October
23rd 2011
Who ever would have predicted this?

Posted under: American history, students, technoskepticism

Exhibit A from the I Told You So files this week (h/t commenter Indyanna, who tipped me off via e-mail today), “At Waldorf School in Silicon Valley, Technology Can Wait:”

LOS ALTOS, Calif. — The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.

.       .       .       .       .

“Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers,” said Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft. He has three children in Waldorf schools, which so impressed the family that his wife, Monica, joined one as a teacher in 2006.

[W]here advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, Waldorf parents counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” [Alan] 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.”

That doesn’t mean the Waldorf School approach is cheaper–in fact, I”m sure it’s quite the contrary.  I get it that the “gotcha” here is the fact that so many of the parents in this particular school are highly placed in the tech industry–but I bet that the majority of educators are thinking along the very same lines, and would choose schools like Waldorf if they can afford the price of admission ($17,750 for K-8 and $24,400 for high school!  Yikes.)

As I have argued here before, we know what works.  And as Jonathan Rees constantly argues, technology is being used primarily now to cut corners rather than to improve education.  There are precious few innovations in education at any level of the curriculum that amount to more than a hill of beans beyond good teacher training, reasonable teacher:student ratios, and permitting teachers the liberty to innovate and solve problems on their own. 

The ruling class has always known what works, and they’re still willing to pay the price for it.  Why isn’t it ever good enough for the masses of middle class and poor children in the public schools?

27 Comments »

27 Responses to “Who ever would have predicted this?”

  1. J. Otto Pohl on 23 Oct 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    I am all for smaller classes. I routinely end up teaching 300 and 400 level university classes that have over 70 students. I would have a lot more flexibility if I had a student ration like I did at my undergraduate institution. Most of my 400 level classes had less than a dozen students at Grinnell.

  2. thefrogprincess on 23 Oct 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    ha…i saw this earlier today and thought of you!

    it’s weird, I’m becoming so anti-technology in the classroom, even as I’m pretty pro-technology in my real life. (Unlike you, I love my Kindle!)

    But I was talking to a friend about an incident in my class last week (which I blogged about over at my place), and he pointed out how technology would have clouded a real issue that was emerging.

    Long story short, I had to play hardball with students who had clearly not retained anything from the reading. I’m pretty sure they’d read it…as in turned the pages and could speak at the broadest level…but they couldn’t recount some of the more important specifics of the narrative. I picked up on this, and then asked them a question, refused to answer it myself, and told them I’d wait until I got the answer. At least ten minutes, if not fifteen, went by before I got the answer. In other words, not only had the students not retained the specifics, they also hadn’t read carefully enough to remember where to go for information. But would I have known that if they could just type the question into Google? (I ban laptops.) No. Technology fail. Codex for the win.

  3. Historiann on 23 Oct 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    thefrogprincess, thanks for pointing us to your post On Rigor. Good for you for making them sit in silence for so long! Putting the boots to them now rather than in December is actually the humane and fair way to go.

    I haven’t banned laptops–our students just don’t have that much interest in them. I’d say that there are at most 2-3 laptops in classes with enrollments in the mid-30s, so far less than 10%. I’d also say that the students who have laptops are usually either the top-achieving students or students who are on the lower end of the grade curve. That’s probably a testament to how they’re using the machines in class–i.e. taking notes versus playing on fB or the Google. Furthermore, if other students are distracted by someone else’s use of a laptop, there’s enough room in my classrooms for them to find other seats. But if laptops were demonstrably disruptive or if they were habitually used only by the lower-achieving students, I’d certainly reconsider my policy.

    J. Otto: 70 students is way too many for upper-level work, which should at least require analytical, evidence-based essays if not also research papers. Ridiculous!

  4. truffula on 23 Oct 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    clearly not retained anything from the reading

    I think many students have been trained to read for completeness rather than for comprehension. As in, “yeah, I read it.” I had the same experience as thefrogprincess last week and handled it the same way. I finished by suggesting that what just happened was a strong indicator that they should go back and read the article again. A few days later they had an in-class writing assignment on that very same material. Obvious, right? Not so much, it seems. Well, I love ‘em anyway.

    Tomorrow we are going to do a reading comprehension exercise in class. Something of a diversion but things will only get worse if we don’t sort this now.

  5. Comrade PhysioProf on 23 Oct 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    The ruling class has always known what works, and they’re still willing to pay the price for it. Why isn’t it ever good enough for the masses of middle class and poor children in the public schools?

    Why do you assume that the ruling class thinks that their children and the children of their workers and consumers should be educated to the same end?

