The Insanity of Allowing Phones in ClassJune 11, 2012
I was chatting to a scout leader a few days ago. He told me of the measures they had to take on camping trips or at troop meetings to deal with mobile phones. They collected them in and held onto them until it was time for the scouts to go home. Without this precaution, scouts could not be counted on to do anything, even sleep, due to the ongoing temptation of being able to text their mates or surf the net. A Girls’ Brigade officer I know told me something similar. Phones had to be prohibited if you wanted children to do anything. Even in a situation where both children and adults are volunteers, and the activities were usually intended to be fun, they were just too much of a distraction. According to one news report, there may even be problems with children preferring texting to sleeping.
Now none of this should be at all surprising. A lot of adults (myself included) are addicted to using their mobile phones. If I sometimes lack the self-control to put my phone away when there are more important things to do, how much worse must it be for children whose ability to pay attention often seem limited at the best of times? Combined with the risks of inappropriate use and the risk of losing their phones, it would clearly be best if phones weren’t allowed in schools and it should be an absolute priority to make sure students do not have access to their phones in lessons. What is surprising, therefore, is that there are people, including a small minority of teachers, who think children should have access to mobile phones in lessons. Why would anyone want to increase the distractions in class? To endorse such a bizarre position you would expect a killer argument; some really good reason why an extra distraction wasn’t actually bad thing. So when, at the weekend, I stumbled into some supporters of phones in class on Twitter, I was curious as to what justification they could give. What kind of logic could make someone want kids to pay less attention to learning? What could the argument be?
It was this:
Yes, this was the brilliant insight. If you are willing to ban one thing for being a distraction then you are obliged to ban anything that can, in some way, be a distraction. Apparently, the only possibilities are to ban everything or ban nothing. There can be no possibility of seeking to reduce the distractions as far as is practical. There can be no distinction between necessary and unnecessary distractions. There can be no middle ground between prohibition and licence. By the same argument one assumes that if we ban shouting, we must ban whispering. If we ban eating in lessons, we must ban breathing. If we ban guns, we must ban rulers.
Now from the point of view of somebody who wants children to learn, and is aware that they learn more if they pay attention to their teacher and their work, this is such a weak argument as to amaze. To see it used once would make you wonder about the common sense of the person using it. To see it used repeatedly makes you wonder what is going.
And that’s what you have to understand. The lunacy of the position is only apparent if you have accepted the following:
- Kids are in school to learn rather than be entertained.
- Learning involves the intentional acquisition of knowledge and is not simply a by-product of purposeless activity or play.
- Teachers are experts who can pass on knowledge to their students more effectively than if they are left to find it for themselves.
- Teachers have a right to use authority over children in order to ensure they learn.
If, alternatively, you despise adult authority then banning phones is a violation of human rights. If you think learning results, not from the direct communication of knowledge and activities focused on using particular knowledge, but instead from becoming well-practised at play and chat (often referred to as the acquisition of “skills”) then distractions are positively to be welcomed. If teachers know little or nothing then being able to surf the net, or communicate with one’s peers, will increase learning. If there is something undesirable about being taught then creating an environment where teaching is prevented is actually a good thing (often this is called “independent learning”). If you care more about children having fun, (often referred to as being “engaged”) rather than being educated then you are unlikely to have a problem with phones.
Once you have accepted some or all of these progressive dogmas, you may be able to list the things that can be done with phones (surfing the net, sending messages, taking photos) as if they were educational rather than a distraction from education. You might be able to demonise anyone who wants kids to learn. You may even be able to attribute to them all sorts of strange motives (perhaps a hatred of technology, or a political ideology). But, the trouble with these sorts of beliefs is that they provide more in the away of emotional satisfaction than they do coherent arguments. In fact, sharing them honestly (i.e. without all the euphemisms and dodgy definitions) will just make a lot of ordinary people disagree with you. So for that reason. supporters of progressive education often retreat into their own little worlds where they talk largely to each other and appeal to each other’s authority. That is why they will put forward the same bad argument en masse even where they are completely unconvincing.
If you have the time I would encourage you to go back through the Tweets from the weekend (look at either my timeline or Toby Young’s), not because of any great arguments, but to experience the mentality of the supporters of progressive education. If you really want a laugh you can even compare the discussion on Twitter with the parallel universe version of it presented on this blog here.