The map and the territory: avoiding educational Sat Nav

In my car we have a battered old map from 2006.  I really should get a new one.  Friends have suggested I should get a Sat Nav. 

I refuse to as a matter of principle.  Why? What’s wrong with a Sat Nav? I did ask myself that recently when I was lost in south London trying to find a house to collect a piece of furniture I’d bought on e-bay.  But, I do prefer to read a map.  Indeed, I wouldn’t set off on a journey without one.  Handy though the Sat Nav would have been on that particular trip; and indeed convenient though they are, I don’t like the idea of being told what to do by a disembodied voice, however silken and beguiling its simulated female tones. I prefer to think for myself. even if that means the journey is less certain for it. 

I think that when you’re on a journey, when you’re driving, you should be alive to everything around you; sure, you need guides, you need people to point you in the right direction if you take a wrong turn; you should benefit from the experience of those who travelled the route before.  But, not to think for yourself about where you’re going, and how exactly you are getting there; that seems to me to be sleep-walking through life.

My famous name-sake, the Russian author, playwright and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, led an interesting life, often rejecting the obvious path, ending his life living extremely humbly and spurning his aristocratic inheritance.  Famous for his novels, such as Ware and Peace and Anna Karenina, he also wrote a lot of essays and philosophical reflections. One such was this: he wrote that “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time”.  He elaborates that “Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow – that is patience.

 I wonder whether the appeal of Sat Nav technology is tied up with our desire for the fastest routes through things; with a lack of patience; with laziness.  Please understand me – I’m not having a go at technology – progress is good; technology empowers and liberates people.  This is good.  But, my question is whether the quickest route is always the best.  And whether sometimes it is better to make choices for yourself rather than accept the wisdom programmed into a computer. 

Indeed, there are some hilarious – and also rather disturbing stories – about the extent to which people will hand over their free will to their Sat Nav, trusting them despite all the evidence of their senses. I love the true story about the group of bank workers on a Christmas shopping beano to France who were taken to the wrong country after a sat nav blunder diverted their coach seven hours off course.  The office outing was scheduled for the French city of Lille; they were diverted 98 miles away to a village of the same name across the border in Belgium.

Staying with Belgians (nothing personal against them of course), a Belgian truck driver blamed his electronic way-finder after leaving a £20k trail of destruction in his wake in Wadebridge, Cornwall.  Directed by his sat nav into an unsuitable cul-de-sac, the hapless trucker put his foot down in a panic, ending his turning manoeuvre by ploughing over a mini roundabout, getting a car trapped under his lorry, and destroying five more vehicles.

And what about the story of the cab driver taking Earl Spencer’s daughter Katya to a Chelsea football match ended up 146 miles off course in Yorkshire after  the driver’s sat nav directed him to the tiny village of Stamford Bridge.  They missed the Blues’ 2-1 victory over rivals Arsenal.  Good thing too (as an Arsenal fan).

Clearly, it’s not the fault of the machines, but the mindlessness of their users.

Schools shouldn’t give their pupils a Sat Nav; we mustn’t allow our youngsters to slumber brainlessly as they are led by educational GPS. The learning journey is about discovery – the map and the territory;  it should be enlivening; it should not always be comfortable; it should challenge us.  Certainly, we do not want to be paralysed by fear of the unknown; we want to feel secure and at ease – and we all need occasional reassurance that we are on the right path.  But, there are many ways to get to where you’re going.  Our job, as teachers, is to provide maps to guideour youngsters over the ancient ways; the job of the pupils is to read the maps for themselves.

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