According to the Kaiser Foundation, children and youth use four to five times the recommended amount of technology, with serious and often life-threatening consequences. Electronic technology and media have the power to take us outside our bodies and outside time: they mesmerize and often addict us, and by their very nature – think of the word media – they mediate our experience of the physical world.
Because of its stance on technology and electronic media, Waldorf education is consistently garnering attention. Since a primary goal of Waldorf education is to ground students in their bodies, in three-dimensional space and in human interaction, the schools aim to offer students unmediated experiences. But what exactly is Waldorf education and how does it educate students in the use of technology?
Technology is a creative interaction with the world. The Greek word techne means “making,” “craft” or “art.” For the Greeks, there was an art of speaking, an art of doing. Art is the technique of doing things well. Technology, the study of techniques, is integral to Waldorf education. Students are taught to interact in creative and innovative ways with the world they meet.
In order to fully understand how Waldorf schools approach the use of technology, it is important to know that they define “technology” broadly (as a way of interacting with the world), rather than narrowly (as mere devices and software).
The Essence of Waldorf Education
The Waldorf philosophy on technology is based on a developmentally appropriate curriculum, founded on the understanding that every child goes through three distinct phases of development: infancy and early childhood (birth to 7); middle childhood (7 to 14); and adolescence (14 to 21). Each stage requires a different approach. By facilitating self-initiated exploration and learning through play and imitation during early childhood, engaging the imaginative nature of the child in the lower school and delivering a curriculum that answers a different life question each year in the high school, Waldorf schools strive to meet students right where they are in their development. Some Waldorf teachers use the metaphor of a rubber band stretched tightly, slingshot-style. By holding back on introducing material until a student is ready (pulling the rubber band tighter), a teacher enables a student’s imagination to fly further once it is offered.
This rubber band metaphor is especially apt in relation to the way that Waldorf schools introduce technology to students. It is not until middle school that students begin to engage in Internet research and computer science. Even in high school there are no Smartboards or iPads in Waldorf classrooms, out of a belief that these devices can create distraction and dependency, and can take away from a student’s ability to develop the capacities to calculate, analyze, and connect with others.
Waldorf schools prioritize engagement (the human interaction between teachers and students and between peers) in the classroom, and the social skills that come with it: making eye contact; learning to listen; developing flexibility of thought and the ability to see another person’s perspective; and working together in a group to solve problems or understand a difficult concept.
Early Childhood: Doing
As a foundation for healthy development, children must have trust in the world. From birth to age seven, the aim of the Waldorf teacher is to surround students with beauty, truth and goodness. The teacher strives to be a model worthy of imitation, and to share all that is good in the world with the students. He or she also focuses on providing an environment that enables the children to develop healthy bodies and wills, engaging their natural desire to move and explore, to do.
At this stage, a key goal is learning to see how the world works. Technology is understood as learning how to have an impact on how things work: moving a stone from one place to another when it’s too heavy to lift, creating a lever or a pulley from a piece of wood, pouring water so that it goes where one wants it to go. In early childhood, technology means understanding and mastering one’s physical body and its interactions with the world.
Middle Childhood: Feeling
From ages 7 to 14, the child’s feeling is engaged through stories and the direct, unmediated relationship with the class teacher, who loops with the class for several years. Each morning in main lesson, children are told stories related to the block, a period of intensive study on one subject, they are studying; students are taught in blocks from grades 1-12.
In the early years of the Lower School, when connecting students to their studies through their feelings is paramount, there is no electronic technology in the classroom. But the concept of techne lives strongly: teachers are instructing students in the art of doing things well. A hallmark of the Waldorf pedagogy is that all subjects are taught artistically, developing the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain and facilitates communication between the two hemispheres.
This means that, in grade 1, children learn to write by first seeing the letters of the alphabet as images: a king with arms outstretched forms the letter K; a mountain makes the letter M. The students then practice drawing these characters. From there, they learn to string the letters together into words, and then to read.
