Parents working in Silicon Valley are sending their children to a school where there’s not a computer in sight – and they’re not alone
In the heart of Silicon Valley is a nine-classroom school where employees of tech giants Google, Apple and Yahoo send their children. But despite its location in America’s digital centre, there is not an iPad, smartphone or screen in sight.
Instead teachers at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula prefer a more hands-on, experiential approach to learning that contrasts sharply with the rush to fill classrooms with the latest electronic devices. The pedagogy emphasises the role of imagination in learning and takes a holistic approach that integrates the intellectual, practical and creative development of pupils.
But the fact that parents working for pioneering technology companies are questioning the value of computers in education begs the question – is the futuristic dream of high-tech classrooms really in the best interests of the next generation?
A global report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests education systems that have invested heavily in computers have seen “no noticeable improvement” in their results for reading, maths and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests. The OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher says: “If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they’ve been very cautious about using technology in their classroom.”
“Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately,” he adds.
Other reports have raised concerns about the potentially negative impact of social media on young people, and the disruptive behaviour associated with use of mobile phones and tablets in the classroom is being examined in the UK.
Beverly Amico, leader of outreach and development at the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, explains that their approach uses “time-tested truths about how children learn best”. Teachers encourage students to learn curriculum subjects by expressing themselves through artistic activities, such as painting and drawing rather, than consuming information downloaded onto a tablet.
For example, a typical lesson for fourth grade students might include learning about Norse mythology by making their own pictures of the stories, acquiring problem-solving maths skills through knitting or practising a modern language by playing a game of catch.
Amico insists that this more creative approach to education brings lessons to life and is far more effective than showing students a series of images on a screen.
“Lessons are delivered by a human being that not only cares about the child’s education, but also about them as individuals,” she says. “What do you remember as a child in the classroom? It is usually field trips, getting your hands dirty in a lab or a beautiful story. Those are the things that stay with you 50 years later.”
Waldorf classrooms are also designed to make students feel relaxed and comfortable, with natural wooden desks and plants. The idea is to remove the distraction of electronic media and encourage stronger engagement between teacher and pupil during lessons.
Amico claims one of the reasons parents working in the digital industry are choosing a lo-tech, no-tech education for their children is that it teaches students the innovative thinking skills many employers desire. She adds that students weaned on technology often lack that ability to think outside the box and problem solve.
Sarah Thorne, head of the London Acorn school, also questions the assumption that limiting or removing the use of technology in class will have a negative impact on student’s future employability.
Students under the age of 12 at the school in Morden, London, are banned from using smartphones and computers, and watching TV of films at all times, including during holidays. The school’s ethos is of a “gradual integration” of electronic devices throughout the child’s development with students allowed to watch television once they reach 12 years old and then only documentaries that have been previously vetted by parents. They cannot watch films until they are 14; the internet is banned completely for everyone under 16 – at home and and at school; and computers are only to be used as part of the curriculum for over-14s.
It may sound draconian, but Thorne believes taking a more considered approach to the use of technology in class allows teachers to help students develop core skills such as executive decision making, creativity and concentration – all of which are far more important than the ability to swipe an iPad or fill in an Excel spreadsheet. Besides, Thorne adds, much of the technology considered cutting edge today is likely to appear primitive in tomorrow’s world.
“School is a learning journey and you want to make it as complex, rich and interesting as possible. The problem with instant information is that the ease with which you can get from A to B and find the answers doesn’t reflect real life,” she says.
“In terms of concentration in class, we tend to have very little chatting because they are engaged in their learning. Children at our school are very absorbed in their work and that’s because we give them the space to do that.”
Thorne claims feedback from students about the restrictions has been positive; younger pupils relish the opportunity to play and even teenagers who have transitioned from a mainstream school admit they are happier.
Restricting the use of technology is also a challenge for 21st century teachers, used to the easy accessibility of resources and information that the likes of interactive whiteboards and computers allow.
Could computers ever replace teachers?
“It is hard work,” admits Ian Young, a class teacher at Steiner Academy Hereford, where digital devices are only introduced into classrooms after students have reached secondary school age. Even then they have a limited role in learning. According to Sylvie Sklan, the school’s chair of governors, this ethos is informed by a belief that digital devices inhibit imaginative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans and have no place in the education of young children. Again, children are encouraged to learn through play and artistic activities.
Young explains they keep attention by filling lessons with a mixture of different activities whether that’s illustrating books or quiet reading.
“You definitely have to be a lot more creative in how you deliver a lesson,” he says. “You have to work with your voice more, whether it is loud or quiet, to give them incentive. You need to make sure you keep them interested in what’s coming next. That is the craft.”
He adds: “Teaching is about human contact and interaction. I don’t think we are doing children any favours by teaching them through machines at that young age.”
The schools of the future series is funded by Zurich Municipal. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.