“Digitalisation challenges Waldorf education as a whole”

April 2019

Interview with Professor Edwin Hübner from the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy about the consequences of the digital age for education.

Erziehungskunst | For some time now you have been involved in media education in Waldorf schools. First there was Struwwelpeter 2.0, a general information brochure about media education, which was followed by Struwwelpeter 2.1, a “guide for parents through the media jungle”. In it you advocate media abstinence as the best prerequisite for media literacy. How do you explain this contradiction? 

Edwin Hübner | It is not a contradiction when I take the development of the human being into account. I first have to be literate with regard to myself before I can be literate with regard to something else. When we look at the development of the human being, then the first task of the child is to be in control of their own body: that is walking upright, gross motor skills, fine motor skills; then speaking and the simultaneous development of the senses because through them they enter into a relationship with the world. Finally they have to learn to think imaginatively. The child simply has to develop their whole body and thus also their brain. Once the child has done all those things and anchored themselves in the real world, then, building on that, they can learn to master the analogue technologies followed by the virtual world. But if I confront them prematurely with virtuality, they are at home neither in the physically real nor the virtual world. 

EK | In other words, media consumption at too early an age prevents the development of the foundations? 

EH | The structures of the brain formed in early childhood can only be changed at a later age – if at all – with a great deal of effort. The experiences in early childhood and, above all, the type of activity play a crucial role for the whole of the rest of life. In short, through “grasping” something with the physical body, the child develops the physical basis for their later intellectual “grasp” of things, that is their conceptual ability. 

If children use tablets too much, then they don’t have the time and, above all, are not challenged to develop their fine motor skills sufficiently. Smartphones und tablets are so simple to use that even small children can do so without any difficulty. This is then often interpreted to mean that the children are particularly clever. In truth these devices are simply incredibly easy to use but because they are so simple they inhibit the development of fine motor skills. 

The children then become skilful users of a device but clumsy in real life tasks. There are already reports that there are children in the early classes who due to the lack of development of fine motor skills are incapable of holding a pencil correctly. So when they start school, they have laboriously to catch up on the development they missed in early childhood before they can start to learn to write. 

EK | The Waldorf kindergarten movement started its “Digital day care – No!” campaign with well-known representatives from medicine and education. The petition gained public traction and almost 70,000 signatures have been collected to date. Then, in November last year, there was a conference in Brussels on the subject “Towards a healthy digital ecosystem” at which the director for education and culture of the European Commission was represented. Will these activities influence the public debate? 

EH | I think that the public debate is ambivalent. We have what might be called an official one which is dominated by the marketing of the major IT companies, but below the surface, in personal conversations, such an initiative probably delivers quite a lot. 

After all, another initiative was launched in 2018 by the European Alliance of Initiatives for Applied Anthroposophy(ELIANT): “For the right to screen-free day care institutions, kindergartens and primary schools”. The petition has meanwhile been translated into all European languages and we hope that we can get together a million signatures within a year. This petition is also supported by the “Alliance for a human education”. 

This Alliance has already had a great public impact, for example through Ralf Lankau, professor at the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences, who makes the point in his book Kein Mensch lernt digital (No person learns digitally). Lankau names the economic interests. His voice is also heard at a political level. 

Then there is also the book Die Lüge der digitalen Bildung(The lie of digital education) by Ingo Leipner and Gerald Lembke. It is extraordinary for these two authors to be abused in the German lower house of parliament: these people who speak about the “lie of digital education” must not be taken seriously, must not be listened to… And yet they are listened to! Namely by the many teachers and parents who have to deal with the problems at first hand in kindergartens and schools and who simply know the realities of life. The psychiatrist and brain researcher Manfred Spitzer, known for his forthright views and clear publications, is a member of the Alliance. 

EK | In other words, lobbyists have a finger in the pie and there is a whole lot of money at stake. 

EH | Yes, and that is what the public campaigns are also protesting against. But that is only one aspect of the current questions for me. 

We are currently living in a culture which will be dominated by artificial intelligence, in which machines “think” and “speak” with us, in which many paid jobs will disappear because the machines are “working” for us. Rudolf Steiner already said a hundred years ago that ninety percent of work would be taken over by machines. Current economic forecasts have not gone quite that far yet but they are saying that at least half of all jobs will disappear in the next twenty years. 

We are heading towards radical change in our culture. The children entering school today will enter working life in twenty years – but there will be few paid jobs because intelligent machines will be able to do most of them autonomously. What will these young people do then? We have to ask today already: how do we educate children for a culture in which independent initiative will be a crucial skill? Where they will have to create their job for themselves, as it were. That means we have to think in new ways in education – not do everything from scratch but some things more intensively and some less so. That is where what I call indirect media education is required: to give the children such all-round skills that they can meet the coming radical changes in an ever more digital society. 

