Let’s ban mobile phones in class and return to steam trains while we’re at it

I can’t decide whether the Federal Education Minister and our State Premier are just trying to distract everyone from the real problems with our education system or whether they could possibly be foolish enough to go through with the idea of banning phones in classrooms.

Look, I get that phones can be a distraction, but then in my day so was a coloured pen. The way to deal with distractions is to have engaging teachers, engaging lessons, and use the tools available to you. There will still be some teenager goofing off down in the back corner, but that will always be so. Banning phones, and by extension, electronics is a Luddite move.

The core problem with this latest thought bubble is that banning phones is pretty much saying ban devices – define me the difference between a phone, a phablet, a tablet, and a computer. That would have our students relegated to using only pen and paper, while around the world others are being brought up familiar with the tools they will use for the rest of their lives. We don’t need to ban devices in classrooms, we need to teach students to manage the distractions because that’s what the rest of their lives is gong to be like. The distractions will be there – they need to be managed and dealt with, not ignored.

I know that’s not necessarily an entirely popular viewpoint: because it’s a strong argument, in my view, for co-ed schools. The real world involves men and women working together, and it leads to inevitably poor results when the first time you do so is at university or in the workforce. In the same way, the real world involves having a phone in your pocket and a device on your desk – we can’t hide from that: so we need to teach the skills to deal with it.

That’s a philosophical point. But there’s also the practical point that for many students the phone is the device they have – they can’t afford another device. So when we want students to be able to do research, to watch the incredible Eddie Woo maths videos, to have an electronic timetable so they don’t forget homework – the phone is their device. Let alone taking a picture of the board at the end of a lesson – which is such a useful thing.

Also there are some things the phone is perfect for – great calculator, fabulous for cheap VR experiences, great for watching videos. And it’s really handy when for the millionth time the NSW Department of Education network let’s you down. Oh, there’s something the Premier could do something about – improving the network that our students rely upon (well that and building some new schools, and paying teachers, and…).

Phones are tools like any other tool. In a school environment they need to be monitored and controlled. But we do our students a great disservice if we create blanket bans which mean the tool is unavailable.

That disservice becomes a truly invidious when you consider that when politicians talk of banning things in schools, they are talking about the government schools that they control, not the private schools that they shove money at without any control over where it goes. So we’re really talking about putting government school students into the slow lane – but, then, that feels a lot like the core of the government’s current  education policy.

Don’t ban tools, teach kids to use them responsibly.

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