Mobile phones: To ban or not to ban…

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A recent research report suggests that banning mobile phones in schools will improve exam outcomes – but it is not as clear-cut as that, says Gerald Haigh

Among the issues likely to generate heat among teachers and parents is whether schools should ban students from bringing in their mobile phones. Now, a research paper from the London School of Economics (LSE) Centre for Economic Performance, based on a study of 91 secondary schools, shows a correlation between banning phones and improved GCSE results. 

Dr Richard Murphy, one of report’s authors says, in a Guardian interview: “If schools have concerns about students being distracted by their phones, a strict ban on mobile phones does seem to be effective in improving student test scores.”

That’s it, then, done and dusted? Certainly a host of under-the-line pundits think so. A typical reader comment on the Guardian’s report says: “Is this going to win an award for a piece of research into the blindingly obvious?”

There’s a lot more of that across the media, much of it lamentably ill-informed. Many Daily Telegraph readers, for example, assume that this is all about children wanting to call home: “In my 13 years at school I don’t remember ever needing to phone anyone while at school...”

You have to scroll a long way before you find anyone who points out that correlation does not imply causation, or that the research does not attempt to compare “banning” schools with the many that regard student phones as valuable additional technology. But eventually, in the Guardian’s comment thread we come to this: “I’m a teacher in a big secondary. SmartPhones are mini-computers and we encourage students to use them alongside their own other devices in the classroom – laptops, tablets as well as our own (school-owned) tech.” Misuse, says this teacher, is punished by confiscation.

Since then, the bloggers have been busy. Mike Cameron, in his Cogitateit blog, under the heading On Research and Banning Things, asks 16 searching questions about the detail of the LSE paper. He makes the point, for example, that all but one of 91 schools that volunteered to take part in the survey had actually banned phones, and concludes: “Let’s continue the research. Let’s answer my questions and any others. Let’s see a paper that does the same for schools that have rigorously implemented and enforced cross-school use of mobile technology so we can see the comparison.”

And José Picardo, assistant principal at Surbiton High School, in a post on Educate 1-to-1, suggests that: “Damning ... the use of mobile devices as ‘a distraction’ betrays a narrow view of what constitutes a good education and a lack of understanding of how mobile devices are actually being utilised in schools.”

He continued: “I fear that it may be escaping us entirely that, in many settings, the use of mobile devices to support teaching and learning and robust behaviour policies are not mutually exclusive concepts.”

What is certainly true is that there is nothing new either in the idea of enrolling student mobiles into the work of the classroom or in the belief that they are potentially disruptive. 

In 2009, Paul Haigh (no relation), assistant head at Notre Dame High School in Sheffield, hit the headlines by welcoming phones as an “untapped resource” for a school with a limited budget for technology. 

This provoked NASUWT chief Chris Keates, mindful of cyber-bullying and abuse, to say: “The time has come for mobiles in schools to be placed in the category of a potentially offensive weapon and action taken to prevent their use by pupils while on school premises.”

By then, though, many other schools were already heading in the same direction as Notre Dame, adopting a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, while fully understanding both the obvious, and not-so-obvious challenges – and being prepared to tackle them. 

The distraction factor, for example cannot completely go away, but the claim is that clear rules, consistently enforced, are given extra teeth by the fact that confiscation cuts the user off from class activities. In other words, it is not really about the phone at all, it is about the effective management of learning and behaviour.

Perhaps, though, in the end, the argument will solve itself. As tablets become increasingly cheap and efficient, more schools use them to achieve “one-to-one” and at least one secondary known to me, with a leadership strongly committed to technology for learning, manages to provide every student with a tablet while at the same time operating an effective ban on mobile phones.

Really, though, rumbling distantly at the heart of this debate is something much more profound – a search for the real purpose of education, and a voice which says, in effect: “What if banning phones does improve GCSE results? Is that the only measure that matters?”

Author of Learning {Re}imagined, Graham Brown Martin, made exactly this point in his own “below-the-line” comment on the LSE paper in the Guardian: “Well that proves it then – banning 21st century technology improves 19th century school exams. Who knew?”

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

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