Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Low Tech Take on Education

From the NY Times, a story about a small school in Northern California populated by children of employees from Google, Apple, Yahoo and others and nary a computer in sight.  There are pens and pencils, paper and some knitting supplies.

This is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of about 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 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."
 I don't know that I reject the idea of using technology but I disagree with the idea that kids are so connected to these machines that they can't learn without them in the classroom.

The debate comes down to subjectivity, parental choice and a difference of opinion over a single word: engagement. Advocates for equipping schools with technology say that computers can hold students' attention and that young people who have been weaned on electronic devices will not tune in without them.

"Teaching is a human experience," he said. "Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking."

How do they do it?

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.

Andie's teacher, Cathy Waheed, a former computer engineer, tries to make learning 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?"

Does it work?

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 such as Oberlin, Berkeley and Vassar.

My kids were in Montessori pre-school (and I would have sent them to a public Montessori elementary if there had been one at the time) and felt it a real gift to their education.  

I think that given the costs - the high costs of upgrading buildings and equipment in them plus maintaining the system - this story deserves notice.

Here's the flip side - an Indiana school district that has ditched textbooks for laptops.  This story is also from the NY Times:

Unlike the tentative, incremental steps of digital initiatives at many schools nationwide, Munster made an all-in leap in a few frenetic months — removing all math and science textbooks for its 2,600 
students in grades 5 to 12, and providing a window into the hurdles and hiccups of such an overhaul.
The transformation, which cost $1.1 million for infrastructure, involved rewiring not just classrooms but also the mindset of students, teachers and parents. When teachers started hearing that “the server ate my homework,” they knew a new era had begun. 

Each student was issued a laptop, with an annual rental fee of $150. The computers are cut off from noneducational Web sites, including social networks. The children are not allowed to use any other computer for their work because, she said, “kids on the south end of town will have Cadillacs and others on the north end will have eBay versions. That’s not equitable.” 


Anonymous said...

I love Waldorf schools, but to claim effectiveness by saying that 94% go on to colleges, and good ones at that is a specious argument. Waldorf schools are fairly pricey private schools. Of course the students go on to good colleges. It's a pretty simple correlation.
-- Teacher Too

anonymous said...

My kids went to a Waldorf preschool and we loved it. We would have continued on for elementary school but we couldn't afford private school.

It is a very unique philosophy, but even I, a Waldorf believer, think it sometimes went to far. Not only are children not supposed to watch TV, use the computer, or even listen the the radio at school, but they are forbidden to do so at home too, for fear they will talk about the things they are exposed to in the classroom. No plastic toys are allowed, new colors are introduced by age, and teaching reading is delayed until 2nd grade.

This approach is definitely not for everyone and it very unique but it does work. If you visit one of Seattle's Waldorf schools I think you would be highly impressed with the maturity of their (older) students, and depth of their teaching (especially in the middle school). Anybody that is interested can visit the Waldorf School of Seattle (k-8) in Meadowbrook, Bright Water (K-8) in Capitol Hill, or Hazel Wolf HS.

Jet City mom said...

I liked Waldorf schools too, all the great materials....
But when we toured the local schools, they acted like I was abusive when it was discovered my daughter taught herself to read when she was 3 &1/2. Like I could have stopped her?
Plus- no Mr. Sketch pens cause the colors were too bright. ? sad
But still love the watercolors & stories- it would make for a nice preschool experience.if you could afford it...- we went for a co-op.

Anonymous said...

Waldorf may appear laissez faire by design, but it still is pretty perscriptive. I just want somewhere in between. You know a bit of mulitplication tables drilling even by eating fruit fractions , hands on "kinetic" learning...(thinks it means getting your hands dirty), amp up the expectations, and work on their memorizing and organizational executive skills. Make their school days full of learning and give less homework at home so kids can play and be free to read, write,create, and SLEEP!

Having gone both public and private, have yet to find the happy medium, but private working out better overall for the tweens.

-happy in the middle

Anonymous said...

On the other hand:


Big business wants to sell you more gadgets to turn your kid into a widget.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Happy in the middle.

Especially this part 'Make their school days full of learning and give less homework at home so kids can play and be free to read, write,create, and SLEEP!'

Kids need a balance to be happy and productive.

Reeceloui said...

Community, permaculture eco-village, organic farm design and modeling of the overall regeneration of the site.Most schools focus on teaching the concept of physical activity, and through creative, hands-on learning tasks.

common circle education

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