Inside A Tech-Free School Where Tech Executives Send Their Kids

Inside A Tech-Free School Where Tech Executives Send Their Kids

November 25, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


In most public and private
schools across the nation, Chromebooks, iPads or Windows
devices are everywhere. But things look very different
at the private Sacramento Waldorf School in California
where technology isn’t used at all through eighth grade and
is scarce even in high school. Instead of just turning to my
phone to answer a question to ask a teacher for help
or to ask a friend. I just never really knew what
it was like to play video games as opposed to running
around and having fun outside. We don’t have many screens here
but I can still use a screen really well. You don’t have to be on
the screen all the time to know how to use it well. So I would whip
stitch this on. I find that even in my
own experience, in my own life that when I’m using a device
it divides me from those who are around me. So I find that the community
experience of being in a classroom without those devices
that comes only from one-on-one human
interaction. And the screen tends
to divide that. Good morning. Morning. Celebrating its 100th
anniversary this year, the Waldorf teaching philosophy is used
at more than 1,000 institutions in 91 countries,
including 136 schools here in the U.S. The screen policy differs at
each Waldorf School but it’s known for its
holistic instructional style which promotes artistic expression,
experiential learning and yes, limited technology use. For students at the
Sacramento Waldorf School, screen time is highly discouraged
at home too. The lower-school parent handbook
recommends no media at home through fifth grade
and limited access accompanied by clearly defined family
policies and monitoring for older children, stating none
is the optimal condition for young children and less is
better than more in high school. Computer use at
Sacramento Waldorf School is restricted to just six desktops in
one small lab and 20 MacBook Air laptops used in
just a few classes. Mobile devices can be brought
by high schoolers who all sign a pledge to limit
use to outside the classroom only. Tech in schools is
big business, expected to hit $43 billion this year with
46 percent of that growth happening in K through 12. So Apple, Google and Microsoft
may not be thrilled to know the Waldorf approach represents
a growing trend in Silicon Valley where low-tech
education is becoming increasingly popular among parents
who are apprehensive of the devices they
themselves helped to invent. The private Waldorf School of
the Peninsula, which has campuses in Los Altos in
Mountain View, is highly sought after. Three quarters of
the student’s parents there have a strong
high-tech connection. In fact, many big names in
tech like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gained notoriety for
the strict bounds they placed on device usage
in their homes. Gates reportedly didn’t let his
kids get phones until age 14 and Jobs didn’t
let his kids use iPads. The tuition at Waldorf Schools
varies by grade and location. High school tuition at
the Waldorf School of the Peninsula is
more than $35,000. And elementary school starts
just under $26,000. In Sacramento, high school
is over $19,000 and elementary starts just
under $13,000. There is an interesting thing
that’s happening and that it’s become a real sign of
kind of status and privilege to be tech free. Children from low income families
spend about three more hours on average on
screens per day. So we’re seeing that kind
of differentiation where it’s not about the access to the
device but it’s really about making sure that children from
all kinds of households have access to positive
opportunities and experiences in online spaces. For families that can afford
to send their kids to Waldorf Schools, it’s likely that
they do have the resources to craft a
responsible media environment for their kids at home. If you’re lucky enough to be
born into a family with that kind of privilege and resources
you’re gonna have a lot of different
learning opportunities. So I don’t think that we
can condemn one type of teaching practice
over another. It’s really about the mix
of learning experiences that we create for our kids
and we know within privileged families those learning experiences
are deep and vast and constantly coming in. By the time they’re seniors
I don’t think there’s anything different from other
kids necessarily other than they’ve maybe had a
little more of a balance. At the Sacramento Waldorf School
students in the lower grades aren’t taught any
computational skills at all. Instead they learn through
tactile immersion handwork is a subject that is only
in really Waldorf Schools. So all of our children learn
how to sew and knit and crochet and when they come
through my class they know how to fix a button. They know how to fix
a tear in their clothing. Right now, after I leave you
I’ll be taking them out on our hike day and so the
children have been able to watch how the landscape changes
and what animals are there during different seasons and
