knitting socks

Speaking of Diana’s comment the other day.

On a recent Tuesday, Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates refreshed their knitting skills, crisscrossing wooden needles around balls of yarn, making fabric swatches. It’s an activity the school says helps develop problem-solving, patterning, math skills and coordination. The long-term goal: make socks.

This is from an article in New York Times about parents who work in the technology industry and send their children to waldorf school. It also has other strange pieces of information:

Here, as in other classes, the day can start with a recitation or verse about God that reflects a nondenominational emphasis on the divine.

Can? It always does. Oh, and what about the ‘nondenominational emphasis on the divine’? But, well, does the knitting work then?

Is learning through cake fractions and knitting any better? The Waldorf advocates make it tough to compare, partly because as private schools they administer no standardized tests in elementary grades.

Upon being told by AWSNA that waldorf students go on to higher education at prestigeous universities (what’s the reliability of AWSNA’s research into this — anyone knows?), NYT correctly observes:

Of course, that figure may not be surprising, given that these are students from families that value education highly enough to seek out a selective private school, and usually have the means to pay for it. And it is difficult to separate the effects of the low-tech instructional methods from other factors.

Further down the article continues:

And where advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, Waldorf parents counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

No, there’s no reason why they can’t figure that stuff out when they’re older. It’s much worse to delay the teaching of reading, writing, maths and so forth. Understanding science is not like learning to use toothpaste if you have not learnt how to read properly first. The thing is, as one waldorf official admits, these students home environments compensate for the elements that are lacking in the education:

the typical Waldorf parent, who has a range of elite private and public schools to choose from, tends to be liberal and highly educated, with strong views about education; they also have a knowledge that when they are ready to teach their children about technology they have ample access and expertise at home.

A waldorf student says:

“Besides, if you learn to write on paper, you can still write if water spills on the computer or the power goes out.”

And children who spend less time copying handwriting from the blackboard would have a problem doing that?



72 thoughts on “knitting socks

  1. Being incapable of learning how to knit, I taught myself another skill: going to the shop and buying socks. It’s quite interesting how well this approach works in real life.

  2. They are preparing these children for the post-industrial wasteland which populates the nightmares of Hollywood script writers. Some cataclysmic event has wiped out almost the whole of humanity and only a tiny band of children remain – “It’s OK, Karla, we may not be able to read or write and the entire written knowledge of modern and ancient civilisation will sink into oblivion, but thanks to our Waldorf education we will always have socks!”

    ‘Here, as in other classes, the day can start with a recitation or verse about God that reflects a nondenominational emphasis on the divine.’

    These people are quite dim, are they not? There are more holes in that statement than in a sock knitted by a six year old.

  3. I have to buy my husband’s socks, he hasn’t learnt that skill, nor can he put them into pairs. You see, the best education this country can offer and he’s still technically useless.

  4. I don’t think my father could do that either. My mother can knit, if she wants to. She can pair up socks too, at least if she wears her glasses. (Otherwise there’ll be mismatch.)

  5. .. in this post-apocalyptic ice-age it will be the ones with high-performance synthetic all-weather high-altitude socks who will keep their toes! I have the website here if anyone needs it..

  6. but imagine there are no such socks left and the sock factories have apocalyptically collapsed and disappeared! Imagine there are no synthetic fibres anymore! We’ll have to rely on waldorf kids who know how to prepare a goat fur and make threads and knit them to socks.

  7. you would think so, wouldn’t you? But history tells us there will always be Russians with better goats.

  8. Diana pointed out something I hadn’t noticed at first: the article has comments.

    I wonder — it didn’t strike me when writing the blog post earlier — why nothing was said in the article about their other more esoteric reasons for eschewing technology…

    Maybe it’s time to read that hilarious article by Prokofieff again ;-)

  9. Look, knitting skills are very useful:

    Knit sweaters for penguins. Maybe Ngok needs one? It’s almost a duty for waldorf school kids to knit for him!

  10. I liked knitting. Maybe when I’m old I’ll knit sweaters for penguins, and then chase them around their enclosure at London zoo trying to make them wear my work. At least it gives me something to look forward to.

  11. I get so tired of stuff like this:

    Harlan Gilbert presents himself as a computer programmer giving advice about computers to schools — not as a prominent proponent of waldorf education.

    It’s his advocacy for waldorf that matters in this context. I’m not saying he can’t make the other arguments, too, but is it not reasonable to expect a minimum level of honesty?

