Planet Jeffro

Product Owner for Grockit (a Kaplan company).
Email me at jeffnovich [] gmail

Companies/Products I created:
Patient Communicator | half patient portal half CRM for doctors (was part of the Blueprint Health accelerator)
Poachbase | find talent at floundering startups
Fare/Share | iOS app for sharing taxis
VocabSushi | learn vocab from news
Cnvrge | meet people via SMS
Supermarket Classroom | teach your child while shopping
Poorsquare.us | foursquare for the 99%
IngeniousOwl.com | online SAT prep
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Waldorf elementary school classroom
Image via Wikipedia

I had some brief responses to today’s front page NYT story about the Waldorf School for elementary students of wealthy tech parents that doesn’t use technology in their schools.  I think there’s a big difference between kids around age 5 using iPads excessively and students in middle or high school using computers in the classroom.  That distinction is barely mentioned here so I’m assuming because of the age of the quoted students that the article is mostly focused on elementary school students in K - 5th grade.

  • I agree that tech in the hands of very young kids have mostly unknown consequences.  This is a school for young kids, not high school.  Young children are first experiencing the world around them and learning how to manipulate it.  Everything is new, everything is tactile, new smells, new sights, new sounds.  When a 2 year old’s view of the world comes through a tiny iPad and the most they can interact with it is through tapping, pecking or swiping, I believe they are deprived of a maximally engaging learning environment.  I suspect no one knows the ramifications of raising a kid on a tablet since it’s so new, but my hunch is a kid who uses this stuff as excessively as an adult (whose mind is fully formed) will likely have some kind of learning problems along the way that could manifest in unforeseen ways.  My other hunch is that kids who spend a lot of time on iPads probably come from ‘rich’ homes with educated parents, and those resources will likely mitigate the ‘harm’ (I use that in quotes because I have no idea).
  • It’s nice that Waldorf eschews the use of technology, but outside of their bubble, teachers get paid nothing and have 100s of students in a classroom.  Technology for moderately developed kids (like 8 or 9 year olds and up) is not only appropriate when it is supervised by a teacher and used for education like math drills, or something like that, but absolutely necessary to tackle the problem of getting 100 students into the next grade level.
  • Waldorf seems to be congratulating themselves based on factors beyond their control.  I’m sure their curriculum is amazing but one of their few boastful metrics is that Waldorf kids overwhelmingly go to college.  ”94 percent of students graduating from Waldorf high schools in the United States between 1994 and 2004 attended college."  That’s a totally irrelevant metric. Rich kids always go to college, regardless of what school they attended. They’re rich, they have resources, they have parents who work at Google, Apple and Ebay… I’m actually more interested in why 6% didn’t attend college.  What happens to them during those school years that is so bad or derailing that even with their surfeit of great schooling, boundless resources and highly educated support throughout their lives they end up not going to college?  I’d expect a 99% rate at such an elite school. (I’m only part joking.)  Amusingly, my alma mater Mamaroneck High School, sends 95% of its seniors to college.  Oh, and it’s a public school.  In a well-to-do Westchester suburb, but still a public school.  (Mr. Kourabas was my guidance counselor.)

At Mamaroneck High School, about 95 percent of its current seniors have applied to college, according to guidance director Nick Kourabas. The remainder will be working, joining the military or pursuing other opportunities. (Larchmont Gazette)

 

  • Even though I’ve been an SAT tutor for 7 years, I am no fan of standardized testing.  I think it pushes kids into the wrong way of thinking (that there is always a right answer, that failure is bad, that progress on a problem is ultimately worthless if you don’t get the correct answer…)  But if you need to do well on these tests, technology is great at drilling students to prep for them.  Oh, these are the same tests that private schools like Waldorf don’t have to take:

Is learning through cake fractions and knitting any better? The Waldorf advocates make it tough to compare, partly because as private schools they administer no standardized tests in elementary grades. And 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.

  • Find me an elementary school with just 196 kids and the same student to teacher ratio as Waldorf.  If regular schools did that - computers, no computers, white boards, smart boards, no boards, working outside, inside, desks, tables, cubicles - very little in the ‘methodology’ would matter except the teachers themselves.  These teachers sound like they are top educators, are paid well, recruited heavily, and absolutely love their job and their students.  They would (should) therefore be able to teach *any* group of students at *any* school.  Even ones that don’t come with a $18,000 price tag.  I’m sure the results would follow the teachers and teacher/student ratios to any school with any methodology and any technology integration in classrooms.

