Saturday, 18 June 2016

Could Steiner schools have a point on children, tablets and tech?

Studies have yet to show much benefit from technology in schools, leading some to wonder whether the offline life is better for children.

It’s late morning and the children in Maria Woolley’s class at the Iona school in Nottingham are busy kneading dough. The dough is made from flour they saw ground at the local windmill using grains harvested from a nearby farm they had visited. During the morning lesson the children have sung songs, recited poetry and done rhythmic clapping and stomping.

There is no uniform here, and no headteacher – the school is run by staff and friends – and, unlike the vast majority of primary schools these days, here the students don’t work on tablets or computers. At the front of the class is an old-fashioned blackboard.

The methods at the school, which are based on the controversial teachings of Austrian 19th century philosopher Rudolf Steiner, may be different from those employed in mainstream state schools, but the Iona was recently declared outstanding by the School Inspection Service – the independent equivalent of Ofsted. The report noted that “pupils do not use computers or the internet when in school but staff have ensured that they have learned about internet safety”. It went on: “Teaching is inspirational and highly effective … teachers are very well trained and highly skilled.”

Any school would be grateful to be described in such glowing terms but the staff here are particularly proud that they achieved their outstanding status without technology. In addition to the ban on computers in school, parents are discouraged from letting their children watch television, play computer games or use smartphones at home.

The Iona school was set up in 1985 by Richard Moore, who had worked for 10 years as a state primary teacher. “Mainstream education was becoming prescriptive even then,” he says, “so what appealed to me about Steiner was that it stressed that the work of children was play.” Today the school – one of 33 schools that follow the Steiner curriculum – has 87 children aged between three and 12 and costs £5,402 a year.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Two children in every class start school with an unexplained language disorder

Language is a fundamental human accomplishment. It is the foundation for literacy, underpins academic and social success, and is important for developing and maintaining relationships with others.

So it is no surprise that children who struggle to acquire their native language are at a distinct disadvantage when they start school. Our research, recently published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, found that two five-year-old children in every Year 1 classroom of 30 had a currently unexplained language disorder. An additional 2.34% had a language disorder that occurred as part of another developmental condition, such as autism or Down syndrome.

Children with language disorders have problems with speaking and listening. They tend to have limited vocabularies, leave endings off words and use very simple grammar in their sentences. They have difficulties telling coherent stories and don’t understand complex instructions. This causes many problems in the classroom.

So for example, children with language disorders will struggle to understand questions such as “which of these items will float? Why do you think so?” Even if they understand and know the answer, they may not be able to use words to explain “the ball will float because it is filled with air and is lighter than the penny.” A child with language disorder may just point and guess, or articulate a couple of key words such as “the penny sinked”.

Our study involved more than 7,000 children and 190 schools in Surrey, south of London, in order to find out how many children in England start school with a language disorder – what is known as a prevalence estimate. This may sound straightforward to work out, but it isn’t. As language is multi-faceted, we measured vocabulary, grammar and narrative skills both when the children were speaking and listening. This is the combination of tests that has informed current diagnostic criteria for language disorder.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

It's time for teachers to look after their mental health – here's how

To ensure students’ wellbeing, teachers need to feel confident about their own – so here are some mood-boosting tips.

During the safety briefing on every plane journey adults are reminded that, in case of an emergency, they are to secure their own oxygen masks before they help their children fit theirs. Why? Because it helps you look after children more effectively. The same is true of mental health, and it is something teachers should consider. After all, it is difficult to discuss good mental wellbeing in front of class if we, as adults, do not practise it ourselves.

Action to improve the mental health of teachers is certainly needed: worries about teacher workload has seen 67% of teachers state that their job had adversely impacted their mental or physical health, according to a recent NASUWT survey. This has led to suggestions that half a billion pounds should be transferred to schools to help them tackle the issue.

Which is why it’s worthwhile for teachers to look at these simple ways, informed by the latest NHS guidelines, to boost their mental health. 

Researchers have shown the importance of having a range of healthy relationships. They suggest feeling disconnected from others is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The Mental Health Foundation states that “people who are more socially connected to family, friends and their communities are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems”.

As well as forming connections on an individual level, evidence suggests that being part of a group has similar benefits. People who identify closely with a group reported being happier.

Be aware
We live in an age of distraction. Research suggests that we check our phones on average 85 times a day. This, among other distractions limits how much we notice what is going on around us. When world famous violinist Joshua Bell busked at a train station during rush-hour in Washington, of the 1,097 people who passed him, only seven stopped to listen. Just a few days before, people had paid hundreds of pounds to hear him play the same music.