In grade 3, during their study of house building, they build models of houses that have been constructed throughout time and across the globe. In grade 5 geography, they create detailed maps that help them orient themselves in space. In grade 8, as they study geometry, they sculpt geometric forms in clay to help them see and feel the forms in three dimensions, making an abstract concept tangible.
These physical experiences of drawing letters, building houses, and sculpting complex forms develop different neural pathways than would be developed by looking at letters on an electronic device or researching the history of architecture or geometry on the Internet. Electronic technology and media do not enter students’ lives until about age 11, when computer science and Internet research skills are introduced in middle school. Waldorf schools believe that students are ready to engage with electronic media only after they have spent several years living in the world in three dimensions, and developing mastery over their bodies and their wills.
The strengthening of the intellect and critical thinking are key areas of focus in the adolescent years. Until Waldorf high school students graduate at age 18 or 19, their teachers are engaged in helping them answer a different question each year: In 9th grade, students are questioning the world around them and are interested in the dynamics of change. By 10th grade, the students develop a more harmonious worldview, revealed in questions such as “How do the processes of the world bring contrasts into balance?”
Between 10th and 11th grades, the student embarks on what will be a lifelong quest for knowledge of self and others. As seniors, students explore the nature of existence through such disparate sources as American Transcendentalism, Russian Literature, evolutionary theory and modern history.
As they explore these questions, students employ technology as Waldorf broadly defines it. They use surveying tools to map the topography of an area; they do coppersmithing, woodworking and bookbinding in their applied arts classes; they continue with computer science in their mathematics classes; they might participate in robotics club.
They learn from experience that tools are used to create something that the human hand cannot create alone. As they move through high school, they come to understand that electronic technology and media are tools that used to extend the reach of our hands and the range of our intellect, the speed of our processing and the sphere of our influence. By seeing technology as a tool, they learn to master it and use it appropriately – to develop a relationship to it, as they would with any other tool, while remaining grounded in the physical world.
To support the Waldorf emphasis on engagement with other people as a primary mode of learning, high school classrooms remain mostly free of electronic media. That said, at this stage the school’s media policy becomes more flexible; many, if not most, Waldorf high school students have smartphones and tablets. Students learn to manage the challenging personal and interpersonal dynamics that accompany the use of social media.
As the national debate about technology in the classroom rages, most Waldorf schools continue to encourage parents to offer alternatives to screen time for children under the age of 11. It is a priority for teachers that students remain firmly rooted in the physical world, through direct experience and observation.
Educating for the Future
Does this approach – eschewing technology in favor of engagement with the world and with other people – work? It is often noted that what sets a technological innovator apart is not prowess with a particular device or platform, but the ability to collaborate, solve problems, build human relationships and analyze the relationship of component parts within a complex whole. It is exactly those capacities that the Waldorf approach aims to build.
In his 2005 book, “A Whole New Mind,” analyst and author Daniel Pink posited that our economy is moving from the information age to the conceptual age, in which cognitive or creative assets such as design, storytelling, teamwork, empathy, play and meaning will be paramount. When asked how the Waldorf education fits with the dawning of this new age, he said: “Waldorf schools get the idea that the arts are fundamental, not ornamental. They focus on the unit of the child, not the school as an institution. … Waldorf promotes autonomy and self-direction, whereas most schools actively squelch those qualities in favor of compliance, which seems to be the most important value. The irony is that compliance is much harder to achieve and it is less important in the work world.
“I think Waldorf schools are very much in synch with the notion of (the) Conceptual Age… They foster internal motivation in students, as well as mastery and persistence. They teach the habits of the heart that children need to do well in life after school.”
Indeed, Waldorf graduates tell their alma maters that they graduate and enter the world ready to meet and master the technology that surrounds them, and grateful for the time they had to explore the physical, non-mediated world before encountering the digital one.
Vicki Larson has been supporting the Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene as a consultant since April. She is the director of communications and marketing at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, NY. For more information about Monadnock Waldorf School, click here.
This article appeared in the most recent issue of Parent Express. To view it at source, just click here.