Waldorf Schools and Technology: Not So Strange Bedfellows

In his new book, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” Adam Alter writes how tech insiders—like Steve Jobs and others—restricted their own children from technology. For example, Evan Williams, a founder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, refused to give his young sons an iPad. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, didn’t allow his five children to use screens in their bedrooms. And Gates told The New York Times that his own kids did not use the iPad.

Waldorf families think like these tech insiders. They have an instinctive understanding that technology is no friend to childhood—a precious time when kids should be playing outdoors and engaging with flesh and blood friends. But at some point, young kids grow into young adults who must learn how to navigate an online world full of peril and possibility, and Waldorf teachers and families know this‑-which is why Cyber Civics has found a rich home in their schools.

In 2011, my own children attended a Waldorf-inspired charter school: Journey School in Southern California. That year our small, close-knit community experienced its first “cyber-incident” and the school’s then-administrator, Shaheer Faltas, knew it was time to do something. The question was: What?

I had just completed Fielding Graduate University’s M.A. in “Media Psychology and Social Change” and had learned what that “What” was…digital literacy. So, I asked Mr. Faltas for permission to teach “digital literacy” to his middle school students, using an hour a week formerly devoted to “Civics,” to teach “Cyber Civics.” These digital literacy lessons, I assured him, could help prevent future problems from arising, and more importantly, empower students to use technology competently and positively (at least that’s what I hoped!).

Our experiment, it turns out, paid off in spades. Digital “issues” no longer demanded his time or attention, as students started using their new digital wisdom to avoid or solve problems themselves. But more importantly, they started developing a healthy and balanced attitude towards technology, understanding that those who do not use it well, tend to get used by it.

When we started seeing success in our own classrooms, other schools (mostly Waldorf) expressed interest in the curriculum, so we have since put the entire program online. Today Cyber Civics is being taught in schools in 25 U.S. states, many of them both public and private Waldorf schools!

The Program

The first year of Cyber Civics, which we start in 6th grade (some schools start as early as 5th,

others wait until 7th or 8th), teaches “Digital Citizenship,” which is “the safe and responsible use of online tools.” This first year is taught entirely without actual technology because, according to experts, the most important media literacy skills are “social and behavioral skills” and those are best learned through engagement with others. So, students engage using critical thinking, ethical discussion and decision making during hands-on projects, problem solving activities, and role-play surrounding digital media topics. It is an important year in which they learn what it means to be a member of a community, about their digital reputations, how a computer works, how to avoid cyberbullying and digital drama, protect their personal information, and more.

Our classes were met with such enthusiasm, not only from students, but grateful parents and teachers too, that we decided to keep them going. So, building upon this foundation, we added a year of “Information Literacy” lessons because students must know how to use digital tools to do research. This means they need to know what keywords are and how to write an effective search query. They need to understand copyright, plagiarism, fair use, public domain, Creative Commons, Wikipedia, and more. Possibly the most important concept students learn in this second year, is that when they search for something online, Google gathers up their personal information and then feeds them information it thinks they want. These “filter bubbles,” they learn, are largely responsible for the divided world we know today.

Finally, Cyber Civics concludes with a third level that brings all these concepts together. Called “Media Literacy for Positive Participation,” it challenges students to use critical thinking skills to analyze media messages. So, they explore stereotypes in media, fake news, “Photoshopped” images, online hoaxes, and more. They use their Information and Media Literacy skills as they prepare for their 8th grade projects, doing research, writing papers, and making presentations. But, most importantly, they are encouraged to participate with media in powerful and productive ways, rather than simply consuming it. Our aim is for students to understand how technology can be harnessed to make the world a better place.

What Students Need Is What the World Needs

“The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility.”

-Rudolf Steiner

These three capacities, identified by Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf school movement, so long ago are needed more than ever today, especially when it comes to technology use. Here’s why:

  • Imagination: Born of imagination and ingenuity, technology will continue to be to be innovated and, hopefully, improved by out-of-the box thinkers set on making a better mousetrap. I have an inkling that kids educated through a rich and imaginative Wadlorf curriculum (see video below)—one that reveres childhood—can make it better.

  • Truth: Current events aptly demonstrate that making, finding and identifying truth online is a skill-set in high demand. But in order to identify truth online, one must understand how online information is made, shared, and consumed. That’s what students learn through Cyber Civics.

  • Responsibility: This is the overarching theme of the entire arc of the Cyber Civics program. From the very beginning, students learn that their online actions have huge impact, making them responsible not only to themselves, but to their friends and families, and the world at large. They’re responsible for maintaining positive online reputations and for the impact they make upon the reputations of others (through “tagging,” etc.). Online responsibility includes reading and adhering to the terms of agreement and privacy policies of the online sites they use (including those that state they must be 13!). They are responsible for the information they share and like, and most importantly, for the information they create.

Not Strange Bedfellows After All

So, when asked if I think Waldorf students (who spend so little time using technology when young) will be adequately prepared for a world in which most kids spend more time online than with their families or in school, I respond with an enthusiastic “yes!” After all, they get daily practice in the social and behavioral skills the online world needs most—things like empathy, ethical thinking, perspective taking, judgment, and more. Plus, when we teach them how to deploy these skills online, through Cyber Civics, I believe we also empower them to become the digital leaders our world so desperately needs today.

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