Should mobile phones be banned from Scottish Schools?

Plainly put, no.

I must start by saying that I am a big fan of ‘bans’ of any kind. It even intrigues me more when it is connected to education. To ban digital devices from schools is, in my opinion, to detach the web from the educational experience. If learners’ devices – or any other type of digital devices that connect the learner to the world of knowledge and knowing the web has become – are not being used to capitalise on what they are engaging with in class, then somehow technology has already been excluded from the learning experience. You just haven’t realised it.

This call for a national ban is in part motivated by research that concluded that the exclusion of smartphones from the classroom improves outcomes. I can understand the appeal of such proposal, I really do. Classroom management and teacher control would be so much easier… If pupils followed a strict study regime that includes the memorisation of information and prediction of exam questions and answers. However, it strikes me that, especially in the case of Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), proposes something very different. At the core of its curriculum is the celebration of learners’ agency.  In fact, CfE  emphasises experiences as well as outcomes; contemporary experiences that aim to bridge learning with real world practices and which ‘recognise the importance of the quality and nature of the learning experience in developing attributes and capabilities and in achieving active engagement, motivation and depth of learning’.

Such type of curriculum emphasises engagement with contemporary forms of learning- which can also be digital -, the development of teaching approaches conducive to digital practices and assessment strategies to match.

It is not mobile phones that are the problem. Rather, it is not knowing how to appropriate digital practices for educational purposes that is the issue

What if instead of banning technology, we saw it for what it is and integrate it for that purpose? Mobile phones are just devices that connects us to the web. Understanding how the web can be used for teaching and learning is however the crux of the question. In the last decades, a digital culture has been developing online. It is epitomised by a set of digital practices of which participation is a key feature. Digital participation takes on different shapes, from being part of a knowledge network to creating content for others to access, re-use, discuss, appropriate, build on, etc. This type of practice, in a safe and educated environment – seems to me to tie in well with CfE four capacities. Online pupils can also be effective contributors, learn how to take responsibility for their actions, acquire confidence with regards to what they are doing and thus become what is deemed successful learners. Yet, for this to work, we need to reconsider what we mean by school success beyond the achievement of high scores in standardised tests. Following this rational, we should explore pedagogical approaches that connect the school to the digital, instead of banning it.

From access to accessibility – creation new digital divides

It seems to me that, to a great extent, the issue of access to digital infrastructure will soon be fully resolved. Just last year, the Scottish government reported that it had achieved an impressive 82% of Internet access country wide,  with access to mobile broadband playing a key role in those statistics. However, when it comes to accessibility the issue is different. Research is starting to point out that the issue that should concern us now relates to the ways people use technology, with increase evidence that individuals from lower income families are at a disadvantage when it comes to ripping the positive effects on being digitally connected. Van Dijk found out that working class students are more likely to use the web for entertainment, whereas middle class students also make use of the web as a platform where lifelong learning can be fostered. This disparity between approaches creates gaps in knowledge that are likely to impact on one’s perception of opportunities to new ways of learning. By banning phones from schools, we are communicating to students that the web is not a powerful tool for learning or working. Moreover, we are conveying the message that school and real life practices are two separate entities. No wonder that industry maintains that education doesn’t prepare students for the workplace.  So a question to explore with regards to this issue, could be: What is the role of the school in preparing learners for contemporary ways of learning and working?


Digital Literacies

In the development of our recently finished EU project, we confirmed our suspicions that although students are proficient users of technology, they are not always digital literate. In other words, they know how to use their devices and they can access and workout just about any application and network, but they do not necessarily think about the consequences of their online contributions, precisely because digital participation is more often regarded as a form of entertainment  than a form of working or learning. However, these technologies are pervading workplaces, so why shouldn’t they be part of educational practices? We should be fostering learners’ critical digital practices, not only regarding consumption of information, but also the production of it. Learners should be aware and feel responsible for their online participation and schools could offer safe environments for digital practices to be discussed and questions to be asked.

One of the main arguments for the banning is obviously distraction. This leads to considerations about attention as a key digital literacy that needs to be consciously discussed and practised (see Rheingold, 2010). Another convincing argument will always be linked to the dangerous behaviours developed online. The need to develop digital literacies is therefore obvious. However, it is rarely integrated in the curriculum.


A policy to match current digital practices

Scotland has been a pioneer in devising its own digital learning and teaching strategy. Yet, it has given little to no consideration to the way the web impacts on current practices. Its strong focus on access overshadows the understanding and impact of the web on people’s practices. Policy and guidance on the digital world needs to develop a critical appreciation for digital participatory education. Only then can we start transforming, rather than disrupting, the classroom.


In short, there is a need to stop regarding digital devices as instruments of classroom disruption. They only disrupt classroom practices that take no notice of how the web is changing the way people learn, live and work. There is also a pressing need to look beyond the technological device to understand the practices that they enable and how these practices can and should influence new pedagogical approaches.