On Education (I)

Working as a school librarian, I am currently in an interesting place in the education sector. I am able to work on the front line for the benefit of our nation’s children, without being hampered by pressure for results or the oft-criticised National Curriculum. Because of this, I sometimes see places where we can march forward to a better standard of universal education. So, I would like to bring up the issue of mobile telephones.

Like everybody else I know, I read and shared the articles this week citing a report that “PHONES IMPEDE THE PROGRESS OF OUR CHILDREN” and “SCHOOLS THAT BAN PHONES GET BETTER RESULTS”. However I would like to question, if not outright disagree with, the survey’s findings. Is the reason for this is that we are not using the technology to its fullest effect?

Obviously if you’re texting in class and not getting enough sleep because you’re up late on tumblr then that’s not helping your education. Obviously the selfie is not a classroom media revolution. But suggesting these are the only ways to use your phone in class is the same as saying pencil & paper impede your learning because people pass notes.

Phones are a vital part of modern life: I’m sure Swallows & Amazons, or even my own parents, didn’t have to send a text to say what time they’d be home, but by my adolescence in the noughties my parents would have been furious if I hadn’t done so. Schoolchildren are more likely to own a smartphone than a book – not actually that surprising given the social and safety security they bring. Your child would be considered illiterate if they could not navigate word-processing, spreadsheets, the internet and generally communicate effectively using modern technology. The best way to ensure your child’s social and intellectual wellbeing, as well as their freedom and safety, is to procure for them a smartphone – historically the most effective hire purchase you can make (although, of course, there is no choice: library provision is FREE across England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. You do not need to own books to have them in your house and provide them for your children).

This post is not about safeguarding children online. Even one child being harmed is too many, and so safeguarding is and I’m sure will continue to be the major issue for schools regarding technology; but overblown fears of online bullying or grooming are being used as an excuse to not move with the times. 90% of the children we work with are carrying around better technology than the school can afford to equip them with. Most students have smartphones, and many providers expect you to upgrade yearly and provide packages tailored for you to do so. It would be much easier and extravagantly cheaper to have a ‘hardship fund’ for the two or three children in school without smartphones, and for the government to strike a deal with a company (for example, Nokia, who are flagging behind the market leader despite their advances) to give a renewal discount to school pupils, than it would be for each school to buy iPads, or even a class set of hideous and clunky RM laptops, and need to replace them every three years as is inevitable. For once, by simply rewriting a single policy document, the public sector could be on the same footing as private schools who have money to burn, regularly, on hard and softwares, books and photocopying when all these things could be hosted or downloaded at a fraction of the cost if we utilised what the pupils, in most cases, already have. In addition, because people would inevitably be working on different operating systems the whole class would learn to be intuitive rather than instructed. Bonus.

We underestimate the maturity of our pupils and the skill of our teachers when we refuse to let them adapt to the modern world. We deny teachers the right to be creative in their lesson delivery or to vary their teaching – or not, nobody would be forced to use technology, just like not everybody is forced to use mini-whiteboards or worksheets or smiley face stickers when they’re marking. We deny teachers another privilege to revoke and another way in which we might equip the future generation with the skills they need to make them rounded and also employable humans. We treat children like children and, as a consequence, they behave like children. We treat every child and group of children without discrimination and we dismiss the skills that they already have and could learn with.

I do not suggest ‘carte blanche’ phone use in schools, by any means: I am fully aware of the potential for harm pupils can do to both one another and teachers, but we need to assess which functions would cause more harm than good (example – cameras) and what would benefit a class full of pupils (example – pupils can be quizzed at their own pace, without needing to book out an IT suite or waste time with inevitable problems logging on) and alter our policies accordingly. Perhaps information literacy should become like maths, where you must learn to do things both with and without a calculator. Such as it is still possible to do sums wrong on a calculator, spellcheck isn’t always right and signal isn’t always there. We should be teaching children how to learn and think, not spoon-feeding them information, and they ought to be able to problem-solve on a computer and IRL. The thing the media as a whole really appear to have not grasped or even noticed is the difference between directed and non-directed ICT use: a teacher telling you to look at an article online is not the same as a cheeky peek at facebook, which isn’t any more or less conducive to a pupil’s learning than it is to you keeping your phone in your top drawer and checking buzzfeed or texting your SO. Directed ICT use is encouraged by groups as varied as OFSTED and Pintrest’s teacher community – the only difference with mobile usage would be the platform.

In an ideal world, perhaps the government would write an app for schools, or lead-line school roofs and force children to use schools’ safety-monitored wifi, but they normally deal with these things in such a ham-fisted way I am loathe to suggest that. Instead, smartphones ought to make it onto the lists of things parents are expected to buy – uniform, dictionary, textbooks, revision guides, scientific calculator, homework planner (all but one of those replaceable by an internet-enabled phone).

School technology is overpriced, generally of a poor standard and rarely updated because of the crippling expense. Despite the inherent difficulties, I really think phones in class is the answer – somehow.


Computers/phones are bad for pupils: BBCGuardian

Popularity of phones vs books: Telegraph

Proper report, like (secondary reading): LSE

Statistics (probably out-of-date but still relevant): Royal Statistical Society

Thanks to Darren Flynn and the School Librarian Network for their insightful comments on directed/non-directed IT use and the other functions of mobiles.