Are smartphones the key to improving school results?

Phones could make learning more relevant to kids in 2018.
Phones could make learning more relevant to kids in 2018. Photo: Supplied

Many of us remember school as boring. Could smartphones be the antidote to tedious, irrelevant lessons? We all agree kids should not be scrolling through their Instagram feed while sitting in maths lesson. We want kids to be engaged in learning, achieving good results, and developing the skills they need for the workforce today and tomorrow. Australia’s dismal 39 out of 41 education ranking suggests this is not happening.

There is no doubt that smartphones can be distracting. Research shows that on average we pick up our phones every 15 mins. For the most part these are "zombie checks"; the main reasoning behind them is boredom. The more tedious the work the more easily distracted we are, and the more we look to our phone or any other technology for stimulation. Many of us spend our working lives shifting between our device and our real work.

Taking smartphones away from classrooms will cease smartphone distraction, but there is no guarantee it will lead to Aussie kids achieving better standards. Results will only improve if kids are engaged in learning and this happens when they see the relevance in school learning. This relates to what is taught as well as how it is taught.

France had banned smart phones.
France had banned smart phones. Photo: AP

Our focus on standardised tests is a stark contrast to the digital world we live in. Rote learning, regurgitation of rudimentary facts, and practicing taking tests are do not lead to skills valued by the current workforce. Young people are well aware of this. What they often do in class is far removed from the lives they lead in 2018 and their foreseeable lives in the future.

Rather than a ban on smartphones let’s shift the focus to making learning relevant, and interesting to this generation of young people. Key to this is teachers and students having the opportunity to select from the best resources we have available to us today to support learning. Some days this may mean no technology use at all, and smartphones stay in schoolbags. Other days it may mean using smartphones to create and record music, to develop e-books, to create apps, organise group work, to identify and critique a series of art images, to use Instagram to identify how young artists today apply Picasso’s techniques.

While France may declare the success of its smartphone ban, this announcement is premature and does not account for the long-term implications of taking away phones from children. As a first step, imagine the logistical daily nightmare of collecting and handing back phones in a typical high school of 1000 students. How many hours of learning will be lost in a school year because of this.

Care and support of young people is an important consideration in this debate. A key finding from my research with teens about their technology use is that when their phone is confiscated as a punishment or on any adult-decided grounds, they strategically become more secretive in their phone use, because they don’t want to risk further confiscation. The more this occurs the more obsessive young people become about become about keeping this part of their life discrete and unconnected from adults.

From a safety perspective, this means that parents and teachers might not be made aware when things go for kids wrong online. This exacerbates, not alleviates, cybersafety education and management. The default position of never-trust-a-teenager that comes with students being forced to hand over your phone each day is a further nail in the "never-trust-an-adult" coffin.

Additionally, while we may think an across the board smartphone ban is equitable consider the implications on disadvantaged students living in low SES locations. Many families in such locations are not able to afford to buy kids multiple devices. Often it’s just one device and that’s a phone. Many schools are now Bring Your Own Device schools, which means that students are required to bring their own device. If smartphones are banned, then what device do these kids access in class? Schools would be required to loan disadvantaged kids a device to use in class. The potential stigma attached to being a kid whose family can’t afford a laptop so has to use a school device is important here.

Smartphone use by teens (and adults), is something we all need to keep a healthy check on. A ban on smartphones in schools presents like an effective immediate solution to Australia’s education woes. It also ticks the box in terms of addressing our concerns about kids online. However, the long-term implications are less than convincing. An inquiry that genuinely supports this generation of children to develop the knowledge and skills that reflect the era in which they are growing up in is of prime importance. This is the only way to develop a genuine win-win way forward.

Joanne Orlando is a researcher at the Centre for Educational Research, Western Sydney University.