“We spend the first twelve months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve years telling them to sit down and shut up.”

Phyllis Diller


Unregulated use of phones round schools brings a host of problems

But guided use of tech as a learning tool makes good common sense


The ongoing debate over whether mobile devices should be banned in schools has not escaped our attention here at Milk.


A recent Twitter spat began with comments by Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder of Michaela Community School in London, dubbed the “strictest school in Britain”. She believes that mobile phones are “dangerous”:  the equivalent of letting pupils smoke, drink and worse, in school.

Jane Prescott, head of independent school Portsmouth High, who is also the new president of the Girls’ Schools Association, led the case for the defence, appearing on Sky News. She argued that schools cannot be “Luddite” about mobile phones. Rather than “demonise” them, their usefulness should be harnessed in the classroom. She worried that banning phones simply meant youngsters used them in places where they could not be monitored.

Soon enough, teachers and parents weighed into the debate: “Get rid of devices and bullying will end overnight… Get rid of phones: teenagers’ brains are not mature enough to exercise self-control… Get rid of phones: they’re such a distraction… Ban phones and children will feel less pressure to own the latest tech…”

Everyone got a little hot under the collar, for a time at least. Although no products were named, all digital homework and communication software was lumped into the same basket. Books good – tech bad. Many teaching practitioners rose to the latter’s defence. And all this makes for great news. Techlash isn’t anything new, but it still makes headlines.

I sympathise. I’ve long been conscious of the growing aversion to mobiles in some quarters. As a former teacher myself, I faced the very same techno nuisance. Unthinking use of devices can be a huge waste of time, for students and adults. I wouldn’t for a minute advocate unregulated mobile use in the school day. Our functionality is designed to that end: users can set the app hours of operation. At Milk, we’re big believers in the intentional, mindful use of tech.

This is a complex issue, so it calls for common sense and restraint. That means not being so easily seduced by quick fixes. Blanket bans are a knee-jerk response. Of course, we want to protect our children. The danger is we throw the baby out with the bath water when we need to teach children to manage their use of screens and social media. Surely it’s better to inculcate good habits in school so as to better prepare them for the world beyond.

As Paul Howard-Jones, a professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, said:

“If school and education is about preparing us for that world, then learning how to use your mobile phone – when it’s appropriate, when it’s not appropriate – is a very important part of that. Children need to learn to self-regulate. They’re not being given the opportunity to do that if their phones are taken away at the start of the day.”

I’d add that we can’t uninvent tech. Or ignore it. As we wrote in our last post: “Fact is, tech is a pervasive part of our students’ lives.” And the world at large.

Ignore tech? You may as well try to ignore the pull of gravity.

As with gravity, best learn to work with it.

As one head argued, technology can be a force for good. Smartphones are the Swiss army knife of tech. We increasingly take their sheer brilliance for granted. They are an immensely powerful tool in the classroom. Personally, I’m all for students researching on phones, especially when access to IT is limited in many schools.

For instance, in languages, phones double up as dictionaries, cameras take pictures of notes and homework written on the board, YouTube clips help with pronunciation, presentations can be filmed.

(Quick plug: Milk Student Planners allow you to quickly share links to answers, model essays, AOs, checklists, and the like.)

Surveys and quizzes make learning fun, and are hugely useful for revision. This is where tech really comes into its own. 70% of language students use digital flash notes for revision outside school.

It would be madness to ignore all this. To some extent, EdTech has gamified revision, making learning addictive! Data allows for easy self-assessment. Memrise, Quizlet, Kahoot! – an ever-increasing list of apps add those crucial elements of learning: active testing and spaced repetition.

We should be teaching our students to make the most of these tools, not banning them.


Final thoughts

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

William Butler Yeats

It seems to me that too often we dampen young people’s enthusiasm when their enthusiasms do not match our own. But that does not have to be the case.

An outright ban would make schools look out of touch. Education should be a preparation for not a turning away from the real world.

I think it is naive to believe that condemning digital homework and communication software is going to save kids from the dangers and distractions of mobile phones. It may stop cyberbullying during the school day, but sadly, there are other forms of bullying. Unregulated mobile use is a distraction. Then again, there are a hundred and one distractions in schools and classrooms – that’s part of their appeal!

It would be odd not to use phones – and more precisely, the internet and apps – as part of learning in schools. We have these enormously powerful tools. Let’s learn to use tech, together, and intentionally.

Mike Dowling and the team at Milk



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“All you have to do to educate a child is leave them alone and teach them to read. The rest is brain washing.”

Ellen Gilchrist

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