Phoney

In the early years of my career, I remember watching a man on the local station set a briefcase down on its side, open it up, take a full-sized handset out and make a phone call. I thought it was so cool. It’s a shock to realise that in those days, the briefcase was the phone; thus far have we come.

It goes without saying that mobiles have revolutionised life in many ways, but from an educational perspective I increasingly fear that they are going to prove a most destructive force. Equally, I suppose there is little point in railing against them because the chances of anyone listening are precisely nil. I do own a 3G phone, but most of the time is it switched off. Its use comes in emergencies, for occasional navigation in unfamiliar places, and as mobile wi-fi when staying in our parental homes, which remain resolutely no-computer zones. I do make ample use of information technology including a tablet, so I am not just a bloody-minded humbug.

But I find it increasingly concerning watching the effects that mobile phones are having. My elderly father was walked into the other day by two young women who were so buried in their phones that they did not see him. Being a stubborn old *** he refused to step aside – but he should not have had to.

Similarly, he has had a great relationship with my now ten-year-old niece, and has helped my sister with child-care in recent years. He has been brilliant at finding myriad activities to engage and entertain her, and she has loved him for it. Yet she has recently been given a phone, and as we noticed a few weeks ago, both he (and everyone else) has rapidly disappeared from her life. This has caused him some sadness, enhanced by incredulity at a report of two-year-olds being given phones and getting utterly hooked on them.

In education, I think we are still only in the early stages of seeing the full impact of this. Clearly there are many different policies for phone use in schools; unfortunately, the present administration at my school has seen fit to relax the policy, when I think it should have been doing the opposite. Many children now routinely use their phones all around the school; they are not meant to have them out in lessons but inevitably seepage is occurring. I refuse to yield to this, but it makes just another unnecessary point of confrontation between teacher and pupil – and given the level of addiction concerned, one that is potentially quite fractious. And this is without the more insidious potential, particularly in schools that are as much of a rabbit-warren as mine.

For a while, I tried to harness the positive side of phone use, and briefly flirted with allowing pupils to use their phones to access online resources when our computers were not available. I can also see some use in allowing them to take photographs where there are complex resources in use; it may even save on photocopying! But increasingly it is becoming clear that this is just another excuse for their not having to write anything down.

I am increasingly inclined to abandon this given that it seems to be snowballing into a situation where phones become a permanent part of the lesson. It is nigh on impossible, of course, to ensure that they are all, always being used appropriately. And I wonder whether their use is contributing to both a further shortening in children’s attention spans, and a decline in their social skills.

My sixth form tutor group typifies the worst. Despite my repeated efforts, including phone-confiscation and declassing, it has proved an unending battle to stop them from sitting there, stony-faced each morning during tutor-time, all buried in their phones. What’s more, any interruption elicits resentment and resistance if they are asked to do anything else. I do have a particularly grumpy bunch at present, but other tutors are encountering some of the same. Hitherto, I have always been very successful at engaging my tutor groups, but most of this lot are almost unreachable.

New technologies always have their downsides, and in time, as the novelty wears off more considered use emerges. I remember the time when gear-knobs in cars, pens and just about everything else had digital clocks built into them just because we could. It passed.

I recently read recent report (sorry, reference lost) suggesting that ICT has a polarising effect: it enhances the abilities of the already-thoughtful but diminishes them for the thoughtless, and the former is indeed my experience. I wonder what it does to those who lie on the cusp, such as those who are still immature of years. I fear that the full impact of these devices on their cognitive and social development is something that we have yet barely seen. I am beginning to wonder whether we need a national directive on the use of phones in schools, as it is the only way we will combat a tidal wave of opposition.

In the last week, I have had to deal with a pupil whose parent called them in the middle of my lesson, and a case when I detained a child  for a little longer than intended due to squabbling, and he missed his bus. He returned some minutes later brandishing a phone on which his father ‘wanted a word with me’. A split-second decision led to my accepting; I stood my ground and I eventually prevailed… But this is really not an acceptable situation.

Maybe a new generation will emerge which treats mobile phones with a better sense of proportion, but in the meantime, are we about to witness a generation lost to both social and intellectual interaction because they were utterly, hopelessly addicted to these gadgets? And once it is gone, will we ever be able to get it back?

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