Nick Gibb, Minister of State at the Department for Education in the UK, thinks they should. The comment was voiced in a recent article by The Times newspaper, in which the Minister voiced his concerns for young people who use smartphones excessively.
I have my own concerns regarding young people and smart devices. In my experience as a teacher in the UK, I come across cases of students bullying other students using smartphone apps on a weekly basis. As well as causing hurt to the students themselves, it greatly worries parents and can involve police investigation. I have been shown disturbing messages that students have received from other students, and consequently been involved in the safeguarding processes that ensue. On the less dramatic side of things, I encounter students on a daily basis, who are tired in lessons as a result of using devices late into the night. In The Times article, Nick Gibb also mentions the tiredness that excessive use of smartphones can cause. So, is he right to want to ban these devices from school altogether? I don't think so. He is, of course, benevolent in his intentions. However banning smartphones in school doesn't solve any of the issues raised.
Banning smartphones in schools doesn't stop a student staying up late on their device, it doesn't stop online bullying and it certainly doesn't prepare students for the world in which they live. Only education and guidance are the key. Whenever a new technology breaks into the mainstream, it tends to scare people. When the printing press was invented, the Catholic Church spoke out against the mass production of Bibles and when books became mainstream, people genuinely worried that if a person read too much, it would damage their eyesight - a worry that we now associate with the use of screens. We didn't ban books, on the contrary, we now encourage reading at every opportunity in schools. The banning of books is an act associated with a fascist dictatorship. Instead, we actively educate our children about types of literature and the context of the stories they read. In a similar way, banning smartphones in schools won't solve the issues students face, but merely sweep them under the carpet. They are still going to use them outside of school. Surely, it's our job as teachers to show our students how to use these devices in an appropriate and valuable way, and not just pretend they don't exist.
Smartphones, and whatever a smartphone will evolve into in the near future, are here to stay. They are as much a part of our students' lives as the air they breathe. We can't ignore them. As the writer Kurt Vonnegut put it, when explaining modern novels: "I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex." Modern technology is entwined in our students' lives. We need to embrace the smartphone as an invaluable tool for (what is commonly known as the 4 C's) communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. In fact, our students already are using their smartphones to learn! If they want to learn something, they watch a video on YouTube - just ask my 13 year old gamer students who stay up late learning how to play a game. They communicate in various ways on Snapchat, they collaborate on Minecraft, they create their own videos on TikTok and they critically think to progress through missions on Call of Duty. As teachers, we cannot think that we have a monopoly on teaching. That smartphone is probably teaching them more than we could ever imagine. So, we are left with a choice: ban them or embrace them as a valuable learning tool.
How do we embrace the smartphone as a valuable learning tool? We engage them through it, using the multitude of pedagogically sound edtech apps available (for ideas check out our Vault podcast). Most importantly we use Google Classroom, as a way to share resources, set assignments and track progress. We allow students to demonstrate their learning through it, in the content they produce. Many schools see the value in 1:1 devices and provide chromebooks for their students. These strategies are enhancing learning all over the world. Many schools in the UK lack money, however as my friend Steven Hope said to me while we were walking around the London Excel at BETT 2019, "why spend thousands on devices for students when they already have thousands of pounds worth in their pockets."
Now, for my last point (for now). Many of you who have reservations are no doubt worried about the smartphone in school distracting students. While chatting to Richard Walls (Director of Innovation and Technology at Viktor Rydberg Schools Foundation) off air after our recent interview with him - not yet released - he explained that students using their device in an inappropriate way is a behaviour management issue, not a device issue. Just as we teach students behavioural attitudes for learning in every other aspect of school, it will be the same with the smartphone or device. Which begs the question, does the initial distraction that a smartphone may cause warrant the benefits of using it for learning. Yes, absolutely. Students will learn how to use their devices appropriately, then the benefits of a smart device in the classroom will enhance learning in an amazing way. And to address the issues at the start of this blog, when students learn how to use their devices appropriately in class, this will impact their use of them outside of school.
Our students are going to be using devices for the rest of their lives, whether this be a personal device or a work device. Let's give them a head start in how to use them in the best possible way. This may mean we have to train our teachers first.
Should we ban mobile phones from the classroom? Well, that would be like banning pens because they are sharp and can be used to doodle.