I: The Drive to Connect
Recently I spent a weekend in Melbourne visiting my good friends Darren and Leah, whom I’ve known since I first moved to Australia. Last December they conceived, and in early September Leah will give birth to their first child. They’re excited and a bit scared – just like most first-time parents. Knowing it would be my last visit before their lives changed irrevocably, we enjoyed our weekend all the more, and talk inevitably shifted to The Right Way To Raise A Child. There are theories upon theories, everything from controlled crying, to cosleeping, to carrying the child continuously for its first eighteen months of life, to teaching preverbal children sign language, to Steiner’s theories about the acquisition of reading and writing skills, and on and on. For as long as there have been parents, there have been theories about the right way to raise a child. We look back upon our grandparents and they seem almost barbarians to us: corporal punishment, children seen and not heard, spare the rod and spoil the child, everything that modern behavioral psychology tells us can warp and damage a child, turn them from positive and loving into neurotic and perpetually unhappy individuals.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, for some of us, this process of beggars maiming their own children so they can be better beggars came to a stop. We wised up, stopped hitting our children, and started to respond to them as beautiful and unique individuals. This is rather interesting in itself because, on occasion – and sometimes more than just on occasion – children are monsters. They are self-centered, narcissistic, greedy, unthinking, unfeeling, controlling, manipulative, and ugly. Yet this is as it should be; we accept behavior from children that would be shunned in an adult precisely because they are children. We teach them the bounds of acceptable behavior, and we do this by interacting with them. Alone a child will never learn self-control, or courtesy, or any affection for others. It is only because we are social that we can impart the social graces.
That social part of us goes back far beyond our origin as a species, up the family tree at least ten million years, to Proconsul, the common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. Our ancient forbears had social graces of their own; we know this because all of the species descended from them have unique social capabilities. This social capacity has been the cornerstone of our success. Humans hunt in groups, forage in groups, share childbirth and childcare. It is nearly impossible for a single adult to give birth and raise a child entirely on their own. Our socialization is the safety net that allows humans to be children far longer than any other species, acquiring the enormous range of knowledge required to be wholly functional and well-integrated participants in civilization. It’s a self-reinforcing loop: we spend a long time as children so we can become productive members of a culture whose offspring spend a long time as children. Natural selection in action.
Our social capacity is the one thing that natural selection has always worked to optimize. The most effectively socialized people have been able to use their social skills to make their way in the world, ensuring that they would live to pass those skills along to their children. Nature has made us naturals.
In early September, when Leah gives birth, her child will know what to do without being taught, without being shown: that child will begin to form a deepening connection with the one person in her universe – Leah. That bond will set the tone for all of the other human connections that follow. Attachment theory – yet another of the popular theories of childhood development – rests the entire psychosexual development of the adult on this bond. If it is interrupted, or corrupted, or simply does not exist, the child has little hope of normal development. The connection to the mother is the primary connection. As only makes sense.
As that child grows into a consciousness greater than that of the mother-child relationship, she recognizes the presence of her father. This relationship will never have the same essential depth of her first relationship, but it represents the first echo; its form betrays the patterns of intimacy between mother and child. Even if this relationship is fraught with difficulties, if the primary relationship is secure, the child will survive emotionally intact. But should this relationship also prove secure, it will reinforce the child’s sense of emotional security.
And so it goes. The child’s world will expand to encompass grandmother and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and – with a bit of luck & time – siblings. Each of these bonds will echo the primary bond, with opportunities within each of them for the child to explore her ever-increasing capability to connect, to communicate, to collaborate. We know that these bonds are fundamental to our nature, that they sit within the prefrontal cortex, the newest part of our brains, the part which is freakishly bigger than in chimpanzees or gorillas. We have a lot of room for these bonds, so as she grows up they come to fill her head. In a very real sense, she carries around within her a miniature, interactive version of each person she has made a connection with. We are finite, and these miniatures are terrifically rich and complex creations, so we can only find space between our ears for about 150 people, a physical limit known as ‘Dunbar’s Number’, after the anthropologist who discovered this rule nearly 20 years ago. We can know more than 150 people, but we won’t know them well.
