Letting children learn in the real world vs. the world of the screen

A boy pores over a book at the home education expo in East Ridge’s Camp Jordan. Day 2 of the event this year is today.

A boy pores over a book at the home education expo in East Ridge’s Camp Jordan. (Photo Faith Hamilton)

By Jeannette Tulis

Three years ago I was seeing how screen experiences and real life experiences were becoming a bit of a muddle in my children’s minds. I did not know exactly why this bothered me or even if it should bother me but bother me it did and still does.

At the Charlotte Mason Institute’s national conference in June (formerly known as Childlight USA), one of the plenary speakers was Lowell Monke, professor of education at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.

Dr. Monke has been a voice crying out in the wilderness of educators warning of the perils of high-tech, low-touch education. His is a lone voice in the midst of a din of voices all saying with their “how dare you question me?” expertise that kids need technology, need to learn how to use technology, that technology will broaden their education and give them experiences they otherwise can not enjoy.
Dr. Monke begs to differ.

In 2011 I did not know the science or the psychology behind the ideas I attempted to give voice to.  Dr. Monke filled in the picture with clear, articulate, and rational thinking that resonated in my heart as truth. What follows is a mixture of Dr. Monke’s words and my thought processes as I heard them.

He began his talk with a video of an advertisement for the benefits of technology in schools. In the ad, Ellen Page walks into a classroom where the students are all excited about today’s field trip to . . . China! Yes, via the magic of technology, the students in the Canadian classroom will be virtually visiting live with students in a Chinese classroom. Ellen, a bit taken aback says, “Wow, when I was in school, we took field trips to a farm.” Flashback to Ellen as a young child getting scared when she hears a cow moo close to her.

Of course the ad wants us to think that the virtual field trip to China is so much better than the boring field trips of yore to places like a farm, for Pete’s sake! But the attendees at the Charlotte Mason conference got a different message. How much better it would have been for those kids to have gone to a real farm than virtually travel to a Chinese classroom.

Internet changes how we learn

Dr. Monke went on to lay out concise cogent arguments why we need to be aware of Internet based learning and how it differs and how it changes the learner compared with more traditional low-tech, high-touch approaches to education.

He made a point that is often overlooked: that technology does not work the same with children as it does with adults. As homeschool parents, we use technology all the time. It is our servant for communication, for information, it streamlines our life in more ways than we can count. We are not aware of any deleterious effects in our brains. However a child’s brain is in the process of getting wired. A child is collecting experiences that will shape the way he views future experiences.

Dr. Monke made the following points:

Technology in education is a substitute for internal development. It’s lure is external power. Case in point: students now use a calculator and do not have to learn the skill of adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing. They use spell check and do not have to learn how to spell on their own. Rather than help a child to develop the very necessary internal powers, technology inhibits this development by handing the child external power over those pesky numbers, those big words. It circumvents the valuable developmental processes.

Childhood has changed drastically in the past 60 years, as has education. Within the past 60 years — two generations — there has been a shift to symbolic representation via screens vs. real life, firsthand experiences.

Why does this matter? The answer is startling. Firsthand, real-life experiences create schema (think of it as little hooks). These schema help one to make sense of future events as well as symbols. So what happens when young people encounter symbolic representation (images on a screen) without any contextual experience, no little hooks?

Keep in mind that children who are in digital schools and wired homes may spend as much as 10 hours or more in front of a screen, soaking up digital information and viewing symbols.  Because of this, they constantly encounter representations of things for which they have no real-world experience. From such encounters emerge young people who are literate but have no comprehension of what they are reading. They make mistakes, presuming that knowing about is the same thing as really knowing. They are characterized by apathy.

Here I must quote Charlotte Mason, “The question is not, — how much does the youth know when he has finished his education? — but how much does he care?” (Volume 3, School Education, chapter 15.)

For example, a student might search the word “tree” and find an incredible amount of information. But this will not make those needed hooks that a child will acquire when he climbs a tree, feels its bark, smells the fragrance of blossoms, new leaves or fruit, sits in its shade. Knowing about can not substitute for learning from. This is where the humility of the learner comes in. In nature we learn from what we see, we observe, make inferences, discover when we look closer. We have to explore, to admit we do not know everything. Because of the intensity of the symbol engagement, what constitutes experience has changed. The symbol has become the thing.

Here Dr. Monke showed an interview with the manager of a restaurant in a chain called “The Rainforest Cafe.” You saw a child walk up and pet an alligator and just walk away. The manager talks about the restaurant environment as if it were like the real rainforest. However the child does not learn respect for the real alligator; it has just been digitally created for our purposes, to entertain, to amuse. Such disembodied abstract information allows us to learn anytime, anyplace, from anybody. This portability and abstractness leads to feelings of isolation, rather than community or belonging. The delivery of abstract information leads to numbness, rather than development of deep, deep feelings. Technology so arranges the world, that we do not experience it.

Technology is touted as a window on the world, stepping beyond your boundries but in reality it is a barrier to intimacy, deep human relationship and community.

Social media substitutes for real relationships. Again it seduces with its external power to control what people know about us, what they think of us. It is relationships without the needed work and pain it takes to build real relationships. Narcissism substitutes for conversation and leads to a toxic moral environment populated by adolescents of all ages. Ouch, Dr. Monke!

He was careful to say that one tool or device is not the problem but rather it is the cumulative effect of digital abstract learning and experiences.

Technology promises an external fix for every internal problem. We teach our children what is important through the choices we make. Do we view external tools as a solution to every need? The choices we make tell the story.

Examples from birth onward include:

• Breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding
• Snugli vs. stroller
• Human voice singing vs. CD
• Storytelling vs. video
• Library visit with sympathetic librarian vs. search engine

Biggest problem is not the external devices, but our hearts and minds.

Books are an essential element at the home education expo in Chattanooga. Day 2 of the event is today at Camp Jordan.

Books are an essential element at the home education expo in Chattanooga.  (Photo Faith Hamilton)


1. Model behavior we expect to see in our children. Don’t be a slave to devices.

2. Rely on internal experiences vs. external devices and encourage opportunities to develop these in our children.

3. Businesses, communities and teachers need to stop looking at education as “machinery.” I would like to add here that our end product is not a useful cog or productive citizen but rather a soul that knows its place in God’s kingdom and is useful in the building of that kingdom.

And to the question what about children needing to learn how to use technology? Won’t they be left behind? Dr. Monke assures us that students can learn the technology they need in a very short stretch of time, that most technology learned in childhood is obsolete by the time the child is ready for a paying job and, most importantly it is the children with real-life experiences who grow up to be the out of the box thinkers, the entrepreneurs, the innovators of the future.

Let me close with a quote from Dr. Monke’s article from the September/October 2005 issue of Orion Magazine (available online) “Charlotte’s Webpage: Why children shouldn’t have the world at their fingertips.”

Technology can provide enormous assistance in figuring out how to do things, but it turns mute when it comes to determining what we should do. Without any such moral grounding, the dependence on computers encourages a manipulative ‘whatever works’ attitude toward others.

Let us not passively accept whatever technology throws at our culture. Let us rethink the perceived need to equip our children with high end technology at a young age. We can limit screen time and the content of that screen time and encourage real living and real reading time instead. Let us remember that our children belong first to God and that the knowledge of Him is truly the beginning of wisdom.

The home education in Chattanooga every year is sponsored by CSTHEA, the local chapter of the Tennessee Home Education Association.

A mom looks over a book at the home education expo in Chattanooga. The yearly event is sponsored by CSTHEA, the local chapter of the Tennessee Home Education Association. (Photo Faith Hamilton)

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