As educators and parents debate the effectiveness of computers in teaching children, some are taking a distinctly low-tech approach. A number of parents who work for Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies (Apple, Google) are sending their children to a school whose principle teaching tools are pens and pencils, knitting needles and, at times, cake and mud. The school is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of 160 in the country and one of 40 in California, with a teaching methodology that emphasizes hands-on, creative learning and physical activity and that sees computers as inhibiting “creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.”
In other words, the Waldorf’s school philosophy is in direct opposition to the rush to outfit classrooms with computers, iPads and all things high-tech. Assessing the effectiveness of this approach is not so easy: Waldorf schools are private and, in the case of the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, do administer standardized tests to the elementary grades. While some financial assistance is available, tuition ($17,750 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $24,400 for high school) is beyond the reach of most. The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America cites research that shows that 94 percent of students graduating from Waldorf high schools in the US between 1994 and 2004 attended college, with many admitted into institutions like Oberlin, Berkeley and Vassar. But again, the sorts of parents who choose such schools for their children, and who can pay for them, cannot be discounted as a factor.
What’s intriguing is what the high-tech parents interviewed in a New York Times article are saying about how important such hands-on learning with pencils and paper is:
“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” said Alan Eagle, 50, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, 13, is at the nearby middle school. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”
Mr. Eagle knows a bit about technology. He holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)
Pierre Laurent, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft, points out how easy it is to use technology, so what’s the need to teach children how to use it in school?
“At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”
I’d say he has a point. How many times do adults find themselves asking the kids how to operate tech devices? As Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, says, “teaching is a human experience,” while it’s technology that detracts and distracts from learning the fundamental skills of literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.
At my college, I always request a “smart room,” equipped with a computer and an LED monitor, to teach in. But as I’ve been noting, all I really need to teach is colored chalk. There’s only one way for students taking ancient Greek to learn the Greek alphabet, by writing it over and over (some music playing on their iPods does help). Very few of my students bring computers to class and those who do are notably unable to focus on what’s going on. My 14-year-old son Charlie, who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, does love his iPad but he does not use it at his school. While I can think of some benefits were he to do so, I suspect that too much iPad time (like too much TV, computer, etc. time) leads to Charlie getting all wound up in that shiny virtual world. Fortunately he likes to be active outdoors so a good part of his days are devoted to walking, running, riding bikes and just hanging out in our front yard.
Is our society’s obsession with technology in danger of short-changing our kids’ learning?
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Photo by Will Merydith