On that article about the Waldorf school

Matt Richtel’s front page Sunday NYTimes piece on the tech-free Waldorf school in Los Altos has sparked a vigorous debate. In short, the article notes that several Silicon Valley exec-types send their kids to this expensive school that follows the Waldorf philosophy of eschewing technology in the classroom and instead teaching old-school things like handwriting and knitting. These kids do well, most of them will go to college, and some of their parents are happy to delay their technology inundation. The point, I suppose, is to question how effective or necessary it really is to make sure that classroom are equipped with computers, internet, and gadgets.

I think it’s an interesting model, but I don’t think it necessarily provokes any interesting ideas regarding technology in regular classrooms.

This is a community where, as many Times readers have commented, families can afford to shun technology. Parents are highly educated and highly involved in their kids’ education. There are tons of resources at home.

Perhaps more importantly, the teachers at this school are trained in – and believe in – a specific and well-established pedagogy. The administration supports the teachers and they all share a common vision.

To me, these factors are much more relevant to any Waldorf alum’s success than the absence of computers (or even whiteboards) in their classrooms. And I tend to agree with Ira David Socol’s blog post calling the article a bit of class warfare by the Times, mainly because I think it’s dangerous to suggest to voters that spending money on equipping public schools with basic technology would be a waste of taxpayer funds.

I can’t say whether that’s really Richtel’s agenda, as this Waldorf parent contends, but it does seem feasible that some readers might say, “Well if those kids do fine with blackboards and chalk, why should I pay for computers or wireless access in my public schools?”

For starters, some of the quoted arguments from parents and teachers in the article have major flaws. Like this one, from a teacher who used food to teach fractions, implying that there are better, more tactile ways to engage kids than by using computers.

“For three weeks, we ate our way through fractions,” she said. “When I made enough fractional pieces of cake to feed everyone, do you think I had their attention?” 

Nutritional abuse aside, I don’t even spend money on Dum-Dums for my kids, let alone cake. Not gonna happen.

Then there’s this one, from a Google exec who is proud that his kids don’t yet know how to use it.

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “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 used to think that, too, until I actually worked with a classroom full of “digital natives” who clearly weren’t figuring it out. I’ve written about it.

So it’s easy to write off this whole Silicon Valley Waldorf thing as another example of the privileged being able to pretend times are different, like this guy, who paid $30 for this cellphone handset.

But I definitely understand the backlash against the mad rush to fill classrooms with technology. I know from experience – both my own and those of teacher-colleagues of mine – that some schools will dive head-first into expensive and time-consuming affairs with a particular technology because it hits on the buzzword of the moment (ahem…curriculum mapping…ahem). And when professional development hours are devoted to these projects, they are taking teachers away from the humanistic parts of teaching that Waldorf teachers rightly value.

In talking about this with my brilliant wife, she brought up Sesame Street, which sought to use the medium of television to bring a research-based curriculum to all preschoolers, in effect leveling the playing field between those who could afford preschool and those who could not.

And that’s the impetus behind the best edtech happening right now, but it requires a degree of infrastructure in our schools.

Now, my brilliant wife went on, many people took Sesame Street‘s apparent endorsement of TV too far and plopped their kids on the couch for hours on end, hoping the magic of educational programming would make their kids smart.

So we see where she’s going with this. There are definitely teachers who rely on their TVs in the classroom as a crutch in lieu of a lesson plan, and we may well do this with our internet and our iPads in the future (or the present). An overburdened teacher in a difficult school may even be more likely to do this.

So it’s everything in moderation, isn’t it? Good teachers know they have to continue to engage their students on a human-to-human level, just as they know they cannot pretend that the ballpoint pen hasn’t been invented yet.

And it’s about thoughtfulness and buy-in from all parties. If administrators, teachers, and parents all agree that we should try using iPads in math because of a body of research that suggests good results, we should do it. And if we all are swayed by a body of research that recommends teaching knitting and cursive handwriting, let’s go for that.

Enough false dichotomies, enough reactionary extremes. Most schools need to be equipped with computers and wireless internet. And if not, there better be tons of cake.


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  1. #1 by Nicole on October 27, 2011 - 12:59 am

    Yeah Yoni! Great to get your perspective. I’m following the whole Waldorf thing because I’ve been considering sending my girls to the Waldorf here in Nairobi. We obviously need a private school anyways, so wondering if we should take advantage of that fact and go the Waldorf route. It does seem extreme, though, and I have trouble with the fact that many of the 7 and 8 year-olds can’t read because they are let to get it on their own time. Also, as much as I love and miss Berkeley, I have some hold-over hippie fatigue and the Waldorf is filled with hippies. I love em, but as a public health person, if I have to listen to some mom spout nonsense about not vaccinating her kid even though we live in Africa and see victims of polio all around, I’ll go bezerk.

    Keep up the good work Yoni!

    Your old neighbor,

    • #2 by yoni on October 27, 2011 - 8:59 am

      Hey thanks for reading and for commenting, Nic! Yeah, I was reading a little but about Waldorf being mixed up in the whole not-vaccinating thing. Are people still holding fast to that? Hasn’t it been pretty much debunked? I would totally understand your going bezerk on that. And Laura and I are both totally with you on post-Berkeley hippie fatigue. I think that might last a while.

      I don’t know – could be a great option in Nairobi, I have no idea. And I’m not even really thinking about my own kid yet. But I get the impression they are realIy stable schools with committed teachers, and I don’t think you can overstate the importance of those things.

      Good luck old neighbor!

  2. #3 by Dave Goldberg on October 27, 2011 - 7:56 am

    This is a great post Yoni.

    • #4 by yoni on October 27, 2011 - 8:59 am


  3. #5 by Joelle Rudick on October 27, 2011 - 7:56 pm

    The student population factor is key. In addition to the socio-economic factors, I suspect that class sizes are low and that there are fewer children with special needs in these schools than you would find in a typical public school. For me, technology is about, like you said, levelling the playing field, but it also plays a major role in student engagement and differentiation.

    This French teacher is tempted to say, “Let them eat cake.”
    (And besides, everybody knows that fractions are made with pies.)

    • #6 by yoni on October 27, 2011 - 8:17 pm

      Well put, Jo. Why would you not use any excuse to make pie, pizza or otherwise? And yes, the technological tools that can help with engagement and differentiation are out there, and I agree that those are some of the most important and exciting applications. Thanks for reading and for commenting!

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