Mobile phone debates in school continue heating up, as recent governmental guidance from the Department for Education (DfE, 2023) recommends bans across English schools to alleviate distraction and discipline issues. While such swift prohibition seems an easy fix, the policy directive appears a knee-jerk response lacking thorough consultation with key education experts (Norden, 2023). Outright bans appear as a rapid remedy that will solve issues like class disruptive behaviour or bullying. They are easy to declare and enforce overnight whereas re-education around responsible use is slow and demands actual effort. There does seem to be a reflexive tendency lately towards prohibition and restriction rather than constructively cultivating good habits as in the response to the use of generative AI.
The UK Government move on this issue was fuelled by the publication of a UNESCO report (2023) calling for responsible of technology in schools. Unfortunately, an article in the Guardian interpreted this slightly differently with the headline screaming “‘Put learners first’: Unesco calls for global ban on smartphones in schools” (Butler & Farah, 2023). However, soon after this publication (and the DfE was approached for comment) the impending guidance to ban mobile devices was issued by the Secretary of State for Education. I reserve judgement but probably a little information literacy education would not be amiss here!
The National Curriculum highlights that English schools largely restrict explicit instruction around information literacy concepts to warnings about internet safety scattered within Computing and Citizenship courses rather than meaningfully integrating digital discernment across all subjects (DfE, 2014). A phone ban may be easier to implement and enforce in a strict exam-focused environment as in English schools, similarly to the approach taken to AI tool use. Lack of phone access matters less here, as learning is focused more on memory and retention rather than research or creativity. Sole reliance on textbooks and teachers rather than web searches or library databases is the norm for many. Nonetheless, this failing leaves students entering higher education and employment lacking abilities highly valued by universities and employers for the 21st century (Industrial Strategy Council, 2019).
Outright banning devices overlooks their potential integration in building vital digital literacy skills for the modern world (Hobbs, 2017), instead representing a short-sighted attempt at control that may ultimately fail students. As information professionals we know information literacy skills are crucial for individuals and societies to combat modern issues like misinformation across social channels. Imposing complete bans on devices central to students’ academic and social lives will only exacerbate this deficiency. Prohibiting mobile access removes valuable opportunities for pupils to actively build literacy skills within their daily digital interactions. Banning collaborative tools obstructs integrating the types of innovative, engaging educational approaches best suited to cementing such modern competencies.
Here are a few likely effects in practice if phones are banned in schools which demand consideration from an information literacy viewpoint before imposition:
- A ban would severely hamper hands-on instruction in areas like evaluating online sources, identifying mis/disinformation, understanding media bias, and protecting privacy. Students learn these skills best by actively applying them on the devices they use daily.
- Far fewer opportunities would exist to integrate information literacy development across subjects. Teachable moments enabled by regular device access would be lost. The phone would be viewed as leisure device rather than as an educational tool.
- Group work, collaboration, and project-based learning around media analysis or production would become logistically very difficult without in-hand access to phones and their creative apps.
- It could undermine citizenship initiatives to increase civic participation online if students lack understanding of how social technologies can intersect with political activism.
- Teacher development of technological proficiency and innovative edtech integration would slow without daily mobile usage to inspire new approaches.
While mindfulness around screen time and safeguarding against cyberbullying remain paramount, balanced policies tailored to age could achieve that while continuing to provide access to mobile technologies as tools for building information literacy. Models adopted in some school systems allow students device access for collaborative work and specific learning purposes while restricting recreational use. Such policies underscore the importance of self-regulation over punitive prohibition. But will these schools be pressurised into a total ban if the new guidance from DfE becomes mandatory?
This also leads us to question what is the definition of a mobile phone? Overall, the line between phones, phablets and small connected devices is fading. Schools crafting bans must balance catching this grey area with avoiding overreach that prohibits even benign single-use gadgets (that may aid students with special needs or medical concerns). Will decisions be based on size, connectivity, intended use? And how will adaptations be made for future developments in technology and provider ingenuity?
By imposing a complete ban, we remove the opportunity to teach personal responsibility and to model good practice. Many policymakers pushing bans lack qualifications in fields like technology, sociology, or education to devise alternative strategies beyond blocking access. More consultation on supporting healthy digital adoption strategies may be prudent before such prohibitions. With digital fluency vital for modern careers, a rushed ban could severely obstruct England’s efforts to adequately equip students, teachers, and schools for the digital age, and to become information literate, regardless of good intentions.
Butler, P. and Farah, H. (2023) Put learners first’: Unesco calls for global ban on smartphones in schools. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jul/26/put-learners-first-unesco-calls-for-global-ban-on-smartphones-in-schools
DfE. (2023) Mobile phone use to be banned in schools in England. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/mobile-phone-use-to-be-banned-in-schools-in-england
DfE. (2014) The National Curriculum. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-curriculum
Hobbs, R. (2017) Create to learn: Introduction to digital literacy. Wiley-Blackwell.
Industrial Strategy Council. (2019) UK Skills Mismatch in 2030. Available at: https://industrialstrategycouncil.org/sites/default/files/UK%20Skills%20Mismatch%202030%20-%20Research%20Paper.pdf
Norden, J. (2023) Keegan mobile ban ‘unnecessary’ and ‘desperate’, say unions. Available at: https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/gillian-keegan-school-mobile-phone-ban-unnecessary-unions
UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report Team. (2023) Technology in education: a tool on whose terms? Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000385723