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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

August 30, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Off the treadmill? Seattle’s Waldorf high school defies tech’s sweep

Tracy Bennett heads the Seattle Waldorf High School, an alternative high school that's taking its tech restrictions to its new facility at Magnuson Park.

Tracy Bennett heads the Seattle Waldorf  School’s high school campus. The Waldorf educational philosophy cautions against an overuse of tech. (MARK HARRISON /THE  SEATTLE TIMES)

It’s almost too fitting that if you look for the computers at Seattle Waldorf School’s new high school campus at Magnuson Park, you’ll find them in a room once used for munitions storage.

It’s not that this tiny school with a $21,300-per-year tuition believes technology is dangerous. Not quite.

But at a time when many schools are racing to stockpile new high-tech devices and services in the classroom, alternative schools that implement what’s known as Waldorf education are taking it slow and steady.

They’re the tortoise in a world of hares.

And they bet they’re winning.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I met Head of School Tracy Bennett and pedagogical coordinator Lisa Ayrault in the school’s long brick building Thursday, less than a week before the only Waldorf high school in the state (there are about 40 in the country) would open new doors to its 85 students in grades nine to 12 for this school year.

They weren’t warriors against tech, it turned out. Just surprisingly confident defenders of what kids at certain stages can and can’t handle.

Kids get no benefit from using any computer device before the age of 12, Waldorf educators believe. Period.

“I do wince when I hear about kindergartners being given iPads,” Ayrault said.

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 5.47.09 PM

After the age of 12, older kids gain critical skills and knowledge from thoughtful computer and Internet use, especially for research, writing and connection.

But the technologies don’t come to class, where Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner’s art- and nature-rooted educational philosophy emphasizes social learning, hands-on interactivity and focus.

Bennett and Ayrault beamed brightest when they showed me two rooms in the new building: an airy art studio with a view of Lake Washington and a first-floor performance studio, where students play no traditional sports but practice a movement art called eurythmy.

At Seattle Waldorf High School, students have access to Google Chromebooks for individual projects and can ask teachers permission to look up something on their smartphones if it’s a burning class question. Otherwise those phones can’t as much as peek out of their backpacks at any time throughout the school day.

“We get pushback from parents who say, ‘What if I need to get a hold of my child?’ I tell them, ‘Just call the office!’ ” Bennett said.

If America’s tech boom is pushing parents and schools to plop more kids in front of more screens earlier and earlier in their development, that could be a tragedy, Bennett and Ayrault said. Not an advantage.

“I have a certain sadness for families who are on the treadmill and don’t know how to get off,” Ayrault said.

Waldorf students graduate to be as competent with new media and technology as anyone, if not more so, Bennett insists. More than a dozen parents of Seattle Waldorf High School students work at Microsoft, with a similar number at the University of Washington and others hailing from, Google, Amgen and Boeing, Bennett told me.

A rendering of the new campus of Seattle Waldorf High School at Magnuson Park. Image courtesy Seattle Waldorf High School.

A rendering of the new campus of Seattle Waldorf High School at Magnuson Park. Image courtesy Seattle Waldorf High School.

Walking to my car after our conversation, I thought of my 2-year-old and felt almost soothed by the Waldorf message.

Get off the tech treadmill, it says. It won’t doom your kid. In fact, all this uninterrupted attention on their personal and social development could make them stronger users of tech devices than kids who got exposed to all the bells and whistles before they were ready.

“It takes a lot of courage to do what we’re doing,” Bennett said. “We’re not for everyone, and that’s OK.”

Waldorf schools follow a compelling theory, but like any steady commitment in our shifting, anything-can-change tech world, it’s a gamble.

I can’t argue with the priority on human development. And some of the best skills for our times — like creativity and innovation — don’t come in bits and bytes, even if the works they make possible often do.

But technologies aren’t just reinventing our toolbox. They’re reinventing our whole world.

What if new literacies develop best alongside machines, not apart from them? What if kids and teens can work to lead that development, rather than study it?

What if, approached with the kind of care and collaboration Waldorf embraces, even our most loaded technologies make better companions inside the classroom than out?

“You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots,” technologist Kevin Kelly once wrote.

Maybe the robots should stay in school closets.

Or maybe it’s time they come out and play.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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