A wonder-filled and imaginative education

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Technology does not replace creativity and inspiration

Violins vibrate, colours smell and books have texture  isn't that wondrous? In order to exist, wonder must observe something either unexpected... astonishing ... perhaps verging on miraculous. We must be careful, when weighing the benefits of technology within the classroom, to secure a sense of wonder.

Many technological initiatives either shake up our experience, as a sense of impermanence does, or offer less than the whole experience, which is my fear when virtually interpreting an object for use in the learning environment. I would also like to explore how these virtual extrapolations interact with education in a framework of absolute right and wrong answers. If everything is boiled down into a predefined progression of steps, no room is left for wonder or for the imagination.

A disturbing trend in contemporary thinking is the repudiation of anything greater than ourselves, anything that cannot be circumscribed. It is as if ideologically our world view needs everything simplified and predictable for our use, allowing us to feel smarter and in control of what we perceive around us. Within this perception of completely understanding a thing, we place ourselves as its master, and in doing so, we become puffed up in our own estimation.

But, in fact, this is a cropped awareness. Like a fast-food meal, it slides down easily but at the end of it, the consumer is not "full," merely "done." Educationally, such a heavily processed experience affects how children perceive the world around them. In many examples, it leaves our children wonder-less; or, at the end of a day's education, "done."

Wonder is not about control, nor is it about our personal greatness. Instead, wonder means being completely blown away at something we feel we only tentatively grasp. This awareness does not affect our own self-worth. When we experience wonder, we do not feel lessened by the experience; instead, we preside in a sense of rapture that is altruistic in its sense of awe.

My brother told me a story about a third-year course on materials that he took toward completing his engineering degree from the University of Waterloo. One day the professor took the entire allotted time to lecture on the wonders of the tinfoil he had purchased in the local supermarket. His understanding of the materials used, process and manufacturing, even economics, led him to wonder. Out of context, a person ranting for almost two hours about tinfoil might lead to questions of sanity, but sometimes our ignorance of a subject blinds us to what another might wonder at. For example: I know of a professor who wrote 400 pages for his PhD dissertation on a single grain of sand (Quod Erat Demonstrandum).

Another example: In an interview on CBC Radio's Richardson's Roundup, musician and instrument creator Lindsey Pollak was asked how to go about creating a unique instrument. He said doing so required an understanding of the basic principles of the subject. Using the clarinet as his example, he pointed out that, while the keys used to control the notes were a complex mechanism, the basic workings of the reed, which created the sound, were relatively simple. In using his understanding of how a reed produces the instrument's tone, Pollak had created a saxophone-type instrument out of a carrot — all because he applied simple principles. If wonder comes out of a deep understanding for a subject, perhaps creativeness comes out of applying basic tenets in a direction not previously explored.

This is an important issue when using computers in a student's education: the creative relies on a good mooring of basic principles. Within the technological domain, change is almost definitional to its essence and it becomes easy to lose focus. It is important that in teaching a subject and/or skill we focus on the commonalities present, those principles that will help students apply their experience toward creation, regardless of what program version, computer type or virtual presentation we use.

This has broad-reaching implications. Permanence is an important issue; especially so, due to technology largely pushing towards impermanence. Students will never have the time to develop a wonder-filled attitude toward their world if the tools and subject change before they can move beyond the basic principles into the creative and also wonder. The introduction of the disposable DVD, which can only be read for 48 hours after it is opened, is an illustration of this. While an obvious environmental travesty, this product is just one of many that limit our duration of interaction with an object.

Weigh such a brief interaction against a metal-working hammer I was shown earlier this year. An odd, oval indentation in its handle only made sense once the hammer was held: It was the spot where the thumb pinched the handle. It was beautiful to look at and understand, especially because it harkened back to a man's work from a century ago. The man who used this hammer in his shaping and sharpening work would have been able to read a great deal from his blows. The different ring and bounce from the hammer would have told him the metal's strength and its worth. If that same craftsman had used a different hammer every month, this experience would have been lost because the variation of ring could be attributed to any number of variables. In the same way, a tool or medium cannot be changed too often without loss of familiarity.

Moving on... let me share with you a confession: I never really liked Tom Thomson; I know he is a Canadian artist of some repute I should give him my patronage, but his work never caught my fancy. So I was amazed by my reaction when I visited a Thomson exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario: The paintings were spirited and the experience completely changed my opinion of the artist. On my way out, I went to the gift shop to look for a print to take home. But here again were the lifeless images I had always equated with Thomson's work. I left without purchase, refusing to look at any prints from my exhibit experiences until weeks after the event. The virtual copies on my computer, and even the reproductive prints, do not communicate the whole of the original.

Much is lost in our copies of the world around us when an object becomes interpreted into an optical representation. Other senses that are active in our experiences are removed, either because they are deemed extraneous or because the technology used in the reproduction is unable to interpret the original attributes. Opening a tube of verdigris green creates a smell (actually, a stink) that makes the experience into something unique, but a computer's green is produced by pressing the "green fill" command. Something is missing. Careful consideration is needed before we too quickly remove these experiences from education, or what will our children have to wonder at? The well-known comment from German artist Joseph Beuys, "Ich denke sowieso mit dem Knie" ("I also think with my knee") is an important warning: if we limit education exclusively to data, we do a great disservice, especially to students.

Many important experiences come from the use of the physical. One of these is the encounter of the unexpected: pencils smudge, colours fade and scientific experiments go awry. A response of wonder at these things leads into the realm of the imagination.

But computers handle ambiguity badly, and errors even worse; if we rely too heavily on virtual learning tools, a vital educational opportunity goes missing. This lack of ambiguity and mistakes is a grievous deficiency and something unbalanced by the ease-of-use or "cool" factor that the virtual offers. If there is only one right path for the user, there is no creativity.

A teacher I know had a frustrated child come to her because she wanted to draw an angel. This young child had tried time and time again to render the preconceived icon, and upon failure erased the effort and started again. After many attempts, the student brought the page to the teacher in disappointment. The page now had layer upon layer of half-formed, graphite-smudged, hinted-at forms; to the teacher, it had become a very good picture of an angel and, with this encouragement, the child and the teacher both found something to wonder at.

A long list of scientific discoveries has come from the unexpected and bloomed with the imagination. Consider penicillin: Working in his research lab, Sir Alexander Fleming came across a contaminated bacteria culture — not an unusual experience in those days, given the limited means available to prevent such contaminations. In a virtual learning model, this error would have terminated the test; but rather than throw the "ruined" test away, Fleming wondered at it. Further study and imagination led to the discovery of penicillin, one of today's most widely used antibiotic agents.

We want to impart many characteristics to a child through education: Two of the most important are wonder and imagination. By its nature, the computerized-virtual is greatly limited in addressing these areas, and I worry it may work against these principles in many educational models. A reliable starting place in education, and throughout all of life, is a sense of wonder toward what surrounds us and creatively interacting with what wonder shows through our imagination.

—Chris van Donkelaar

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