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Why smartphones don’t belong in class


‘MOBILE phones in class help learning, top teacher claims’. This headline appeared in the Times a few days ago. It was reporting the views of Jane Prescott concerning the use of mobile phones in the classroom. She is headmistress at Portsmouth High School and the new president of the Girls’ Schools Association. 

Rather than ‘demonising’ the technology, she declared, schools should recognise that ‘there are huge positives. Communication is easier and better for a start. It’s our responsibility in schools to show the positive aspects of having a mobile phone, what it really is for and overcoming the negatives’.

 As significant benefits to having phones in class, she highlighted their capacity for allowing pupils to conduct research and to photograph homework tasks.

A leading article in the Times backed the Girls’ Schools Association president for what it described as her ‘novel idea to welcome smartphones into the classroom’.

On February 10, 2018, another Times article gave a rather different slant on mobile phone use in the classroom. It was headlined ‘Tech-free schools for children of Silicon Valley’. It began: ‘The Waldorf School of the Peninsula is small, exclusive and packed with the children of Silicon Valley executives who love the role that technology plays in the pupils’ education there. That is, it plays no role whatsoever.’  

Many bosses in the US technology industry are sending their own children to schools that ban smartphones and tablets until pupils hit the teens. Even then, digital devices are used only sparingly in the classroom.

The addictive quality of digital technology is widely recognised. The World Health Organisation includes ‘gaming disorder’ on its International Classification of Diseases. Baroness Susan Greenfield’s seminal book Mind Change sets out how young brains, in particular, are being rewired by the new technology.

 Whose judgment should we trust when it comes to using smartphones in the classroom? Should it be the persuasive rationality of their latest ‘expert’ defender from the Girls’ Schools Association or should it be the personal judgment of those who make a great deal of money from their sale? More generally, should we trust consumers or producers?

In the past I have described some of the most addictive software used in classrooms as ‘educational cocaine’.

Young people are already overdosing on technology and common sense should warn us that they need a respite. There are plenty of UK schools where classroom use of digital technology, including smartphones, is at saturation level. UK pupils are, indeed, amongst the top users around the world. The most successful school systems globally, however, are much less technology-orientated.

 Overdosing on technology can do more harm than good.

 The alternative to smartphones-learning is not, as the Times leader would have us believe, the rote-learning drudgery of Charles Dickens’s wonderfully caricatured teacher-cum pantomime villain, Thomas Gradgrind. Indeed, the technology-free Waldorf schools, so favoured by Silicon Valley computer software moguls for their own children, could hardly be less Gradgrindian.

 A Waldorf schools spokesman told the Times for its 2018 story that their tech-free schools are ‘a very attractive option for people in the tech world for their children. All employers, tech world or not, are looking for graduates these days who can think independently, take initiative, are capable of collaborating, have curiosity and creativity’.

The article quoted Joe Clement, teacher and co-author of the book Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber: ‘A lot of people are saying at the very least let’s pump the breaks before we turn our kids’ brains over to Apple, Microsoft, Google and HP.’

Four days before its endorsement of using smartphones in classrooms the Times carried an article entitled ‘The Silicon Valley insider who says turn off your phone’. The insider, Tristan Harris, has briefed world leaders and has testified to the US Congress. He warns that the technology is leading to ‘shortening of attention spans, addiction, disinformation, narcissism, outrage, polarisation. This is measurable. Half of teenagers and more than a quarter of parents feel “addicted” to their mobile devices, a 2016 study for the charity Common Sense Media found’. 

Before jumping in to support the classroom use of smartphones and to belittle what it describes as ‘technological jeremiads’ dating back to the 19th century, the Times would have done well to have read the evidence of its own reporting. Digital technology has an important part to play in educating our children but overdosing on any drug is ill-advised and dangerous.

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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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