Half dark, half light,
The dusky red and orange sky,
The majesty of the evening light
Welcomes us, enthralled,
To nature’s auditorium,
This festival of sight.
We find a spot to wait it out.
A half moon looks on,
The best seat in the house.
The stage is bare,
The lights dim.
First a murmuring, an awakening,
In the wings semi-nocturnal arguments erupt,
Like rowdy teenagers, they interrupt
In high-pitched discourse,
These loutish delinquents of the sky.
Then more, the noise swells,
Hubbub, babble, a commotion brews.
And then, look, in the sky,
Silhouetted against their fire red canvas,
The aerial acrobats stand by,
Thugs, no more.
Twisting and turning,
Rising and falling,
Like iron filings shaped by a magnet
They dance the evening by.
The shapes, the shapes they make,
These acrobatic artists of the sky,
Painting their canvas with hope and light.
Pulsing, breathing as one.
One flash a dragon,
The next, a whale, a dolphin.
Black then grey,
Dark then light,
An otter! A throbbing, living, moving spectacle to thrill
Their devoted crowd.
Fleeting images, never still
But vibrant, full of life.
Living sculptures in the sky.
And look, another group
Late to the scene but keen to make up time,
They race across the stage
In hot pursuit.
But soon, too soon,
The darkening light.
Like dancers at the end of the night,
Their energy spent,
The ballet ends.
The speckled hoodlums return,
Like rowdy clubbers arriving home
They rest in trees, in reed beds,
Still keen to chat the night away,
Their acrobatic displays
Consigned to memory,
Teasing us for another day.
And we, our weary way we wend,
Cold, but warm from the glow
Of this natural pageant,
This circus of life.
The year is 2155. Margie and Tommy have found a real book, one that’s printed on paper. Margie can’t believe what it says about school.
“ A man? How could a man be a teacher?”
“Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.”
“A man isn’t smart enough,” Margie says.
Isaac Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had was first published in 1951. In the story, children learn at home using telebooks and instruction from a mechanical, robot teacher, a system far removed from Margie’s grandfather’s day when children learnt together in schools and classrooms from a human teacher.
What a far-fetched idea for a story, you might have said in 2019. But now?
So, has the pandemic changed the way we should approach education now? Is online education the future of learning for children and young people?
What are the arguments for online learning?
Of course, we have to take into account the differences between a Year 1 pupil and a sixth-former. But proponents of online learning point to advantages that can benefit all ages.
It’s easier to learn in chunks, at your own pace. Classroom learning is crammed into longer segments and you have no choice when you do it.
You can encourage deeper thought in learners. After all, you are not limited by the confines of a physical classroom. The world is your classroom. Well, the internet, anyway.
Teachers have to make resources more clear and accessible as they have less time to interact with learners. This means pupils make more progress.
And even though you lose out on physical interaction, discussion boards, breakout rooms and chat forums can provide useful opportunities for collaboration, even enhancing the experience for quieter pupils who might not have participated in a classroom discussion at all.
But do these arguments hold up in the real world? Teachers perhaps have a more evidenced opinion at the end of 2020 than they had at the beginning of the year!
What do the teachers say?
Like in any profession, there are lots of different opinions. The only thing they seem to agree about is that parents’ meetings are better online! As for the experience of learning, the picture is less clear.
Learning at your own pace can be beneficial, especially in secondary settings, and it is good for independent research. But learners who work more slowly just get further and further behind and their experience of live lessons, if there are any, is less good because of this.
Pupils do have the time to think but equally they don’t have the buzz of a live classroom discussion to inspire deeper thinking. The clunky mute, unmute, mute scenarios do not come close to the momentum generated by a lively classroom debate.
Teacher resources do need to be more thorough and clear. However, that takes time which is not something teachers have an enormous amount of. Voice recording lessons and instructions, creating all new resources, one experienced KS3 teacher described it as “being like an NQT again.” And it often comes down to teachers’ IT skills and the support available in schools as well as the access learners themselves have to reliable IT equipment and wifi.
And there is a bigger question prompted by this debate. The biggest question of all, actually.
What is education for?
The criticism of online learning is that it is sterile, dull, unsociable. Surely learning should be exactly the opposite?
Online learning can undoubtedly focus teachers and students to stick to the point, to avoid unnecessary conversations that divert from the focus of the lesson. But where’s the fun in that? Education must be more than the acquiring of knowledge and skills that can be applied to a particular subject. And in the hands of good teachers, smart teachers, it is.
One primary teacher spoke to me of the importance of pupils being “socialised while they’re learning.” And this requires a good teacher, a human teacher, to be able to read the room, to know how to deal with issues that arise and to care for the needs of the whole child. In the virtual world, that does seem more challenging to do. A happy child will learn better and that is perhaps why one primary school deputy head told me, “I think most primary teachers just want children in the classroom.”
So, in 2155 will the real life Margie and Tommy look back fondly on post-2020 education and marvel at “the fun they had” in physical classrooms? Or is online education the future and can that provide the excitement and thrill that learning always should?
Human teachers, I can’t imagine you’ll have time but if you do, leave your thoughts underneath! And keep your eyes out for those robots!
