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Smartphones should be banned at primary level and high schools should "act quickly" to teach tech self-discipline to stem the damage they are causing children's learning, warns world-renowned Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.
Dr Sahlberg, who will join the University of New South Wales as professor of education this year, said smartphones were distracting students from reading, school-related work, physical activity, and high-quality sleep.
He believed smartphone-related distraction is one of the main reasons why Australia and similar countries are sliding down Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings.
"Schools everywhere need to react very quickly to cope with the smartphone issue," he said.
"Smartphones don't belong [in] primary schools or young children under 12. For the sake of fairness and equity, [banning them in early years] would be the best thing to do."
Education Minister Rob Stokes said some primary schools were already prohibiting access to smartphones for non-educational purposes, a move he supported.
"Even in the case of high school students, the basic premise should be that there is no role for smartphones inside the school gate unless the device is needed for academic reasons," he said.
Teachers Federation President Maurie Mulheron said smartphones were dominating students' lives "to an extraordinary degree".
"They don't ever get a chance to switch off from school or relationships with people at school," he said. "They are both psychologically and emotionally connected to these devices - adults are too, but for kids it's particularly powerful.
"Whether we ban or limit or educate, and how we do that, that's the more difficult terrain."
Dr Sahlberg said a complete ban at high school level was difficult, because students didn't know the world without technology.
Instead, each school must work out the best way to teach its pupils how to exercise self-control around their phones. "We should teach all children safe, smart and responsible use of technology," Dr Sahlberg said. "Every school in their own way."
Chris Presland, president of the NSW Secondary Principals Association, agreed a ban was unworkable at high school level and education was the key, although teaching students how to exercise constraint was difficult given many adults struggled with that, too.
"It's more about how you use them successfully - that's not to say there aren't serious concerns about issues mobile phones cause in school," he said.
"In low (income) areas, sometimes the mobile phone is the only technology the kids have. It's a question of trying to take the good side without throwing everything out."
Australia's slide down PISA rankings since 2000 has prompted intense debate over school funding and education policy. Dr Sahlberg's home country of Finland is regarded by many as having the world's best schools, but it too has recently slipped, as have similar countries such as New Zealand, Canada and South Korea.
Dr Sahlberg said each country had its own issues but all had one in common.
"That one common challenge is that around 2011 or 2012 in these countries most teenagers carried smartphones in their pockets and, as a consequence, the time youngsters (I am especially thinking of 12- to 16-year-olds) spend daily watching digital devices’ screens exploded," he said.
"Screen time and the inconvenient consequences - psychological, social and physical - have affected students’ learning in schools, especially reading, mathematics and science that all require concentration, attention, and perseverance to do well."
Dr Sahlberg acknowledges Australia's PISA decline began before smartphones, but said children had access to technology earlier than that. There were likely other factors, such as reliance on standardised testing and undue faith in the potential of technology.
He believes Australia must focus on students' general health and wellbeing if it wants to turn its PISA performance around. "If children's health and wellbeing continue to get worse, getting PISA results back on a path of growth will be very difficult."
Phil Seymour from the Primary Principals' Association said mobile phones were not causing noticeable problems among younger children.
Some schools ask pupils to leave them at the office, but others allowed them for learning under a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy.
"I don't know if we have the issues in the playground that high school kids have," he said
In NSW, schools set their own smartphone policy. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham recently called for a smartphone ban in classrooms, saying they were a distraction from lessons and a platform for bullying.
Dr Sahlberg is in Australia to discuss the recent Gonski 2.0 report into excellence in education with his fellow UNSW education professor, former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli, at the university's Kensington campus on Tuesday night.
He said the focus of the report, released in April, on individual learning, "sidetracked" from international research that suggests educators should focus on group quality before individual quality and systemic reform.
"The real challenge is going to be how these recommendations are conceived and pursued as a coherent whole rather than as fragmented changes," he said.
When Dr Sahlberg's family moves here later in the year when he begins his job at UNSW, he will enrol his sons in the local public school. "We won't worry about NAPLAN scores and we hope the school where they will be in Sydney wouldn't worry either," he said.
"We would mostly be looking at how the school ... helps them to grow up with others respecting individual differences, and what the school does to help all children to find their passion," he said.