  6. Western Dave on 23 Oct 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    There is a lot of variety among Waldorf schools. But let’s look a little closer at what many of them teach. Many (most?) of them use Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as the guide to building their curricula. Campbell, you may remember, was the not-so-closeted fascist sympathizer who, we found out after he died, was even worse than everybody thought.

    NB: Waldorf schools are all, in theory, based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner, although an anti-fascist, saw the point of education as creating ubermenschen (pardon my spelling).

    So it may be interesting that some silicon valley folks think that low-tech Waldorf schools are cool (and how much you wanna bet they’re teaching their kids how to code at home.) But it’s down right scary that they send their kids to schools designed to create the next supermen.

  7. Susan on 23 Oct 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    I think one requirement of anyone espousing any kind of educational reform or technology is that you have to be willing to educate your child with it.

  8. Historiann on 23 Oct 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    Western Dave: it’s a good point that those children will hardly be technologically deprived. And I think there is certainly a role for school in introducing children to technology, which is especially valuable for children who are growing up without access to computers, etc. Parents who can afford the Waldorf School are not in the latter category.

  9. koshembos on 23 Oct 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Technology is not our enemy, despite Rees’ crusade, it’s our infrastructure now. Education is tough; it was always tough. Waldorf’s approach guarantees nothing; they succeed partly, or mainly, because they get great kids.

    I find stopping a class for a long time a waste of time and resources. It is not likely in my opinion for the whole class to fail to accomplish a goal unless the teacher either didn’t express the expectations clearly or the teacher taught way above the students’ heads. (In my formal classes I can easily make the whole class look terrible.)

    The stoppage reminds me of a short story by Bertolt Brecht: a classroom with 19 chairs has 20 students. One student, clearly, is left standing. The teacher hits that student with a stick. The kid cries saying: isn’t it enough that I don’t have a chair, you had to hit me as well. The teacher: now I am sure that next time you’ll find a seat.

    I taught we advanced since then.

  10. truffula on 23 Oct 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Your teaching and your students may always be perfect, koshembos, mine are not. And I am grateful for it. My students are, for the most part, not the ones who have had many advantages beyond the fact of their birth in an obscenely wealthy and well armed country. Or if they did, they chafed against the bit and are now coming back for a second go. They make an effort to be serious about school but sometimes they struggle. Role models are few and distractions are many. If 5 minutes of embarrassed silence us what it takes to remind a class that I am serious about their participation in the process then I am willing to spend it. The benefit may be felt in the many hundreds of minutes we still have left together. Barfing “answers” at them because I can’t stand to wait is not, in my opinion, teaching.

  11. shaz on 23 Oct 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    I actually think the whole technology thing is a red herring. You can teach wonderfully with technology, you can teach crappily with technology. The line that summed it up for me is, “real engagement comes from great teachers with interesting lesson plans.” End of story.

    The problem comes when technology, as you say, is used to cut corners — and even more, used often to make learning rote and testable.

    For instance: Lexile (online test of reading memorization) is, in my estimation, crappy. Scratch (children’s programming language, free form, encourages artistic creation), is, in my estimation, a great use of technology.

    Is it an accident that Lexile is backed by a huge corporation and in 1000s of schools (at least 19 states!), while Scratch is a free download from MIT meant for kids to play with as they see fit?

  12. Historiann on 24 Oct 2011 at 4:58 am #

    Shaz, you’re right of course: there is good stuff and bad stuff out there. The point of this article was to say that people in the tech industry recognize exactly that distinction. The less imaginative & less effective stuff is unfortunately the stuff that’s in wider distribution as “classroom technology,” unfortunately.

    truffula’s & thefrogprincess’s Silent Treatment is sometimes the only way to make the point that students must take responsibility for their own education rather than expecting it to be ladled onto them by a professor. Students at my uni are notoriously resistant to speaking up in class–they don’t get too many other opportunities, unfortunately, so many easily sink into passive silence.

    I have been known to dismiss an entire class for wasting my time if they refuse to speak up and appear to have failed to do the required reading. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it surely makes a point with the students!

  13. thefrogprincess on 24 Oct 2011 at 6:22 am #

    The point I was making applies whether you apply my teaching techniques or koshembos’s. Had students been able to google the answer, neither they nor I would have realized how poorly they had retained the material and how lightly they had read it so that they could not even find the answer with any speed.

    But in response to koshembos, I’d say this. First of all, technology’s not an enemy, but it’s also not appropriate to every situation. This is a lesson students need to learn.

