If we ban phones from classrooms, are we passing up an opportunity for learning?
That’s the case being made by the head of the leading professional body for UK educators, who argues that phones are a potentially transformative educational technology if teachers learn to use them productively.
Speaking at a recent Education Policy Institute conference, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the leading professional body for UK educators, criticised schools for being "squeamish" about phones.
Harnessing the power of the mobile in the classroom could make a positive difference in teaching and learning, Barton maintains. And the failure of adults to rise to the challenge of the digital age is letting students down.
“Ultimately young people are looking to us to model how technology is used in a productive way,” Barton told the conference. “The classroom is the perfect place to be able to do that with a mobile phone.”
He cited the example of fact-checking and ‘fake news’ as topics that could be approached in an “interesting and innovative” way using students’ smartphones.
Having a rational, open-ended discussion about integrating personal phones into classroom learning was difficult, Barton said. Too often, the conversation degenerated into a simplistic either/or debate. “Immediately, people weigh in, saying whether you should ban them or not,” he explained.
Barton said he approved of the somewhat unorthodox phone policy at the school where he was formerly a headteacher, the prestigious King Edward VI School. Phones needed to be out of sight in the corridors and schoolgrounds. But students were allowed to use them in class when specifically directed by a teacher - whether to take photos of homework or Googling.
This more nuanced approach had more learning value for students than blanket ban on the one hand or a free-range policy on the other. “It’s the older generation passing onto the younger generation there are times when it’s not appropriate to use a phone, but there are times when it will be.”
Reactions to Barton’s position varied widely. One teacher called the idea “madness,” adding “Geoff Burton is right about one thing - they are a transformative bit of technology. They can transform schools into digital playgrounds. You couldn’t make it up.”
Others endorsed Barton’s suggestions wholeheartedly. “I have students use their mobiles for educational reasons,” a senior teacher commented. “I have done so for years, in three different schools. They are powerful learning resources. Set rules of use and use them.”