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As many schools look to outfit every student with a laptop or tablet, these two Minnesota schools choose to go without

City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The City of Lakes Waldorf School located in Minneapolis.

Grant Olson, a local software architect for CenturyLink, has made a living off being tech savvy. He’s been in the industry for 19 years. But when it came time to enroll the eldest of his three kids in school, he decided to enroll him in the Minnesota Waldorf School in St. Paul — a tech-free preK-8 private school.

Olson was initially drawn to the experiential nature of the school model, which was grounded more in building relationships and fostering creativity than administering grades and standardized tests, he says. As far as the school’s technology guidelines went — no screen time during the week and a willingness to work toward limited to zero screen time on the weekend — he wasn’t completely sold at first. But he found a compromise that could work for his family and stuck with it: one hour of media per day.

“We’ve kept that pretty faithfully over the many years,” he said, noting his youngest is now heading into seventh grade and prides herself on staying device-free even though “nearly everybody in her class has some sort of vehicle — an iPad or iPod touch or smartphone — to do some sort of textural conversation.”

His eldest son, now a senior at an area public high school, spends time on his cellphone like any other teenager, he adds. But he says that doesn’t detract from the value of those early years, when is son learned how to play, socialize and study without computers and tablets.

Reminiscing, Olson says his eldest boy read the entire Harry Potter series out loud to his younger siblings, from a book. “That’s the kind of thing I think I wouldn’t have been able to witness my children doing if they had a bigger media diet,” he said.

While books and libraries won’t be disappearing from schools anytime soon, these staples are increasingly supplemented by digital content. As more and more schools move toward a one-to-one device policy — outfitting each student with their own laptop, tablet or iPad for use at schools and at home — parents and educators are still trying to figure out how to set healthy parameters for how much time children spend in front of a screen. Here’s a look at how and why two Twin Cities-based Waldorf schools are resisting that trend, along with insight from technology proponents who say things are moving in the right direction.

1:1 device programs

According to a 2016 report published by the state Department of Education, about 55 percent of Minnesota schools had already implemented some level of a one-to-one device program, assigning a laptop, iPad or tablet to students for use at home and school. Another 30 programs were projected to start over the next year, and existing programs were expected to expand.

Today, it’s hard to say just how many more schools have joined the movement. That’s because the state no longer tracks this information. The estimates above are from a one-time, state-mandated survey of one-to-one device programs in Minnesota that was included in a report issuing guidance on best practices for implementing these programs as the trend began to pick up momentum.

In the age of wireless technology, the Hopkins and Stillwater public school districts were the first to implement one-to-one laptop programs. When the iPad came to market in 2010 (and the Google Chromebook a few years later), making this sort of initiative more affordable, a handful of other districts came on board. From there, the trend has really exploded in the past five years or so, with schools using a mix of funding sources ranging from local levies and referendums to grants and fundraising.

Waldorf School
Courtesy of Waldorf Schools
Waldorf's guidelines include no screen time during the week and a willingness to work toward limited to zero screen time on the weekend.

Nationally, educators are observing a similar trend. According to a 2016 report published by the Consortium for School Networking, a national professional organization for school technology leaders, the number of students with access to non-shared devices is continuing to grow.

Based on survey responses from 567 tech leaders from a mix of schools across the nation, 38 percent of respondents said that all of their high schoolers have access to a non-shared device, either provided by the school or through a Bring Your Own Device program. Thirty-six percent of respondents said all of their middle schoolers have a non-shared device. And 18 percent of respondents said the initiative is full blown at the elementary-school level.

These numbers show a significant increase from 2015, when just a quarter of respondents reported that all of their students had access to non-shared devices in high school and middle school. Keith Kruger, CEO of the group that puts out this report, anticipates the conversation will continue to be not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘how’ other schools join the trend.

“I think, increasingly, you’re going to see school districts putting out standards and saying, ‘If you have a device that meets that, bring it and we’ll supplement for anybody who doesn’t have one,’” he said.

The Waldorf model

In addition to keeping technology out of the classroom and asking parents to cut back on or reduce screen time at home, both the Minnesota Waldorf School and its sister school — the City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis — follow some key tenets like having teachers follow student cohorts all the way through eighth grade, spending lots of time learning and exercising outdoors, and integrating art throughout the curriculum.

To an outsider, the tech-free element is the part that may seem a bit extreme. Paradoxically, however, it’s the very thing that attracts many parents who work in the tech industry, or who work closely with technology in their job, to these unconventional schools.