    As for my stopping class, what I needed to convey to my students was this: standards were slipping, and I was aware they were slipping. It was clear during that class period that they were not going to be able to answer any factual questions, no matter how basic, and that they were expecting me to supply them with the answers. That’s very different from their struggling through material, or needing clarification, two things I’m always willing to help them with. My students are smart, and they go to a top school. I’m more than familiar with how smart they are; I’m an alum of the institution. I didn’t dwell on this issue; the moment the right answer came in, I moved right along. I didn’t even address it formally until the next class period, and even then I only spent 30 seconds on it at the end of class. And to give even more of an indication of the seriousness of the issue: part of the answer (the person who did the thing in question) was already written on the board. In other words, students knew who this person was, had already mentioned hir, but made no connection to what else ze did.

  14. Janice on 24 Oct 2011 at 7:47 am #

    From what I read in the story, it seems more important that the school has plentiful resources to keep student/teacher ratios small, allow teachers freedom to develop and explore the subjects in their curriculum as they see fit and actually, you know, teach. Computers, their presence or lack thereof, aren’t as important as having a healthy classroom environment. How many can afford their fees (even with financial aid)?

    annual tuition at the Silicon Valley schools is $17,750 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $24,400 for high school

    I don’t mean to harp on this, but there’s no way that public schools are going to get pockets this deep or be freed from the smothering side-effects of some expensive bureaucratic entrenchment to allow teachers some liberty in determining how they teach.

    In the end, the precious attitude toward keeping technology not only out of the classroom but out of the home (oh, look, some fifth graders do say they get to see movies at home, anyway – how radical!) isn’t nearly as important as fully-funding education so that you have enough teachers with opportunity to do the job they trained to do.

  15. Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education on 24 Oct 2011 at 8:29 am #

    [...] software may be a Very Bad Thing for all children, a story being reported chez Historiann. (Go here and here.) Such research  exists alongside manifestos by elite university intellectuals like Mark [...]

  16. Z on 24 Oct 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Are they against all film and a/v? photographs?

  17. Dr. Crazy on 24 Oct 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    I don’t know nothing about nothing when it comes to educating the kiddies, as I don’t have one, but am I weird in feeling like the Waldorf thing is a NYT sort of upper-class expensive fad? Like, when did Waldorf take over from Montessori as the weird educational philosophy of choice? (Caveat: I actually went to Montessori pre-school, on financial aid, because my mom was totally a teen mom visionary who thought it sounded awesome and good for me, even in the 1970s when most kids didn’t go to pre-school.)

    I’m not saying that there aren’t good things that happen in Waldorf schools, but I feel like I’ve only heard of them recently, and only in an NYT sort of context. They are not something that is on the table where I live – kiddies here are still going to Catholic school.

  18. Nicoleandmaggie on 25 Oct 2011 at 5:06 am #

    Waldorf is very popular in California with parents who wish they could be “unschoolers” but for whatever reason still need schooling. Very popular on the mommy blogs with parents who think teaching a child to read is a horrible thing that should be delayed as long as possible. Why rush? they ask. Let kids be kids and sense their environment before having to sit down with books.

    Depending on when their kids switch over to public school, Waldorf kids are often far behind. Apparently they do catch up after they’re taught reading in, IIRC, third grade. But switching before then shows the big difference in academics in the early grades.

    Given how much evidence there is that early learning interventions have such positive outcomes on low SES kids, Waldorf is not the intervention that one would recommend for these groups. It seems to work well, at least in terms of parent satisfaction, with upper middle class kids of average intelligence whose parents ascribe to its philosophies.

    Additionally, parents who care primarily about academics or whose children are of above average intelligence are not good fits for Waldorf. Especially if their kids read “early.”

  19. LouMac on 25 Oct 2011 at 9:02 am #

    This is sort of side-tracking the discussion, but I taught at a Waldorf school for a year part-time, that is, I wasn’t a trained Waldorf teacher. But I was around them and the kids 2 days a week. I found it deeply creepy on the macro-level (Steiner’s philosophy, aka anthroposophy), but on the micro-level of people just trying to get through the day and do right by the kids, it was mostly well-meaning. Anthroposophy is not directly taught to the kids, but some of it manifests in practices that are unrealistic at best (no TV or movies at home, no discussion thereof), racist at worst (teachers earnestly explaining to black potential parents that kids weren’t allowed to use the black crayons). And the teachers study it in some depth, learning lovely notions like how all souls cycle through many lifetimes and whiteness is a sign of being at the top of the spiritual class (since we’re globally more privileged – Steiner said civilised, but whatev, a nudge is as good as a wink to an Aryan).

