Yet again, the use of mobile phones in school is in the news. Last week’s Daily Telegraph saw an article from Culture Secretary Matt Hancock encouraging headteachers to ban phones and a letter from several conservative MPs suggesting that the DfE tell schools to ban mobiles from schools. But as Schoolsweek has reported, according to the DfE, 95% of schools already ban mobile phones, so this appeared to be just a story that “some people say schools should carry on doing what they already do”.
However, the following day, this was taken a step further by former Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who suggested that a law against mobiles in schools was needed.
These comments mark a real contrast to Matt Hancock, who was careful to support Headteachers in making their own decisions, saying that it was up to individual schools to decide rather than government. His reinforcement of the principle of school-led decision-making is definitely a good thing even if it might be just telling schools something they already know. But the call for a law against mobile phones is likely to continue to be heard given that such a law has just been passed in France.
But, if we can agree that school leaders should have freedom to make decisions about their schools, what should they do?
Clearly, it is easy to imagine how a mobile phone might be a distraction in the classroom but teachers should be empowered to decide when phones are not appropriate and should be put away. But also, the call to ban mobile phones is itself a distraction from some really pressing issues about how we teach young people to use technology and social media safely. While there is much talk of the dangers of mobile phones, we also need to acknowledge the opportunities that phones provide for our children. Even if they are banned in school, young people will continue to use phones in safe or unsafe ways outside of school. Our focus as educators should be less about prevention and more about enabling our students to fully participate in democratic society and that includes how they use technology. We appear to be missing an opportunity here to think about how pupils (and their teachers) might use technologies more effectively and more safely.
In addition, research shows that mobile phones can offer real learning opportunities in the classroom. This week, on the first day of the Open Conference on Computers in Education (OCCE 2018), Markus Hohenwarter from Linz University spoke about his research into GeoGabra. This app allows pupils to learn and interact with powerful mathematical ideas in ways that are impossible without technology. By using mobile phones with the GeoGabra augmented reality app pupils can see, explore and even walk through complex mathematical ideas in the classroom (for example, the image below shows the equation z= sin (x) sin (y) floating outside the OÖ Kulturquartier in Linz). For Hohenwarter, the future is mobile.
This is just one example and the list of potential uses of mobile phones in the classroom is extensive: whether to assess pupils (e.g. Kahoot), write programs (e.g. PocketCode) or support individual learning needs (e.g. Augmentative and Alternative Communication apps), etc. A quick search for mobile learning will give plenty of examples of ways in which skilled teachers can use mobile phones productively.
In the end, this argument comes down to giving teachers freedom to use their professional judgement. We should let teachers allow mobile phones when they are helping pupils learn and to put them away when they would be a distraction. Many schools already do this pretty well and encouraging them to make pupils hand in their phones at the start of the day will only take away potential opportunities to learn.