‘A version of this article appeared in print on October 23, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute.’
‘Grading the Digital School. A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute, by Matt Richtel.
Published: October 22, 2011LOS 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.This is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.The Waldorf method is nearly a century old, but its foothold here among the digerati puts into sharp relief an intensifying debate about the role of computers in education.“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.)Three-quarters of the students here have parents with a strong high-tech connection. Mr. Eagle, like other parents, sees no contradiction. Technology, he says, has its time and place: “If I worked at Miramax and made good, artsy, rated R movies, I wouldn’t want my kids to see them until they were 17.”While other schools in the region brag about their wired classrooms, the Waldorf school embraces a simple, retro look — blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils.On a recent Tuesday, Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates refreshed their knitting skills, crisscrossing wooden needles around balls of yarn, making fabric swatches. It’s an activity the school says helps develop problem-solving, patterning, math skills and coordination. The long-term goal: make socks.Down the hall, a teacher drilled third-graders on multiplication by asking them to pretend to turn their bodies into lightning bolts. She asked them a math problem — four times five — and, in unison, they shouted “20” and zapped their fingers at the number on the blackboard. A roomful of human calculators.In second grade, students standing in a circle learned language skills by repeating verses after the teacher, while simultaneously playing catch with bean bags. It’s an exercise aimed at synchronizing body and brain. Here, as in other classes, the day can start with a recitation or verse about God that reflects a nondenominational emphasis on the divine.Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.“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?”Some education experts say that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that this leads to better test scores or other measurable gains.Is learning through cake fractions and knitting any better? The Waldorf advocates make it tough to compare, partly because as private schools they administer no standardized tests in elementary grades. And they would be the first to admit that their early-grade students may not score well on such tests because, they say, they don’t drill them on a standardized math and reading curriculum.When asked for evidence of the schools’ effectiveness, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America points to research by an affiliated group showing that 94 percent of students graduating from Waldorf high schools in the United States between 1994 and 2004 attended college, with many heading to prestigious institutions like Oberlin, Berkeley and Vassar.Of course, that figure may not be surprising, given that these are students from families that value education highly enough to seek out a selective private school, and usually have the means to pay for it. And it is difficult to separate the effects of the low-tech instructional methods from other factors. For example, parents of students at the Los Altos school say it attracts great teachers who go through extensive training in the Waldorf approach, creating a strong sense of mission that can be lacking in other schools.Absent clear evidence, the debate comes down to subjectivity, parental choice and a difference of opinion over a single world: engagement. Advocates for equipping schools with technology say computers can hold students’ attention and, in fact, that young people who have been weaned on electronic devices will not tune in without them.Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association, which represents school boards nationwide, said computers were essential. “If schools have access to the tools and can afford them, but are not using the tools, they are cheating our children,” Ms. Flynn said.Paul Thomas, a former teacher and an associate professor of education at Furman University, who has written 12 books about public educational methods, disagreed, saying that “a spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning.”“Teaching is a human experience,” he said. “Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”And Waldorf parents argue that real engagement comes from great teachers with interesting lesson plans.