    I agree with Nicoleandmaggie’s assessment of it. Yes, it’s for rich folks who think of themselves as alternative – but they are often very good people. It does work very well for some kids who would probably flounder at public school or more academically traditional privates. It works well if the kid connects with their individual teacher, who they will have all the way through (!) The learning gap decreases with age (it’s really cruel to take a 7-year-old out of Waldorf, not so much at 13). Waldorf communities are often very intentional and thoughtful, if lacking in deep diversity. But the system needs to do a much better job of stating which parts of anthroposophy it owns or disowns. It must face up to the offensive parts and disassociate, rather than trying to tell the rest of us that we don’t understand.

    So, the anti-technology thing is part of a wider vision that, as Western Dave says, has troubling associations historically. Also, Waldorf are very influenced by Rousseau, in particular the idea of learning from the book of nature rather than books – this explains why kids learn to read very late, why they are only allowed “natural” materials in the classroom, etc. Lovely, until you read Rousseau’s “Emile”, which promotes back-to-the-land-and-manual-labour ideals to young noblemen, anticipating various fascist idealisations of peasants by the privileged. And what do women do while young Emile is being privately tutored to encourage his specialness? They learn to be good wives, run a household, and that they mustmustmust breastfeed all the time.

  20. Western Dave on 25 Oct 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Like I said earlier, there are wide varieties of Waldorf schools. The Philadelphia Waldorf school is explicitly anti-racist and rejects the hero-worship nonsense (and isn’t completely anti-tchnology, and in it’s blog links to this awesome blog post on the article http://21k12blog.net/2011/10/23/deeply-disappointed-responding-to-the-new-york-times-article-on-waldorf-education-and-technology/.

    OTOH suburban Philly Kimberton Waldorf school, based on a presentation they gave to my school 10 years ago, is a hotbed of little fascist supermen in the making.

  21. Historiann on 25 Oct 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Nicoleandmaggie and LouMac: THANK YOU for these thoughtful & informative comments. I assumed that Waldorf was some elite Montessori-like culty ed philosophy, but I had no idea. . . this all resonates so much with Tenured Radical’s posts the past few days about Occupy Education and her analysis of the 99%/1% model as applied to education.

    Nevertheless–I still applaud their conservative approach to technology. After all: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak didn’t use computers in their elementary school classrooms, and yet somehow they managed to get by. The truth is that we don’t know the perfect way to educate students who will invent a whole new industry or paradigm for understanding all creation–so why not stick with what works and permit children the time they need to learn, grow, and play? (Engagement, low teacher:student ratios, and a rich environment full of books, art, and the natural world.)

    I maintain yet again that education is full of more crackpot so-called innovations and fads, and yet we already know what works. I guess that’s the problem: there are so few real innovations in the history of education that each little tweak gets lauded as the Solution to All of Our Problems. I’m just blown away by the money that’s spent on educational research, 95% of which amounts to reinventing a perfectly good wheel but claiming to be able to make it bettercheaperandfaster by 2%.

  22. Indyanna on 25 Oct 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Indeed (per Historiann, at 11:50 a.m.) although the _Times_ may well have missed a significant sidebar story angle on the school itself (maybe Timesmen and women join a certain stratum of the technorati in a cult-like attachment to educational primitivism?) I think the takeaway part of the story is getting a senior Googler to use phrases like “learning to use toothpaste” and “brain-dead easy to use,” that would have gotten an equivalent IBM suit sacked back in the days of Mad Men. It’s not about the efficacy or orientation of this particular school brand, which I wouldn’t be likely to send kids to either. Per Dr. Crazy’s observation, it would be interesting to see how a spectrum-segment like Catholic schools, or Quaker schools, or others, line up on the millenialist “technology-as-godhead” angle. It does seem as though a lot of public school districts in places that don’t have any spare resources to gamble–like that one in rural Indiana the other week–are currently being sold on the view of the race to the top as a screenface-only enterprise.

  23. Notorious Ph.D. on 25 Oct 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    I just got an e-mail about a “webinar” (ugh, ugh, ugh) on the iClicker, the gist of which e-mail was: “Hey! Your students are part of a participatory culture! So this webinar will show you how iClicker can help you use that in your classroom! Just like they do on Facebook, American Idol, and World of Warcraft!”*

    Or we could, you know, actually have them participate in things like discussions, and intersperse back-and-forth in lectures.

    *for serious, these were the actual examples employed.