At least, that’s how it used to be. For all of human history, until about three years ago, we were fundamentally constrained by our biology. Now, with the rise of ‘social networks’ – which, I want to remind you, are not new in any way – we’ve accelerated our innate capabilities with the speed and power of computers, and amplified them with the reach of a global network which, in both Internet and mobile versions, touches nearly five billion people. We can maintain some form of connection with several hundred – even thousands – of others. This isn’t easy; it requires care and attention that could be directed to other, often more important things – such as driving a car, or listening to your partner at dinner, or doing your homework. Nothing comes for free, and just because we can establish connections with thousands of others doesn’t mean we can manage those connections meaningfully.
This is the knife-edge of the present, because many of us – and certainly many of your students – are establishing far-flung networks of connections, but don’t wholly understand the cost/benefit relationship that comes with these networks. We can give ourselves a pass on this – after all, this sort of thing simply wasn’t possible just a few years ago – but it’s a dilemma that will become a permanent fixture of 21st century life. We want to be able to ‘multitask’, to do everything at once, with everyone, everywhere, but studies show that the divided mind is incapable of depth. We want to be connected, but we don’t want to be interrupted. We want to be the life of the party, but we also want time to think.
This is the world of 2010. This is how children present themselves as they enter secondary school. And it’s only going to become more connected. Leah’s child will grow up in a world which has begun to fetishize human connection. We will manage those connections digitally, from the time we’re born until the moment we shuffle off this mortal coil. This means that each child you encounter is not just one child, but the visible representative of an entire network that surrounds them, stretching outward, connecting them to friends and classmates and family, and finally, at the core, to mom. This has always been the case, but it has always been implicit and inferred rather than explicit and immediately present. Given that a child acquires their first mobile sometime between grade 3 and grade 7 (and that age is dropping) that network is always at arms reach, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
How will these connections be used? We have only the dimmest sense of that. This is all so new and so raw there are no protocols, no learned behaviors, nothing that can be passed down from parent to child, or teacher to student, about the right way to behave, the right way to put all of this connectivity to work. What we have now is chaos, as we cross a turbulent boundary between the calm but disconnected and internal world of the ‘before time’, and the unexpected, hyperconnected and immediate world of the present.
II: Call Centre
At the beginning of June, the London-based National Literacy Trust released a report with a stunning finding: kids were more likely to own a mobile (86%) than a book (73%). I personally believe this finding highly suspect – all the children I know own tens or hundreds of books, that being how they learned to read – but it does point to the scale of the transformation underway, and how frightened we have become. Another segment of the public is debating the death of the printed book, you are beginning to distribute textbooks in electronic form on your student’s laptops, and all of that is contributing more to the disappearance of the book than anything that might be caused by the sudden multiplication in human connectivity.
That multiplication begins somewhere between year 3 (on the low end) and year 10 (at the high end), when a child acquires their first mobile. The age at which the child receives the handset frames the experience for the child: in year 3 the mobile is nearly always used to call mommy or daddy for a ride home from soccer practice, or a pickup from a friend’s party, or in case of emergencies. It is not yet a fully realized social tool because these children don’t yet think in those terms. But the device itself has a catalyzing effect on the bond between the child and her parents.
The maturation of the child into an adult can be characterized as a movement from complete dependence to complete independence. Along the way the child explores all sorts of strategies to assert and maintain independence, starting with the ‘terrible twos’ and coming to a conclusion (one hopes) with the final send-off to university. In the beginning, the child doesn’t want to be left alone, except on her terms. By the teenage years, a hypersensitivity to embarrassment causes the child to flee from the parent in many public situations. Underneath all of it, the strong, healthy, nurturing bond between parent and child gives her the belief that she can explore her freedom in safety.
