Editorial - Chaos in the classroom. Pandemonium in the playground. But mobiles can bring benefits, too

Gerard Kelly

"Council to give binmen iPads" sneered the press this week. A short headline packed with lots of very British prejudice: wasteful councils; stupid binmen; expensive technology. It didn't matter that the local authority said its proposal would save it money. Who needs evidence when the pack sniffs lunacy? The local Tory MP argues, without irony, that refuse collectors can make do with clipboards and pencils but that MPs should be allowed to use electronic devices in the Commons.

When it comes to technology, most teachers regard their pupils as binmen. And not without reason. Technology, in particular mobile phones, can be facilitators of disorder, indiscipline, even, as last month witnessed, riots. In the classroom they can be at best a distraction and at worst a tool for bullying. It is an article of faith for many teachers, particularly those in challenging schools, that phones must be banned if order is to be imposed. So a report championing their use as teaching aids from a bunch backed by the mobile phone industry, of all people, is hardly likely to change their minds (page 15).

Which is where the Bible comes in handy. That bit about wisdom from the mouths of babes and self-interested telephone companies. Good ideas can come from unlikely sources. Just because smartphones can be agents of chaos does not mean that they can't also be instruments of learning. The archives of The TES are full of fulminations against the cinema, wireless and television and the subversive role each played undermining the authority of the teacher and enhancing the disorderly tendencies of pupils. All of those fears at some level were justified. And all obscured the benefits of new media.

The gizmos available to the iGeneration, however, are far scarier than earlier technologies. Their young owners are not just passive recipients of programmes shaped by adults - they are active players who can make, comment, enhance, warp and broadcast. Today's technology is inherently disruptive. It poses a direct challenge to a pedagogic model based on the transmission of knowledge from experts to learners. To embrace it is to be humbled. But today's technology is also inherently educational. It motivates children to explore, to collaborate, to learn and create - and not just mayhem.

A few pioneering schools in the UK encourage pupils to use mobiles, iPods and iPads as learning aids. Fads and nonsense, the critics cry. Perhaps. Technophiles can be as unconvincing as Luddites. But we do live in a different world - one in which students use iPods to download lectures and poems as well as Adele. They create, share, cheat and collaborate in something called a cloud. This is both destabilising and invigorating. Should schools stop it or channel it? Or put another way, do they really want to lag Bury's binmen?


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Gerard Kelly

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