I celebrate the resolution of a thirty-year question in my mind.

When I was an intern in Syracuse University’s Urban Teacher Preparation Program (1964-65), I had to make sure any lesson/unit/curriculum I designed attended to three human needs: power, connection, and identity. If curriculum addressed these three needs as well as the “content” that needed to be addressed, then the learner would be “hooked.” Motivation, intrinsic motivation, the motivational desire to want to do something, motivation that comes from the heart and gut is tapped when these three needs are addressed. The intern group of which I was a part worked hard to write stuff that was relevant to our kids and relevancy was achieved by attending to power, identity, and connection.

For the record, to design lessons for power meant your lesson had to enhance a person’s ability to influence others (in positive ways) and to have increased control over self; to design lessons for identity meant your lesson had to enhance how a person felt about themselves and what they knew about themselves as a human being; and to design lessons for connection meant the lesson had to designed in such a way as to enable to person to see themselves as part of a larger world. Designing with these hooks in mind was intellectually challenging and forced us to continually try to see the world from the perspective of our kids.

“Connection” is the need I want to unpack here. The need to belong and to see yourself as an accepted part of a larger whole is central to the individual psychology of Alfred Adler. Adler, and later his colleague Rudolf Dreikurs, went on to develop the idea of social interest, the idea that we live our lives as part of many groups and part of our basic motivational structure is to enhance our group lives. We need to watch out for each other and we need for others to watch our for ourselves. Community, then, becomes something much more than a nice place to live. Community becomes a necessity for establishing and maintaining our basic mental and spiritual and physical well being. Adler, Driekurs, and others were suggesting to us that our emotional health was grounded in our social relationships. Driekurs was particularly dogmatic on the point that classroom teachers need to attend to the social emotional climate of our classrooms. Our number one task as teachers is to manipulate the social and academic structures in our rooms so that the relationships between and among our children and ourselves are supportive, challenging, and filled with opportunities for us to discover and live out who we are as unique individuals within unique group. To be en-couraged is to be filled with courage – the courage to be yourself, the courage to discover who you are among peers, the courage to know your power and identity through your connections with others. Pretty heady ideology, ideology born of an era that saw millions turned to ashes in the ovens of Hitler’s grand plan. Adler and Driekurs were both German Jews. I can imagine for them, their formulations about social interest were thoughts that held life and death meaning.

I spent over thirty years considering their views as ideology: theory, practice, theory and practice that worked in magical ways, by the way, when you watched Rudolph Driekurs work with kids and teachers. It was another German Jew, Kurt Lewin, who noted there was nothing so practical as a good theory.

Yesterday, I made a connection that tells me I no longer have to consider these ideas of social emotional connection and social interest and whole human beings as soft ideas, embedded in the clouded certainty of social science research. A chain of three events has brought me there.

Event One. My partner in crime in 1982 was Frank Watson. Sometime in 1982 or 1983, Frank brought the first <a href="Commodore Vic 20 to our Apex program. The Commodores were rapidly replaced by a bank of Apple 2e’s and soon, our interns, our teachers to be, were tapping out commands to move Seymour Papert’s turtles around a virtual space. I was at once, fascinated and repelled. I could see these early computers were more than virtual typewriters. Fifteen years before I’d read O. K. Moore’s research on establishing autotelic environments to help struggling urban readers learn to read. But were these newer versions of Moore’s huge vacuum tube computer going to replace cuisenaire rods and base-10 blocks and language experience as the vehicles to get young learners, learners who were suspicious of what schools could do for them, turned on to the power of their own brains? I thought not, but I was worried. In all these years, I have not been able to wrap my mind around the substance of my suspicion. There was something fundamentally different about mediating the learning of place value by manipulating virtual materials on a computer screen than there was by mediating the same learning by manipulating real blocks in a classroom! In short, learning with a computer was different than learning with what I called the real thing. And to be sure, I had strong opinions that it wasn’t as good, at least for children up to the age of say, twelve or thirteen. There was something essentially cool and disconnected in the tap tap tap of the keys that I didn’t like.

