Friday 28 January 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

I write regularly about developing the imagination of children on my blog 'Literacy, Families & Learning' and have written from time to time on the CASE blog about the imagination, play and creativity. A new book by Anthony Esolen has motivated me to post on this topic again. Esolen is professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island. He has written the book 'Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child'. Esolen's thesis, with which I concur, is that the way we raise, care for and educate our children, is increasingly destroying the imaginations and creative capacities of our children. He writes well, as you'd expect being an English professor, and draws heavily on the writers of classical and modern literature to reinforce his point.
The old alchemists of the early Renaissance sought the secret philosopher's stone, which would, in the right recipe, transform lead into gold. You can only transform gold into lead. This book is written to show you how to do that. The gold is nothing other than the child's imagination, which if it is not gold itself, can still work the miracle of old King Midas. "Nature only provides us with a leaden world," wrote the poet Philip Sidney, "but it is the poet that makes for us a golden one." If we can deaden the imagination, then, we can settle the child down, and make of him that solid, dependable, and inert space-filler in school and, later, a block of the great state pyramid.
Underlying Esolen's thesis is his belief that it is God himself who made us to imagine and that it is at least partly through our imaginations and longings that we seek him and experience all that he intended for us.

Some readers who love language and literature less than I do, will find his constant use of literature, and in particular the classics, distracting and maybe even a little pretentious. But this is his passion and interest and language and literature are major foundations for imagination and creativity. Even as one not educated at school with Homer, Aristotle, Dickens, Chaucer, the poetry of Philip Sidney and the music of Bach, I was swept along by his use of the great texts. Esolen uses a wonderful cross section of literature, music and even art to make his simple points about the nature of imagination, its ultimate purpose, and the dangers of shutting it down in our children. The writing is ironic in style as the title suggests. At times this seems a little forced but overall, for me, it works powerfully.

In my view, as an educator, his 10 'Methods' that will destroy the imagination of children, do bring into focus that which can stifle learning and close down the possibilities for the imaginings of children. As we do this, we also reduce their ability to solve problems, write with voice and effectiveness, and be transformed (or at least shaped) by the language and power of literature.

Esolen's 10 Methods to destroy the imagination

1. Begin by rearing children almost exclusively indoors - give in to the threats of the outdoors, don't risk allowing them to have unbridled experiences out of our observable space. Lock them up in classes and organised instruction and avoid giving them opportunities to run free.

2. Never allow children to organise their own worlds of exploration of that which is interesting or challenging - replace the spontaneous and child initiated and replace it with 7 days of structured activities controlled by others and a timetable that leaves no scope for exploration, time wasting and contemplation.

3. Don't risk allowing children to explore machines or encounter those who know and use them - privilege safety above all things, cut craftsmen from the child's world, despise practical and craft knowledge, forget about the challenge and fascination of maps, diagrams and the like.

4. Replace fairy tales with cliches and fads - water down stories to remove the evil and violent, look for tales that 'flatten' and homogenise, replace fundamental truths with cliches and ideological manifestos.

5. Denigrate or discard the heroic and patriotic - remove fathers who are heroes, men who are warriors, lose sight of the 'piety' of a place like the Welsh uplands and coal mines of Richard Llewellyn's 'How Green was My Valley'. Ignore the dignity of simple people and their ways.

6. Cut down all heroes to size - don't allow a sentimental admiration of a hero, dismiss courage, beat from our boys any hint of hero worship. Instead grow men 'without chests' who spend hours on violent video games but never rumble in the back yard.

7. Reduce all talk of love to narcissism and sex - replace the music and tenderness of love in the Odyssey, or the poetry of Stephen Foster for a lost love, with a reduction of love to the mechanics of sex, "reduce eros to the itch of lust or vanity". Replace the first pangs of curiosity of a boy for a girl, or a girl for a boy, with a bombardment of images of what love isn't.

8. Level all distinctions between man and woman - just as individual personalities are washed from our classrooms, so too, reduce all differences of gender, and convince children that boys and girls are just the same.

9. Distract the child with the shallow or unreal - fail to encourage the child to hear and sharpen the senses before creating, abolish solitude and silence, fill the child's life with the 'noise' of television, video games and other forms of banality. Don't just give decibels of noise but rather, more importantly, mental and spiritual interference. Separate the child from the relationship of family, neighbours and friends and place them in after school care, preschools etc.

10. Deny the transcendent - deny the idea of God, ignore the mystery of faith and religion, ensure that unlike the ancients in the caves of Lascaux there is little opportunity to contemplate and create a veritable cathedral born of their imaginings. Do everything possible to erase any opportunity for your child to search out the inscriptions of praise on each human heart.