“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.And where 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,” 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.”There are also plenty of high-tech parents at a Waldorf school in San Francisco and just north of it at the Greenwood School in Mill Valley, which doesn’t have Waldorf accreditation but is inspired by its principles.California has some 40 Waldorf schools, giving it a disproportionate share — perhaps because the movement is growing roots here, said Lucy Wurtz, who, along with her husband, Brad, helped found the Waldorf high school in Los Altos in 2007. Mr. Wurtz is chief executive of Power Assure, which helps computer data centers reduce their energy load.The Waldorf experience does not come cheap: annual tuition at the Silicon Valley schools is $17,750 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $24,400 for high school, though Ms. Wurtz said financial assistance was available. She says the typical Waldorf parent, who has a range of elite private and public schools to choose from, tends to be liberal and highly educated, with strong views about education; they also have a knowledge that when they are ready to teach their children about technology they have ample access and expertise at home.The students, meanwhile, say they don’t pine for technology, nor have they gone completely cold turkey. Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates say they occasionally watch movies. One girl, whose father works as an Apple engineer, says he sometimes asks her to test games he is debugging. One boy plays with flight-simulator programs on weekends.The students say they can become frustrated when their parents and relatives get so wrapped up in phones and other devices. Aurad Kamkar, 11, said he recently went to visit cousins and found himself sitting around with five of them playing with their gadgets, not paying attention to him or each other. He started waving his arms at them: “I said: ‘Hello guys, I’m here.’”Finn Heilig, 10, whose father works at Google, says he liked learning with pen and paper — rather than on a computer — because he could monitor his progress over the years.“You can look back and see how sloppy your handwriting was in first grade. You can’t do that with computers ’cause all the letters are the same,” Finn said. “Besides, if you learn to write on paper, you can still write if water spills on the computer or the power goes out.”’
ecosopherSouthwest, USOctober 23rd, 20119:37 amIt’s great to see an article like this in the NYT, at a point when so many are questioning what’s happening with modern education. Unfortunately, the article misses one major part of the Waldorf story in the U.S. In addition to the “private” Waldorf schools, there are a rapidly growing group of public, free, charter schools that are based on the Waldorf curriculum.At our daughter’s school, 60% of the families meet the criteria for poverty, but we also have some very wealthy families. The diversity is amazing and very healthy. And, being public, everyone is welcome to attend, so we regularly see children transferring from “mediated” public schools and from heavily mediated lives, some who have been previously labeled as “problems”. If they and their families hang in there through the transition, we often see them become entirely different, much more healthy and happy children, enjoying school again.Indeed, our daughter likes vacations from school, but is always joyfully expectant for school to start again every morning, and comes home most days singing songs she learned that day during math or writing lesson.As with “pjd”, #15 above, I also work in education of adults, and have had the pleasure of working with quite a few who have grown up in Waldorf, some from some very challenging backgrounds and families. I can say, without exception, they are among the brightest, most articulate and engaged students I have. They pick-up new knowledge and abilities very rapidly, always think outside the box, and can assimilate many different ideas into a coherent whole better than just about any other student I work with.There is growing evidence that integrative, age-appropriate learning is much more effective at developing intelligence than rote, media- and test-based education. Waldorf is whole-child, whole-being learning, engaging the heart and the hands, as well as the head. Indeed it is about learning, but mostly about teaching the love of learningRecommended by 10 Readers30.TexasOctober 23rd, 20119:37 amFor several years I went to a church where the majority of children there went to the local Waldorf school. They were engaged, polite, had wonderful social and interactive skills, were generous, extremely creative, kind to everyone, charitable, and were very, very smart.To my knowledge all but one of the 25 or so kids were given full scholarships to university. None, not one, had any problems with drugs or drinking, and their values were not based on clothes or social status but on genuine compassion and interest in others. The teachers were fully engaged with their students and families. The parents felt their lives, along with those of their children were vastly improved. One of my closest friends pulled his two daughters out of public school and they are both doing work at the college level (in 8th grade) and are thrilled to go to school. Yes, thrilled.Compare that with a 40% high school drop out rate, low college scholarship rate, gang violence, sexual activity as early as age 11, teenage pregnancies off the charts, harassment and bullying, teen suicide and childhood alcoholism that are rampant in public schools.The precepts and philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, who founded Waldorf, provide a foundation for leadership and excellence in quality of life. Steiner’s approach teaches parents