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Chris McGovern: Ban mobile phones in the classroom. The chief inspector is right


“Any Head worth their salt should stand up and ban mobiles”, Ofsted boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, told The Daily Telegraph last week. This week, in contrast, a headline in The Times read,  “Use mobile phones in class, say private heads”. Are we dealing, here with some dumb independent school head teachers or has the chief inspector got it wrong?

One thing for sure, of the 7 billion plus people on our planet, 6 billion plus have access to a mobile phone whilst only 4.5 billion have access to a working lavatory. Modern technology is truly ubiquitous. I gleaned this interesting fact from Mind Change, Baroness Susan Greenfield’s recent book on the impact of digital technology on our brains. It is a controversial publication that anyone interested in the impact of cyber technology should read, not least, head teachers.

As a distinguished neuroscientist, Greenfield would like to see more of us using our brains and, indeed, our good sense in determining how we harness the power of technology in order to benefit our children rather than to harm them. The thrust of her argument is based on the remarkably simple syllogism that:

  “… firstly, the human brain adapts to the environment; secondly, the environment is changing in an unprecedented way; so thirdly, the brain may also be changing in an unprecedented way.”

We will not know for some years the impact of the physiological changes to the brain consequent upon over-exposure to the virtual world of the computer screen. Amongst children it may, already, be leading to a decrease in attention span, an inability to concentrate, to listen, to follow instructions and to consider others.

One thing seems certain. Addiction to digital technology activates, stimulates and affects the brain in the same way as drug addiction. As Greenfield points out, unless we investigate and address digital addiction issues that are emerging in children from a young age, we may be storing up some serious problems for the future.

Although a few commentators have criticised Greenfield for scaremongering, most of what she writes simply précises the conclusions of around 350 peer-reviewed publications of other scientific research publications.

These days, of course, any questioning of the benefits of digital technology is seen as Luddite. Michael Wilshaw’s view on mobile phones in the classroom is certainly viewed in that light by the private school heads interviewed by Nicola Woolcock, education correspondent for The Times.  Again and again we are told by many in the educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, that the future of education and learning is digital. Wilshaw may have some reservations about mobile phones but his inspectors are zealous enforcers of digital technology in schools. For a school to gain the ‘outstanding’ rating, it must be using computers across the curriculum ‘big time’.

In practice, this means that the choice of lesson content for individual subjects is driven by the need to demonstrate the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) rather than respecting the integrity of the subject being taught. Instead of being a subject tool, too often ICT becomes a subject master.

Most head teachers have become wedded to the new technology and most teachers know that their future career will probably be dependent upon an unwavering commitment to it. Susan Greenfield’s book is likely to be shunned by them or condemned. It takes the reader into territory that will challenge much of what they hold as holy writ.

Wilshaw is right to call for a ban on mobile phones in the classroom. Children are being subjected to a tsunami of digital stimulation. Many are becoming addicted.  This is alarming. Greenfield is right to sound a warning that it may not be ‘climate change’ that defines our future but ‘mind change’.


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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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