Summing Up

Esolen has put his finger on something important. He isn't the first person to write about imagination and as he suggests himself, he's probably not the best-qualified person to do so either. But his book reminds us that imagination is not just a cognitive state to be prodded and used for the banal or even the practical. In fact, it has moral dimensions that can be seen in a biblical anthropology of personhood. A view of the person that sees the ability and desire to imagine as part of God's blueprint for his people.

Esolen also offers a useful social commentary on the tendency to seek the banal rather than that, which is rich and complex. His ironic commentary on approaches to teaching and child rearing that value the tangible and measurable, rather than the whimsical and creative is helpful, although in places a touch too simplistic. One example of this is that in dismissing technology and in rightly pointing to the abuses of gaming and television and their ability to distract from friends, play, exploration etc, he fails to acknowledge that technology can expand the imagination too. Technology can open up a world of new facts that trigger exploration, or offering opportunities to create images, videos and complex texts that expand the imagination.

Some won't like Esolen's ironic style, for there is a danger in its over-use. At times it tends to give the sense that Esolen is trivialising the issues and ignoring complexity and ambiguity.  This might lead some not take Esolen's arguments seriously. This would be a pity for there is much wise advice in this book.  

Esolen offers a timely and beautifully written analysis of pop-culture and a world where we 'flatten' the view of what it means to be men and women, we lose a vital focus on moral centring and values, we accept an impoverished view of childhood, and we replace love for lust, the thirst for the deep with the shallow and flood children's lives with banality instead of richness. This book will have non-Christian detractors, but it will also stimulate discussions concerning the loss of childhood and the place of the imagination not just in life but also in grasping something of the transcendental and an existence beyond this life. As Esolen reminds us:
The imagination opens out not principally to what it knows and finds familiar, but to what it does not know, what it finds strange, half hidden, robed with inaccessible light. The familiar too can be an object of wonder, but not by its familiarity... 

Some Other Practical Posts for Parents and Teachers Interested in the Imagination

1. 'The Importance of Simple Play' (HERE)

2. 'The Role of Adults in Children's Play' (HERE)

3. 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' (HERE)

4. 'Understanding and Developing Creativity' (HERE)

Friday 21 January 2011

Professors Who Believe

The personal testimonies of people of faith are always interesting. Paul M. Anderson's edited book 'Professors Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of Christian Faculty' brings together the testimonies of 21 professors drawn from a wide variety of disciplines and North American universities. The book is helpful in an age where New Atheists are increasingly claiming that the only truth is that which can be 'objectively' measured, that science and reason are virtually synonymous, and that faith and belief have no relationship to either truth or reason. It was published in 1998 and so is not a new book, but it is still a helpful book for Christians or those considering the Christian faith. Anderson writes in the introduction to the book:
Some argue that science and faith are antithetical because religion (1) involves no experiments, (2) tests no hypotheses and (3) is committed beforehand to a set of beliefs. I have not found such arguments convincing. First, science is a process that people use to understand the world, whereas religion addresses questions of purpose and meaning. Both science and religion are interested in truth. Science represents human efforts. Religion, especially the Christian faith, looks to revelation - i.e., God's initiative. Galileo Galilei, considered the father of modern scientific inquiry, captured the essence of this distinction when he stated that "the Bible tells us how to get to Heaven, not how the Heavens go."

Anderson who is a Biochemist and Molecular Biologist goes on to suggest that some of the postulates can in fact be tested. At least one of the professors in this book came to faith by testing a premise of the teachings of Jesus. He also reminds us that to accept science as objectively pure is a mistake. We should not simply afford a blind acceptance of purity and objectivity to science.  Anyone who has taught research methods at university (as I have) will know that the concepts 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' are hotly contested. Anderson reminds us that Science is thought by some to be "...scholarship that is free from prior commitment to a particular answer or belief system. However, anyone with a few years experience in science knows that science is, in fact, often strongly influenced by pre-existing expectations."

However, this book is not an argument about objective truth, the objectivity of science and the scientific process, it is simply the story of 21 university professors and their reason for the hope that is within them. The book would be useful for Christians ministering to university students or who wish simply to encourage young Christians as they set off to university for the first time (as thousands will in Australia in coming weeks). It might also encourage other Christian academics to be prepared to share their own stories.
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:13-17)
Related Posts

'Education  Based on Reason Alone Falls Short' (HERE)

Thursday 13 January 2011

Christian Book Apps for Children

Some of the readers of this blog know that I also write a blog concerned with 'Literacy, Families and Learning'. In the last month I have been considering the impact that ePicture books might have on children's reading (you can read some of these reviews HERE). While communication technology isn't without potential problems (some of which I have written about in the past on both blogs), it also offers some great possibilities. I am interested in how ePicture books and even just electronic Bibles for devices like the iPad, iPod and iPhone might impact on children's growth as readers but also in terms of their knowledge and faith in God.

