Waldorf education in Silicon Valley

May 2012

At the end of October 2011, an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times about a Waldorf school in Silicon Valley, the Californian centre of the software and computer industry, which provoked a major response in the American media landscape. The school has many parents who work in high-tech industry. What makes it different is that it refuses to use precisely those technologies with which the parents earn their money. The parents think that is a good thing. Erziehungskunst spoke with David Mitchell from the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America about the reasons for this strong response.

Education through practical work, Waldorf school of the Peninsula

Erziehungskunst: Mr Mitchell, why did the article about the Rudolf Steiner school in Silicon Valley provoke such a strong response? 

David Mitchell: Americans are becoming more critical in these economically difficult times. The normal “ready, steady, go”, in which the will to act predominates, has given way to the wish to be clear about the objectives before acting. People have noticed that school districts with reduced budgets still have to shoulder high costs for expensive technology which is quickly out of date and constantly needs updating.

The advertising of the technology companies has convinced most parents that their children need the latest technical toys in order not to fall behind. Our state school system faces a mountain of problems, does not have a clear image of the human being and studies have shown that technology does not solve the problems in the classroom. The scepticism about the use of electronic devices between kindergarten and class eight has increased. People are looking for alternatives and the article in the New York Times described such an alternative. It hit a nerve.

EZ: How many parents who send their children to the school in Silicon Valley work in the computer or software industry?

DM: A study has shown that in 75 percent of the parental households of the Waldorf school at least one parent works in high-tech industry. The school’s parents are well informed and highly educated.

Some parents were happy to be named, others wanted to remain anonymous – about 15 Apple employees who are forbidden in their employment contracts to talk to the press. These are some of the prominent names: EBay chief technology officer Mark Carges, the vice president of Google Joerg Heilig and Google­ director Alan Eagle, the former vice president of Cisco, now CEO at Power Assure, Brad Wurtz, the vice president and general manager of the XCommerce department at EBay Matthew Mengerink, then Pierre Laurent, formerly at Intel and Microsoft, now head of a high-tech startup. 

EZ: Does the philosophy of the school influence the attitude of the parents towards computer technology? Parents’ evenings must be quite eventful with such differing views?

DM: Well, the parents know about the school and have sent their children there because they know exactly what they want for their children. They value the clear direction of the school and that it stands up for that without compromising. Some have made clear that the world of computers is not the world of education: they want an environment for their children that supports creativity. They are aware of the empirical study of former Waldorf pupils which has shown that they value their school because of the diverse range of subjects, the wealth of images and the humour, and because it has evoked in them the readiness  to learn throughout their lives. The study also showed that 94 percent of the former pupils went to college or university. The survey went back as far as the 1940s.

EZ: Does Waldorf education also play a role in the large software and hardware companies, perhaps in company kindergartens? Are there opinions from well-known company representatives on Waldorf education?

DM: There is a lot of approval among parents. But company policy does not always allow public support. But I can quote a few. Shannon Weidemann, a 36-year-old marketing specialist in Sterling Heights, Mi­chigan, sends her six-year-old daughter to the Oakland Waldorf school and does a lot to support Waldorf education. “I cannot imagine my daughter attending another school,” she writes in an email. “The Waldorf school educates the whole child and teaches him or her to learn. I want my daughter to be a well-educated person who can cope in all kinds of situations.”

Ashley Robertson, educator and information manager in Poplar Bluff, is also a leading supporter of Waldorf education. Although she uses an iPad, laptop and smartphone each day, she understands how Waldorf education works: “Pupils get bored in lessons in which they cannot move about. They learn best through movement. It promotes memory because it is individual to each person.” And: “I think technology is important but these pupils expand their consciousness through their own creativity. I would like to teach in such a school. I would do something new every day and my work would never become boring. That is not the case in conventional classrooms.”

A globally known chairman of a technology company, whom we cannot name, writes: “I owe my own success, my creativity and resilience to a healthy childhood to which attendance at a Waldorf school made a decisive contribution. Waldorf education responds to the developing abilities of the children through a curriculum which creates a connection between the teacher and the children and keeps the interest of the children in the world alive. That was so in my case and is still so in Waldorf schools today.

