Real Digital Learning is not Digital Distraction.

Why we need to move past seeing technology as the “enemy of the age” and educate, beyond our schools, the crucial integrated facilitating role it already plays across global society in the C21st.

“Can you imagine teaching, or indeed day-to-day life, without technology? Although many people view the future of our world as digital – they are wrong. Our world is already digital – as any teacher or schoolchild will readily attest. This environment moves fast…”

Julia Adamson, Director of Education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

The technology itself is not transformative. It’s the school, the pedagogy, which is transformativeTanya Byron

“The place of mobile phones in the classroom seems to me dubious at best”

Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of OfSTED speaking at the Wellington Festival of Education, June 2018

I sat in a meeting of school leaders this week and what I noticed is something that is now such an everyday part of human interactions that we take it for granted. No one appeared to be listening and everyone appeared to be distracted by their technology. We have greater connectivity and facilitating technology than ever before but we are becoming more disconnected it would seem.  Let me go back to the beginning of my sentence; this wasn’t a classroom full of children or even a packed commuter train where you would expect people to be glued to their devices for music, books, newspapers, email, social media, videos etc.  This was a room full of school leaders. School leaders lamenting about the decline in standards of behaviour and about students not engaged with school.

I wanted to write a blog piece about the phenomenal impact digital learning has had on Wyedean School as a key strand of learning but this week there were a number of comments and reports that should not be unchallenged. The thing that happens in education too many times, is a new agenda will be announced and then already overburdened school leaders and teachers will get to the end of a long academic year feeling they can’t quite rest because someone very important and influential has made an announcement and no one is quite sure if it is a policy, in the OfSTED framework or just advisory. This week first the Culture Secretary, not the Education Secretary, Mike Hancock, announced that mobile phones, but not devices, should be banned in school because they disrupt and cause low-level poor behaviour.  No study cited. At the Wellington Festival of Education, the Chief Inspector of OfSTED, almost word for word, has made the same call. As a school principal of 1100 students aged 11-19 I think this is a very worthwhile debate to explore and to have in education right now even alongside the chronic underfunding, the recruitment crisis of teachers, the narrowing of the curriculum and the dysfunctionality of local-national accountability and responsibility of academies, MATs and the local authorities. The reason why we need this debate, informed by randomised control trials across schools and age groups, is because it is a debate that needs to be moved on conclusively. I read the annual Roehampton University TRACER report this week and I have referenced the opening quote in the foreword by Julie Adamson at the start of this blog. Anyone with an opinion on technology and young people, should not only think about their own relationship and interactions with technology, but also think carefully and deeply about the place of technology in our digital world.  For me, this quote should be at the start of any informed debate.  The link to the report is here:

Roehampton Annual Computer Education Report

For many schools, poor low level disruptive behaviour is the main barrier to progress and school improvement success and I have no doubt the use of mobile devices not only distracts but causes untold issues when used in a negative, undermining way, but won’t solve chronic underfunding, poor aspirations or unpreparedness for a global and digital society. What these schools need is a greater panacea than OfSTED “helpfully” suggesting that mobile phones are banned.  Greater funding and deeper understanding of the issues around social mobility and aspiration may be a place to start. Not driving out hard working teachers and school leaders labelled as “failures” by OfSTED from the very schools and communities that need them most would be another. No doubt, we will also hear that an imitation loud grammar school blazer with a good crest and silent corridors will solve all the ills of these schools. The recent report from Stephen Tierney, of the think-tank, Heads’ Roundtable, report in this week’s TES about OfSTED not being fit to “judge” a school in a deprived area because it is more than five times likely to be failing than one from an affluent area is powerful evidence. We need to move beyond blaming a phone, a community, a student or an educator and beyond looking for simple short-term solutions that may have initial impact but are not sustainable and ultimately the old problems with deep root causes soon reappear. The link to the TES here:

Anecdotally, mobile phones were banned in a rural school I worked in, after many hours poring over a draft policy.  Here is the thing, the policy said only phones.  The “knowledgeable” adults could not think past their own digital experiences, knowledge and students just brought in other digital devices, and the perceived issues remained.  The rural locality with the long bus journeys, winter nights and dark lanes meant parents had no way of being in communication when their child left to and from school. There were very real and serious safeguarding issues caused by the fact students could not contact home not just after school but also for school clubs, trips, and revision sessions after school. The student council fed back and said the hour or so commute was valuable reading time, music time to relax for good wellbeing and time to revise, all using their phones and or devices.

On the longest day of the year and summer solstice, with the wonderful sound outside my window of the Year 6s here for transition week and the anticipation of this next cohort joining us in September, I met with my brilliant group of Year 9 Critical Thinkers this morning. I was all set for Refugee Week debate and ready on throwing into the critical forum Trump and the disgraceful practice he has ordered of separating young refugee children from their families on the Mexico-US border along with the new Italian government’s “tribute” to the 1930s and their approaches to the Italian Roma communities. We went for a discussion on technology, digital learning and young people and mobile devices. I will repeat again a point made in many blogs; I talk to the students of Wyedean and I am filled with so much hope at the wisdom and decision making abilities of this generation for the future compared to the present one. So in no particular order of discussion from critical thinking Year 9s:

 1) Safety and safeguarding: the majority of students here catch buses, often living in rural areas especially in the Forest of Dean. Having a phone is vital for communication alone. A bus broke down on the A48 yesterday on the way home and students were able to call individual parents/carers in advance.  School texted home as well as a post on Facebook and an alert on our Wyedean App.

