My Experience of Smartphones in Schools

Luke St Clair, who has recently been with us on work experience, shares his thoughts and experiences on the debate around smartphones in schools:

Many people in the education sector have told us of the pain that has come with the decrease in per pupil funding. These budgetary issues have arguably strained our school system. One rarely-proposed solution is the increased use of mobile phones in certain specific situations.

The use of technology in the classroom is a dangerous escapade; one thing that should be made clear from the very start is that I do not think that technology can replace teachers. An omniscient robot capable of understanding any question answerable by humans does not exist (as far as I know) and if they did, they would give us the objective answer to this debate. However, as someone in the rare position of having moved schools during secondary, I have some first-hand experiences of how two schools have managed the use of phones and their successes.

Schools are in a difficult position, with class sizes in many places exceeding 25, 30 and even 33 in one of the classes I attended. The increase in class sizes means that each student may receive less specifically catered attention from the teacher. Whilst we have large class sizes, phones can be used to help answer simpler questions, or to clarify points made by the teacher already which may need to be reiterated in a different way.

Now, of course all of these things would be done better with smaller class sizes and more time for each student, and replacing adequate teaching with technology is a slippery slope. But, given the funding crisis and the restraints it places upon recruiting new teachers, mobile phones can provide a real, tangible alternative solution to some of these problems. Whether it becomes a real part of the solution, or an inadequate crutch to lean on, depends on the circumstances of their usage.

Many have pointed to the schools where the leaders in the tech industry send their kids, places where technology is not in any way part of the curriculum. However, in these places they neither have a shortage of good teachers nor good teaching resources; in these schools’ class sizes are extremely limited, giving the teacher more time with each student.

The fact is that technology is a part of our lives and will not cease to be so in the coming years; children need to know how to use technology appropriately, and if parents are not teaching responsibility in this area then someone must. We should have a focus on responsible usage, as opposed to flat-out banning something that is common place in our society.

I have seen the potential examples of how technology has the power to both assist learning greatly, and to compromise its success. These two approaches to mobile phone usage have been drastically different. The first school I attended had a chaotic feeling, based in an affluent area in which those who had been academically capable felt entitled to success and had little respect for those helping them succeed (though good teachers were plentiful). The second was a school in a less affluent area, that nevertheless had a strict code of conduct that was mostly followed, and had a hardworking student body that wanted to succeed.

At the first school, phones were allowed to be used freely at break and lunch times, creating an ethos of normalized phone use, no matter the circumstance. As a result of this relaxed policy, phone use in classrooms was so rampant that it became difficult for teachers to police it: in many classes people were simply told off for phone usage, with punishment being as light as if they were caught writing something when supposed to be listening to the teacher. After all, everyone was doing it.

Teachers were used to students ignoring their pleas, and as a result, punishments were in no way harsh. This led to students understanding that they could get away with it, and what we all imagine when faced with the idea of having phones in schools. Snapchat stories of teachers telling off other students, fights started over who took a “mugshot” of who during science, just things kids do. Phones were stolen, or even ridiculed (ridiculously, my iPhone 3G stood to tell that tale, but as I said, this was an affluent area). Phones were even used as evidence for fights. Phones were a plague on the school.

However, at my second school, things were very different. Phones were not allowed to be out, but punishments for using them only at break times were rare; in class, phones were not to be seen unless needed for education. The rules were followed by all involved, and the benefits were there to be seen by all.

(There is of course a question as to whether it was more to do with the attitude and atmosphere of the school, rather than their phone policy: the contrast between the attitude of my previous school versus the hard-working attitude of the first generation, opportunity seeking immigrant culture present at my current school is like night and day.)

Nevertheless, the lack of normalization meant that it was neither usual, nor acceptable for phones to be used in school. Phones were not banned altogether: if you were seen with your phone in class it was taken away (depending on circumstances the punishment might be harsher). It was strict, but not to the point where the rebellious teenage nature called upon an uprising, and it was ultimately fair.

Fair is the word that should be focused on when deciding the phone policy: there seems to be a polarization in how phones are looked at to be treated, with people promoting either the authoritarian “all phones banned” or the idealized “everyone uses their phones but only for learning”. If you treat the inappropriate usage of phones harshly but understand and facilitate the ways they can improve school, then the same mentality may develop in the students, where you can mould a student body that will use their phones at least more responsibly.

But how do you manage learning in class with phones?

Well, firstly, from my experience, the most effective usage has been when schools allow teachers to decide. Those teachers who had classes (or specific students in some occasions) that they could trust would allow them use their phone when doing revision. Allowing phones to be used at any time is only a model that should be pursued with next-to-perfect classes, and even then I would advise against; times where phones can be used should be set, and only when the teacher explicitly says that phones can be used. It should be understood that there is a time and a place for using phones.

Under the strain of the system and ever-growing class sizes, my teachers have been faced with occasions in which they have had to attend to upwards of 8 individuals after explaining an idea or term. For subjects that require a deeper explanation of the material, such as the sciences, technology becomes a way to alleviate some of the pressures placed upon teachers. In a subject like English, where the points that each student makes in their analysis are different, and different context is needed for each of them, they can be even more useful. It is almost necessary to have access to technology in order to find out whether Peter Shelly was truly the one to say that “poets are the unrecognized story- tellers of the world” in response to his ekphrastic poem Ozymandias.

In short, phones can be good; a ban on phones in all classrooms may create an atmosphere around their usage that might have the opposite effect, in which phones are used only by those who seek to use them malevolently and inappropriately. However, phones should not be left to run free in the classroom and their usage should be strictly educational. As humans that will eventually make it to the real world, us students need help in knowing how to actually use our phones responsibly and effectively, so that we can look at our phones as the largest source of information any group of people has ever had, and not just an entertainment device.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.