  12. It’s an indication of the fanaticism of someone like Harlan Gilbert. He must get up at dawn and respond within moments to anything google alert can spit out. I mean, I live in the same time zone as Harlan, and between the time I read the article and the time it took to get a cup of coffee, comments were closed …

  13. It happened very quickly. He must be fast. Interesting — the article was published today, and comments were closed by the afternoon. Afternoon in Sweden!! People in LA could barely have been awake yet! Don’t comments usually stay open longer thant that — at least a day or two…

    Anyway, speaking of knitting earlier, and knitting for penguins in particular… I had to post this before bed-time…:

  14. Yes, why not say, “I am a Waldorf teacher, and I think Waldorf is great” etc.? What I object to is the all the small subterfuges … the ease with which they *pose*, rather than just speak openly. “Oh, this is an interesting article” (as if he came across it by chance like your average Times reader this morning), “I am a computer programmer, and here’s my a few casual, offhand thoughts on this novel topic, off the top of my head” … rather than “I have been involved with the educational system described for the past 25 years” …

    Why does it come so easily to them to pose? In what other educational system would its adherents, coming across an article on their school system in the media, not openly and eagerly present themselves as adherents? Can we imagine a Catholic school teacher writing in about an article on Catholic schools, and feeling the need to deliberately not mention that they teach in a Catholic school?

  15. I can never figure out how comments work in Times articles. Sometimes they seem to stay open for days and hundreds of comments are posted, other times they close quickly. Sometimes I’m sure it’s because the topic is controversial and they’re getting all kinds of crap, but sometimes maybe it just depends on who is doing the moderating and how much time they have to devote to it. It must be a rather thankless assignment.


  16. Oh lol, that site really exists? Surely?

    Gilbert is a particular menace. Skeptics like Tim Farley of ‘what’s the harm?’ told me there was NO WAY anyone could control Wiki and someone just had to get on there and correct the errors. I wish he’d tried it.

  17. There are about 100 pages of discussion resulting from “mediation” and then “arbitration” regarding the Steiner/Waldorf pages at wikipedia. The end result is that the greatest fanatic wins. The system can be gamed, but that’s not all – the main reason the fanatic wins is time. I have spent a LOT of time doing this, but I can’t hold a candle to Harlan Gilbert. I could not literally watch several dozen wikipedia pages all day long, every day for years. I have never known a person who more completely embodied fanaticism. He is completely humorless and 100% dedicated to his life’s cause. He makes Sune Nordwall look mellow and easy going. Sune at least makes a joke now and then.

  18. I haven’t given up on my comment on the article appearing, by the way … more comments keep appearing. I’m guessing they closed them quickly because they were flooded, and the moderator still hasn’t had a chance to work through them all. I also have not had a chance to read them all carefully, but there is much more discussion of the role of technology in education than about Waldorf per se, understandably, and also understandably most people take the claims about Waldorf at face value. So many people start from a premise like, “It’s great that the Waldorf school does x y z …” A few posters have heard other things about Waldorf, but not nearly the proportion that we would like.

  19. I do think the article created a negative impression in some people’s minds about wealthy techie people paying big bucks to deliberately keep their kids in a low-tech environment. That’s not really one of my complaints about Waldorf, but ok. It conveyed a flavor of “just another chic fake-simplicity thing for rich folks.”

  20. Diana (@ 3.17am) — yes, those are the questions.

    The article in The Onion is so hilarious — I’m glad you remembered to post it, because I had forgotten, even though I read it just a week ago. Such a website should surely exist.

    ‘I could not literally watch several dozen wikipedia pages all day long, every day for years.’

    Nobody can. Unless you’re crazy (fanatic). You would need to be like a hundred people perhaps. Then it would be reasonable. And if you watch it for years — you’ve got to give it up eventually (they will just find another fanatic who continues it), and what use is all the work then? It just disappears. So it isn’t worth it. No matter the impact wiki unfortunately has. You would either be crazy for or turn crazy from trying.

    ‘most people take the claims about Waldorf at face value. So many people start from a premise like, “It’s great that the Waldorf school does x y z …”’

    Yes, this struck me too when reading.

    About the negative impression about wealthy techie people — yes indeed. The most relevant thing about that is, I think, the fact that these parents have the knowledge, the money and the stuff (computers et c) to compensate their children for what they don’t get in school. Even if it’s later, they will have the resources.

  21. Were you the one who showed me the Onion piece in the first place? can’t remember.

    I do think a fair number of people took away the point that there is something pretentious and hypocritical about Waldorf, and that class issues are involved; that it is mainly people who have the resources to consume all the techno goodies they could possibly want, and who have absolutely no doubt that their children will have every conceivable advantage in that area, who can afford to ostentatiously send the kids to a school practicing this weird reverse-techno-snobbery.