With two daughters enrolled at the St. Paul-based Waldorf school, Ben Richards and his wife still have multiple laptops and “super crazy fast internet” at home because they both work in the tech field. But they haven’t had a TV for the past 10 years. And apart from the occasional YouTube video, they’re aiming for zero screen time exposure for their girls, at least until it’s “developmentally appropriate for children,” Richards said.

Asked if any of his family members raised concerns when he enrolled his girls in a Waldorf school, he said it took his father, a retired engineer, a while to see how delaying exposure could actually put them at an advantage later in life.

“Technology is changing so rapidly that what kids are learning today is not what they’re learning tomorrow,” Richards said. “Also, creativity and problem-solving and understanding how to look for solutions is a bigger part of what technology facilitates.”

For Aneela Kumar and her husband, who developed and manage a startup called HabitAware — a smart bracelet that helps people overcome behaviors like hair pulling and nail biting — the decision to enroll their preschooler in the City of Lakes Waldorf School came about after noticing how screen time was negatively impacting him. When he was on his iPad, he was like a zombie, Kumar said. And when they’d take it away, he’d throw a fit.

“My hope is that by studying at a school that sort of offers a little bit of a different viewpoint on how to learn, as well as seeing us at home, that they kind of balance each other out so he embraces technology in a way that helps him learn and grow as a person, but he doesn’t becomes addicted … as we have become,” she said.

Waldorf School
Courtesy of Waldorf Schools
Waldorf School students weaving on a loom.

It’s a situation that Vaara Ostrin, a Waldorf parent and enrollment and outreach coordinator at Minnesota Waldorf School, can relate to well. When her son entered fifth grade, he got sucked into the Minecraft craze, she said. Not wanting to create a “forbidden fruit,” she said he could play it outside of school. But she soon pegged it as a failed experiment and took it away, as it had quickly grown into an insatiable hobby that triggered tantrums.

To her disappointment, months later at a parent-teacher conference, she found out her son was still hanging out with the exclusive group of Minecraft players during recess, sitting in a corner and only talking about the game, rather than joining the non-players in activities like building marble runs, reading and running around.

It served as a reminder of just how all-consuming, socially disruptive and stifling video games and screen time can be for children. That’s exactly the sort of thing the two Minnesota-based Waldorf schools make a concerted effort to resist — not by banning technology completely, but by keeping it at bay a bit longer.

This grants kids the space to develop important life skills like intrinsic motivation and self-regulation, says Caroline Askew, director of admissions at the City of Lakes Waldorf School.

“Children seem to have less ability to cope with being bored, or their parents are more anxious about their kids being bored,” she said, adding the surge in screen time is exacerbating the situation by offering kids a sense of instant gratification. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s a good idea for kids to think that life is about what they want to do at every moment.”

By the time students enter eighth grade, Ostrin says, they’re mature enough to start exploring technology in the classroom. “We want to put technology in their hands when they’re old enough to be the user and not the used,” she said.

But even this conversation has shifted in recent years, she says. When she started working at the school nine years ago, the big topic of conversation among eighth-grade parents was whether to let their kids open a Facebook account. Now the conversation is not how to keep students off Facebook entirely, but rather how to keep them from checking Facebook at lunch when they sneak in their smartphones.

Finding a healthy balance

Advocates of equipping students with laptops, iPads and tablets point out how these devices can help personalize learning, whether it’s allowing students to move through content at their own speed or allowing them to access the content in a format that’s more aligned to their learning style. Tech skills have also become an essential part of the conversation around making sure students graduate college- and career-ready.  

The challenge with allowing youth to study and play on screen devices, of course, is how to strike a healthy balance. Krueger says this is where everyone needs to strive to be more mindful about how they use technology.  

“We don’t want to throw out the good possibilities we have for more personalized learning and to use data and to bring the world into the classroom. But, likewise, it doesn't have to be there all the time,” he said, noting that while some kids may be glued to a device at home, “we’re nowhere near a ubiquitous environment” at school.

He considers the Waldorf model a bit extreme, but he does agree that it’s important for parents and teachers to set aside device-free time for kids. And when they are using devices, adults need to be engaging in conversations about things like internet safety and when it’s more appropriate to communicate with someone face-to-face, rather than by text or email.

As schools make the transition to a one-to-one program, most are engaging in these sorts of conversations by issuing guidelines and holding parent information nights, says Mary Mehsikomer, the technology integration development and outreach facilitator at Technology and Information Educational Services (TIES), a tech collaborative based in St. Paul.

