Why schools shouldn't ban smartphones

I was asked to write an opinion piece for the Western Morning News earlier this week as a response to the comments from Ofsted and their advisers on the use of technology in schools. Many teachers are left wondering whether personal technologies such as smartphones actually have a place in education and what risks and threats accompany them. My view is that children can and do use technology to support their learning but they need to be guided to do so responsibly.

(It has been edited from my original longer version and can also be viewed here on the newspaper site).

When slate was replaced by paper there was a public outcry. Many complained that paper and pencils were too expensive, and that they would ruin children’s writing skills. Sound familiar?
Progress within education is not a new dilemma, and has been discussed for generations. But why is technology still a bone of contention? By its nature, it moves on while schools can be notoriously conservative places where little change happens.
As for smartphones, some claim there is no scientific evidence that technology has improved learning in schools, and I took part in a public debate almost a decade ago where this question was raised. I answered with a single phrase: “special educational needs”. Suddenly the debate was over and my opponent conceded the point.
For many children who have physical or cognitive impairment, technology doesn’t just support learning, it enables learning to happen. This is just one example. I can take you to many schools in the Plymouth area where technology is being used responsibly and creatively to engage children, enhancing, extending and enriching their learning experiences.
They use smartphones and tablets to solve maths problems, blog to develop their creative writing skills, build robots and learn how to code. These are new forms of literacy I didn’t learn in school, but they are transferable skills that will be needed in the future, when our children enter a world of work significantly different from today.
Many children have a natural affinity with technology. They bring their smartphones into the classroom, and will use them whether schools ban them or not. Teachers are wary of the darker side of mobile phones. They worry about children accessing dangerous content, or using cameras to send each other images they wouldn’t want their parents to see.
Recently there have also been warnings from Ofsted that mobile phones are distracting children from their lessons. These are reasonable concerns. Children are easily distracted by texting in class, but to completely ban smartphones in schools is short-sighted, and ignores a fundamental truth of our present society. Like it or not, we are surrounded by technology, and it isn’t going away.
Technology is neutral until used for a specific purpose, good or for bad. We shouldn’t blame smartphones for the way they are used. Instead it would be wise to harness the power of these tools for learning and teach children to use them responsibly. Children need to be taught from an early age about acceptable use, and every school should include digital citizenship in its curriculum. This would go a long way to addressing the problem.
At an education conference in New Zealand a few years ago a primary school principal in my audience said: “We don’t allow the Internet in our school. There are too many dangers.” My response was: “So you don’t teach your children to safely cross the road either – because that’s also dangerous?”
Technology has its dangers. But surely school is the safest place for children to learn how to use technology? It is a controlled environment where they can ask questions and discover for themselves what to avoid. If schools don’t manage this process, children will learn how to use technology in their bedrooms or behind the bike sheds. But to what dangers might they be exposed, and who will know to help them?
Teaching should never be led by technology, but technology can influence change. Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer, once commented: “Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.”
Teachers should not simply deliver content. Indeed, there is evidence that teachers’ roles are changing because of technology. Many encourage students to drive their own education, and the technology supports this independent learning.
As students take more responsibility, teachers adopt the roles of questioner, coach and facilitator. The teacher becomes a guide, a mentor in the room for when children need expert help. Teachers will not be replaced by technology, but teachers who use technology will probably replace those who don’t.
When smartphones are used appropriately, learning can continue beyond the walls of the classroom. Children can learn on the move, because they have a connection to their course work and to their teacher and peers through their phone – if the school allows it. Ban them, and the opportunities are more limited. Learning doesn’t need to be confined to school hours. If their experience is exciting and motivating, children will want to continue learning long after the school bell. A passion for learning is the best preparation for the future.
Technology is like water to a fish. It surrounds us, and we rarely notice it, but we use it all the time. Instead of keeping children away from the water, we should teach them to swim. Any alternative would be unthinkable.
