Anti-socially mobile? What I really think about classroom tech

31st August 2015 at 16:57

Tom Bennett reflects on the Great Tech Debate of 2015

This may shock you, but I don’t think mobile phones should be banned from school. Or iPads from the classroom. It won’t shock you if you have the wit to read entire articles rather than headlines, or the wisdom to triangulate your sources before swallowing a story entire. I’ve had a merry few days wrestling like The Rock with incensed people on social media who appear to think my ideal classroom is a stool, some sand and a stick. I don’t. Here’s what I think, for future reference, and I might just link back to this to save me a bit of time next time the digital posse feel like a bit of exercise:

  1. Smartphones can be extraordinarily distracting for students, as can any device that supports social media, music, games, film, surfing, etc. It’s hard enough to get kids to focus without putting a distraction in front of them. So, unless there’s a very good reason to have them out, I recommend a school policy that keeps them in their holsters until you really need them. 
  2. That isn’t a ban, despite the ambitions of reductivists everywhere hungry for a headline or clickbait. 
  3. On that basis, I think the default should be, as with any potential distraction in the classroom, not to allow them until careful consideration has taken place of how they impact the learning. If the students are extremely good at focussing or self-restraint, then by all means allow them the freedom to have them out, or use them whenever. But that decision must be a conscious one to allow, not an unconscious one to forget to forbid. 
  4. I don’t think that’s very controversial.
  5. When using tech in the classroom, consider why tech is being used. Is there a low-tech alternative? Is the tech an important tool or is it merely a novelty. Asking pupils to write a blog for example; fine, but could the aims of the task be met as easily by simply setting an essay? 
  6. The internet is sometimes dark and full of terrors. We have a duty to protect children from accessing potentially harmful material, so I recommend, as a child protection issue, monitoring and carefully prescribing the areas they are allowed to visit. Maybe they look at Brazzers and at home. Our concern is what they do with us. 
  7. The educational benefits of integrating tech must always be weighed up against any potential drawbacks it might have, as with any intervention. 
  8. Some teachers love using tech with their classes. Great. If they can do so and genuinely see a general benefit that can’t be obtained in a lo-fi way, then good. But if the tech gets in the way of the learning, or it isn’t a good fit between teacher, topic and student, then the school shouldn’t impose this. Of course there are many useful things that tech can do, and the problem with people sniffing a ‘ban tech’ story is that they immediately reach for their anecdotes about how tech works for them. That’s not the point. The danger is when people believe that learning is universally and irrefutably improved by moving everything onto iPads or similar platforms. There isn’t any evidence to support the claim that children learn better using iPads than without, or similar. There are lots of interesting case studies, and some small experiments that certainly suggest further investigation. But centuries of children have learned pretty well without such things, so consider low-tech to be the default and high-tech the propositional claim to be proven. 
  9. There is, however, a good deal of evidence to suggest that many pupils find smartphones, etc, distracting, and that impedes their focus, with a knock on effect of lost time in the class. Your class, your school, might be impeccably behaved. I’m delighted for you, you can do what you like. Many schools aren’t, and should consider restricting access to devices. A 2015 LSE project, for example, found that this deficit was quantifiable, especially for the less-able. 
  10. A final point about culture. I’m glued to my phone. I wake up and reach for it. I check it every five minutes. At least I had the benefit of growing up without that addiction. And, having given up fags a few years ago, I can confidently say that smartphones are addictive, and if we care about children at all, we should help create spaces for them where they aren't allowed to constantly chew on the thin black plastic teat of their iPhones. We need to help them detox a little. Self-restraint is only learned through actual restraint, not just wishing it were so.  

So while headlines like ‘BEHAVIOUR TSAR BANS ELECTRICITY’ might trigger the easily triggered, I kind of hope people might read past the headlines and consider the context. My God, maybe we do need to make media studies compulsory after all. Tip: if the headline makes a claim that isn’t backed up in the body of the piece, then ask questions, rather than scamper over the cliff of righteous froth.

And here are some things I’ve learned in my short time as chair of a working party looking into low-level disruption and ITT reform:

  1. Behaviour tsar is a much snappier title (even though I’m not one) than chair of a working party looking into low-level disruption and ITT reform.
  2. Some people refer to me as a government behaviour expert as if I were an employee, or indeed represented the offical government view. Neither of these are true.
  3. Some stories are too good to check.
  4. I have no control over any of the above.

It’s no skin off my custard, and moaning about it is as useful as complaining that the rain makes you wet. But it’s an interesting epistemological centrifuge within which to find oneself. It’s said that a lie is halfway round the world before the truth can put its boots on. Add Twitter to that analogy and you could say that the lie goes all the way round and steals the boots while the truth is still snoring. 

I've been given a fantastic opportunity to look at how we can improve ITT with reference to behaviour-management training. I think it's a long time coming, and I'm delighted we're finally talking about it explicitly, rather than pretending it isn't an issue. Here's hoping that, as a teaching community, we can do some collective good.