Why the behaviour argument against mobile devices in schools is flawed —And what to do about it

Research published by the London School of Economics suggests that students at schools with a mobile phone ban achieve higher grades than pupils at schools without a ban. The study claims that “mobile phones can be a source of great disruption in classrooms, as they provide individuals with access to texting, games, social media and the internet”.

The idea of prohibiting mobile devices in school may appear attractive, and a ban could be the right call in some circumstances. But suggesting that “all headteachers worth their salt” should ban mobile devices — as Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of England’s schools inspectorate Ofsted, did recently — does not really address the challenges and opportunities that the devices present to schools. Forcing students to enter an alternative reality every morning where the mobile internet doesn’t exist is probably not the answer.

Few advocates of mobile devices would suggest allowing children free rein to text each other, play games, interact on social media or roam the internet gathering data on the true size of Kim Kardashian’s, er, ego.

Yet the assumption that this is all children do, or are capable of doing, when they are permitted to use a device is what fuels calls for bans in schools. Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations…

How it should work

When mobile devices are allowed or indeed supplied by a school, there is no such thing as free rein. Students use their devices for specific purposes, as and when they are instructed to by their teachers. The idea that children spend an entire lesson in front of a screen getting up to unsupervised mischief is inaccurate.

If a device is required in a lesson (note that all-important “if”) this is typically what happens: the teacher delivers content and explains the task; the teacher instructs the children to bring out their mobile devices; the children perform the set task; the teacher instructs the children to put away their devices. This process may or may not be repeated in that same lesson. The teacher never says, “Hey, kids, do whatever you like on your phones.”

Some tasks lend themselves to the use of mobile devices. For example, smartphones and tablets are great for multimedia: children may be asked to photograph what they are learning; to make a sound recording of a musical performance or a conversation in a foreign language; or to film a practical demonstration or experiment. This may be just what is required to further their learning.

It is perfectly possible to implement a strict behaviour policy that allows the use of mobile devices in certain circumstances. If a child does not abide by the rules, he or she should face the agreed consequences. And this policy ought to apply to everything, whether or not technology is involved.

To make sure mobile devices are used appropriately, schools must set high expectations with clear rules and sanctions. Then, when a pupil misbehaves (and they will), teachers can deal with the behaviour, not the technology.

Whether they opt for a total ban, a more relaxed approach or merely asking students to use their devices to make a note of their homework, headteachers should base their decision on the school’s specific circumstances and context.

Governments and schools inspectorates should indeed contribute their findings and views to the debate about mobile devices and behaviour. But, at the end of the day, what works in schools and the reasons why tend to be highly contextualised. So we should all refrain from making sweeping statements that any headteacher worth their salt would know to ignore.

This is a section of a featured article published in the TES on 25 September 2015. To read the full version, a subscription to the TES is required.


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  1. I tend to agree, yet offer one caveat: mobile devices present a further area of ambiguity and source of possible confusion for both teacher and student. How do we know that they’re being used for the stated purpose? Will students abuse the privilege? If we catch a glimpse without having granted permission to use them, should they be confiscated? What happens if a student suddenly receives a message via social media? Will they realistically be able to resist reading and responding to it? What happens if they do? I fear that mobile devices present a new variable and unnecessary, avoidable temptation too difficult to police.

    Most important, though, is the fact that most of our schools are currently unwilling to effectively, unambiguously control student behaviour. As a consequence, and in such environments, mobile phones simply conspire to present another area of possible contention that leads to inconsistencies which further poison teacher-student relations.

    In sum, in an ideal, highly disciplined, supportive environment, the effective use of mobile devices could be possible, as you rightly state. Such environments though, are sadly few and far between in modern Britain. It was this, i think, that Wilshaw had in mind when he advocated an outright ban.

Your feedback and comments are very welcome