Game of phones

11th September 2015 at 01:00

I love my mobile phone. If the building was on fire, I’d leave the cat (if I had one) and grab Siri. I use it aaall the time; I check the flat black teat more than is reasonably justifiable. It has become my newspaper in the morning, my clock, my diary, my map, an emergency word processor and my very north. Sometimes I even use it to phone people.

In fact, I love smartphones so much that I ban them from my classrooms. This policy makes some kids howl, although most of them get it.

Some kids don’t, though. They might broadly understand that they probably shouldn’t be streaming Breaking Bad in double English, but they’ll bristle and bray if you reprimand them for sneaking in some Snapchat banter between the more interesting parts of your lesson. “I was just checking the time!” they’ll tell you.

I’m an adult; I grew up in a world where phones were barely sentient, let alone smart. There’s a scene in the Wall Street sequel – a film I happily recommend you avoid like warts – where Gordon Gekko is released after decades in prison. The guard hands him back his 1980s gadgets; the phone is the size of a brick. That’s what I grew up with: indestructible menhirs that could store eight texts before freezing.

The point is that I had the benefit of not becoming habituated into a smartphone addiction. I acquired that later in life.

Today’s cyber-children have been born into this culture. Despite claims that they’re digital natives (which implies proficiency and mastery), they’re actually more like digital consumers (implying passivity and powerlessness). Some outliers are hackers and cyber-shamans, but most don’t even know how to set their Facebook privacy settings.

Experience and research shows me that the more access they have to smartphones in the classroom, the more students become distracted. Who can blame them? It takes me twice as long to get anything done if the internet is only an arm’s length away.

Learning isn’t always gripping. Sometimes it’s just hard work, as it should be, and sometimes you need to graft through the hard stuff to get to the fruit of learning. In May, a study by the London School of Economics found that children who were denied smartphones in the classroom accrued the equivalent of days’ worth of extra learning, because they weren’t exposed to the soothing temptations of a device that is simultaneously friend, theatre and arcade. And who accrues the most benefit? The least able. Those furthest behind. The ones who need to focus most.

There’s also a child-safety issue: if they’re surfing unsupervised, they can access anything. It’s my duty to make sure they aren’t exposed to things they can’t handle.

Those who tell me that phones have uses in class are missing the point; anything can be used to enhance education, but not everything is so heavy with distractions. I care more for my pupils’ flourishing than I do for their immediate comfort. Isn’t that what being a teacher is really about?

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s new school behaviour expert

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