Event Two. During my sabbatical research last year, I came upon two articles authored by a crew of researchers at Duke University who had the capacity to dig deeply into the structures of how we think and feel, virtually. Their work establishes the physiological reality of emotional memory. I remember re-reading these two articles over and over and saying to myself, that’s it. Adler, Driekurs, and all the other educators who knew how important it was to teach children as if they were whole thinking, feeling, emoting, running, playing people now had physiological proof of their ideology. Their ideas were not longer ideological invocations, they were simply good practice grounded in what we know about the way we are hard wired. The Duke researchers establish the circularity of thought and feeling because they have been able to trace the actual neurological connection between raw feeling and the interpretation and meta-processing of feeling. Thinking, feeling, behaving are connected now more than just by logic. They actually are connected in the circuitry of our mental processing. Now I knew that what I believed was not only right, it was also true. How important is the evidence condition to knowing? Very. At least to Israel Scheffler (1965), and to me. [Reference: Conditions of Knowledge.]

Episode Three. Gavin is one of my students in my current directions course, a two week intensive we are currently in the midst of. In his project, Gavin is struggling with a dilemma that approximates the dilemma I had when those Commodore 64s arrived in the Apex room in 1982. Although Gavin is coming at the issue a bit differently. Gavin is as personally connected to “community” as I was to base-10 blocks in 1982 and Gavin is sensing a threat to what he believes is central about one’s actual experience and membership and participation in community. He’s worried that people will equate the virtual communities so easily attained through a keyboard and the internet with the real communities that are so basic and necessary to him. Basic and necessary. Human beings need community, they need to belong and feel belongingness. Gavin and I are coming from the same place on that one. So how, we were discussing, does the virtual community experience differ from an experience of actual community? And as part of that discussion, we’d also talked about virtual warfare, the capacity of male human beings to kill, maim, torture, and do awful things to each other. We’d talked about kids, kids from conditions of generational poverty and their inability to show any real kind of social interest beyond defending themselves in the most physical of ways, and what was the influence of mediated environments on all this. How did the continual viewing of television as babysitter, how did viewing the news night after night with its images of car bombs, dismembered human beings, people running from mortar attacks, sobbing women in burkas, how were all these things connected to the fact that lots of kids simply can’t feel much empathy for their fellow human beings?

Snap! It all came together. THe commodores, the base ten blocks, Alfred Adler, Rudolph Driekurs, the classrooms full of kids who hit and yell and scream at teachers, the inability to empathize, the experience of tap tap tap communities on a cold computer screen – they all come together for me now. Here’s what I think. In our face to face experience of community – five people sitting or standing close to each other talking, arguing, listening, laughing, crying, whatever – our emotional systems are activated and processing every single moment of that interaction. I think the mere fact of being that close, physical proximity, sets the amygdala pulsing. Being with each other in real time is an emotionally mediated event. We are whole. The Duke research shows the emotional memory loop for every interaction we have. It shows that the ones that register strongly are the ones we remember and how we remember them is important. Merely by being in a situation, we can “get a feeling” that sets us on call for what is about to happen even if we don’t remember what it was that happened that caused the feeling. Or, we can be in a situation that triggers the feelings of another similar situation. Messages are running back and forth between the seat of emotions and the processing centers for emotion all the time and it makes no difference where the stimulus comes from. Being in the real live situation is a thinking feeling moment.

I doubt the same is true for the mediated computer environment. I don’t think the amygdala is triggered in the same way. The “distance” of the virtual world insulates us from having to feel and although the repetition of “bad things” opens up a whole other area to talk about – the area of desensitization to horrible events – I think the computer world exacts a multiplier effect on our numbed experience. In other words, virtual communities are literally felt differently because they are mediated. I’m suggesting they are more an experience of pure thought, an experience at once distanced and disconnected from our emotional processing centers. The computer world by itself is a disconnect. And perhaps, the computer world as a disconnecting medium of experience has to be reconsidered as a teaching tool.

So Gavin, thank you. I think you are on to something here and I’ll look forward to learn where you take our conversation. For me, a thirty year question has achieved some resolution and of course, will lead to new questions and considerations. Just in case you want to use these ruminations as a diatribe against computers, don’t! Life is an aptitude-treatment-interaction, so you know I’m gonna say computers somewhere, with some kids, for some purpose, in some situations, you couldn’t get a better tool. But as the medium through which we achieve our learnings about life? I think not. Absolutely not.

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