Friday, October 07, 2005

Computers, education and the Waldorfian down the street

I love you dearly but if you get rid of the DSL line I’m taking my toothbrush and going away— When computers first hit tabletop size, science and technology writers like myself wrote often and glowingly how these machines would transform education. (I’m also the guy who wrote that computers would reduce the amount of paper in our lives, so don’t listen to a word I say.) Software companies selling educational programs proliferated with increasingly clever products designed to teach all sorts of skills and impart all kinds of knowledge.

Twenty years later, some people aren’t sure.

In an interesting, somewhat radical magazine called Orion, Lowell Monke, who teaches education at Wittenberg University in Ohio, has written in a piece called Charlotte’s Webpage, charging that the advent of computers in the classroom is a disaster. For reasons I’ll get to later, I don’t agree, but his points are worth considering.

Monke points out research, much of it done by Larry Cuban at Stanford, shows there is no evidence that the use of computers has made any advances in education. “The link between test-score improvements and computer availability and use is even more contested,” Cuban wrote. Moreover, says Monke, research on 174,000 students in 31 countries by the University of Munich indicates that students who use computers often perform worse academically than those who use them rarely, if at all.

Once it was clear that the devices were not going to be the salvation of education, supporters (like me) began to describe them as just another tool. How good they were depended on how you used them. Monke goes after that argument in an interesting way. He says, okay, it’s a tool. But now think of all the things students are not doing when they are at the computer. Think of all the things schools have to sacrifice to build good computer labs. Think of how it change the learning process, not to mention what it does for pedagogy.

Among the things students in computer labs aren’t doing is going on recess, he says. Recess has been dropped or curtailed in 40 percent of elementary and middle schools, according to the government. Virtual flowers may teach the mechanics of how flowers turn energy into blossoms but you have to touch a flower to see how fragile it is. Computers may be able to teach some aspects of socialization, he writes, but nothing replaces actual socialization—kids playing or even fighting with kids. Perhaps worse, kids have become what he calls Big Event Junkies. Just sitting in a class, listening to a teacher—even a really good one—can’t hold a candle to a well-designed, exciting game-like program. The kids can’t tear themselves away from the screens. They demand instant gratification.

“Children are typically disappointed when they first approach a pond or a stream: the fish aren’t jumping, the frogs aren’t croaking, the deer aren’t drinking, the otters aren’t plying and the raccoons (not to mention the bears) aren’t fishing. Their electronic experiences have led them to expect to see these things happening—all at once and with no effort on their parts,” he writes.

They can virtually climb Everest or scour the bottom of the sea but that is not the same thing as actually climbing Everest or scouring the bottom of the sea, he writes.

You got the point. There are some flaws in all of that. For instance, if schools are cutting recess it is less because of computers than it is because of test requirements. It is the government-mandated tests that drive schools now. And it still is how you use computers that matters. If teachers can’t figure out ways of incorporating the computers into how they teach better than they often do now, don’t blame the computers. Since kids can’t really go mountain climbing or SCUBA to depths, why not take them on virtual trips?

Which brings us to the Waldorfian down the street. Monke, if he doesn’t know it already, might be very happy at a Waldorf School. Waldorf schools are based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian theosophist.
Waldorf schools reflect Steiner's education theories, which hold that children advance through three stages....during the first stage, birth to age 7, the spirit inhabiting the body of the child is still adjusting to its surroundings, hence lower grades in Waldorf school offer minimal academic content. Reading is not introduced until second or third grade. During the second stage, ages seven to 14, children are said to be driven primarily by imagination and fantasy, so students are introduced to mythology. After age 14, the third stage, an astral body is believed to be drawn into the physical body, creating the onset of puberty.
According to Steiner, people existed on Earth since the creation of the planet. Humans, he taught, began as spirit forms and progressed through various stages to reach today's form. Humanity, Steiner said, is currently living in the Post-Atlantis Period, which began with the gradual sinking of Atlantis in 7227 BC ... The Post-Atlantis Period is divided into seven epochs, the current one being the European-American Epoch, which will last until the year 3573. After that, humans will regain the clairvoyant powers they allegedly possessed prior to the time of the ancient Greeks (Boston).


The schools follow many of his philosophies. They don’t teach reading until the child has lost much of his baby teeth (don’t ask) and instead of teaching science, they teach Eurythmy, a dance and motion exercise. They reject other Steiner positions. He was a nasty anti-Semite but the schools most certainly do not foster anti-Semitism. They are accused of fostering paganism instead.

What is pertinent to this discussion, is that the schools reject television and computers. In the local Waldorf school in Baltimore, the only computer in the building is the one the secretary uses. Parents are urged to run their homes likewise. So, Waldorf kids are supposed to watch less television and spend less time in front of a computer screen. In some homes, that probably even happens.

But then the real world sets in. Kids leaving Waldorf schools for even Baltimore public schools, have to go to summer school to get some of what they missed while they were doing motion exercises. A guidance counsellor at a Massachusetts community college near one Waldorf school, described the kids as “wonderful kids, lacking in some basic skills.“ Indeed. When Waldorf kids graduate from the 8th grade and go to other schools for high school, if they have obeyed the rules, they are mostly clueless about how to use a computer, how to research projects, how to find things on the web. If they picked some of these skills outside of school, they still are thrown in with classmates who have been banging away at these machines since the pre-school. My daughter, 12, who goes to a private school with multiple computer labs (brand-new networked Dells), is at least as good researching on the web as I am and is bilingual (Mac and Windows) to boot. Who has the advantage in education?

Forget educational software. The World Wide Web is the single greatest achievement in human thought and practice since the invention of the printing press. Waldorf kids, or kids from schools who take Monke too seriously, will be seriously challenged to catch up, and catch up they must if they want to get into good colleges. You see, these machines may not be the salvation of education, but they are remarkable devices that open the world to children in ways unimaginable 20 years ago.

Which brings us to the kid up the street. She is a sweet child, in the 6th grade at a Waldorf School. She reads voraciously now, as if to make up for the years they wouldn't teach her reading. She is my daughter’s closest friend and spends so much time in our house I may demand the federal tax rebate. We love her dearly. She loves us back dearly.

But would she love us just as dearly if we didn’t have satellite television and four Macs hooked to a DSL line by Airport base stations? Or a friend who can cruise the web like a pro and is quite happy to take her on her excursions?

The issue is not whether the devices have improved education. The issue is, if they have not, how to make them do so.


Joel Shurkin said...

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Joel Shurkin said...

Won't happen again. I put in word verification.


HSH said...

Hi dad just saying hi! Nice blog!