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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.
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)
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.
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. ;-)