The Great Debate: Mobile Phones in Schools

4 October 2022
Huw Lloyd
Female teacher helping a student with work at a table

1970s Classroom Technology

I had the pleasure of visiting Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, a National Trust property which has a museum dedicated to children and childhood, over the summer with my family.

Amongst the toys, books, games and activities is a section dedicated to education and how it has changed over time. They even had a classroom set up in a Victorian style which includes a teacher acting as the authoritarian school mistress beautifully. It still sends shudders down my spine to this day, although, I did avoid wearing the dunce hat!

However, it wasn’t this element which really caught my eye, it was the exhibition on the use of a certain technology in the classroom, looking at its impact on teaching and learning. On one side were articles and documents talking about its positives, about how they can help students, how they enhance teaching and learning and the student’s ability to access their work.

On the other side were articles and arguments on the negatives, pointing to generating a reliance on technology, the distractions it can cause and the disempowerment of teachers. I read with great interest the many articles and arguments, looking at both sides of the debate, considering the impact that the technology has had.

I came up with the conclusion that teachers and schools were right to allow calculators in the classroom in the 1970s, which is when the articles, arguments and debate pieces were taken from. It did make me think though about the parallels which can be drawn with current arguments around a certain technology in the classroom, of course I am talking about mobile phones. 

Mobile Phones – What Should We Do About Them?

I am extremely privileged to be welcomed in to schools across the country to see the amazing work that teachers, school leaders and support staff do for our young people. One of the questions I get asked about the most is mobile phones and what we should do about them.

I accept and understand they can be distracting in lessons. Students checking notifications, messaging each other and receiving contact from home can allow for a lack of focus on learning and get in the way of us delivering our lesson. However, is that the phone’s problem or ours?

I spoke with one headteacher who was discussing as his staff had put it “the blight of mobile phones in lessons” he reflected though and said: “For the last two years I have been telling students that mobile phones are amazing, they can access lessons on them, do research on them, submit work on them, that they are a powerful tool for learning, and now we are back in school we are all saying put your phones away they’re a distraction. No wonder the students are confused and rallying against it.” 

I agree, I believe mobile phones as a usable teaching and learning tool are here to stay, during the pandemic we opened Pandora’s box, let them out and we aren’t ever putting them back in, society has moved on and I believe we have to move with it.

The Zero Tolerance Policy

I am no guru or tsar, but what I am is someone who sees in schools what has worked and what hasn’t. I have seen some schools use a zero-tolerance policy on mobile phones, the idea that if a phone is seen it is automatically confiscated.

I have seen this lead to escalations in behaviour, arguments between staff and students and students becoming more and more devious to find ways to check mobile phones in lessons without the teacher noticing. In turn I see the teachers becoming more and more focused on catching student circumventing the system and less on teaching and learning. I have also seen the positives of this approach, encouraging more face to face communication, more talking and play in the yard. When this has happened, it has been explained to the students why it is being done and what the school are hoping to achieve.  

When I talk to staff in schools, I ask how comfortable would you feel in handing your mobile phone over? The answer invariably is ‘not at all’ so why should we expect anything different from our students, why should we hold them to higher standards than ourselves? The difference lies in that as adults we know how and when to use our mobile phones in a professional and acceptable manner (tractor research aside, obviously!), so let's teach our students what this looks like. 

Some schools I see start out the year by teaching the students about acceptable use, not just giving them a sheet of paper with a list of rules on and asking them to sign it, but actually teaching and showing them what is acceptable and the consequences of following and not following this policy. Then constantly reminding and modelling acceptable behaviour of how to use their phone acceptably in school, making it a habit, so they do it without thinking as it becomes embedded. I appreciate this means playing the long game, it will not happen overnight, and students will make mistakes, how we then learn from them is important. 

Building Rapport and Emotional Currency

One school I work with asks pupils to place their phones on the desk in front of them face down, this way the teacher can see their phone and will know if the student is using it inappropriately. The students have reported they like this as it means they do not feel like they are missing out on things and have less anxiety about not seeing their phone.

Staff also like it as they feel they are more in control of the situation and can use the phones in lessons too as a tool for research, note taking or recording homework. Plus it gives greater opportunity to notice positive behaviour, building rapport and emotional currency with students who are doing the right thing, thus building relationships and ultimately teaching students how to use their phones acceptably in the workplace. 

Could the students be involved in the creation of the mobile phone policy? With guidance and help from teachers, the student council could then help to embed this with students. They may find an interesting and inventive way to encourage positive use that us as adults have not thought of. This can promote problem solving for students and gives them ownership of the policy, rules, and expectations around the use of mobile phones in schools. 

Changing Perception

Whatever policy you have within your school, ask what it is trying to achieve, is it achieving it and could it be better? Mobile phones are here now and they aren’t going away. Can we change the perception that they are a disruption to learning by making them an amazing tool to enhance learning? We must teach the students and ourselves how to do this. I like to think that in 40 years’ time, when I take my grandkids to Sudbury Hall, there might be a display on the positives and negatives of mobile phones in lessons and it will seem as ridiculous then as the idea of debating calculators does now. 

CPI's Classroom Culture training is for all education professionals interested in fostering a positive culture within each classroom. Find out more on our Classroom Culture programme page. 

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