Waldorf and the push towards digitalisation

June 2021

Dr Edwin Hübner, professor at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy and author of several books on media education, has come to the following conclusion: online teaching has not passed its practical test.

Erziehungskunst | The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting school closures have triggered an enormous push towards digitalisation. How should this development be assessed?

Edwin Hübner | Based on our current experiences, we will be able to talk much more realistically about the application of information technologies in the classroom in the future. It is clear that children and young people are becoming accustomed to longer time spent online and it might be that this is something that will not significantly decrease for many of them in a “post-coronavirus” era. The problems caused by prolonged periods of time spent in front of a screen are bound to increase in the future. I am also concerned that a number of pupils are barely reachable by their teachers during lockdown. Finding ways to reintegrate these children and young people into the classroom will be very important in the “post-coronavirus” era. In general, schools will have to think about how to compensate for the uneven developments that have occurred as a result of online teaching.

EK | At present, many Waldorf teachers are making a virtue of necessity and providing digital teaching formats. What should be taken into account here?

EH | The aim of Waldorf education is to encourage children to engage in their own activities and creativity. “Online tools” tend to merely teach material and children tend to stick to what is presented on the screen. A different methodology needs to be developed that uses the screen to encourage students to engage in independent activity that they can then accomplish without a screen or computer. This is something to which many teachers have developed some excellent ideas.

It is extremely important that teachers cultivate their relationship with pupils and classes as intensively as possible, both externally with the aid of both analogue and digital resources, as well as inwardly. This is another area where many teachers have shown initiative and invested a lot of energy in recent months.

Another danger is that the day loses its structure for the children. For this reason, it is important to give the children regular breaks through a rhythmically designed online timetable, which make it easier for them to organise their own daily routine in a meaningful way. However, simply transposing regular classroom timetables into the virtual world is not a sensible educational solution. Online lessons require a different kind of timetable, one that above all takes into account the fatigue caused by sitting in front of a screen.

The temptation is there to allow oneself to let things slip. Children, teenagers, students, and sometimes even teachers, get up shortly before eight o’clock and sit in front of the screen, maybe putting it exaggeratedly, while still in their pyjamas. They lounge comfortably in their chairs or eat some yoghurt or muesli on the side. At this point, private and public spaces have become entangled. It is therefore essential to carefully separate the public space of the classroom and one’s own private sphere. In this regard, teachers must be particularly strict about ensuring that they conduct themselves and also prepare themselves inwardly in a way that is appropriate for a public space – and that they demand the same of the children and young people in particular too.

Our team has summarised some further fundamental considerations in a paper that can be found on the homepage of the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy. (https://bit.ly/3qlO1Ne)

EK | To what extent could the concept of media education developed by you for Waldorf schools provide a sense of assuredness in action?

EH | First of all, we have to make a clear distinction between education with the aid of digital media (media enhanced teaching) and media education itself. These are two different things.

Media education shows how to interact sensibly with various media, what opportunities they offer, and what they also do not permit. Media education primarily asks how people should educate themselves so that they understand how these media work, how they can make creative and artistic use of their contents, and how they can deal with them in a mature manner. Media enhanced teaching, that is education involving media, uses media to teach a certain subject matter, for example mathematics, German, etc. Here, the question is reversed: how can media be used to enable people to understand a specific subject well? Currently, school closures have raised the issue regarding media enhanced teaching. Our concept, however, has its focus on media education. Media enhanced teaching only plays a secondary role in our considerations. Its possibilities are too narrow for a form of education that is oriented towards the individual. This can currently be observed in a practical context.

Children are growing up in an environment dominated by digital technologies. They therefore have to learn to understand these technologies on a fundamental level, not just to be able to use them skilfully. The ability to use an online tool does not mean that you are media literate. For example, young people need to have made a film, produced a radio feature, perhaps even written a Wikipedia article under supervision. This allows them to experience how the things that they constantly encounter in their daily lives actually come into existence. They need to know how the Internet fundamentally functions, how a search engine fundamentally works. Every upper school pupil should have become familiar with at least one programming language and should also have understood the basic concepts of artificial neural networks. Waldorf schools are currently faced with the task of updating one of Rudolf Steiner’s core ideas, which he called for back in 1919, namely that young people should have understood the basic workings of the technologies of their daily lives by the time they leave school. In this sense, there is a lot of catching up to do.

Like all technologies, information technologies have adverse side effects. Therefore, educational practice has to ask itself how it should change so that it can provide a healthier balance. Drawing attention to this crucial question, which applies to all teaching, is another of our concept’s aims.

EK | Let’s assume that at some point normal conditions do return. How do you get the negative developments that have occurred at home and at school back under control?

EH | Only through strict self-discipline and the establishment of habits that balance things out. This is something that needs to be taken into consideration now, not just once things get back to normal. As a family or household, it is possible to jointly agree on periods of time for device use and to observe a strict time limit on these periods or agree to online free times throughout the day. An important aspect is to have at least one shared meal a day, during which the experiences, joys and concerns of the day are exchanged – and during which all mobile phones, smartphones and other devices are switched off.

Parents and teachers act as role models: they set rules for themselves and model for the children how to interact responsibly with information technologies as adults. They too need screen-free periods to maintain their own well-being. The weekend is usually particularly well suited for this.

Screen times should be decided jointly with the children, and this is especially the case with adolescents. Screens have no place in a child’s room, especially at night. Adequate sleep is necessary for one’s health, especially when it comes to strengthening the body’s immune system.

Especially when a given situation requires us to sit in front of a screen for long periods, it is particularly important to seek out real experiences as much as possible, including experiences in nature if at all possible. This is not being romantic but important for the preservation of our physical and mental health.

For the school, the challenge is how to let go of remote learning, which was used as driftwood, so to speak, to stay afloat. The lockdown and remote learning have affected the children, and many psychologists speak of serious psychological problems ahead. This poses the next challenge for teachers. As a result, face-to-face teaching will have to adapt its focus to a greater or lesser extent.

EK | What positive insights can be gained from these experiences?

EH | A lot of people have become aware that the propaganda for online teaching that was spread over the past few decades was exaggerated. Online education has not passed its practical test. For emergency situations it might serve as a temporary solution, but in daily life it does not have much of a future. In the future, online tools may be useful in individual situations, but never as a substitute for the complete experience of a real school. The limitations of online teaching have become very clear to all involved. I see this very positively.

In the future, people will be more realistic about the actual useful applications for online tools. And useful applications certainly do exist. There are certain things that can only be done with the help of online tools. One teacher, for example, started a school newspaper project with her class during the lockdown. Before long, they started working together with another class in a city far away, and continued the project jointly. Such projects can be continued in the future: interschool projects that would simply not be possible without technical support. Information technology opens up new educational possibilities that can also be explored in Waldorf schools.

The most important point, however, is that people realise how important face-to-face interaction is. The value of direct human contact has become enormously apparent, both for many pupils  as well as for parents and teachers. We should keep this awareness alive and be grateful for every personal human interaction that we might have in the future.