I appreciate much about the Waldorf approach, including its attention to developmentally appropriate learning, its emphasis on storytelling and mythology, its peaceful, calming, and focusing rituals, its embrace truly and deeply of whole child education, its naturalism, its “handwork” instruction and emphasis on craftsmanship and “making stuff,” and, in part, though I am conflicted about this, its affirmation of and mixed contributions to the cultivation of the imagination and creativity. The students write and create their own books throughout the grades, which I think is terrific, for example.
Its philosophy about the exclusion of technology in the lower grades I can accept, up to a point; I think there are perfectly good and logical reasons to reduce or minimize technology in the early years of learning, though I draw the line in a different place than does Waldorf (a difference of degree) and I don’t draw it quite so absolutely in my own educational vision.
The concentration upon handwriting which seems to me to take up an awful lot of classroom time is a bit misplaced in the 21st century, but this is hardly a central issue when considering broadly Waldorf educational practice. I’m given much greater pause by what is to my observation an inordinate amount of K-12 class-time used having all students doing exactly the same thing in unison. It rubs me the wrong way, watching entire classes using an hour to draw exactly the same picture or write exactly the same words or recite exactly the same math facts following the teacher’s modelling and always commanding direction. I value diversity of educational philosophy across the breadth of our planet’s many schools, and I certainly respect Waldorf education’s right to use this approach, but this particular widespread practice is not to my preference.
So it is with particular interest that I read today’s New York Times front page article on the Waldorf school in Silicon Valley: A Silicon Valley School that Doesn’t Compute.
Let me make my position clear: this is not journalism that belongs on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. I think it is a very disappointing bit of snarky journalism that informs readers, a little bit, about Waldorf practices, condescendingly, but has as its primary purpose a not-so covert agenda to advance the paper’s ongoing attack on the use of computers in learning in its problematic series, Grading the Digital School. The Waldorf school in this piece then, and Waldorf education in general, is only a pawn for the reporter Matt Richtel’s antagonistic crusade, and I want to caution Waldorf supporters from happily accepting their work being exploited this way.
What do we learn in this article that is being showcased on the single largest journalistic stage in any seven day cycle, the front page of the Sunday New York Times? That some digital company executives send their children to an expensive private school in their region, which they are among the few in the region to be able to afford, which doesn’t use technology for teaching young children. (what percentage of the digital company executives? The article doesn’t say, but surely it is very small)
This is an anecdotal and almost entirely meaningless report: after all, every industry has among its many employees a wide diversity of educational philosophy.
Does Richtel’s article inform us meaningfully about Waldorf education? Hardly. Of course the article’s placement raises its visiblity, but most of his brief summaries about the school’s practices could be found on a Wikipedia entry about Waldorf, and I find his tone snarky. Waldorf educators might appreciate the attention but should not be at all pleased, honored, or respected to read a paragraph like this one:
On a recent Tuesday, Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates refreshed their knitting skills, crisscrossing wooden needles around balls of yarn, making fabric swatches. It’s an activity the school says helps develop problem-solving, patterning, math skills and coordination. The long-term goal: make socks.
In other articles in this problematic series, Richtel makes the case that in some places the implementation of computers in learning doesn’t contribute to raised test scores in standardized testing. He uses this Waldorf article as another opportunity, despite the fact that this article itself provides no such evidence, to bang again the same drum “Some education experts say that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that this leads to better test scores or other measurable gains.”
So arriving at Waldorf schools which do not use computers, does he find the opposite? No, of course not, because Waldorf schools don’t use standardized testing. Indeed, there is reason to speculate that if they did use standardized testing they still might not provide such counter-evidence. “They would be the first to admit that their early-grade students may not score well on such tests because, they say, they don’t drill them on a standardized math and reading curriculum.” When Richtel and his Grading the Digital School series discusses schools with technology that don’t raise performance on standardized tests, standardized testing is treated as a near absolute be-all, end-all of educational success, but when celebrating a school approach without technology (serving then the anti-tech agenda), the importance of standardized testing success is happily set aside. This is not journalism, this is
hatchet work agenda driven advocacy.
Is any real evidence, in the absence of standardized testing, provided that Waldorf schools are highly educationally effective? No. We are “absent clear evidence,” and what the paper (the front page of the Sunday New York Times, mind you) puts forward is vague, generic reports of college attendance success, “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 like Oberlin, Berkeley and Vassar,” which Richtel himself recognizes is not meaningful: “these are students from families that value education highly enough to seek out a selective private school, and usually have the means to pay for it.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to say that the absence of compelling statistical evidence of Waldorf educational effectiveness is an indictment of the approach, or indicative it is failing. Just that Richtel wields the lack of educational effectiveness evidence inconsistently: it is a sword when he can find it against schools using technology, but happily set aside on behalf of schools not using tech.
There is a brief tangent toward the end about whether technology is easy to learn, and I think the treatment of this topic is indicative of Richtel’s lack of sophistication in thinking about technology integration. Essentially, the article tells us, tech is easy.
what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills? “It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”
Yes, Google search is easy, at least when first encountered, though anyone who spends time studying information literacy realizes how poorly most Google search users search. What we are coming to realize more and more is that “digital natives” are often highly unsophisticated in their “digital fluency,” and their effective analysis of online information and their sound digital citizenship. These things are not, Mr. Richtel, “supereasy,” and they are not, contra Mr. Eagle, intuitive, and yet they are, incredibly essential for success in the world of today and tomorrow. Students, for their own sake and for the sake of the rest of us, need to develop strong digital fluency and citizenship in their learning from their teachers, and these essential skills, habits, mindsets may or may not show up in evidence in the most basic of standardized testing but will empower them to be better university students and professionals.
What are we left with? Well, Richtel writes somewhat tentatively, perhaps engagement is the most important quality of effective learning , and acknowledges, in order to dispute, that some educators believe that ”“If schools have access to the tools and can afford them, but are not using the tools, they are cheating our children,” Ms. Flynn said.” But others, he quickly tells us, believe otherwise, and Waldorf students and parents think that classrooms without technology are more engaging: ““Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers,” said Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft.”
So what does this piece of front page journalism in the Sunday New York Times amount to? Some people think technology is more engaging for learning, and others don’t, and some of those who don’t think work themselves in tech companies, and so their opinion matters more. I’m deeply disappointed in my favorite paper.