Can Technology Wait?


Photo by chibi_m on flickr.

10.27.11 | The latest New York Times story on the use of digital media and technology in schools has an interesting twist—the focus is on a school that shuns computers.

Welcome to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, “one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks,” writes Matt Richtel, who also penned an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the inspiration for this story.

The story continues:

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 here 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.”

The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.

– Alan Eagle, Waldorf school parent

Mr. Eagle knows a bit about technology. He holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

The story goes on to note the school’s retro look (chalk and blackboards) and activities (knitting as a way of building problem-solving, coordination and math skills). The attitude of the parents is: Why rush easy-to-learn technology skills at the expense of human contact and critical thinking?

Not everyone sees it as an either/or proposition, of course—or a wise one. Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association, argues that computers are essential. “If schools have access to the tools and can afford them, but are not using the tools, they are cheating our children,” Flynn told the Times.

Read more stories in the Times series Grading the Digital School, and my previous post on the coverage.
Meanwhile, over at Pew Internet, there are newly posted slides from a talk about “learning going mobile,” presented by Director Lee Rainie at the Educause 2011 annual conference.

Rainie describes “how the mobile revolution has combined with the social networking revolution to produce new kinds of learning and knowledge-sharing environments,” and he reviews “the challenges and opportunities this presents to colleges and teachers,” and what it means now that “technology has enabled students to become different kinds of learners.”

Some of those learners are becoming teachers. Students at the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which was created last year with funding from the Knight Foundation to develop programs to teach digital and media literacy, are beginning to share their skills with community members.

Van King, dean of the school, and John A. McArthur, an assistant professor, describe a workshop involving students and residents of Myers Park, a nearby neighborhood:

Freshman Knight Scholar Zenzele Barnes taught several neighbors how to use Twitter. Others, like communication major Mena Shenouda, worked with parents who wanted to learn about their children’s use of Facebook. Senior communication students Amelia Farmer and Sara Beth Jones helped participants learn how to adjust Facebook’s privacy settings.

“Facebook today at 800 million users has the same number of people that used the entire Internet in 2004,” Dr. McArthur told the group.

The community members were appreciative of the hands-on training and being able to work one-on-one with a student to increase their knowledge. Students were eager to teach and the neighbors were eager to learn. One parent of two teen-agers said simply about the session, “I feel comfortable and I don’t feel stupid.”


Picture of Diana Graber
Diana Graber (Capistrano Beach, CA)


As a parent who teaches digital media literacy in a public-charter Waldorf school, I found this NY times story particularly interesting. However, I believe it missed an important point. Despite their technology-free surroundings, children in Waldorf schools are learning essential media literacy skills from the time they are very young. Jenkins et al (2006) suggest that the media literacy skills required for participation in the digital world are all essentially social and behavioral skills, including: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. Waldorf schools, with their emphasis on hands-on activities, face-to-face interaction and collaborative activities, do a masterful job of cultivating these skills from the moment a child enters the multi-sensory wonderland that is a Waldorf kindergarten. As anyone who has spent five minutes alone with a child and any piece of technology already knows, teaching them how to use the tools is the easy part. The behavioral skills that help them become confident and competent users of participatory media take a little longer to cultivate.

At Journey School in Aliso Viejo, CA, where I am teaching “Cyber Civics”, we use Common Sense Media’s curriculum to help our middle school students extend well-cultivated behavioral skills into cyberspace when they reach middle school. This curriculum, which emphasizes critical thinking, ethical discussion and decision making, can be taught completely without technology. At our school the consequence of introducing “digital literacy” in this manner has been a school-wide sense of comfort about allowing students to use the “tools” in 7th and 8th grade because they have (hopefully!) been well-prepared to be wise users of these powerful technologies. 

Diana Graber


Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robinson, A. J. (2006).
Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the
21st Century. Retrieved September, 12, 2010 from


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