Digital Parents and Low-Tech Schools

Should I feel bad that I let my son watch age-appropriate education programs on TV and learn things like a second language?… Shame on me for letting my child play chess and math games on my iPad?…Is it really outrageous that I let my son sit on my lap in front of my computer so I could help him type his first love letter while in preschool?… When used appropriately with guidance, there’s nothing wrong with technology for kids.” Beth Lambert, New York City October 26, 2011

What triggered this parent’s letter to the editor  of the New York Times was an article in the paper the previous week on a low-tech Waldorf school in Los Altos (CA) that bans high-tech devices for instruction until the 8th grade. In that article, one parent who worked for a high-tech company brags that his daughter in the fifth grade “doesn’t know how to use Google.”

What gives the article bite is that three quarters of the parents who send their children to this private school (annual tuition: $17,750 for K-8) work at Google, Intel, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard. In a Waldorf school’s brightly painted rooms, children use crayons, paper and pencil, knitting needles; they draw, dance, and garden; they learn myths of ancient civilizations. The Waldorf philosophy of the school–inspired by the early 20th century German educator Rudolph Steiner–focuses on children’s intellectual, spiritual, and creative beings by mixing stories, hands-on activities, and imaginative exercises filtered through a Waldorf-trained teacher. Teaching and learning is intentionally low-tech for children of parents with high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley.

The seeming inconsistency between parents’ jobs and what they want for their preschoolers and primary grade children is what gives the article its oomph. Yet, two unexamined assumptions are embedded in the article.

First, there is the assumption that a person’s job determines how one raises children. That is, parents with high-tech jobs would want their children to use high-tech devices from infancy on because, well,  that is what Mom and Dad do for a living and what you do for a living determines how you raise your kids. Stated baldly as I have, of course, it is silly. A parent who is a carpenter would not want his kindergartner’s school to teach only woodworking and begin with a band-saw.

The second assumption is that any new technology is, in a word, good. Deeply embedded in the U.S. and most developed nations is the belief that new technologies mean economic and social progress including higher standards of living, more leisure time, and a better life. But, of course, anyone over the age of 18 has learned that technologies are not neutral; they can, indeed, improve individual and community life and, at the same time, be used to demean and destroy both. The values built within, for example, new communication and information technologies prize speed, action, and entertainment over carefulness, reflection, and mindfulness.

Those upper-middle class parents who send their children to Waldorf schools are well aware of the benefits and costs of using new technologies and do not necessarily assume that 24/7 new technologies are superior learning tools for infants, toddlers, and young children. They seek other values in their children’s schooling–thoroughly competent, caring teachers who cultivate creativity, intellectual and spiritual growth–that new devices, in of themselves, cannot supply.

Those two assumptions gave the New York Times article sufficient bite to be placed on page one but the article does little to answer the question: what level of technology use is best for children in school?  It would help, of course, if parents had a Consumers Guide to use of technology for young children but none, to my knowledge, exist. Nor can researchers say with confidence which devices for which age children are best. Sure, there is the American Academy of Pediatrics position statement that urges parents not to expose their infants and toddlers (up to age 2) to television and other media.

By now, however, many readers have figured out the answer to that question: parents decide. Either by inaction–being swept along by cultural values that prize technological progress (“Mommie, Maria has a TV in her bedroom and I want one too)–or thinking through what they want their children to learn and how children should go about learning, as these digital-wise parents did with their children in a Waldorf elementary school. There is a third approach, of course, which I guess most parents follow. Decide on a case-by-case basis as each new technology comes rolling off the assembly line and is marketed for school and home. The next post takes up that third way of deciding.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Digital Parents and Low-Tech Schools

  1. Seymour Papert made an attempt to create a guide for parents on what would be appropriate use of technology by schools and parents. See http://www.amazon.ca/Connected-Family-Bridging-Digital-Generation/dp/1563523353

  2. Pingback: Digital Parents and Low-Tech Schools | For Parents: On Learning and Education | Scoop.it

  3. Bob Calder

    I don’t think it’s fair to deal with pathologies in a way that presents them as somehow normal. Waldorf schools have a foundation of woo that is unrivaled by any ed philosophy. People in tech occupations are far more able to introduce children to it than educators who are demonstrably five to ten years behind mommy. The article was bad on so many levels.

  4. “But, of course, anyone over the age of 18 has learned that technologies are not neutral; they can, indeed, improve individual and community life and, at the same time, be used to demean and destroy both.”

    I can sympathize with that statement. In particular, I appreciate technology such as a docucam (paired with a projector). It has a lot of versatility insofar as it can display whatever can be placed under the camera. On the other hand, I have also seen technology wrongly used before. I remember one of the science teachers I would observe for my student teaching would just instruct all the students to go to a website and they would watch flash science videos throughout the entire class. That is almost equivalent to just having them sit in front of a TV.

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