Kids and Computing: Eugene Schwartz Continues the Conversation

Student drawing.

A month ago, the New York Times published a story about a Waldorf School in Silicone Valley that, like all Waldorf schools, eschews technology use in the classroom. Titled A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute and written by Matt Richtel, the story has so far prompted more than 250 comments from readers, many of them passionately advocating for, or violently opposing, the use of computers and iPads in K-12 education.

"It touched a nerve," said Eugene Schwartz last night at a talk titled "Continuing the National Conversation: Schooling That Does Not Compute" open to the public and hosted by Westside Waldorf School just off Sunset Boulevard in the Palisades. "A few years ago, the response might have been, 'Those poor kids.'" But now, technology has advanced so much that many people are asking if it's all a bit too much.

Schwartz has been a teacher on and off for more than 30 years, and has acted as a consultant regarding the Waldorf educational philosophy for six years. "I am not a Luddite," he continued, "and I'm not coming to this out of a position of fear." He admitted to owning an iPhone and computer and said, too, that he loves computers and all that they offer. He also said that he loves cars. "But I don't feel that 8-year-olds should drive."

Schwartz contended instead that K-8 education should be devoted to the life of the senses, to understanding the body and its relationship to the wonders of the material world. Our eyes see and experience depth, and our ears are attuned to an incredible range of sounds. Screens and ear buds flatten that experience. He acknowledged that many iPad apps are creative - there are apps for sketching, drawing and painting. "But that doesn't compare with the experience of mixing colors of paint, and seeing firsthand a particular shade of green."

Ironically, the highlight of the talk did incorporate technology. Schwartz led the audience through a dazzling visual presentation of the incredible artwork created by former students, explaining the development of concepts, physical skills and ethical insight that takes place as students work with the real world. "They create their own textbooks," Schwartz explained, showing examples of brightly colored pages exploring letters, words and basic imagery created by students in first grade. He showed stunning geometric shapes drawn by students in third grade to learn various aspects of mathematics. He continued, moving grade by grade to demonstrate a highly integrated curriculum devoted in large part to building a lifelong love of learning. And computers? Students learn the foundational concepts of algorithms - in part through knitting - and how computers actually function - by dismantling them.

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Schwartz, a gentle, soft-spoken man and terrific storyteller, made a compelling argument through this exploration of the curriculum, which seems to differ radically from the standards-based curricula of many schools. Rather than learning subjects discreetly, learning seems to be far more cohesive, experiential and rooted in tactile discovery.

I've witnessed the differences between the two forms first-hand with my daughter and her transition from an LAUSD public school for kindergarten, where the main objective seemed disciplinary, and she frequently brought home indecipherable homework sheets with drills for writing, spelling and logic that made all of us tearful. This year, she is enrolled at Ocean Charter School, a Waldorf-inspired public school in Culver City, where she is immersed in learning through the mind, body and spirit. She still hankers for animated cartoons on the weekends, but that's between bouts of knitting, singing in Japanese, and avidly making things. We can see in her an almost magical opening up to the world; this in turn is gradually proving transformational for our entire family. Will we keep her away from computers and media entirely? No. But we'll bring a greater understanding of developmental stages - or simply a greater consciousness - to media-based interactions.

(Image above: from The Elements of the Waldorf Curriculum.)

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