The Drawbacks of a Technophobic Education

The Times reports from a Waldorf model private school in Silicon Valley, where the elementary school offspring of Google and Apple engineers are prevented from using cell phones, computers, and iPads, and instead encouraged to knit, bake, and write by hand.

I'm generally skeptical of technophilic education reform, since I believe curriculum and quality teaching are far more important than whizz-bang gadgetry. But I don't think technophobic classrooms would work nearly as well for a less priveleged student population. Consider this statement from Alan Eagle, a Waldorf parent and Google executive who brags that his fifth-grade daughter doesn't know how to perform a Google search.

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

While it's true that Googling a phrase, address, or phone number is simple, it isn't always easy or intuitive to interpret the results of a more complex search for information, whether you're looking for a good doctor, checking if your apartment is rent controlled, or researching a politician's record and platform. The Internet is filled with misinformation, as is talk radio, cable news, and just about every other media source with which Americans come into daily contact. 

We know from the work of sociologist Annette Lareau that college-educated parents are typically very good at introducing their children to the practices of asking questions, challenging authorities, and expressing doubt. Many working-class parents, on the other hand, emphasize deference to authority, and while that skill can be helpful in certain situations, it may not inculcate skepticism toward media sources–especially when you consider that working class and poor children are also less likely to be regularly exposed at home to newspapers, magazines, books, computers, high-speed Internet, and smartphones.

Media and information literacy are incredibly important, both for our civic health–we need informed voters–and for people's day-to-day ability to use technology to find the info they want and need. That's why I was impressed with a 10th grade social studies lesson I observed last spring in Providence, R.I. Jennifer Geller taught her students to fact-check their textbook using Google, but also explained to them how to sift the wheat from the chaff online, by understanding how Google and Wikipedia are programmed. 

We also know that women and minorities are grossly underepresented in computing jobs, and that early exposure to computers and video games is correlated with developing a professional interest in high-tech fields.

I'm all in favor of strictly limiting children's "screen time," both in and out of school. But given the frantic media culture our kids are exposed to from birth, it seems that young readers certainly should be learning the practices of smart, skeptical Internet use. I think the key is a balanced approach: an education that is neither technophobic nor technophilic. 

4 thoughts on “The Drawbacks of a Technophobic Education

  1. EB

    Children do need to learn to use actual information sources (as opposed to tech gadgets) in school, but they aren’t developmentally ready to do a google search in the way that you’re describing it, until late elementary school. I see no reason not to delay technology in the way that this Waldorf school does (altho there are other reasons to be skeptical about Waldorf . . . ). In general, our children get too much technology and not enough primary, hands-on experience in school and elsewhere. In fact, broad contact with the physical and interpersonal (in-person) world are just as important for children to develop the ability to judge whether information is accurate or not as the ability to filter electronic information is.

  2. Dana Goldstein

    EB, I agree with you — I think fourth or fifth grade is probably the right time to begin this kind of work. And I also like the hands-on craft and construction activities this school prioritizes. That kind of “tinkering” play is also associated with increasing kids’ interest in STEM fields.

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  3. Harold NYC, NY

    The late Jacques Barzun used to say that Americans were afflicted with “post-posterisum” — that is, they want to do last things first in education without going through the necessary steps to get there.

    I saw this when my child’s class in public school class was assigned a “research paper” in second grade. Neither they nor the teacher had the vaguest notion of what a research paper is. Second graders are barely able to read. They need to do things that are developmentally appropriate to their level.

    Believe me, when Waldorf students tackle computers, they will learn about it in depth.

  4. Susaw

    I’m hard-pressed to understand the emphasis on either/or. As groovy as Waldorf schools, kids, parents tend to be, they are often the outliers when it comes to schooling. Sure, kids might be well-served up to a certain age by learning to use crayons and paints as opposed to screens to create artwork and all that goes with it, to get messy, to learn to clean up after themselves etc. but I’m taking Dana’s side here. What about kids who can’t hold a crayon? All things in moderation and in the end, it’s up to the adults in students’ lives to direct them how to use the tools wisely.


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