In her experience, supporting professional development for educators, it takes about three years for a school to fully implement a one-to-one program. The first year, it’s just a matter of getting a device into everyone’s hands and getting used to it. The second year people start to get more creative with it. And by the third year, it should be “part of the fabric of what’s going on in the classroom.” Success, though, hinges on a simple question that Mehsikomer encourages all those to consider when they come to her looking for advice before they make the leap.

“I always think districts should be considering, first of all, not 'what is the device going to be?' It’s what’s the instructional purpose of putting devices in the hands of students,” she said. “If they’ve planned well for that, then they’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

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Comments (2)

Good piece

In a technological and scientific context, I've argued for quite a number of years that the most important questions do not revolve around the math or science involved. Those are important questions, to be sure, but the more crucial issues revolve around the purpose and use of that math and science. Yes, building a robot is a challenge, but before you start, why are you building it? What function or purpose will it serve? Is that a function or purpose that serves individuals or society well?

Technology can be egalitarian, but it's not automatically so, and its use and application is sometimes hit-or-miss in unanticipated ways. When my high school (this was 20 years ago) converted a little-used classroom to a computer lab, those who devised it didn't foresee how kids would use it (gaming was low on their priority list, but high on the kids' priority list), and more importantly, the school made no provision whatsoever (i.e., no budget, no encouragement, no in-service training) for faculty who were not yet part of the personal computer revolution, so teachers who were totally computer-illiterate were bringing their classes to a computer lab where virtually everything that happened in front of them was a mystery (to the teachers).

I found that, in the classroom, some uses of technology (the DVD, for example) promoted a kind of slack-jawed zombie state that was the antithesis of an engaged student. Some of my teaching colleagues became addicted to the overhead projector, with their students coming to expect presentations via that device that would explain things for them rather than encourage them to figure issues out for themselves. Early in my career, I was eager to adopt new technology, largely because it was novel. In my last few years of teaching Western Civilization, I rarely used technology in the classroom that was more sophisticated than the blackboard and chalk.

I don't know how I'd have dealt with the ubiquitous use of smart phones, as cell phones were just beginning to grow their share of the market when I retired, but, while "no technology at all" strikes me as a little over the top, I'm more inclined that way than I am toward what I see more often than not now, which is silent groups of kids sitting around, staring at their screens, with virtually no human interaction at all.

Not never, just delayed digital media and technology

Great article that offers a broad view on the effects of digital media and technology on children.

I have two boys, 4 and 6yo, who have been enrolled in the City of Lakes Waldorf school for the past 2 years. Over a transition period, we went from allowing the boys to use our ipad and laptops and smartphones for books and educational games nightly; and 1-2 hours of television weekly, down to now no screens, all day, all the time. This initially seemed somewhat extreme and confusing to us. Our son's kindergarten teacher helped us understand by saying, it's not no digital media and technology ever, it's just delayed, limited until it is developmentally appropriate. She recommended no screen time until age 7yo, first grade; then limited screen time 1-2 hours on non-school days from 1st grade to 9th grade, then limited daily use from 9th grade on. She explained the specific intention was to preserve and protect childhood by allowing our child's imagination and inner life to be largely influenced by their own boundless imaginations. This is supported by neurologic and psychologic brain development as childhood is the time we can live in the land of make believe, it is a time-limited window of developmental opportunity that may not come again. Unstructured child-directed imaginary play is fundamental and integral to the development of important life skills such as self confidence, interpersonal flexibility, empathy, conflict resolution, problem solving, creativity, adaptability, resilience, self esteem, and happiness. After hearing all that..... no screens did not feel so extreme anymore.

This Fall, our oldest will start with 1-2 hours of screen time on Saturdays, he is starting 1st grade and will be 7yo, he seems ready for this introduction. I am now more keenly aware of what digital media content I want to delay, and what I think he may benefit from viewing. The only thing I now find extreme is that the average amount of screen time for American children ages 0-8yo is 2 hours a day; for older children it's 7 hours a day. I wonder what this will mean for human imagination, imaginary play, child development, adult creativity and happiness. Perhaps we will adapt and find a way to play more as adolescents and adults to make up for this childhood loss? Perhaps parents need to make conscious efforts to protect and preserve childhood from this potential disruption?

Erin Soto

Adult psychiatrist, therapist
Parent and Board Member, City of Lakes Waldorf School