Education to freedom in digital change

Robin Schmidt

Digital lifeworld

It is a life in meanings, images and references in which we increasingly perform our work, experience our relationships and spend our leisure time, while life in our body, in houses or vehicles or in nature becomes increasingly rare. A new lifeworld is arising – just as a long time ago the railway broke into the rurally determined lifeworld as something alien and then turned into the basis of the engineered urban lifeworld.

Digital devices first entered our largely urban lifeworld In the same way, but gradually the technical elements are fusing into a whole on which we are structurally dependent to an ever greater extent. From our supply of food or electricity to everyday work and leisure activities: they are based directly or indirectly on digital infrastructures. They form the basis for an environment in which we spend large and important parts of our lives.

The important things are happening with increasing frequency in this digital lifeworld we inhabit with our consciousness: work, relationships, entertainment, our social life and leisure time. Being “offline” has become the exception. And what happens “here”, in analogue reality, is more and more an excursion into an exotic realm. Young people take photos of their lunch with their smartphones and upload the picture so that their friends know: we are eating lunch right now so I will be “absent” for a little while; and “absent” means: not being in the communication space, not being where what matters takes place.

Our own body is also becoming an object of observation to an ever greater extent. We have devices which record us, we monitor ourselves and strive for self-optimisation in whatever is up and coming: our caffeine level, efficiency, health, spirituality, quality time. In this way we increasingly experience ourselves from the perspective of the observer, and the sensory world as something at one remove which requires a decision to turn towards it. The continuum of consciousness resides increasingly in the digital space and the remaining world is opened up from there.

Consequences for school and education

At the time of the industrial revolution, it was a long path of cultural and political work to go from the raw, proletarian lifeworld to the city which enabled completely new and free ways of living. And modern education – including Waldorf education in the form of the school for the children of the Waldorf Astoria factory workers – originally saw itself as a contribution to human freedom under the precarious conditions of urban life.

If Waldorf education wants to continue to contribute to an “education to freedom” under the conditions of digital life, this goal must be newly interrogated under these changed conditions. Education in the digital age then means not just the question as to how meaningful and sovereign interaction with digital media can be found. The ever more urgent concomitant question is how education, school and teaching can be organised in view of this change. It means asking basic educational and curriculum question anew and taking care of the non-digital part, the specific human aspect in a new and different way. It means laying the foundations in education for an experience of freedom in the digital age. Currently there are five areas in which the questions about such foundations and conditions in an educational environment can be asked.

1. School organisation with information and communication technology (ICT)

Here we are dealing with administrative efficiency in the various areas of deployment in the everyday life of the school: report programmes, platforms for downloading lesson materials and tasks, timetable and room planning software, accounting and the school website, communication channels between parents, teachers and pupils.

The important thing here is that this is not actually a field of educational planning but an operational and organisational one whose own logic should also remain restricted to this area. But the efficiency of the lesson organisation is also indirectly an educational planning criterion since where the loss of efficiency is too great, it occurs at the cost of lesson preparation.

In fact digital tools allow many things to be simplified, particularly since in each of the specified areas there exist in schools own systems in parallel with their own logic. But integrated systems not only ease the workload, they tie down processes in a way which has to be accepted. The important thing with regard to freedom: when new systems are introduced, the points of view of all prospective participants should be included in the decision-making. This is about organising learning by means of ICT in such a way that energy is released for educational tasks.

2. Prevention and security

We cannot shield city children from the dangers of road traffic – it is safer in the long term if they are instructed how to cross the road safely and later how to ride a bicycle well on the road rather than always dropping them at the school gate in an SUV. Equally necessary is a basic digital “road safety education” which actively provides protection against the dangers in this space. Basic preventive lessons could be concluded with a certificate like the bike safety certificates which confirms that the holder is aware of the most important rules and laws and can move about in a small but growing radius.