as much as it does children (read “Redirecting Children’s Behavior” as one of many examples). We use Steiner’s approach in our home with our child and with each other and our child, and marriage/home life, are thriving.Those who condemn Waldorf obviously do not have first hand experience. Public education in the US is broken and is a waste of time and resources. My child is going to Waldorf. Public schools are toxic, and in many cases, dangerous.Recommended by 8 Readers27.John BirdFort Lauderdale, FLOctober 23rd, 20119:37 amAs school districts fire teachers,many still find the funds to spend millions on the latest computer technologies. Yet, what studies indicate is that the most important factor in a child’s education, after family background, is the quality of the classroom teacher. After teaching for thirty three years, I am convinced that the dedication and the enthusiasm of a great teacher can profoundly affect a child’s education, not the latest computer program. Here’s a study I’d like to see. Compare the results on standardized tests of a group of students with a great teacher in a classroom with no computers with a similar group of students with an equally effective teacher who uses the latest technology. My hypothesis is that both groups of students would do equally well on the tests because of the quality of the teachers and that computers would have no positive affect on student test scores. Administrators and Boards of Education need to focus on the quality of their teachers and ensuring that every student has an effective teacher and not on spending very limited resources on the latest Smart Board or math app.P.S. One step every teacher should take to develop their students’ writing skills is to ban the gawd awful power point presentations that are quickly replacing research papers in too many classrooms.Recommended by 7 Readers35.R. B.Monroe, CTOctober 23rd, 20119:37 am“Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.” Well said. As an educator, I love technology. I was an early adopter and even received some national recognition for my use of web pages. And I endorsed having my students use word processing to write the final drafts of their papers. But, there was far more emphasis of reading, asking questions, defending an interpretation by returning to the text, working in small groups to arrive at a consensus response, and a number of opportunities to present an individual project through oral presentation using props. The latter were identified by my students as the infamous paper bag book reports. And yes they took notes, listened to lectures, had to write out out responses to tough essay questions in class. The hard work was always the reading and thinking and to this day it remains so. Too many school systems believe that manipulating the keys of a handheld calculator without knowledge of basic math is learning. And students write down the number they arrive at never questioning its accuracy even though it is obviously incorrect because they don’t really grasp math. In the same way an essay produced on a computer is not necessarily good prose just because the presentation is in the correct format. Learning is about thinking not just going through the motions and presenting some sort of powerpoint. Technology can provide great tools at the appropriate time and place but cannot replace comprehension, creative thought, and analysis. First teach to think.Recommended by 7 Readers22.SteveNY, NYOctober 22nd, 201110:59 pmMy kids attend a public high school that provides each student with a laptop. Great idea, but is all in the execution and application. In both cases the learning process remains a collaborative classroom effort. Their laptops are not the center of learning, just a vehicle to manage and enable the process. Amazing how what was standard learning tools just 30 years ago (pen and paper) is now alternative. While eshewing all technology in the seat of technology innovation in this country is hilarious. Truly self indulgent.Recommended by 7 Readers31.kristinaSantiago, ChileOctober 23rd, 20119:37 amThere is something troubling and elitist about this article: the children of high tech executives who can afford $25,000 per year (ps: if its all so “simple” and “back-to-basics” why is it so fantastically expensive?) will probably always have access to what they need to receive a decent education and make progress later in life.These high tech parents have the luxury of delaying technology education because they know that their children will never lack for it. I think it is unbelievably intolerant (and hypocritical in the case of people who work in the computer business) to claim that computers have no place in the classroom: when technology is adopted to its best advantage, to teach something more vividly and more effectively than may be imparted through non-technological means, then it is absolutely worthwhile, especially in the case of those children who don’t respond to more traditional kinds of education. And bragging about how your children don’t know how to use Google is an outright insult to those children in faraway countries for whom Google has opened a window onto the world--precisely the world that these Waldorf parents belong to yet