  22. I don’t think I did. I think I retweeted it on twitter and shared it on fb, but if I did something else, I can’t remember it either!

    Yes — if anyone can afford that approach, it’s them. And their kids will come out of the experience all right, ‘proving’ that the anti-technology thing ‘works’ really well.

    Mind you, I don’t think the technology should ever be allowed to overshadow knowledge and skills. The thing is to be able to write (sufficiently) coherent whether you do it with a pencil or on a computer.

    My handwriting sucks (despite waldorf) so I’m happy for technology. But it’s just a help on the practical level. It won’t magically make you write a good text. And a calculator is not much help if you don’t understand maths.

  23. Oh, I agree, there are certainly plenty of issues around use of technology in education. It’s just that that’s not the discussion WE want to have about Waldorf :) It’s a valid issue in its own right, it’s just that it’s not really the point in Waldorf, but they’re perfectly happy to get PR as an anti-technology school.

  24. Exactly! Which makes it even more deceptive. People assume that the ‘debate’ waldorf is having is reasonable. As with so many other things, people hear something they think sound good, and interpret in a way that suits their opinions… and assume that waldorf’s approach is the same as theirs. Much like when waldorf says it allows children to be children, and such statements. It seems nice, and the person hearing the statement can refashion it in any way to fit her/his own preconceptions about what is good and about children being children. In the same way, I think people assume that waldorf eschews computers for reasons that would make sense more generally.

  25. And the waldorf folks won’t correct people’s mistakes.

    Sure, people should be able to think for themselves and to find information. But are the willing to do that? The promises are nice, and there’s such a desire to get what’s best that I think — sometimes — parents tend to believe what is not reality.

  26. No, of course they will not correct any of these misperceptions. I suspect from a PR point of view, Waldorf officialdom was fairly happy with that article and the reader comments. Buried here and there are a few people squealing “cult” and hissing “anthroposophy” and “Ahriman,” but they were far outnumbered by people pontificating, knowledgeably or otherwise, about the evils of technology. This works in their favor.

    I fear there is a sort of general technology burnout lately that will work in Waldorf’s favor. (I just got a smart phone myself, and the damn thing exhausts me. It’s like adopting a child, I have to tend to it all day. I still haven’t figured out what it wants from me … might be nice to go back to one of those old-fashioned gizmos that had one humble function, like make phone calls.)

    (I’ve looked at your blog on the phone, but haven’t had the nerve to try posting that way. The keyboard is made for midgets, or maybe fairies and gnomes.)

  27. I think they’re elated. Overall, it was good for them.

    (Oh, the smart phone keyboard. It’s a nightmare. It takes longer to write on, much longer. Using two fingers, at best, making lots of mistakes. And I have rather slender fingers, but it doesn’t help. It really is for the smaller elementals. Even archangel Michael would have trouble. I mean, it is a very useful gadget, but has its limits, clearly.)

  28. (I reply quite often from the phone these days. But I notice I make a lot more errors than on the computer. Often leaving out entire words — presumably I feel I have written them because it takes such long time writing and my brain gets ahead of the process.)

  29. Drat! I wrote a comment that got lost. Maybe they are right, these devices are evil … lately it seems I cannot control mine, the screens and keyboards are too sensitive, I am always tapping something accidentally and doing all kinds of things I didn’t mean to do.

    Hm – the gist was I am not sure why this guy thinks journalists should “please, honor, and respect” Waldorf education, that’s not quite the function of journalism.

    He’s right the Times has been on an anti-technology in education binge recently. These arguments usually devolve quickly into mindlessness, with one side saying every three year old must have an iPAD right now or else the Chinese will pound us into the dust, and the other side droning tediously that The Sky Is Falling and a whole generation has been ruined by technology blah blah blah blah.

    Clearly the “easy as toothpaste” arguments re: technology in education are idiotic. You can quickly google to settle an argument about the name of an actor in an old movie … but about one person in 50 knows how to use google for more sophisticated purposes. Even fewer would have any idea how to help kids LEARN these uses. That’s called “education.” It isn’t just about hauling truckloads of computers into classrooms … unfortunately, that approach will just garner more unwarranted support for Waldorf and other knee-jerk anti-tech approaches.

  30. I lose comments regularly when writing them on the phone. Highly annoying.

    ‘the gist was I am not sure why this guy thinks journalists should “please, honor, and respect” Waldorf education, that’s not quite the function of journalism.’

    I have no idea either. That’s a very curious thought.