“No technological tool made by human beings can achieve as much as the interest of a teacher and the trust of the child. I am able to use all the tools I use today, the computers and machines, in the right way because I became familiar with them at the right time in my life. It is a good thing that these questions are now being discussed. All children should feel as special as I felt in the Waldorf school.”    

EZ: Apple has just launched an initiative with new software to replace textbooks with iPads. What is your opinion about that?

DM: As the Google executive Alan Eagle, whose daughter attends the Waldorf school in Los Altos, California, told the Times: “The idea that some app on an iPad could teach my children to read or do arithmetic better than a human teacher is ridiculous.”

Stephanie Brown, who manages an addiction therapy centre in Menlo Park, increasingly encounters children as young as ten who are addicted to media and observes this development with concern. The symptoms are the same as for other addictions: obsession, insatiable craving, irritability, sleep disorders. “The children organise their day around their use of technology, they need more and more of it and can no longer stop.” She recently spoke to a group of class eight children for whom the idea that they might be addicted was clearly something new. She asked whether they had ever experienced a strong craving and “all the hands shot up. So I asked for examples,” she recalls. “They named chocolate, Doritos, Cola, and when someone said ‘video games’ everyone laughed. Other children are simply too young to notice how they are being drawn in. A class two pupil told me he wanted an iPad. When I asked him why, he said he did not know.” Some education researchers criticise the demand to equip classrooms with computers as unfounded because there are no studies which clearly show that they lead to better test results or other measurable benefits.

Paul Thomas, a former teacher and assistant professor of education at Furman University, who has written twelve books on the state education system, agrees. He says: “The restrained use of technology in the classroom is always good for learning. Learning is a human experience, technology is a distraction when it comes to reading, doing arithmetic and critical thinking.”

A journalist recently visited a classroom in which every pupil had received an iPad. She sat at the back and observed the rows there while the teacher was teaching and the children were occupied with their iPads, ostensibly to make notes about what the teacher was saying. Half-way through the lesson she went through the rows to see what the pupils were doing. She discovered that the three rows at the back were having fun on Facebook, Youtube und in chat rooms. Two pupils had headphones on and were watching films.

EZ: How should we handle technology and use it in lessons?

DM: Waldorf schools must be part of the modern world and offer their pupils teaching which builds on their desire to be part of that world. Such teaching must arise from a deep understanding of the curriculum and the developing human being.

The question is, what is appropriate computer education? Since Waldorf teachers observe the development of the children and teach appropriately for their age, they offer a classic education full of images, promote their love of learning and train their ability to form judgements. Lessons at the computer do not help in the lower school years. The anthropological conditions for understanding computer technology appropriately are not given until upper school. The first steps include text processing, use of the keyboard, Cartesian geometry and Euclidian proofs. An old computer is taken apart, investigated. Strip boards and electrical circuits are studies and simple programmes written. At the same time the pupils learn Boolean algebra, logic and coding.

Science lessons include robotics, the use of microscopes in biology and creating complex databases in economics. Computers are tools. Each Waldorf school in the world goes its own way depending on the resources and abilities of the teachers.

In North America, each Waldorf school develops its own computer curriculum which is dependent on the teachers and advanced training organised by AWSNA. Sometimes we don’t quite manage to achieve what we aim to do. The research institute of the American Waldorf schools was asked to deal with this problem and develop a series of age-appropriate courses which the schools could fall back on. At any rate, a committee composed of Harvard and MIT members was very complimentary about the American Waldorf computer curriculum. But we are currently engaged in reviewing and adapting it.

Joseph Weitzenbaum, the MIT technology pioneer, was of the opinion that computer technology ought not to be taught in middle school at all unless it was in a Waldorf school in which the children are adequately prepared to approach the subject with a real profound understanding.

Lorenzo Ravagli asked the questions.

Links: www.waldorfresearchinstitute.org | www.whywaldorfworks.org


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