1. ePicture Books that teach about our relationship to God

One example of the apps emerging in this category are a series of books by Stanley and Jan Berenstain. The Berenstains are very well-known authors of a series of over 300 simple children's picture books. Many parents will be familiar with books like 'The Big Honey Hunt' and the 'Bear Detectives'. These simple books usually have no more than 300-500 words of different vocabulary. They are engaging and amusing stories about an endearing family of bears. They have many adventures and have been popular with children aged from 1-7 years for almost 50 years.

Christian publisher Zondervan and Oceanhouse Media have formed a partnership to produce a series of Berenstain Bear books that have Christian themes. The titles include 'The Berenstain Bears Say Their Prayers', 'The Berenstain Bears Go To Sunday School', 'The Berenstain Bears And The Golden Rule' and 'God Loves You'. All are available from $US3.99.

Like all the Oceanhouse ePicture books, a simple format is used that incorporates the original artwork and text from the books. They have options to hear the book, read it yourself or auto play. They feature background audio and when you tap the pictures labels appear which can be read or heard. In the read aloud format their is word-by-word highlighting of text.

I reviewed 'The Berenstain Bears and the Golden Rule'. As you'd expect the story illustrates the Jesus teaching in Matthew 7:12. As usual, the Berenstain write an engaging and enjoyable story. It adequately illustrates the verse in terms that children will understand. It would offer a good opportunity for parents to discuss situations that the child has found themselves in at school or at home where they have felt excluded as well as other applications.

These books are an example of the type of Christian writing for children that I described in a previous post as Type 4 ('Moral Tales') that are based on biblical verses or principles. How would I assess them?  In short, they are an enjoyable and engaging series of stories that offer opportunities for parents to discuss moral issues and life according to Christian principles. Parents would certainly not see books of this type as a substitute for simply reading a good children's Bible with children, but as extra reading they would be helpful if parents are prepared to discuss the books. However, I have to say that there is nothing that the Oceanhouse ePicture books offer that an ordinary book cannot do. There will be better examples of apps of this type in the future, that will offer greater interactivity and use of the technology to do more than a conventional book. At the moment, the Oceanhouse developers are simply offering the normal book plus the ability to touch pictures and read labels. Frankly, this is simply a distraction from the ultimate purpose of these books, which presumably is to teach children about God and our relationship to him.

2. Bibles and Bible resources

BCN multimedia has recently released their new Children’s Bible 3.0, which improves on their free app for iPhone and iPod to enable it to work with iPad. It is published in 7 languages. You can purchase a range of Bible comics, videos and stories in two ways. You can download your own version of the major products like the New Testament or Old Testament comic ($5.99US each), or you can download a free version of their Bible Comic that will give you a different section of the Bible each week (for $US2.99). In the second purchase format there are three sections in each of the old and New Testaments - 'The Genesis', 'The Exodus', 'Kings and Prophets' for the OT and 'Birth of Jesus', 'Parables and Miracles', 'Passion of Jesus Christ'. You can also purchase individual Bible stories. In the free format you will be will 'pushed' varied products each time you open it. I found this frustrating and would recommend simply purchasing the Old and New Testaments if you want this app. Having said this, I'm not sure I'd buy the apps for the purposes of my children's biblical education. The comic book format will be appealing for children but the apps offer no more than this. There are no additional interactive features or even sound. The comics use simple language that most 6-12 year olds will be able to read and like any comics they have frames that have no words.

The version of the Bible used isn't made clear in the apps, although they acknowledge that they revise some parts of Scripture. It seems a relatively faithful use of Scripture in a form that looks like they may have use a modern translation like Good News as the foundation of the text.

The apps that are purchased are colourful and easy to navigate (great slide control at the bottom - see image below) and are available in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan. You can read the comic books on an iPhone, iPod or iPad. The new version allows a sharing feature for favourite scenes by e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.

BCN have done an impressive job with the comics. I suspect that many children will enjoy reading the Bible and its major stories in this format. The product will increase children's familiarity with the overall biblical narrative as well as the major stories that they would hear in any Sunday school. Children would also be able to use and enjoy them independently in the back of the car, in bed or wherever.  But if your children already have a good grasp of the biblical narrative and central themes of Scripture, apps of this type won't be a substitute for some of the many wonderful children's Bibles and independent study tools that are available in book format. It also won't be a substitute for parents sitting with their children to read and discuss the Bible. While you could read the comics together on the iPad, I don't see this as the way the product would be best used. As independent reading, or as an addition to good Bible study with parents, they have value.