2) Policing: Would we have scary and intimidating security and body scans/airport scans at the school gates with a huge queue of students entering the building each morning? Personally, I prefer the current school culture of standing out at the front of the drop off and just wishing students a great day with a smile. Liability of storage of 1100 phones in school?

3) Effective use in learning: Online tools and apps are used extensively in innovative and engaging learning and access through mobile devices is now an everyday part of learning culture. For example, use of the app Kahoot and interactive class knowledge quizzes, Show My Home Work is now invaluable to us in not only for the setting of work but also allowing independent learning and home involvement. Students also use this in their free periods at break and lunch around the campus extensively.

4) School has a robust behaviour policy and misuse of devices already exist at Wyedean as our core commitment to a positive learning environment for everyone: Good schools set these boundaries and enforce them.

5) The social media World continues after school: There is no “cut off” for our duty of care or partnership with parents at 3:30.

6) Adults are often worse than young people for digital distraction and inappropriate use of phones: What have people such as Trump demonstrated about aggressive trolling and unacceptable behaviour to women, minorities, children without consequence?

7) Digital society preparedness: how would removing technology help anyone prepare for a globalised society functioning with so much technology? Pay apps are very popular on phones with young people so they do not carry hard cash for example.

8) Global Learning: How many countries and schools are we able to connect with using Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts etc. On Monday, I presented to Eastern European colleagues in their conference in Chisinau an hour-long presentation on “Stretch and Challenge Learning for all”. We need global connectedness for a post Brexit “Global Britain” even more.

9) Wider access to learn through World Universities through MOOCs and already alternative additional curriculums exist for individual learners in school using edx, FutureLearn and others. Many use their devises in the library and common rooms to study on these.

10) Like everything, social media has a negative side but we use it in a very positive and celebratory way in school: Students who aren’t sporty can see the sports team doing well like the Softball, Rounders and Athletics teams this week. The Year 7 “First Give” presentations in the JK Rowling library this week used digital learning and shared with home and the wider world this way.  Huge thanks to the Mayor of Gloucester for being a judge! She tweeted it too!

I want to add here a very thoughtful piece by the American EdTech expert, Ethan Miller, appeared on the ever-brilliant “TeacherToolkit” this week looking at the question of “too much technology being bad for students”. I would extend that to adults as well.  The link is below and there are four very real points policy makers, educators, parents and young people should consider what Miller posits:

  • Social media addiction and cyber bullying
  • Rise in physical and mental health problems
  • Disconnect from the real World
  • Too much Edtech can be overwhelming for students

I am aware this is a long blog but sometimes these things cannot be dealt with in “280” characters even if the president of the USA thinks it is possible to solve most complex issues this way. I will leave this with the discussion from Year 9s: “We still love reading books, taking a walk, having a coffee with friends, playing real sports/games and seeing live events. Schools have had money cut dramatically from wellbeing and counselling services to a record low.  Go figure. Minecraft or Fortnite are crazes for young people in the same way that crazes for young people have always existed. Adults need to stop “worrying”.

We need to build into schools more outdoor learning like the DofE weekend my students and colleagues had in the Wye Valley last weekend. Sports, wellbeing, enrichment need more status in the curriculum – gardening club is very popular here.  Technology and digital learning are as fundamental to young people as literacy and numeracy. Global learning is wonderful online but seeing visitors like our Japanese partner school this July cannot be replaced as a “real experience”.  Final word, adults need to model the values, priorities and behaviours they want to see in young people.  This “technology/behaviour” issue is as much a young person issue as much as a wider society issue where “poor behaviour” in every form is now the norm for adults all over the online world. See Guardian article link: 

So to the positive. Digital Learning is a key learning strand of the curriculum at Wyedean School, connecting subjects, and facilitates innovative learning, as it should in all schools. It is not about gimmicks, expensive white elephants or looking for “cutting edge futurism”. The worry highlighted in the Roehampton report this week is the smaller number of girls taking Computer Science and the overall take up for the subject with the removal of the more general ICT qualification.  In a digital World that already exists and is getting more, sophisticated we should be prioritising Computer Science and digital learning even more.  I would like influential educators and government ministers shouting this from the rooftops rather than talking about banning all mobile phones in schools. The French have passed a law to do this in schools from September. Yet it was President Macron this week who recorded his face-to-face put down of a school student then trolled it on social media for the more powerful moral figure in French society to make his cheap political point at the expense of a French teenager online for the World to see.

My innovative and tireless colleague, Emma Williams has been truly transformative in her leadership and vision of digital learning at Wyedean. This is nowhere better illustrated than the partnership she has developed working with Newent School and with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) as a “Cyber School”.  The partnership with the NCSC has just been a remarkable development. I recommend looking at if you want to see compelling, innovative and digital learning across the curriculum and some of the recent digital learning events like the Dragons Den, the Coding Club, AI, outside speakers or just using the Raspberry Pi that have all added to incredible transformative digital learning at Wyedean. I think to when Bill Gates said, “Technology is just a tool, in terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important” Educators like Emma are such teachers who motivate students and enabling them access to technology and digital learning to engage them and prepare them for their future lives and their world.

I want to finish with a lovely comment made by two Wyedean parents on Twitter today about their son being able to take part in the Coding Club. This is why digital learning needs to continually be placed at the heart of the curriculum and we move away from the “digital distraction” debates.

“Thanks for putting on this club. My son is loving it and learning so much. Really appreciate the efforts you go to at Wyedean to give our kids such brilliant opportunities.”

Working in education is the best job in the World! Digital, Global, Creative, Caring and a Sustainable World.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s