Low-Tech Learning In a Tech-Obsessed World

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?

Related Care2 Coverage

Software in the Classroom: Does It Really Improve Learning?

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Is Technology Necessary For Learning?

Photo by Will Merydith

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Mark Bill
Past Member 8 months ago

I am so happy to visit your site; it carries plenty of superb facts that pleased me.

Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Kris Allen
Kris Allen3 years ago

My school district has invested heavily in technology. Sometimes I think they have done so mostly for the bragging rights. We have to beg our communities for bond money for buildings while spending lavishly for every high school kid and teacher to have a MacBook Air. The district has already announced that we will no longer buy any new textbooks. ( We haven't bought any for a few years. ) This means no textbooks for any students, kindergarten through high school. Supposedly, we will replace books with iPads.

Are we on the right track? I wonder.

Christopher M.
Christopher M.4 years ago

True, someone brain dead interpersonally won't succeed in technology either. Fortunately I function interpersonally but I am brilliant with technology. That is saying a lot for an Aspie. Maybe the formal study of sociology, and having been alive 41 tears.

Christopher M.
Christopher M.4 years ago

Surprises me how many adults think they can't function with computers, even data entry. Managers? So they have techies like us do any simple thing that has to do with a computer, I discovered.

Where is the "computers are required for everyone to get ahead?"

Shiyi C.
Sh C.4 years ago

Great article.

K s Goh
KS Goh4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Mary Brady
Mary Brady4 years ago

Bravo, I sent my four boys to private schools for that reason. The basics, values, discipline and time with the teachers to actually learn a subject not just the test. Three of the boys are young men now and are all employed. Their employers find them resourceful, intelligent, hard working men. I'm glad I gave them the basics to succeed in life. Not all the frills, they can learn and earn themselves.

Betsy Reiss
Fiona Ogilvie4 years ago

Our children live in two different world - low tech and high tech - they need to be competent in both worlds.

Chris J.
Chris J.4 years ago

What a wonderful school!