  24. Spanish Prof on 25 Oct 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    @ Indyanna:

    “it would be interesting to see how a spectrum-segment like Catholic schools, or Quaker schools, or others, line up on the millenialist “technology-as-godhead” angle.”

    I work at a Catholic University that receives a lot of students from Catholic high schools and also works with local Catholic schools. My anecdotal, uneducated guess is that it is directly correlated to socio-economic class. Those Catholic high schools where tuition is $20 K go crazy about technology, and they market themselves with things like “every student receives an Ipad and blah, blah, blah…and every classroom has a Smartboard, etc, etc…”. More modest Catholic high schools (those for lower-middle class families) can’t afford such spending, so they place the emphasis on rigor and discipline as a marketing strategy, not on technology.

  25. Historiann on 25 Oct 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    **HEADDESSSSk.**

    My informant in Catholic K-8 reports that computers are lighter on the ground than statues of the BVM, smart boards are non-existant, and cell phones are confiscated (as they should be.)

    (No doy! Seems like that’s a pretty good proxy for an intelligence test: is it a really good idea to take your new Smart Phone to Catholic School? Give me the right answer in 3, 2, 1. . . )

  26. Spanish Prof on 25 Oct 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    Yep, my Jewish left-wing liberal self finds herself more and more sympathetic to the traditional Catholic education tradition . . . There is a whole rant that I will write when I get tenure, regarding the connection between the contents of the Master in Education in my institution and the demands and trends of the expensive Catholic Schools in the region.

  27. Western Dave on 25 Oct 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    OK. I work at a ritzy private that competes with teh Quakers (3 K-12s in our immediate area plus a couple of K-6s). We have a both/and approach to technology, the environment and play. We have a lower school physics lab that’s completely play based and that’s almost totally computer free (it’s got a smart board for doing some cool motion things that you reprogram a wii for). We also have 2 new media studios. The lower school one allows kids to act out and record plays and stories while introducing them to storyboarding and editing basics. They have recess outside twice a day in lower school and environmental ed in the woods rain, snow, or shine as long as the trails aren’t washed out once a cycle (7 days). My daughter is learning Scratch programing and Chinese too. Spelling and handwriting get the shaft. I’m ok with that. My daughter will never learn script. Oh well.

    Full time laptop possession start in 7th grade. Again, film-making/editing get’s a half-year updated from what used to by a required drama class. Upper school is pretty techno-ritzy (Voice thread in language classes, lots of wiki development, blog writing, etc. alternative to essays) but here’s the thing: when we give “new technology” assignments the rubrics are pretty similar to the essays: what’s the thesis, what are the controlling ideas, what’s the evidence, how do you explain it. Sometimes they have to do an essay and an alternative, sometimes just one or the other but both start with the same type of brainstorm. I’ve become a fan of taking pictures of diagrams on the board with my cellphone camera for future reference when I get something really right. When we’ve done a lot of group work and kids are sharing it, google docs work quite nicely thank you. Of course, nothing beats getting into the primary documents, and thank god for the web because it gives me superb collections to choose from. I can’t imagine teaching my ancient world class without access to the Metropolitan Museum of Art site (I use it to a lesser degree in US too) and yes I am aware that there are these things called slide projectors, I used them too, but it would take years and more money and organizational talent than I’ve got to amass the slide collection equivalent of what I use now.

    It would be interesting to stack up our kids against the Waldorf kids (since both come from similar economic strata I’m guessing although 30% of our families get financial aid) and see who has better results. I’m guessing it’s a push.

    The K-12 Quaker schools we compete with have all got Smartboards and one to one laptop and Chinese instruction too. The K-6s not as much (they are also not as wealthy). We also compete with the Philly Waldorf although there it’s less direct since they are pretty self-selecting.

    Incidentally, we use a leasing model for our technology spending with tech built into the budget rather than as a capital expense and all tech replaced every three years. The tech department partially self-funds by buying the tech at the end of the lease and then refurbishing in-house and selling it. I don’t know how much of this is transferable to public schools, much of it depends on motivated teachers designing their own lesson plans with little administrative oversight and almost no testing. (The powers that be did ask me to add more SAT style multiple choice questions to my tests because our kids did not do well on SAT compared to ACT and actual college performance. I complied because it adds little time to my grading and they bought me some multiple choice questions of the type they wanted but most of my in-class assessments involve short answer questions such as cause and effect with explanation, document analysis, and essay or parts thereof. Take home assessments are essays or essay equivalents (things with a thesis, controlling ideas, and evidence). Sometimes there’s a mix (like a role-play that involves research for a brainstorm that I grade, plus a self-assessment by the student based on how they played).

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