    Anyway — it seemed to me this person disagreed with things that seemed fundamental to waldorf education, yet… For one thing, it was interesting that s/he had a somewhat coherent argument around the issues. For the other, I thought I saw again a parent trying to justify his/her own choices about which s/he has at least some doubts.

    ‘Clearly the “easy as toothpaste” arguments re: technology in education are idiotic.’

    Absolutely! And it’s not about the technology per se at all — it’s about content. It’s like when I was in school — we learnt how to use the library. That didn’t give us automatic knowledge of what was in all those books though, but we had a hunch about where and how to find the content.

  31. >I lose comments regularly when writing them on the phone. Highly annoying.

    Yep … one minute I’m reading an article or blog post, the next minute I’m looking at stock quotes or sports scores or something I didn’t even know was on the phone. what? If you breathe on the thing, it starts running programs.

    >it’s not about the technology per se at all — it’s about content

    Exactly. Why can’t people understand this? There is nothing evil about any particular gadget and no particular gadget can help or hinder a child from learning to think, or read and write. They all have advantages and disadvantages; clearly a lot of computer technology is EXTREMELY useful in this regard. The naysayers are simply dinosaurs. Get over it! You might as well rant about paper and pencils destroying kids’ souls. All nonsense. Computers are tools, of course kids have to learn to use these tools, there is literally no valid argument against the technology.

    If you have a kid who is spending too much time in front of screens, send him outside for some fresh air, or enroll him in soccer or music lessons or something. Duh! Waldorf has no wise answers there, they just want to lure you in, bait and switch, can’t people learn to recognizes agendas and sales pitches?

  32. ‘If you breathe on the thing, it starts running programs.’

    It’s ahrimanic. It has forces and will of its own!!

    ‘If you have a kid who is spending too much time in front of screens, send him outside for some fresh air, or enroll him in soccer or music lessons or something.’

    And the tragic thing is that those children who could benefit from less screen time and more time outdoors, don’t have parents who understand it (or who don’t even read NYT, much less worry about these things). For the parents who are attracted by waldorf for these very reasons it is, however, easy — they can replace screen time with other activities easily, with or without waldorf.

    ‘You might as well rant about paper and pencils destroying kids’ souls.’

    Well… waldorf has taken care of that too — block crayons!!

  33. Yes … I always forget, I want to say rhetorically that they might as well rant and rave against books … then I remember anthroposophists DO rant and rave against books, for young children.

    It was a bit misleading that the photo illustrating the NYT piece showed a girl lying on a desk reading. At least in the more fanatically run schools, that would not be considered particularly wholesome. Shouldn’t she be outside fertilizing the organic carrots or twirling colored ribbons around a Maypole or something? But the “reading” image appeals better to their prospective clientele. I am going to guess it came off the school’s web site and they happily gave permission, perhaps suggesting that rather than, say, a picture of children basket weaving or any of the other arty things that nevertheless make parents a tad nervous that the school is not serious academically.

    And you can be QUITE sure they nixed an image of eurythmy, if given the choice. NO ONE wants eurythmy, absolutely no one who has had a pass at it.

  34. Yep — it’s misleading, but she is a bit older (10-11? it would be impossible if the child was 7, I would have laughed then). I did assume they sent a photographer though — for such a big article! I think they did, because the photos on the website appear amateurish. Anyway, I notice now that there is a slideshow of pictures on NYT, I must take a look.

    But it’s not an activity that is representative of waldorf at all. They should show eurythmy instead. That’s what they learn, instead of using computers.

  35. Yeah. I’m sorry I watched the slide show … it really was a slick piece of PR. We’ll never get around that problem – the schools are nothing if not highly photogenic. Even a New York Times photographer was intoxicated by all the quaintness. This tends to end the asking of pointed questions.

  36. They are photogenic. Imagine going on that job, if you’re a photographer, as compared to going on a job at a mainstream school. Not just the more photogenic environment, but it’s so different it must be fun for that reason. Probably easier to get enthusiastic about. If pretty was all that mattered in education… well…

  37. Found a piece in Montreal Gazette.

    It’s pretty daft.

    ‘Doyon says: “The calculator frees us from having to count, the GPS from knowing how to read a map, spellcheck software from learning spelling and grammar.” These and innumerable other such conveniences numb our minds. Knowledge no longer lives with us, he writes; it’s something we hold in our hands.’

    And waldorf students have knowledge… when children who know how to use gadgets don’t? They knit and do eurythmy instead. Can waldorf students spell — with or without spell-check?

    It’s like they think waldorf must be good because it says no to something other schools say yes to. Why?

