Watching a close friend’s 18 month old son play with his mother’s iPad and seeing even at that age, he knew what to do with the device made me realise that his childhood, teenage years and adulthood will be very different from mine. Instead of feeling nostalgia for the days when babies played with wooden toys and learned to count on an abacus, I was ridiculously excited for him. He was developing a form of literacy that many adults don’t have, simply because they did not acquire it at a young age.
Twitter this week has been awash with, frankly, polarised opinions on whether mobile phones should be allowed in the classroom as a result of a post on the ‘Scenes from The Battleground’ Education blog entitled ‘The Insanity of Allowing Phones in Class’. The word ‘battleground’ seems oddly appropriate for this debate. One side tuts and shakes their head at what is deemed ‘progressive’ education; the other vehemently defends innovation and flexibility. One could almost imagine that the former is wearing a corduroy jacket and smoking a pipe and the latter is dressed in tie-dye and sandals, copy of The Guardian tucked under a bangled arm. Does it need to be so black and white?
In the debate about the pitfalls and merits of new technologies in the classroom, something gets lost. In the age of the internet, a time of rapid change and development in society, we cannot afford to be so polarised in our opinions about technology and pedagogy. It is simply this: mobiles phones, laptops, palmtops, interactive whiteboards and all of the peripheral equipment are now indispensible items in teaching and indeed, our personal lives. Deciding to block out the existence of mobile phones is like censoring all conversations about sex – the more we avoid something, the more appealing it becomes. We create the taboo and expect children to not be curious. It’s a fairly Victorian concept.
Those of you shaking your heads in disbelief at my ‘progressive’ views should know that I am not standing in my classroom ignoring deviant children while they text each other during my lesson. Creating boundaries is part of our role – but boundaries are not the same thing as limits. We limit children when we prohibit them from using every tool that they have to learn.
I expect children to behave responsibly and to avoid using their phones in my lesson as it is not polite. If I see one, in accordance with the school’s policy, I will ask for it to be put away and explain why it isn’t appropriate. However, there have been times when I have deliberately asked for students to use their mobile phones in a lesson. Studying spoken language in English Language GCSE sometimes requires the use of a voice recorder to record conversations. Lots of students don’t know where that is on their phone and I show them because it is a tool they can use to succeed in their education. Believe it or not, when asked to put phones away at the end of the task, students have done it without fuss.
On a wider scale, the child who has used technology to facilitate their education and is comfortable with it could be seen as a step ahead of a child that has never had that experience. Techno-literacy is now just as important as basic reading and writing, particularly in a world where competition for jobs is fierce. The business world has long bemoaned the lack of basic skills in students, resulting in ‘remedial’ classes for young employees. However, the most common form of training provided to young people in business is in IT, according to the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey. Perhaps this goes some way in showing that we have not spent enough time training our young people to use technologies they will need later in life, precisely because of a snobbery about which kind of literacy is more important. We don’t live in a world in which the three Rs will get you a job immediately. Our young people need techno-literacy to compete and this might just be part of our job as teachers now.
In the next two weeks, I will be teaching one of my English classes about non-fiction and media by asking them to create a documentary, using their mobiles phones to film interviews and to take pictures. I will trust them to use their phones sensibly by reminding them of the consequences of inappropriate use. I will use technology to facilitate the writing of explanation in the form of ‘voiceovers’, which they will record on their phones and save on a memory stick. I know that writing improves when it is relevant to a child’s life and has a real life context, so why would I shy away from using this vital piece of equipment that all of my students have?
And before you ask, no – I am not wearing either tie-dye or sandals.