As any child in a school History lesson will tell you, people living in the past were clearly clueless. Of course you can’t get rid of bubonic plague by ringing the church bells! Obviously the earth is not flat!
And we in the present are totally clued in. After all, we’ve invented the internet, we’ve virtually rid the world of terrible diseases like smallpox and polio. We’ve put men and women into space and landed robots on Mars!
But as any History teacher will tell you, things are rarely as simple as that.
Not everyone in the past was a fool
Yes, there were some weird and wacky ideas for avoiding infection and treating patients during the many outbreaks of plague during the middle ages and later periods. But for every patient drinking vinegar or whipping themselves, there were also measures which bear a striking resemblance to what we have been through in 2020.
Sufferers were isolated in their homes or in plague hospitals. Ships were restricted to port to control movement of people and goods. Indeed, in Venice the authorities isolated ships for a period of forty days, hence the word “quarantine” (after the Italian for forty).
And there is no denying that popular opinion had the earth as flat until surprisingly recently. But perhaps based on the reports of Phoenician sailors, Plato was teaching his students in the fourth century BC that the earth was round. And a man in Alexandria called Eratosthenes even calculated the exact circumference of the earth : https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/ancient-greeks-proved-earth-round-eratosthenes-alexandria-syene-summer-solstice-a8131376.html
So, let’s not pretend we are the only clever ones. And there is no way we are right about everything, anyway.
What will people laugh at us for in years to come?
So, what mistakes are we making today that our descendants will cringe about in the History lessons of the future?
There are lots of conspiracy theories, of course.
Some say our use of mobile phones is causing unseen health issues. Reports have suggested that they are linked to areas like cancer, damage to fertility and reproduction, DNA damage and the health of our children.
Amplified by social media, the anti-vaccination movement continues to put forward the potential dangers of vaccination as a way of dealing with public health emergencies. You might expect during a global pandemic that vaccination would be overwhelmingly popular. A survey of 1000 New Yorkers in April 2020, however, found that only 59% would take a Covid vaccine and only 53% would give it to their children.
Or maybe it’s what we eat, our consumption of processed foods or our obsession with dieting to lose weight.
The point is that, at the moment, we don’t know. History will ultimately decide.
So, let’s not get complacent. There will be things that we do everyday that people in the future will sit in their classrooms and cafes laughing at us for.
So, my question for current History students, their teachers, and indeed everybody else, is what normal activity have you done today that might prove hilariously stupid to future generations? What do you do regularly that your descendants in the future might laugh at you for?
Leave a comment below and let’s see if we can learn from the past to improve the future.
I’ve always loved barn owls. So, when a pair took up residence in the nook of a tree close to my garden early last summer, attempting not to resign myself to lockdown gloom, I was eager to see them. Every day on my lockdown walk, I stopped by the tree and looked upwards. And it wasn’t long before I found one, perched on a branch no doubt thinking about what to catch for breakfast! What I didn’t realise then, though, is what effect these birds would have over the next few months on my mood.
There’s definitely something about barn owls. Something the ancient Greeks took as good fortune but the Romans read often as a signal of imminent death! Is it their heart shaped face? Or their piercing scream? Or is it just the fact that you only ever tend to catch a brief, ghostly glimpse of them as one swoops past you in the dusky half-light?
Whatever their attraction, my interaction with these birds definitely improved my mental wellbeing. Stopping every day, looking closely and finding these magnificent birds was making me feel happy. I didn’t know how but it was!
What does the science say?
The science is very clear. The evidence suggests that being in nature has an enormous effect on our brains and our behaviour, helping to reduce anxiety and increase creativity and attention span.
Researchers in Finland found that people who lived in a city but walked for twenty minutes a day in an urban park or wood reported much greater stress relief than those who walked for the same amount of time through the city centre.
Science is even beginning to point to the fact that being in nature makes us kinder and more generous.
In a study published in 2014 at The University of California, Berkeley, participants were exposed to scenes from nature (which had been independently rated for their beauty) and then they played two economics games to measure their generosity and trust. Those who had seen more beautiful natural scenes acted more generously and trustingly in the games.
So, clearly engaging with nature is good for us.
What can we do to connect with nature more often?
The mental health charity, Mind, has plenty of ideas (https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/ideas-to-try-in-nature/) :
You don’t need to go looking for a barn owl in the countryside, of course. Spending a bit of time each day in the park could be a simple place to start. Stop to watch a squirrel clambering around in a tree or a dog chasing a ball.
Or just get outside near your house and look at a spider building a web or a goldfinch eating from a bird feeder.
However you manage to be outside, stop, look and you will find nature. Do it regularly and you’ll feel the benefits.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch a glimpse of a ghostly white predator hunting in the half-light.
Without hesitation, I recommend James for editing, proofreading, grammar and, most importantly, the simplicity of his use of language which delivers the essence of the words. I wrote my children's novel in my native language and then translated it into English. My next challenge was to find an English literature specialist who could help to naturalise the language. There is no doubt James was the perfect candidate to do this job!
Sabah Willis, author