That bond has been amplified and accelerated by the presence of the mobile. Where the child would formerly have to ‘go it alone’, now she can turn to mom or dad with the press of a few buttons. Any situation she finds confronting can instantly be elevated. The cavalry is always on call, always available to come to the rescue.
Child psychologist and researcher Sherry Turkle recently made a cogent argument that this ‘tethered’ relationship leads to an extended period of infantilization in the child. Always connected, the child never fully individuates, never ‘cuts the cord’ which binds the parent to the child. I can see Turkle’s point – I even agree with it – but I would like to suggest that this entire process of individuation is very recent, an artifact of the last hundred years. Before that, most families lived in close quarters for most of their lives. Mom and dad were always available to solve a problem because they were always nearby. In this sense, the mobile handset has retrieved a state of affairs which our highly mobile era of automobiles and jet travel had pushed into obsolescence. And even more so: in the village the child could still wander some distance from the home; in 2010, home is no further away than the time it takes to dial mom.
The connectivity of the mobile is bilateral, and reinforces the relationship on both sides. Parents have never before had the ability to stay continuously connected to their children, so we have no frame to help guide them into a healthy expression for this newfound capacity. For some parents the lure of this connectivity is so strong it overwhelms whatever instinct they might have to allow their children to individuate naturally. They become the child’s constant companion, ‘hovering’ nearby, either physically or virtually. This phenomenon – ‘helicopter parenting’ – has become a topic of conversation in the United States, where it was first noticed, and where it is appearing with increasing frequency. The helicopter parent manages the child’s life more-or-less completely, using a combination of strategies – some physical, and some virtual – to place the child within a protective cocoon. The vicissitudes of the real world never impinge on that cocoon; the child is safe and protected every moment of the day.
Why would anyone opt for such a parenting strategy? Here I’ll go out on a bit of a limb, and propound a theory in the absence of any proof – but a theory which can be put to the test. The new field of sociobiology attempts to map observed behaviors in the animal kingdom to strategies for reproductive success. For instance, it tackles the thorny problem of altruism – which vexed Darwin a hundred and fifty years ago – by observing that altruistic behavior tends to favor closely-related individuals. Your genes may receive no immediate benefit from your selfless acts, but the genes of your sisters and their offspring probably will. Sociobiology explains why a population of sterile worker bees will toil until mortally exhausted for their queen.
One of the key concepts in sociobiology is the idea of ‘genetic investment’; the greater the genetic investment, the stronger the relationship between parent and offspring. Fish have tens of thousands of offspring, and release them to their fates. Humans have just a handful – generally just one at a time – and consequently have a huge genetic investment. I strongly suspect that the observed cases of helicopter parenting are, in the largest part, the parents of a single child. The entire genetic investment is being wagered on a single throw of the dice. This would naturally amplify any tendency toward the expression of highly protective behaviors – preserving the genetic investment. When that becomes coupled to and amplified by the mobile, we get the world of 2010, where parents are now so tethered to their children that Forbes magazine recently reported on another and somewhat more disturbing phenomenon: Parents are now making follow-up calls to recruiters who have interviewed their children. Some children even bring mom along on the job interview.
I’m not making that up.
We may be amused by these sorts of excesses, but they’re to be expected. They’re a natural outcome of two intersecting trends: the decline in fertility, and the rise of hyperconnectivity. When you have everything riding on a single child, you’re willing to assume a lot of the risk yourself.
This also means that the parent-child connection has assumed an immediacy and potency never before possible. It is as if the child has the parent with them at all times, in every situation. This is changing the nature of all of the child’s relationships, in particular those within the classroom. A story related to me last year by a Victorian school administrator sums up this state of affairs perfectly: one day a teacher was giving one of her students a hard time because that student hadn’t completed his homework assignment. During this verbal chewing out, the student carefully took his mobile out of his backpack, then dialed it. He said hello to his parent, and then just after he said, “You listen to the bitch,” held the handset next to the teacher’s mouth.
