You’ve got to hand it to the New York Times. They always come up with provocative articles about technology in education that really get people thinking and talking. The latest one was, entitled A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute, interviewed a number of technology firm employees who choose to send their children to the private anti-tech Waldorf School. The not-too-subtle point here is that even computer scientists at Google recognize that computers don’t belong in schools.
Here are a number of contrarian thoughts about the article.
(1) The article four Silicon Valley firms: Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett Packard. Between them, those firms have tens of thousands of employees, with tens of thousands of children. A total of 294 children go to the Waldorf School (not all of whose parents work in high-tech industries). Does that mean that 99% of employees in high-tech firms believe that computers do have a role in education?
(2) Interestingly, earlier then Stanford Professor Larry Cuban wrote a book, Oversold and Underused, the entire purpose of which was to document that schools in Silicon Valley are only using computers a little. Wouldn’t that suggest that, for most parents, the motivation to put their kids in Waldorf is for different reasons than to escape technology? Could it be the 9.5 to 1 student-teacher ratio at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which is less than half the state average, or the school’s focus on fostering creativity rather than teaching to standardized tests? (Unfortunately the large class sizes in public schools and the current national obsession with standardized testing make it difficult to foster creative learning in a public school environment, but effective use of technology is one way to try to do so).
(3) Waldorf Schools share the common belief that computers should not be introduced in elementary school, but they all introduce computers later on (usually somewhere between sixth and ningh grade). As for regular public schools in the US, only a handful provide much computer time to children in lower primary grades. Even schools with 1-to-1 programs typically start them in 6th grade (as in Maine) or sometimes in upper elementary grades. Differences between Waldorf and most public schools on use of technology in education are not, therefore, on “whether” but rather on “when”.
(4) I have a feeling that even the students at Waldorf in the Peninsula who are not using computers in the classroom until the eighth grade can quickly and easily learn those for academic tasks such as finding and critically evaluating information online or writing and editing papers. Why? Because they are blessed with lots of other advantages in life, including very small student-teacher ratio in school and all sorts of mentoring, support, and equipment at home. Let’s contrast that with a typical African-American or Latino student in South L.A., who goes to a school with a high student-teacher ratio, less capable peers, and a home situation with little social or economic capital. Will that student pick up academic use of computers in high school so easily?
The bottom line: what works for a few dozen well-to-do families in an elite private school, while thought-provoking, sheds little light on what would be effective for diverse public schools across the state or country.