Nestled among rows of wine grapes, Stone Bridge School is a K-8 independent charter school in Napa County. On a recent afternoon, 28 first-graders sang during their main lesson. They can sing, paint, dance and sew. But what they don’t do -- and are discouraged from -- is use computers.
Bill Bindewald, principal at the Waldorf-inspired Stone Bridge School, says their philosophy around technology isn't a no-tech approach, but a slow-tech one. He says they place an emphasis on hands-on learning.
But the school hasn’t gone cold turkey. By the time students reach sixth, seventh and eighth grade, they start doing reports and the state’s standardized tests online. The school has also developed a cyberethics curriculum to learn things like finding truthful sources online.
But if you walk into a Stone Bridge classroom, you won’t find any gadgets or screens.
First-grade teacher Michele Conyers sees the slow-tech benefits firsthand.
“There’s so many other things they can be learning,” she says, “Just even learning to play. It’s not just about collecting facts, but about experiencing things or being with others and learning how to get along together to play a game of basketball or the strange games they come up with sometimes.”
Conyers thinks it’s better to learn from a human being in the younger years. And more fun. During the morning I spent at the school, I found students doing a range of engaging activities, from making tunics with needle and thread to crafting spoons with wood.
Greg Greeson, the school’s woodworking instructor, thinks the school's internet-free philosophy is vitally important.
“It helps the student connect to the physical world in a way that the internet simply can’t,” he says. “Sometimes all they will do is sand stuff. That’s the hard part. Understanding that it takes work to get the job done, it’s not a button push or a swipe.”
Pushes and swipes aside, are these schools placing kids at a digital disadvantage?
Conyers says that question comes up all the time.
“Usually one of the parents asks, ‘How do you move over to high school with all the computer use?’ ” But studies suggest that the Waldorf learning curriculum works, leading to greater creativity and critical thinking. One study found eighth-grade test scores to be competitive with peer-alike public schools.
“We don’t see them shortchanged in anyway,” says principal Bindewald. He asks graduates if the transition to a digital world is difficult, and he finds most of them learned computer skills at home. He points to Stone Bridge graduates who are in technical fields such as engineering or graphic design. “Very few of them talk about any real difficulty making the transition,” he says.
While most Waldorf schools are private and expensive, Stone Bridge is public and tuition-free, making the slow-tech option more accessible. Bindewald says Stone Bridge is one of about 25 public Waldorf schools in the state, and about 60 nationwide.
To find out what parents think about all of this, I followed first-grader Ryan Halstead home. I found him and his father, Anthony Halstead, sewing a pillow on Ryan’s new sewing machine. But his brother, Nicolas, sat next to him typing out code. He attends a bilingual school called Napa Valley Language Academy and is currently learning an MIT coding program called Scratch.
“Mostly in fifth grade now, I learn on the computer and Ryan is knitting and sewing, so it’s different in ways that we learn things,” says Nicolas. “I know that Ryan is eventually going to learn what I’m learning.”
Halstead let Ryan choose which school to attend.
“We said, 'Do you wanna go to school with your big brother or do you wanna go to a school where you wanna learn how to sew?' " he says. “His interests were different and we wanted him to go to a school that would foster those differences.”
Halstead made it clear that it was a philosophical and financial decision they were able to make. But for many low-income students, internet access is not an option. Principal Leo Gonzalez at the Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in East L.A. says many of the parents can’t afford the price of connecting.
“The problem is how the extension goes from school to home and what access our children have as far as doing assignments,” he says. For Gonzalez, many of his students' families are more concerned about setting the table and paying rent. The internet isn’t going to be a priority if it costs $25 to $30, he says.
Just as Conyers sees the benefits of Waldorf's hands-on learning, Gonzalez sees the benefits of technology. Once he introduced Chromebooks downloaded with digital programs such as Moby Max and Achieve 3000, state standardized test results shot through the roof. In some cases, his students doubled or tripled their scores in math and English. “That’s astronomical,” he says, “That’s huge.”
He was able to do this through the School2Home program with funds from the California Emerging Technology Fund.
Mark Warschauer, a professor in the Education Department at UC Irvine, thinks computers are important but only if you use them correctly.
“Technology will make a good school better, but won’t make a bad school good,” he says.
Warschauer sees the need to develop instructional strategies in and out of school to keep students engaged in positive ways. “If we’re seriously thinking about children developing the scientific skills, the social science research skills, the writing and editing skills they need,” he says, “you can’t really do it without computers and the internet.”
A 2016 survey by the California Emerging Technology Fund found 84 percent of parents interviewed use the internet to help their kids with homework. And among low-income adults that number is 80 percent. Tamara Straus, director of communications at the fund, says the best way to expand home internet access is to fund organizations that provide outreach for low-cost options.
State lawmakers are currently reviewing AB 1665, which aims to provide high-speed internet to 98 percent of Californians, focusing on low-income and rural areas. Advocates say this will improve academic achievement for schoolkids who don’t have internet access at home.
If the bill passes, we will see more homes with internet service in low-income areas -- and more kids with access to it. Except those, of course, going to Waldorf.