I’m not making that up, either.
In that moment, the entire power relationship in the classroom, in the school, in the culture gets short-circuited. That’s what networks do – they find a way around any neat systems or hierarchies or rules that they have no use for. If that network happens to belong to a fourteen year-old with poor study habits and an attitude problem, then the fact that the homework assignment wasn’t completed is suddenly no longer his problem. It has been elevated. It has burst out of the cozy confines of the teacher-student relationship, and overflowed into all of the other connections that student chooses to invoke: parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and so on. It is as if every student walks into the classroom equipped with a panic button which can instantly bring the educational process to a screaming halt. If that panic button is connected to a parent already neurotically hypersensitive to anything which could disrupt the careful cocooning of the child, the educational process will break down from stresses it was not designed to accept.
That is the world we have walked into.
Many of you have specific policies in your schools regarding the use of mobiles, protocols over where and how and when and why they can empower students. Some of you even ban mobiles outright. Let me be clear: all of your policies are for naught. All of your protocols mean nothing. Any child who tastes the empowerment that comes with the network will not ever willingly surrender that empowerment. If you try to suppress it, you will simply ensure that it will show up somewhere else, in a form that you can not control.
Your only solution is to make peace with the network, to embrace it and the new power relationships which it engenders. In order to do that we must have a good think about how the network can be used to tame the network, about how you can empower yourselves. You’re going to need to fight fire with fire.
III: Cry Havoc
So what do we do? Issue teachers with mobiles and press them to sign up for Facebook accounts? If only it were that straightforward. If it were, I could send you out of here with marching orders, a battle plan that would bring a certain, sweet victory. But this is not that kind of war. This is a guerilla conflict, where progress is measured in inches and only after a long, hard slog.
By the time a student lands on your doorstep, they will have been connected – hyperconnected, really – for several years. They will have forged and strengthened the bonds that tie them to their parents and their peers. They bring that into every interaction with you, a classic example of asymmetric warfare. You’re outmatched, outgunned and outwitted, not because you’re weak or dull, but because there are a lot more of them than there are of you. They’re starting to recognize this, and put it to work.
You can not ban the mobile. It’s here to stay, and it’s increasingly indispensable. You can not sever the connections that come with the mobile, or Facebook, or Twitter, or text messaging, or whatever flavour-of-the-month gets invented tomorrow afternoon. You can’t even reasonably hope to downplay their influence within the classroom. They’re becoming too potent, and they will leak into your pedagogical spaces by any means necessary.
You must engage. But we can not hand you a teenager and ask you to suddenly engage with them. That simply won’t work. Building the bond takes time; it’s a labour of love and an exercise in trust-building. The best mentors and teachers know this and practice it within their classrooms. But the classroom is suddenly everywhere. The network has swept in, swept through, and blown down the classroom walls. Educators and students are immersed in an ‘educational field’, something like a magnetic field, where amazing educational resources lie at tip of fingers, at the end of our hands. We may worry about the accuracy of Wikipedia, but no one argues about its impact. Anyone who has seen iTunes University, or downloaded an educational podcast knows about this ‘educational field’. Education is freely available. That is not in short supply. What is in short supply – and always has been – is that moment of human contact, the connection which produces the transfer of insight, of skills, and understanding that won’t come from any webpage, however brilliant, or any podcast, however well-produced.
Students are connected as never before, but few of those connections lead to understanding. This is the failure and the challenge of our generation. It is a failure because we let the school grow up outside of the network, where we should have been binding the two together at every point. It is our challenge because unless we do begin the hard work to knit these two together, we will see formal education become increasingly irrelevant in the presence of an ever-more-potent educational field.
