Why schools should embrace phones, not ban them

Tech expert and author Dave Coplin says building a healthy relationship with technology is crucial

What do you do at work when you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer? What do you do at home when you want to solve a problem you’ve not encountered before?

Do you just simply say, “I don’t know”, heave a sigh and move on or, like most of us, do you say, “I don’t know, but give me a minute and I’ll take a look” and then proceed to pick up the nearest glowing rectangle, punch in a few details to bring up enough knowledge for you to be able to form the most appropriate course of action? I suspect it’s the latter far more than the former.

We now live in a world where the average UK adult spends almost three and a half hours a day engaging with their phones[1], and despite the fact that many of us might argue that not all of that time is productive, for the most part pretty much all of us could not imagine going back to a world where that device was not by our side for every minute of our waking day.

But for all of the benefits, at the same time we know the use of such devices is not without its challenges. Even as adults we share a complicated relationship with this device, many of us carry a nagging worry that we’ve been consumed by the medium rather than the other way around and we also are often painfully aware of the disconnection when others around us are constantly distracted while we vie for their attention.

Building a healthy relationship with technology, and especially with something as personal and powerful as our smartphones, is undoubtedly one of the most crucial life skills of our time and getting it right (or wrong) will have an enormous effect on our overall lives and wellbeing.  As a result, I am absolutely convinced that helping our kids build a really positive, healthy relationship with their phones will be one of the defining factors in the success of their lives.

Why then, do we as a society turn our backs on the importance of developing this skill with our young people, with most schools banning them from the classroom leaving our young people for the most part to have to figure this all out for themselves outside of school hours?

Building a healthy relationship with technology, and especially with something as personal and powerful as our smartphones, is undoubtedly one of the most crucial life skills of our time

Recent studies in the UK show that 49% of parents think smartphones should be banned in classrooms[2] and 95% of UK schools have policies actively controlling their use[3]. While some of you reading this will feel comfortable with those results, let me remind you of the hypocrisy that this represents in a society where 78% of us claim we could not live without access to our phones[4].

Given that school is supposed to be the vehicle through which we prepare younger generations to be able to take up their place in both the world of work and more broadly in society as a whole, I think by restricting their access to mobile technologies in the classroom, we are derelict in our duty to help them prepare for and to be fit for purpose for the world that they will actually inherit.

Many of you will be quick to point out that I am not a teacher and have little experience in trying to keep a group of 30 adolescents engaged in a complex (or occasionally dull) subject. Other than being a grateful recipient of one, I have no background in education and so it might be easy for you to dismiss my proposal as impractical and naïve. But I think you do so at your peril.

In isolation, neither of us are right. It would be wrong for us to completely ban phones in all classrooms (as France has done[5]) just as it would be wrong for me to unleash chaos by allowing unfettered access to mobile technology in classrooms without working with others to change the way we think about and deliver education accordingly.

As a technologist and architect of the future world of work, I too think deeply about the problems that such technology can bring when misused. I too worry about problems such as distraction, the lie of multi-tasking as well as what happens when people choose to use such powerful tools to do harm to others. My peers and I are striving to design a world where we humans can be productive and happy, using technology to extend our reach and augment our experiences rather than to diminish or replace us and we can only make this work for all of us if the humans at the centre of all this are well equipped with the cognitive and physical skills to be able to make the most of it.

But why should we think about this in isolation? The only way forward is for us to come together to ensure we can connect the dots between the skills we give our young people and the jobs, vocations and careers they will ultimately inhabit.

In order to make this happen, we need to stop thinking about this within the narrow concept of ‘smartphones in schools’. Instead we should collaborate to understand how we can embrace mobile technologies into all aspects of education to help young people unleash all of the potential that these personal digital assistants can bring.

We all know the transition won’t be easy, not least for many of the teachers, but the alternative of doing nothing is far, far worse. Our future deserves individuals who are confident in their relationship with technology who can wield such power to create great outcomes, not just for themselves but for our society as a whole. This can only happen if we act now. Instead of banning smartphones, we should be welcoming them into our classrooms such that we can work and engage with our young people to help them nurture a positive, personal relationship with the technology that unleashes their potential just as we do with any other core literacy or life skill.

The rise of the humans has to start with us, and it must start now.

[1] https://www.codecomputerlove.com/blog/screen-time-stats

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-49515632

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44546360

[4] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/features-and-news/decade-of-digital-dependency

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-44401660

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