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.
Under the government’s free schools and academies programme, four Steiner schools are now state funded. The schools, based on the spiritual movement of “anthroposophy”, are controversial because Steiner’s views on, for example, race have been discredited. But even some who question the philosophy or ideology may wonder whether these schools have a point about resisting the blanket use of technology.
“Rudolph Steiner and many other childhood thinkers through the 19th and 20th centuries emphasised the importance of understanding how young children naturally learn to learn, and of providing educational experiences which build on their natural interests and curiosity,” explains David Whitebread, director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning at Cambridge University. “Early childhood and primary education in the UK has moved a long way from this to a top-down, state-imposed curriculum model.”
Critics suggest that in not allowing children to use screens as part of its ideology Steiner schools are putting them at a disadvantage. “The needs of our young people are that when they leave school, they become part of a world that is highly likely to include technology,” says Mark Chambers, the chief executive of NAACE, a professional association for those concerned with advancing education using technology. “We should be doing all we can to help them be prepared for that world, just as we would for the physical world that is around them.”
David Andrews, who was a primary teacher in Hull for 10 years, now runs a website on how to use technology to support learning in the classroom. “In some schools, technology is used poorly and it can have a damaging impact on education,” he says. But when used creatively, “technology can engage the children because of their experience of what they are doing at home, where they may be watching television or gaming”.
Research into the effects of technology on learning has yet to demonstrate much in the way of positive results, though. A recent study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that students barred from using laptops or digital devices in lectures and seminars did better in exams than those allowed to use computers and access the internet. And research last year from the London School of Economics found schools that banned pupils from carrying mobile phones showed a sustained improvement in exam results, with the biggest advances coming from struggling students.
A Cambridge University study found that spending an extra hour a day of TV, internet or gaming time in year 10 saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall. Its co-author, Esther van Sluijs, says reducing screen time could have important benefits and adds that “limiting the amount of time spent in front of screens and introducing children to a variety of activities is likely to have the most beneficial long-term impacts on a child’s health”.
Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said recently: “The reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today.” A report by the OECD in 2015 found that countries that had invested heavily in technology had shown no signs of improvement in reading, maths or science.
Despite the evidence from such studies there is still, according to Moore, “an anxiety that children aren’t going to be ready to fit into the economy because they don’t do computers at the age of four – whereas if you give them a healthy education and childhood, they can catch up very easily”.
Steiner schools attract parents and teachers who tend to share similar thoughts on screen time and who try to ensure their students are better able to resist the lure of technology. Sean Cummins, who has had three children at the Iona school, says for him the appeal of a Steiner education was that it showed you “could structure a child’s education in a way different from just preparing them for an employer’s requirements when they were 18”.
Asma Al-Deraa has a seven-year-old son at the Iona school and a 10-year-old daughter in mainstream state education. “My daughter is being taught inside the box with lots of testing,” she says. “But with my son – he is more creative and trying to dig for the things that are beyond.” When her daughter returns from school she will reach for the iPad, but her son “is not asking for that or the PlayStation – he just wants to draw and play”.
Even some who support the use of computers in the classroom share the concern about the negative impact of technology. “The role of technology at home is potentially damaging children’s communication skills with their parents who are using it as an electronic babysitter,” says Andrews. “More and more children are coming into primary school with their spoken language as an issue so we are using technology in the classroom to record their language as a way of getting them talking to their parents.”
However, teacher José Picardo argues that the aversion to technology in Steiner schools is rooted in a “pseudo-intellectualism which believes the things we are familiar with are better than the things our children are familiar with”. Picardo teaches at Surbiton High School in Surrey, where every pupil from the age of seven or eight is given a tablet. “I think my children are going to end up being better prepared for the world in which they live,” he says, because his school does not subscribe to the idea that “playing with something physical is better and therefore children shouldn’t be allowed technology”.
In Kirsty Thompson’s classroom at the Iona school, the children don’t even have any ready-made toys in the room. They have to use their imagination to make what they want. Here boys and girls are playing together, rather than self-segregating, to make towers from wooden blocks and to play dressing up with cotton and woollen sheets.
Thompson, who joined the Iona last September, says for her the school offers a daily affirmation of why she wanted to be a teacher. “In the state schools I worked in, the focus was primarily on number crunching,” she says. “I was sat in meetings and it was all about statistics. Here we talk about the children as people.”