Another dot in the blogosphere?

ET phone home?

Posted on: June 12, 2017

Last week, a local newspaper tried to brew a storm in a teacup by reporting that a parent sues school for refusing to return confiscated phone for three months.

This is the sort of headline and article that only helps a newspaper sell more ads. It does not help change the rhetoric, mindset, or behaviour around phone use in schools.

One predictable reaction to this was the “parents nowadays” sort.

Another set of reactions, in a follow-up article by the same paper, was parents that sided with the schools that have strict rules about phone use. The common refrain seemed to be that such rules “minimise distraction and temptation”.

I do not buy that. Nor do I agree that “such confiscations can be ‘teachable moments’” about school rules or for “values like responsibility, respect and self-control”.

I am not saying there should be no rules. I am saying that these rules are a relic function of schooling when they should be more about the current and future.

Let’s break the issues down logically.

When people focus on distraction and temptation, what they actually want is for students to pay attention to their teachers.

Students of all ages through the ages have been distracted when the lessons are not interesting, meaningful, or challenging. We are asking them to pay attention when the product and process do not seem to be worth the price.

As phones are much more interesting, meaningful, or challenging, they become the “distraction” from the teacher or “temptation” away from the lesson. The blame is placed on the student and the phone instead of the teacher and the teaching.

When a student gets caught for giving the phone more attention, it is an opportunity to teach and reinforce a school rule and not much more. Learners are unlikely to learn responsibility, respect, or self-control if the phone is taken away from them because there is no circumstance and context for them to develop and practice those values.

Learners needs to have the phone to decide they should pay attention or not. They need to read contextual cues to decide if the use of the phone when someone is doing their best to teach them is irresponsible or disrespectful. This is how they learn self-control.

It might help to view these values as skills-in-action instead of fuzzy concepts. Phone use is the context and circumstance to practice these skills, just as planes and flying are the context and circumstance for pilots to get good at what they do.

In a phone-free environment, there is no pressure for teachers to teach differently. For example:

  • Why teach what is Googleable when it is more important to think about what you might find online?
  • Why limit learners to consumption when creating, sharing, and critiquing are more powerful ways of learning?
  • Why keep teaching in the artificial confines of the classroom walls when phones can make those walls transparent or break them down?

I wonder if the newspaper could instead feature what academic purposes of phones in classes might be. (Hint: See my questions above.) This could go some way in educating themselves and parents that phone use is not all bad.

It is telling that parents, school authorities, and other stakeholders focus on the negatives of phone use. It is just as telling that the newspaper opted to focus on schools that disallow phone use when there are other schools here that have more reasonable usage policies. The paper seemed to grudgingly report that:

ST understands that most polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education do not ban the use of phones on campus, though students are discouraged from using them for non-academic purposes in classes.

I wonder if it did its homework in finding out how many primary and secondary schools have more logical phone usage policies. My interaction with different schools and education institutes here, thought limited, has revealed a riot of colours instead of the monotone grey presented by the newspaper.

In siding with an old school message, the paper reported:

Acknowledging that some parents may be concerned about their child’s well-being, most schools also have payphones or alternative arrangements for parents who want to contact their children urgently while they are in school, such as calling the school office.

If a message is truly urgent, why delay it with unnecessary intermediaries? There could be circumstances that require some protocol, but even world leader open themselves via social media and modern organisations flatten hierarchy for more direct reach.

Furthermore, the well-being of a child is not restricted to when he or she is in school. Some rely on public transport and the phone is a lifeline in the event of delays, emergencies, or just plain checking in.
 

 
In 1982, ET needed to “phone home” in order to return to his home planet. A communication device was a lifeline to where ET needed to be.

Current phones are where the learner of today is at and indicative of where they need to be. They are periodic tools and everyday instruments for learning how to be: How to think, act, and behave.

Restricting or banning their use might provide the so-called “teachable moments”. However, such moments are not necessarily learnable ones. The latter are powerful, meaningful, and interesting to the learner. These are the same properties we might afford a phone. Instead of turning them away, we should be embracing them.

We let ET phone home. We should let our students phone home, too, with the ET (educational technology) that they already carry in their pockets and bags.

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