sniff at.There are many, many worthwhile practices in the Waldorf approach, but why can’t kids knit AND learn through technology? I am astonished that such enlightened professionals would choose to send their children to a school that espouses such extreme, intransigent attitudes about learning.This is an anecdotal story about a very, very privileged group of kids whose academic performance is not indicative of anything about the general population, and who are very lucky to be the children of such successful professionals. This piece belongs in a self-congratulatory alumni magazine, not on the front page of the Times.Recommended by 6 Readers39.Chestnut Ridge, NYOctober 23rd, 20119:37 amThis is so refreshing! As a computer programmer, almost two decades ago I was asked by a relative of mine starting a private K-8 school for advice about the role of computers in the classroom. I told her they would be useless for learning before around 8th grade. The school installed computers in every classroom, of course. Five years later they had gotten rid of them all -- they were simply distractions.From my experience, children’s ability to understand the technology underlying electronic devices, to learn programming, to make meaningful use of spreadsheets and databases, and even to make intelligent choices searching on the internet begins around eighth grade.Waldorf schools make use of computers and other technologies from this time on. That makes good sense; they aren’t denying the sensible role of computers, just waiting until children are ready for them. I praise the courage of the writer of this article -- and of the many people who offered comments recognizing and affirming the developmental realities of childhood.Recommended by 6 Readers38.Ithaca, NY USAOctober 23rd, 20119:37 amMy children attended Waldorf School of the Finger Lakes. They both graduated with top honors from high school and college. Waldorf gave them interest in learning and taught them how to learn. My family believes that the Waldorf pedagogy is the way all children should learn.The elements of Waldorf have been around a very long time. As odd as it may seem in the modern world, the principles don’t really require periodic updating.I have periodically done funded research in class room computing. On the onset of each project computing was seen as a great hope. Yet in virtually every project the research eventually found computing to be a distraction to learning. Human teachers, real world objects, and human interaction still turn out to be the most effective way of learning.Recommended by 5 Readers52.Elizabeth ter PoortenCroton-on-Hudson, NYOctober 23rd, 201110:07 amHow about the classic Montessori School? There are no computers in the early years. Order, beauty, love, compassion, generosity of spirit are taught as well as taking care of the environment, developing the senses, math, language, reading and WRITING as well as independence and self-reliance!Recommended by 3 Readers67.Ed MillerNew York, NYOctober 23rd, 201110:19 amIt’s not just Waldorf school fans who have pointed out the myths surrounding high-tech education. The Harvard Education Letter described them back in September 1994. I was its editor at the time. A lot of people didn’t like having their deep faith in machines challenged, and the same remains true today. But the fact is that very little meaningful research on the real outcomes of technology-heavy teaching exists, while both common sense and long experience support the conclusion that education mostly takes place in the context of human relationships, not mechanical ones.Edward MillerAlliance for ChildhoodNew York CityRecommended by 3 Readers75.London, UKOctober 23rd, 201110:19 amThis article implies that, in other schools, teachers are not teaching children to use paper and pens and are just pushing buttons on computers! I can’t speak for all teachers, but I’m quite sure that, even in this day and age children are still learning to use pens and pencils! And most teachers, shockingly, still use hands on methods (such as the fractions example in the article) even when computers are available. I would say that many schools are a lot more like the Waldorf schools than the article likes to consider. My school teaches children like this and also allows them to use technology at appropriate times as well!Recommended by 3 Readers47.grosse pointe BritMichiganOctober 23rd, 20119:37 amWaldorf schools have always attracted superior teachers. We none of us know how our child will develop and learn. But the parents who choose Waldorf for their children know that the most important aspects of education are teaching children how to think and solve solve problems.Your choice of focusing on a Silicon Valley Waldorf school is unfortunate because it has generated malevolent comments about high tech parents I.e. the toys we produce are for the masses but our children require a much better education.The real test would be college admission rates for Waldorf graduates from a community that has fine public schools as well as a variety of private schools.That said, I live in a community with all of the above and while my personal knowledge is limited, I have always experienced Waldorf students as just that much better .... In every way.Recommended by 3 Readers63.Palo Alto, CAOctober 23rd, 201110:19 amInitially, I put my son in a preschool Waldorf institution. It was like a Nazi camp, no TV, no colorful blocks, no drive to teach the kids other than the basics. It was very touchy-feely, sing-song, hope-that-it-works kind of stuff. When we were at a farm, I wanted my son to touch the horse, but a Waldorf teacher tapped me on the shoulder so I wouldn’t “pressure the boy.” The place was an Amish anti-technology place. I understand some tech parents like it, but for every one of them, there are 10 the other way. We pulled our kid out and put him in a Montessori school where he thrived.Some parents may like it, but it is the vast minority of tech parents. This is a personal choice that works for some, but not for everyone. For every anti-tech kid, there’s 10 that thrive using the latest technology. So instead of an anecdotal story, let’s cite real evidence.Recommended by 3 Readers56.hancock, nhOctober 23rd, 201110:19 amI teach in a public high school. This article does a great job of exploring the age-old debates about technology and education (it never addresses Steiner’s truly weird religious philosophy). It’s funny to hear all these technologists, who have built the digital world in which we live, explain why they send their kids to such an anti-technology oasis of a school. I think there’s some denial going on, and some wishful thinking (“sigh, if only the world that we’ve created was not this way”). I doubt that any of these parents, for even an instant, would think of doing their jobs or living their lives without their technology. Raising their kids without technology seems as if they are stunting them, in a vain attempt to keep their delicate little children out of the direct sunlight. Waldorf schools foster a rejection of the real world. Such a hothouse approach is unsustainable, sooner or later our children have to live in the real world. Waldorf schools are perhaps well-intentioned, but in the end such an approach is wrong-headed, even unethical. JRRecommended by 2 Readers53.HollyTeeVirginiaOctober 23rd, 201110:07 amI LOVE THIS ARTICLE. My daughters went through 5 and 7 years of Waldorf education. My oldest is now a top student at Washington and Lee University and plans to go into medicine. My younger, also an exceptional student, pours her spare time into sports, ceramics and friends. The through-line is their confidence and creative thinking. They left Waldorf education years ago, but I am still grateful on a regular basis that they had it!Recommended by 2 Readers54.A ReaderDetroit, MIOctober 23rd, 201110:16 amMy stepchildren went to a Waldorf school -- with disastrous results! Upon graduation, they were not at all prepared to meet the challenges of even a moderately rigorous university environment. They draw beautifully, though. Unfortunately, prospective employers are not very interested in their artistic skills.This little educational experiment (which, I hasten to add, was not my idea) was one of the biggest and most expensive mistakes we ever made. I have nothing but regret.Recommended by 2 Readers55.New YorkOctober 23rd, 201110:19 amArticle suggests that like Waldorf, schools-without-technology are more effective because their students are moving on to better colleges. However, those students may be performing better primarily because of attention and guidance of their caring parents, who themselves are professionally well established and have the affluence to pay a tuition fee of hopping 17-25k. So, we cannot say, for sure, abstinence from technology is more effective.However, if we assume that a child is better off without technology of all forms, is it possible to live without technologies in this time? I guess not. Technologies are made to make our lives no-brainer, so that we can use our brain power somewhere else. Rather than we spend our energy fighting against use of technology, let’s harness the benefits of it. To use technology does not mean to over-use it. Parents need to educate their children how and how much they can use technologies.But, in support of the author, one form of technology is out and out harmful I believe – the televisions. IMO, televisions are the biggest “killers” of the children – the amount of time these dumb boxes take, and content they feed are both harmful.Recommended by 2 Readers58.Ellen GreenspanNarberth, PennsylvaniaOctober 23rd, 201110:19 amTwo of my grandchildren attended Waldorf schools. I was concerned that they weren’t reading in the early grades, but saw how, in time, they were not only reading, but loving it. I loved all of the creative projects they were involved in as I am an artist myself, and was very impressed with how they not only made a lot of art, but were actively involved with music. My concerns that they would be behind other children when they went to a regular high school, were unnecessary, as they not only did beautifully, but excelled in all of there studies. One of my Grandsons is now a sophomore at Tulane University and doing very well. His brother is in his last year at a private high school, and excelling in all his studies.Waldorf was wonderful for both of them, and I highly recommend it.Recommended by 2 Readers’