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Education Matters: Warning on technology use in schools

PUBLISHED: 17:15 18 September 2015 | UPDATED: 17:34 18 September 2015

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury.

Archant

In the early days of mobile phones, when it felt a bit like lifting a black rubberized brick to your ear, we used these new devices for something that now seems rather quaint, writes headteacher Geoff Barton.

Only those over a certain age are likely to remember what this was. That’s right: back in the day, we used our mobiles to phone people. That was pretty much all they allowed us to do.

Nowadays phones are ‘smart’. Many of us apparently cannot sit in a restaurant, stand at a bus stop, even walk down the street without constantly pulling out of our pocket and peering at these small flickering screens.

We use them to check everything from today’s weather to our health details to statistics about how many people have ‘liked’ us on Facebook or retweeted us on Twitter. We ask our phones questions and they find us answers. For many, they have become an indispensable part of modern life, akin to family members that can be conveniently switched off.

That’s why I’m a bit quizzical about last weekend’s histrionic headlines declaring that ‘mobile phones will be banned in classrooms’.

I’m bemused because in most of the schools I know, mobile phones already are stringently controlled. I suspect there aren’t many institutions where you’ll find students sitting in class updating their Facebook status, playing games, or furtively filming the teacher to post embarrassing footage of them on YouTube.

Some of these activities may, of course, happen in a few classrooms. But the reality is that most schools take seriously their responsibility to protect students from online bullying and to protect their institutional reputations.

At our school, if we see your mobile phone out, it will be confiscated until the end of the day. Then a deliberately bureaucratic procedure has to be followed for you to get it back. If the incident happens again, we won’t release the phone until your parent comes in to sign for it.

Many schools will have similar procedures.

So as another ‘behaviour tsar’ and ‘expert panel’ gets appointed to advise on behaviour in schools, I hope we can expect a little nuance in their recommendations and we get beyond the headline-grabbing phase.

Here’s what I mean. From time to time I get wheeled out at conferences and training sessions to talk about my special interest – literacy. One of my party-pieces is to talk about the way the internet has changed the way we research information. In the past a history project on the life of Martin Luther King would have entailed a visit to the school library where a reliable and editorially-sound source would be used – say Encyclopedia Britannica.

In my conference demonstration I show how easily an online search on the topic can lead students to an apparently authoritative site which soon transpires to be a website run by a White Supremacist group in the USA.

So whilst I’m as adamant as anyone that mobile devices should be strongly regulated in schools, I also know that as teachers we have a responsibility to prepare students for the world as it is now.

We need to teach them the principles that guide us in deciding what on the internet is trustworthy and what is not, how to wean ourselves off a habit of checking our phone for messages every few minutes, how to use our phones to enhance our studies rather letting them distract us.

These are vital skills for students now, for when they go to university and to help them in later life. Let’s make sure that some knee-jerk pronouncements don’t get in the way of our wider responsibilities as teachers.

We need to educate the next generation – as well as ourselves – about intelligent, responsible use of mobile technology.

And a good place for that to happen may, after all, be in the classroom.

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