Conrad Fox

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No place for skeptical children in a world of ipads and worksheets

Jan. 6, 2017

TEACHER: Hurry up! You don't have anything on your worksheet.

MY YOUNGEST: (looking glumly at the iPad screen) But none of these facts are any good.

TEACHER: That doesn't matter. Just put something down.

My poor son. Trained at the dinner table to question and doubt, to scrabble for his facts like a chicken pecking through dirt. Like most kids, he enjoys citing curious tidbits of information for his parents, but has learnt to brace himself for the inevitable "how do you know?" every time. His allowance comes from answering science questions and he knows to turn to books for the answer before he tries wikipedia. He listens to his parents debate the news, and can join or sit silently. No child likes to be silent, so he jumps in and his eyes glint when he bests his father, turning his own words back against him. He isn't always as earnest as his parents, but he can't escape his upbringing. He is as likely to program his own video games as play one from the store. He collects miniature toys while his friends collect apps. At night he prefers reading Animal Farm to the Farting Powder book he got for Christmas, though he had to stop for a while. The fate of Snowball disturbed him too much.

He is far from the image of the freethinker and skeptic as bespectacled rebel, railing from the back of the classroom or at the head of the meeting. Shy, quiet and anxious to please, the gulf between home and school pains his polite sensibilities, and he bears the burden in silence. He knows our cynicism would not be appreciated at school, but he is too loyal to his roots to put on a facade for his teachers. Despite his encyclopeadic reading, he gets bad marks on reading at school because answering the canned show-and-tell questions from the teacher turn to ash in his mouth, so he clams up. At home he discusses logic, language and literature with passion, nostrils flaring, breathing deep as he explains why he likes certain characters, types of story, and words. At school he fails on his "self-to-text connections" and "I wonder" statements. His attempts to "just tell the teacher want she wants to hear" sound wan and half-hearted.

His Dad's voice must have been ringing in his ears when he undertook his social studies assignment. Each child was assigned an object at random and asked to research it. The tools were an ipad, google and a worksheet, the ubiquitous fill-in-the-blank photocopies that form the basic unit of teaching here. His object to research was the yo-yo. He knew instinctively that the advertizing copy, amateur blogs, and cribbed wikipedia articles he was turning up were of low quality. "The yo-yo is the second oldest toy in the world," said one. In his ears, he heard "how do they know?" "what was the oldest?" "is it the oldest toy invented, or the oldest known artifact?" He sat there paralyzed. He desperately wanted to please the teacher, but also his father. To fill in the blanks with such flimsy claims would never pass muster at the dinner table. But to interrogate the internet like that was to interrogate the teacher, to be obstructionist, difficult, sassy. He took his rebuke in silence, though I know it cut him to the quick.

At home I tried to console him, but my efforts were ham-handed, and showed just how far our hippyish family is from the world of middle-class suburban Canada. "Why didn't you explain that facts are only as good as their source?" I asked, in what I hoped was a kindly tone. His screwed up his eyes and shook his head as if trying to erase the thought from his mind. "That wouldn't get me anywhere," he shuddered.


For 15 years, Conrad lived in Mexico, where he worked as a freelance radio and print journalist. His work took him into a minefield, a gunfight, a dugout canoe and the homes of many fascinating, brave and generous people. He is also an avid teacher and has led classes in radio, robotics, soccer, physics and anthropology in a diversity of places, including office towers, lecture halls, fields and palm thatched huts.