Photo by Anthony Kelly on Flickr
Creative Commons License
Why schools shouldn't ban smartphones by Steve Wheeler was written in Manchester, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Ari Yares said…
Grateful for this post. I've been seeing this re-posted on Facebook (http://imgur.com/Gp4fraq) and it ignores the utility of the smartphone in the classroom (not to mention the have vs. have not issues). A strategy like this is fighting the students rather than co-opting their behavior.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for the link share Ari!
John Laskaris said…
It seems to me that for some teachers it's safer to prevent using smartphones than to use them as a learning tools. Shouldn't be like this. It's like trying to escape from the future by moving back. Sensless :(
bambang irwanto said…
Very good to Yout article. Good job!
Unknown said…
My two sons have recently started at a new secondary school in NSW where they allow the smartphones into the classroom. At first I was concerned however all my concerns re abuse etc have unfounded. One of the two does not take it to school as he uses the school computers the other one is happy to use it as a research tool and communication with me during lunch hour. He knows when to use it and is trusted with it. They are both teenagers.
Steve Wheeler said…
I suppose many teachers are pressured and don't have much time to check out the benefits and risks John. But as you say, it's ultimately senseless when kids use their devices all the time to connect with friends. We should be showing them how to safely connect to learning. Thanks for stopping by.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for this example. In my experience, any school (and I visit many across the globe) where there are teachers who take the time to scaffold good behaviour around smart phones and other technology, is a school where the risks are minimised and where learning is enhanced.
Kevin said…
It is my view that we need to first establish what our learning needs are, how these are represented in the nature and types of behaviours and then find ways of creating a learning environment that meets the needs of the learner whilst also developing in them the ability to manage their own learning. In this way we move beyond the limiting thinking of “behaviours” and “technology” and focus on assisting or aiding learning. This will give us a measure against which to assess any ideas, technologies, or approaches.
EkoNomo said…
I prefer to say that there are uses where technology can help, but isn't always true and cannot always be marked as a conservative choice. Recently my boss asked use to share our comments in PRIVATE meetings using... Twitter. We didn't agree, telling that was "dangerous" for the infos that we could share. So she told me"so you wouldn't give a knife to your son, to eat, because is dangerous? You should teach him how to use it safely". Well, I answered "but I wouldn't give him a chainsaw to cut a chicken breast". So, it depends if you use technology for something that gives you some real added value, instead of a simple time saving.
Steve Wheeler said…
I think this is the basis of my argument really, and I have articulated this in previous posts. Technology should only be integrated into education if it can add something positive to improve teaching/learning. I believe, from my substantial travels and visits to schools in several countries, that smartphones do provide those possibilities, but that they should be carefully scaffolded. And no, I don't see them as the metaphorical equivalent to chainsaws - but thanks for the best laugh I have had today :)
Steve Wheeler said…
I agree with all that Kevin, as is evidenced in other posts on this blog.
John Laskaris said…
My pleasure, Steve. I'm afraid it's not just the lack of time, though. I suspect that more often then not teachers just don't "get" the technology behind tablets or smartphones, which is a shame.
Dirk said…
Mijn mening over dit onderwerp is heel eenvoudig. Natuurlijk moet je mobiele telefoons verbannen uit de scholen. Het is belangrijk dat leerlingen zich optimaal focussen op de lesstof. Een telefoon is dan ook een enorme afleiding, want de hele dag wordt er geappt, gefacebooked of filmpjes bekeken. Het is dan ook erg belangrijk dat scholen hier een oplossing voor gaan vinden!
Steve Wheeler said…
Translation of Dirk's comment: My opinion on this issue is very simple. Of course you banned mobile phones from schools. It is important that students focus fully on the curriculum. A telephone is also a huge distraction, because the day is geappt ,facebooked or watched videos. It is therefore very important that schools will find a solution for this !

My response: Thanks for the comment Dirk, but it really depends on the teacher rather than the technology. Technology can be a distraction, if it is allowed to be, but it can also support learning in new and previously unattainable ways too. Which will schools choose? Depends on the leadership of each school. I have visited several schools recently where such tools are used effectively to support learning, and there has been no distraction, because the tools are being used responsibly and embedded into the lessons. Schools can continue to ban technology because of the reasons you give above, but that's only one dimension. We all need to wake up and see the whole picture and all the possibilities!

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