In the age of the internet it seems odd that the techno savvy are sending their kids to The Waldorf School, where according to Matt Richtel of The New York Times the "school embraces a simple, retro look -- blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils."
No so odd really.
Whether one is putting a laptop in every kid's backpack, wiring the schools and changing the lesson plans to insure computer literacy or doing none of that -- the Waldorf approach is age old. Thirty years ago Judy Caldwell, fresh out of grad school, was holding Waldorf workshops all over the state of Connecticut. Eventually she moved to California, and over the years the program morphed (they now have something called the HOT's program which stands for Higher Order Thinking). Dr. Caldwell stayed true to her belief and did not let her own son watch television or have a computer until he was almost seven.
What is it about Waldorf?
Developed by German educator, Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf has been around since 1919. Waldorf Education is "based on a developmental approach that addresses the needs of the growing child and maturing adolescent. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education into an art that educates the whole child -- the heart and the hands, as well as the head. "
The emphasis is on face-to-face communication and a strong personal connection between the teacher and the student. Waldorf "emphasizes creative learning with the goal of developing the child academically, emotionally and physically." They also discourage using technology in the schools and advocate (in the home too) that "television and computers (be) strongly discouraged for younger children."
The use of technology is not to be dismissed however, and while the evidence in favor of computers in schools is mixed, many experts believe that kids growing up in a digital world need the new tools of our age. They have computers, and cell phones and video games, Facebook, and Twitter -- and who knows the apps that will demand their focus next? Thus the arguments for using technology are believed to be relevant and realistic: to reach more students, to keep more students engaged and to experiment with tools that are and will be used in today's workplace. The arguments are compelling.
At the same time many children need, and parents want, their child to have a different experience in school where they can be assured that the "whole child" is educated, where art and music are integrated into the curriculum, and where one-on-one experiences are guaranteed. At least in Silicon Valley they say all this is worth $20,000 to $25,000 in education costs. (There is ample evidence that the Waldorf experience, maybe even Waldorf, can be offered under the public system at no additional cost. But that's another story.)
The point you have to wonder about is whether delaying the use of technology until the 3rd or 4th grade has some merit.
Dan Fost, a writer based in San Francisco has observed that "The kids don't need (technology), they learn the tech later, they build a great foundation for imagination and creativity, and computers are filling their brains with mindless junk that is often worse than anything we used to worry about from television." But too much too soon also has other potential consequences according to Stephanie Brown, director of the Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, which runs an outpatient counseling and therapy program. "She's starting to see kids as young as 10 who are hooked on digital media," Fost says, "(and) the symptoms are strikingly similar to those of any other addiction." Brown believes this leads to "compulsivity, cravings, irritability, sleep disorders ... these kids build their day around their engagement with technology, and over time, they need more and more and just can't stop."
Maybe using technology isn't an either/or proposition. Maybe we don't need to choose one approach over another and as we rethink the curriculum -- which we say we badly need to do -- we need to find ways of avoiding the one-size-fits-all, standardized approach.