I'm looking forward to see what major publishers of children's Bibles like Lion Hudson will do in this area.

3. Christian teaching aids

While there are many Bible activity books and games available on the Web for downloading (many of which are rubbish educationally and biblically), there is little available as yet for devices like the iPad and iPhone. Frankly, I don't see this as a problem, but there will be great possibilities for Christian educators to use devices like the iPad in combination with smart boards and data projectors in time. I haven't seen anything (as yet) that I'd recommend but I'd be happy to hear from others who know of emerging products for this market.

Summing up

It's early days with the development of apps for children's books, let alone specialist products like Christian Bibles and relevant Christian literature. The early attempts are interesting and will be received well by children but at this stage they have some way to go to harness the enormous potential that there is for the presentation of narrative material on devices like the iPad. The worst products will be those that simply put paper books on the iPad. The best products will be those that do the following:
  • Remain faithful to the texts that they are using (e.g. use the best available translations of the Bible and don't tamper with it, other than faithfully paraphrasing if necessary).
  • Use the complete package of features that are available on a device like the iPad to present exciting versions of known and new stories using sound, colour, video, linked resources and interactivity.
  • Don't trivialise stories by adding on features that have little to do with the story and the overall intent of the app. For example, why ruin a good story by making every page an opportunity to drill sight words.
  • In the case of apps that present the Bible, developers need good advice from theologians and children's educators to ensure that they do more than just present traditional Bible stories. While our children still need to know and understand these stories, they will need to be read and understood by children within the overall themes of Scripture. This is a plea for some understanding of Biblical Theology when embarking on product development.
Other links

'Alice', the iPad and New Ways to Read Books (HERE)
Literacy & the iPad: A Review of Some Popular Apps (HERE)
Literature & the iPad: A Second Review of Children's Literature Apps (HERE)
Other posts I've written on children's literature on the CASE blog (HERE)

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Amazon's New 'Sneaky' Re-gifting Scheme: Is it ethical?

It seems that re-gifting might soon become even more common. Some have questioned the ethics of this practice in the past, but there will be stronger reasons to question it if a new approach by Amazon is implemented.

US Technology journalist Marshall Kirkpatrick has exposed a 'sneaky' new way to re-gift in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.
'First Amazon gave us the one-click-to-buy system. Now they're giving us the one-click-to-lie system....[With Amazon's newly patented system] we register our disinterest ahead and so what we have is Christmas helping us celebrate our limitations. It robs people of having the chance to have their horizons expanded and being surprised. It's social engineering of the worst type.'
Here's how it would work. Someone chooses a gift for you via Amazon and then Amazon sends the recipient a notification of the gift. The recipient then has a choice to accept the gift or convert it into an Amazon gift voucher, which they can then use to purchase something else. Some might not be worried so far, but there's more. The recipient then has the option to have Amazon send a thank you note to the giver for the ORIGINAL gift even if they've converted it. That's right, convert the gift that someone has (hopefully) thoughtfully chosen for you, and then lie by thanking them for the original gift.

While it's easy to see why this would be a convenient way to exchange a gift that you already had (that 2nd or 3rd wedding toaster!), or perhaps something that wasn't to your taste, the deception involved in thanking the giver for something that you didn't keep, would hopefully be seen by most people as unethical.

Kirkpatrick's outrage at this new way to shop and give (which presumably is soon to be released) is grounded not just in the deception, but the fact that the essence of gift giving is undermined. As he sees it, the approach would "....rob people of the chance to have their horizons expanded and being surprised. It's social engineering of the worst type."

While his comment about social engineering is a bit over the top, surely he's right in saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with this new practice.  You might question the practice on moral grounds because it involves deception and a lie, but it also does undermine the essence of gift giving. In this age often described as the 'me generation', it would feed the tendency to think only of what I want and miss the point of the original gift. A gift should be something that is given as an act of love or a desire to offer someone something that the giver thinks they need.  It should also be something given without expecting return. This new practice is an almost inevitable outcome in an age where we've lost sight of the essence of gift giving.

We've just celebrated Christmas and many gifts have been 'exchanged'. But exchange isn't something that is fundamentally part of giving. Amazon has probably hit on a winner; crafted to match the self-centredness of humanity that fails to grasp what gift giving is all about,

Other links

The Sydney Morning Herald article (HERE)

Previous posts on the ethics of shopping (HERE & HERE)