I tend to agree with the Waldorf methods so I certainly am not trying to rail against them or the school since I’d be happy to send my kids (when the time comes) to a school like that. But I think this “debate” is largely generated by the author of this article who thought it would be front page material to pit non-tech against tech in education.  Well, it certainly is a front page story, but the controversy is manufactured.

Turns out, this is a false choice and I doubt there is that much controversy when it comes to the nitty gritty of when it is appropriate to use technology.  Is it dumb to pin hopes on technology in the classroom and spend millions and expect scores to skyrocket? Yes, just as it is in the medical industry (which I know quite well) where big investments in EMRs yield minimal efficiency gains.  It boils down to how the technology is used and, duh, technology in and of itself does not necessarily do wonders.

So, like most things, it’s not a clear cut issue and there are many shades.  Some kids benefit greatly from technology at an early age. Others need to use pencil and paper. Some parents have the means to teach their kids about technology when the time is right. Some schools (most) are so incredibly underfunded and stripped of resources that technology can be a savior in the classroom, especially if it helps a group of restless 7th graders focus on grammar and math.  Personally, I’d *like* to raise my kids with books, physical activity and lots of hands-on weekend projects. I built a wooden box with my dad one weekend and used to build model rockets, built a skateboard, took apart remote controlled cars, and tinkered with electric circuits when I was 5 or 6.  But damn if I got to build a Ruby on Rails web app at school (something I still can’t do because I haven’t learned Ruby yet)!  Or if, in 1996, I got to learn HTML not out of the classroom with my nerdy friend Jon (who now works at Foursquare), but during school hours when I was falling asleep. That would have kept me motivated and awake as it did countless nights tinkering with my first website welcome.html file!

UPDATE: I just read this other NYT oped - Will Dropouts Save America? - 1000 times yes!

I’d *like* to keep technology to a minimum and introduce it as my children mature and need it (just like in a tech startup - use technology to support your idea only after the idea is vetted and tested in non-technical ways). But even David Pogue talks about how the iPad is an amazing tool for his young children, and my friend Zak’s brother has been using an iPhone/iPod/iPad with his son since he was born.  I am not a huge fan of that but I need to reserve judgement since the mind is a wonderfully adaptive organ and who knows what direction a kid raised on apps can take.

I think the potential of these devices is limitless and a place like Waldorf shrugs off the need for the average person (those without parents who work at Google and Apple) to become adept at computing. I’m still amazed that quite a few students at the schools that are using VocabSushi, my company that helps you learn vocab through reading news articles, lack internet and a computer at home.  These students, even at schools progressive enough to use a differentiated vocabulary tool for English class, have students who simply have no choice but to use the site during school hours in the computer lab.  Tech is not quite as ubiquitous as Silicon Valley thinks, but it’s getting there.

I’ve been a tutor for 7 years and have worked with hundreds of students from elite high schools.  I used to push them to get excited about physics and math - “you’ll need this stuff in the ‘real world’, it’s all over the place. Trust me.”  I believed it.  Now I push them towards programming computers and thinking of solutions to bigger problems and using their skills in physics (logic based problem solving) to pick up a programming language.  Arithmetic is a 1950s skill.  Setting up solutions to problems, math, physics or otherwise, tends to only take up about 10% of a student’s time.  It’s the really boring, really mundane rote algebra or calculus or equation plug and chugging that makes students hate the work, get bored, check out, or hit roadblocks.  That’s why I get called in.  No one really questions whether this work is relevant in today’s highly technical society where, yes, calculus will never be used!  But step-by-step problem solving will be if you want to get into programming.  Sadly, you don’t find programming in many schools, and even then they are focused on things like the AP Computer Science exam which doesn’t really help kids build cool web applications in a weekend hackathon.

Chalk this one up to the media turning a highly nuanced issue into a this versus that controversy and oversimplifying it all with extreme quotes and all.  Those kids at the end of the piece - really? the girl doesn’t have any interest in video games unless prompted by her father? The boy only plays a flight simulator on the weekends?  Kids from the 1950s seemed to watch more movies than these 5th graders who “occasionally” watch movies.  Seriously? Occasionally?? I think video games are a giant waste of my time but every kid I know loves them.  That kid who was annoyed that everyone else was ignoring him to play with their smartphones or iPads… yeah, that’s because he didn’t have one.  ;-)

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