Christmas has been and gone, leaving in its wake millions of teenagers agog at the tiny little screens that were hiding under trees. New incarnations of mobile “phones” – the term is a misnomer when these portable entertainment systems are scarcely used as a phone by anyone under 30 – are the must-have festive gift each year. And teachers gearing up for the new term know the latest models are about to become the bane of their lives.
When a nearby mobile phone rings or you hear the ping of a text message, if you’re anything like me you’ll check your own phone just in case you’ve missed something. Each time, it takes a moment to settle back into whatever task was in hand before the dopamine rush induced by those plangent little beeping sounds.
And if a phone goes off in a classroom of socially obsessed teenagers during a dull lesson on a warm afternoon, the chances of getting full unbroken concentration is pretty low. So it’s no surprise that banning mobile phones in the classroom would improve performance by almost 7 per cent – the annual equivalent of an extra week in school – according to research from the London School of Economics (you can take a look at the paper at bit.ly/PhonesSchool).
The large-scale study focused on schools in three English cities that banned mobile phones. It found that such schools experienced an increase in the proportion of pupils getting five good passes in their GCSEs.
It makes total sense. What’s more important to the average teenager, learning or social status? And having their status confirmed by the incessant peeping of their pals via internet-connected devices brings far swifter gratification than slogging towards an exam at the end of the year.
Mobiles negatively affect pupils not only academically but also socially. Schools that have strict uniform policies to iron out differences in financial status will find this work undone immediately once pupils reveal their mobile of choice. This puts extra pressure on the parents of poorer kids who are emotionally blackmailed into buying them an iPhone 6 or whatever, to stop their child feeling ostracised.
Part of the problem of a blanket ban is the parents who insist on their child having a phone in school just in case they need to contact them. I put it to these parents that a call to the school office generally works in getting messages through. A mobile phone allows pupils to phone home if they don’t like the way the lesson is going or how they are being treated, which is far from ideal.
There is an argument for phones to be used as search engines or calculators, but again we end up with the same problem: the temptation to open that just-arrived email is just too strong.
Of course for a classroom “phone ban” to be really successful there’s one unpalatable course of action we’d have to take – a ban on teachers’ mobiles, too.
Gordon Cairns is an English and Forest School teacher in Glasgow