Because the network is everywhere, the school is everywhere. Because the school is everywhere, the hard-and-fast boundaries between school and the rest of life, as we live it in modern-day Australia, must collapse. The idea that school is something that happens ‘over here’, while the rest of life is lived ‘over there’ doesn’t make sense anymore. Given that the connections a child establishes from her earliest years persist throughout her lifetime, shouldn’t some of those connections – arguably, the second most important, after family – be to educators and educational resources? These connections would become the core of the mentoring bond, which rises to work in partnership with the parental bond, a constant nurturing force throughout the passage into adulthood.
This is not the way we think of education today. It’s not the way we think of culture today. Yet it is the way culture is being practiced. Helicopter parents are proof positive of this. They represent a leading edge of a new wave of cultural forms which are the consequential result of hyperconnectivity. Plug people together and they will behave differently. Plug institutions into people and the people will transform those institutions.
We must begin somewhere. Giving kids laptops is interesting and important but entirely insufficient. We must give kids a reason to connect, something beyond pure sociality (which is also important but outside of the task at hand). We must give them a reason to connect with knowledge.
We’re very lucky, because just at this moment in time, the Commonwealth has gifted us with the best reason we’re ever likely to receive – the National Curriculum. Now that every student, everywhere across Australia, is meant to be covering the same materials, we have every reason to connect together – student to student, teacher to teacher, school to school, state to state. The National Curriculum is thought of as a mandate, but it’s really the architecture of a network. It describes how we all should connect together around a body of knowledge. If we know that we should be teaching calculus or Mandarin or the Eureka Stockade rebellion, we have an opportunity to connect together, pool our knowledge and our ignorance, and work together. We can use our hyperconnectivity to hyperempower our ability to work toward understanding.
Again, this is not the way we’re used to working. We ask kids to collaborate on their projects, but a broader collaboration – which doesn’t end with the student, or the classroom, or the school, or the state – has remained frustratingly beyond our grasp. It doesn’t even have a location in time; collaboration is not something that has temporal boundaries. We collaborate while we have a need to do so, not because it’s ‘collaboration time’. The network intrudes everywhere and everywhen.
Collaboration begins as soon as the child can communicate, though it is informal and ad-hoc. As educators we need to think about how to begin the process of formal collaboration in pre-kindy. At first, collaboration is a network between parents and carers and educators, but as the child progresses through the educational system, that network extends to other educators, other students, and other resources as the child has need. The network constructs itself around the child at the same time the child is busily building her own network.
If we build an educational system which can do this (and I honestly don’t know that there’s any educational system, anywhere in the world thinking in these terms) we will have solved the problem of hyperconnective asymmetry. We will be as connected as our students, we will be connected to them from long before they become our students, and will remain connected with them long after they have been our students. School will not be a boundary. It will be a gradient through which children move on their passage to adulthood, and, even then, will not leave them behind, because these connections open the doorway to lifelong learning.
Let me leave you with a warning, and a promise. First the warning: If we simply try to make the teacher the locus of all of this hyperconnectivity, they will collapse from the over-connectivity. Teachers are not switchboards; it is not up to them to hear every problem, arbitrate every dispute, or make every opening. In a network the burden should be distributed – to other students, other teachers, other mentors, other parents, and other schools. That means that power is going to be distributed very differently in the classroom. It won’t always be clear who has the power. That may look like chaos, but it will be a fecund chaos, where real learning takes place.
The helicopter parent is a herald of a new type of connectivity, which both empowers and infantilizes in equal measure. As we come to embrace this more comprehensive connection, we will find ourselves both hyperempowered and disempowered. Some things will not work, others will work far better than before. It all comes back to the child, who always has the drive to connect. It is in her genes. It is all she is about. If we can harness that drive to connect to the desire to learn, we will have comprehensively solved the problem of education in the 21st century. We will have created a platform for life-long learning, for a cradle-to-grave immersion in the educational field. It’s worth working toward. It restores the balance we lost as soon as we began to hyperconnect. We’re near enough now to see the goal. We have the vision. All we need now are the will and the persistence to reach toward that promise.