For teachers and pre-school teachers the crucial thing is whether they can observe their supervisory duty, whether they know what is permitted and prohibited and how conspicuous and problematic actions can be recognised. What does bullying on Snapchat or Instagram look like? How does an Internet-based addiction express itself? What helps children to deal with age-inappropriate experiences?

We are thus not dealing here with the use of ICT in school but with the protection of the pupils as well as the rights and duties of parents and teachers. Who is the contact person for these questions in the school, who leads the processes when a crisis occurs? This is about familiarisation with ICT to protect basic social spheres of freedom.

3. Sovereignty

Media sovereignty or media maturity is the goal of all media education. Here the Waldorf teacher Edwin Hübner came up with the productive differentiation between direct and indirect media education.

Indirect media education means: what kind of non-media school activities support a pupil’s personality so that it can find a sovereign way to handle media out of itself? Eurythmy, playing in nature, school plays and many other things can support this. In the field of direct media education the question arises: what knowledge and skills give pupils “hands on” sovereignty in dealing with ICT?

Do pupils learn about the technical basis, functionalities, programming and application of software in its main features such that they can understand it? Do they learn to question critically how digital media work, how images and news can be analysed and evaluated? Do they learn how adults handle ICT for their work?

In contrast to even just 15 years ago, the changed lifeworld means that this affects not just the mathematical and science subjects but just as much art, languages and the humanities. It is learning from ICT which supports the power of self-determination.

4. Subject learning with ICT

How can history, how can English or physics be taught using ICT in a way which is not just a little different but also results in a better subject teaching methodology than without ICT? That is a very difficult question to which there are as yet no simple answers. The idea that lessons can be improved simply through the use of laptops, iPads or smartphones, through learning software or colourful presentations has been scientifically disproved. The large device implementation programmes which have been tried all over the world have failed from an education studies perspective – even if corporations and politicians like to ignore this. The corresponding training programmes and the introduction of initially promising educational software were also crowned only by limited success when the real improvement in subject learning was measured.

But there are also success stories: particularly where ICT helps to deepen the subject matter such as for example in geography lessons when the pupils prepared a noise map of their town using smartphones. Broadly speaking, in this field of learning with ICT the following applies: unless the subject lesson is improved through ICT with regard to the learning goals – which in modern education are also always designed to promote freedom – its use is not justified.

5. Goals of the school

What kind of education is required today under conditions if digitality? What should pupils learn as a result of the ICT which shapes the world of today? What school activities will enable pupils to shape society and digital change in the future? Teachers who study the consequences of digital change often refer to the “concentration on those things that cannot be put in digital form” when they think about the future of the school. When in future everything that can be is put in digital form in society, then learning in particular should support those skills which are specifically human and cannot be assumed by ICT. The “4 C’s model” is frequently quoted here: creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

Waldorf establishments can here ask themselves the basic question: how can human freedom be experienced within a digital lifeworld? Where does freedom become an experience for young people? In my observation, the experience of freedom today lies in the power and ability to connect. Whereas in the twentieth century the experience of freedom was more strongly associated with emancipation, the opening up of multiple opportunities and the emphasis on living out who we are, it occurs today in connection with the decision to associate ourselves with others as well as the reduction of opportunities through turning to concrete matters and the connection with someone else. Waldorf education has to ask what forms of teaching and learning and what curriculum can strengthen this power of affirmation of the world.

Initiatives in these five fields – taking account of the respectively different logics and values – contribute to making us active shapers of digital change. The alternative to this would be withdrawal – or having to yield to circumstances. It is not until we accept the change in consciousness and cultural changes taking place alongside digital change that the immense cultural task which presents itself becomes visible. In this context restricting the debate to the use or prohibition of digital media in kindergarten and school represents a sideshow.

About the author: Robin Schmidt is director of Forschungsstelle Kulturimpuls cultural research centre ( and an academic at the FHNW Teacher Training College in Basel. His current research is on education and what it means to be human under the conditions of digitality.