That also includes that after learning to master analogue technologies they also become familiar with digital technologies from class 6 onwards. We have to show children how to use the Internet meaningfully, how IT technology can be used in an appropriate and meaningful way. Young people are virtuosos on their smartphone, but we have to show them how additionally to use the many different opportunities of a word processing programme with equal virtuosity. The smartphone does not explain by itself how it works, that is why it is the task of the school. When pupils leave school, it is important that they know how the Internet is structured, how mobile phone networks work and how a search engine is built. 

In addition, they should have familiarised themselves with a programming language, experienced how a film is made and a radio feature produced, how information technology can be used for a presentation and how to continue to educate ourselves. That is the whole field of direct media education. 

EK | You hold the von Tessin chair of media education at the Freie Hochschule in Stuttgart – Seminar of Waldorf Pedagogy, financed by the Dr. Ingeborg von Tessin und Marion von Tessin Foundation. 

EH | Yes, talks were held with representatives from the foundation in the spring of 2017. The responsible people at the foundation found our ideas so convincing that they are granting us startup financing for our project for five years. 

EK | Is it still in the conception phase or is there already a kind of curriculum? To whom is the programme addressed? 

EH | That is, of course, in the first instance our students at the Seminar, for whom we have set up media education modules as part of the undergraduate and post-graduate class teacher training. Beyond that, we have offered media education as a subsidiary subject since 2018 – and that is something new in basic Waldorf teacher training. Alongside English, sport, music, art and handwork you can also now study media education as a subsidiary subject at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Pedagogy. 

The training is conceived in such a way that the graduates are then able to develop or expand the media education department in middle or upper school. This full-time course is also open in part for working teachers who want to attend individual blocks as further training. The precise dates can be found on the website of the Seminar. 

Beyond that, we started last year to offer an intensive media education further training course for active teachers which is tailored for them. 

EK | How does that work? 

EH | This training extends over two large modules comprising seven weekends. The first module teaches the basics. That starts with an explanation of how the Internet and search engines work, how this can be discussed in class and continues with the discussion of the findings of media studies. A lawyer talks about the legal situation on the Internet. A whole weekend is devoted to the subject of bullying. The first module thus teaches the basic knowledge that is needed for the discussion with pupils and parents. The second module teaches practical media skills, that is how you make a film with young people, produce a radio feature, prepare a contribution for Wikipedia. 

For participants who want to specialise in counselling work with children, young people and parents, we offer a parallel third module which provides further training to become a therapeutic school media counsellor. We do this further training course in collaboration with the teacher training seminar in Berlin. 

EK | How many people have taken this further training course? 

EH | Currently there are about 15 participants, very committed people who come from all over Germany. And the next training course has meanwhile also started.

EK | Paula Bleckmann at Alanus University is doing similar work. Is there cooperation? Then there are also contacts with Dornach to the Pedagogical Section. What does the network look like? 

EH | We are currently in the process of expanding this network. Paula Bleckmann and I were also previously in the “Media Working Group” of the German Association of Waldorf Schools. Franz Glaw was also a member, as was Katinka Penert from Switzerland. We also invited additional people to a meeting in Dornach in November 2018 to tackle the question of how we could create a better network. 

EK | Is the Seminar in Stuttgart the exclusive contact point? 

EH | No. The Seminar in Stuttgart is of course a very important node in the network since our emphasis is on teaching practice. That is also the condition for the sponsorship from the Dr. Ingeborg von Tessin and Marion von Tessin Foundation, that something is done directly to help the schools. That is why two members of our working group are engaged in documenting concrete projects which are already being undertaken with pupils at various schools, describing them in such a way that, on the one hand, they provide concrete help for teachers in their lessons and, on the other hand, offer suggestions for schools as to what they could still include in their teaching provision. That relates above all to the field of computer science as well as the fields of radio and film. We are aiming to start editing two larger publications within a year whose content we will also make available online. 

EK | So you want primarily to expand computer science teaching in the schools and introduce media education projects in upper school? 

EH | Correct, but it is also a matter of making schools aware that it is not simply about additional classes which then also still have to be taught. The digitalisation of life poses a challenge to Waldorf education as a whole. Media education has to grow as part of the life of the school. Direct media education has to be embedded in good indirect media education. To that end we have consciously to shape the every-day life of the school out of the spiritual foundations of Waldorf education. We want given an impulse for that.