what plants are there and you can’t get that
same experience from watching that on the screen. Students here also learn how to
grow their own food care for animals on the school’s
farm, paint and garden. We have a full working farm
on campus and from second to 10th grade they come out twice
a week and have gardening class with myself. But some of our favorite
friends are Atticus the llama and Paddy the cow and we
have a whole bunch of chickens and a few ducks and
a small flock of sheep. Students are used to working
with their hands inside the classroom as well. Most of their
assignments are handwritten. This type of hands-on practical
education appeals to a lot of parents broadly
concerned about the growing influence of tech
in everyday life. They’re raising some of the first
kids to grow up with access to smartphones tablets
and social media. And many educators and academics
alike have begun to raise the alarm. One of the things that the
research makes clear is that there is a huge impact of
cell phones and social media platforms like Instagram and
Snapchat and other platforms on kids brains and
on their social and emotional development. There’s also links to
addictive compulsive behavior to attention distraction issues and
many other concerns. Teen depression anxiety and suicide
are also on the rise at the generational level studies
show that kids today spend less time hanging out
with their friends than they used to. Some recent studies have
linked these concerning statistics with smartphone use so
it’s no wonder parents and even kids
themselves are worried. Well I have a few friends of
mine who went to law school and then I know they
go to public school. I know they spend their entire
day pretty much on a screen. I hang out with them
and they’ll just be like this all the time. We go to social meetings
whatever and everyone is just beep beep beep. They wouldn’t talk. How are you. Oh good. They wouldn’t have
a complete conversation. Portillo says his classmates
at Waldorf aren’t like that. Even though high schoolers
like him are allowed to use their phones
during breaks. After being raised with Waldorf’s
policies many of his peers are also on board
with the low-tech approach. When you don’t have a phone you
kind of are forced to be social with people you’re forced to
go out and have new conversations with people
and meeting people. And that’s a really valuable skill
to know how to do in an environment where computers are
with you all the time when your phone is
there in every class. You tend to turn to your
phone or your device instead of to a teacher or a friend. And so you don’t build
those skills, those social skills you also don’t learn to ask
for help when you need it. While few would dispute the
benefits of real world interactions and experiential
education, Odgers does take issue with the popular
narrative that an uptick in tech usage is making kids
more anxious and less social. We’re seeing a lot of
panic among parents and teachers and that panic is coming
from a very good place. We all want the best for
our kids but the evidence is very consistent at this point
we’re not seeing these large effects or large
associations between screen time and digital engagement and
decreases in well-being or lower well-being. It’s simply not there in
the way that common perceptions in the media are common
beliefs that we hear just talking amongst ourselves would
lead us to believe. While rates of smartphone
adoption and teen depression have increased in tandem these
studies can only prove correlation, not causation. That correlation often disappears
if you control for other factors in our lives. Digital device used in excess might
be a signal or a marker of something that might
be going awry off line. Basically she says it’s more
likely that unhappiness is leading to unhealthy device usage
rather than the other way around. So when analyzing Waldorf tech
policies, Odgers says the most important thing to consider
is how devices are being used, not
necessarily how often. For me it’s a question of how
can it how can we use these as tools. They’re great tools so that we’re
not tools of our tools but how can we own them
as opposed to their owning us. And school staff say their
students are not deterred from pursuing careers in
technical fields. Out of each graduating class
of about 40 students, 35 percent choose science or
math as a major. The last few years, we’ve
definitely seen an uprising and STEM majors so a lot of
students are going into premed or computer science. So given the choice between
a modern classroom full of screens and education apps
or a nature oriented, back-to-the basics experience there may
not be a right answer. The real magic happens when
we can leverage the good parts of technologies with the
great parts of what good teachers and good parents and
good invested adults can do to really allow children
at all stages of development and learning to reach
their optimal potential. That’s not really whether you
shut tech offer you to keep it on. The question is really how
you scaffold learning using technology when it’s appropriate
with the right supports.