  38. I can’t link but look at another letter to the editor that Awsna just published on their fb-page please. From a waldorf teacher in SF. That’s a letter one could analyze. What about waldorf kids looking critically at the accuracy and bias of websites, eg. I’m not sure the adults at awsna are capable…

  39. The letter is on theme which should be really worrying for school authorities: “Waldorf pupils starts slower, but catches up and might even become rocket scientists in the end”. It is theoretically possible that they might catch up, but a lot of the burden of proof is on the part of the Waldorf practitioners. The Dahlin report is said to prove that they are not behind when they leave school. I have analyzed it, and I think it is fairly easy to see that even according to that, Waldorf education performs 15% worse than orinary schools. Not to mention that the reseachers didn’t even try to compare with e.g. schools with similar family and socio-cultural background. Which might be a reason why this type of anecdotal propaganda is important, because so far the evidence says Waldorf pupils do not catch up.

  40. Exactly — the Dahlin report, it seemed to me, does not say what waldorf supporters claim it says. And even what it says is at times rather confused — one has a definite sense it was produced with pro-waldorf aims in mind… yet didn’t succeed. (You know about the financing and purpose of that study, I think?)

  41. Yes I know about the anthroposophical financing of the report. So even with the “best” of intentions, the researchers failed to show that Waldorf education is even _equal_ to ordinary education. It must have been a shock! To save appearances, Dahlin managed to find a comparison group where Waldorf performs better, but any teacher could tell you that it is not a valid comparison. To me this trick has a distinct smell of desperation … So I think that report will prove to be a trojan horse.

  42. Ulf — It wasn’t a valid comparison at all. It was pathetic. And, as you say, despite the ‘best’ intentions. The trust that financed the research was supposed to have influence on the presentation — and this is the best they could come up with. I’m sure they tried hard. It was important.

  43. It seems lots of newspapers have picked up on this topic…

    ‘Tuition is $11,100 for first grade and above. Despite its no-computer stance, the school attracts students from households with a strong technology connection. Tim Moses, a Nashville computer programmer, sends his seven children to the school.’

    7 children. That’s almost $80.000 a year.

    ‘With six siblings, Will Mason Moses, 14, says it’s pretty hard to get bored. The house is even a no-technology zone for his friends, who must leave their electronics at home when visiting.’

    Pretty extreme.

    ‘“Our kids leave here very well prepared as enthusiastic and curious learners,” said Sonia Merchant, outreach coordinator at Linden Waldorf School on Hillsboro Pike in Nashville. “It’s a time-tested philosophy that works.”’

    Oh really. I think it would be good if news media started taking claims like these with a grain of salt — they could (and should) inquire as to whether they’re correct and justified.

  44. If you have not studied at a waldorf school yourself in order to experience it fully, you really can not have a true opinion because the waldorf pedagogy is very very complex and many of the teaching are unknown to those who do not attend the school as they are sort of… secret. I know that sound strange, but you really need to experience a waldorf school to understand what it is all about.

  45. and let me tell you something funny: I attended waldorf all of my life and we did not use computers until highschool, but….

    Ironically, I am the most tech savy and internet-involved person of all of my non-waldorf friends. The thing is, I would get home from school in 2003 and I’d switch on the computer like many other people of my age, regardless of our educations.

    And I want to point out that i’m not a special case— all of my waldorf friends probably know how to use a computer better than most people and several have gone on to work with big soft ware and technology companies.

  46. ‘If you have not studied at a waldorf school yourself in order to experience it fully …’

    Surprise — I did. And most people who commented on this thread have also experienced waldorf from the inside, as (unusually involved) parents.

  47. ‘many of the teaching are unknown to those who do not attend the school as they are sort of… secret.’ That’s certainly true! And not a good idea either.

  48. ‘…many of the teaching are unknown to those who do not attend the school as they are sort of… secret. I know that sound strange…’

    not at all. We know this. That’s the very reason we keep insisting — again and again — that waldorf begins to practice honesty and openness. So that parents and the public knows what waldorf is about.

    ‘… but you really need to experience a waldorf school to understand what it is all about.’

    What you really need to do is inform yourself about waldorf’s background, the ideas that underpin it and the worldview behind it. That’s what you really need to do — and this is true also for those of us who have experienced it and even more so for those who think they want to experience it (or want their children to do so).

  49. Ha! Exactly Melanie. I forgot to comment on that, and while I was writing, you did. But that’s quite a significant point. Oddly, ‘anonymous’ thought we didn’t realize this already — one of the main points driving criticism! — and that mentioning it would speak favourably of waldorf education? Just trying to interpret it…

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