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Tablet computers: weapons of mass distraction?

This week, Ofsted has cautioned senior leaders that allowing pupils to bring tablet computers to school can be “extremely disruptive”. The warning coincides with the release of the inspectorate’s figures which reveal that nearly a third of secondary schools now allow pupils to use their own devices in classrooms.[1]

The trend for using iPads and other tablet computers in lessons continues to grow, with many schools choosing to purchase class sets of the devices.

Ofsted’s survey, undertaken during school inspections, found that 30 percent of secondaries have implemented ‘bring your own device’ policies, but the watchdog takes a dim view of the use of such technology in lessons, and has urged school leaders to take a similar stance. (Richard Vaughan, para. 3)

In a statement issued by Ofsted, a spokesperson commented: “Pupils bringing personal devices such as laptops or tablets into school can be extremely disruptive and make it difficult for teachers to teach. It is up to schools to decide whether they have rules about personal devices, but Ofsted would be supportive of heads who took tough action to make the learning environment better for children.” (Richard Vaughan, para. 4-5)

Ofsted’s tough stance on personal devices has coincided with a government review of mobile devices and their impact on classroom behaviour. Schools minister Nick Gibb has recently developed ‘behaviour tsar’ Tom Bennett’s role to cover wider behaviour issues, including the analysis of personal devices and their impact on the behaviour of pupils.

School behaviour expert, Tom Bennett has commented that: “This is a 21st-century problem and the majority of schools are dealing with it effectively. But I will now probe deeper into this issue, and behaviour challenges more broadly, to uncover the real extent of the problem and see what we can do to ensure all children focus on their learning.”[2]

The link between reading and technology

The danger of demonising devices, such as tablets, is that it may negate great improvements made in encouraging boys to enjoy reading. A study published by the National Literacy Trust, based on 468 pupils at 40 schools across the country, found that boys had a significant attitude change towards reading after picking up an ebook, compared to girls. In addition to this, boys’ reading levels increased by an average of eight months, compared to seven months for their female counterparts. [3]

Enhanced reading performance through the use of ebooks was not just limited to boys either. Attitudes towards reading before and after the study were reported, and revealed that just over half of children saw reading as “cool” before the project. This rose to around two thirds, afterwards, with twice as many boys reading this way. (Telegraph, para. 6)

Another positive effect found during the study was that the proportion of boys who described reading as difficult dropped from 28 percent to 16 percent. (Telegraph, para. 7)

Irene Picton, Research Manager at the National Literacy Trust, believes that the study demonstrates that the influence of ebooks on reading enjoyment “goes well beyond the novelty” of reading in a new format. She added: “It is important to recognise the increased reading opportunities that technology offers pupils and how it can help children who struggle to read, for example, by giving them the option of increasing the font size of the text. This study indicates that technology has the most potential to engage children, particularly boys, who do not enjoy reading.” (Telegraph, paras. 10-12)

If schools encourage pupils who have access to tablets or other personal devices, to bring them in to school, is it any wonder that it could lead to disruption in the classroom? The devices could be viewed as a physical manifestation of the divide in society between the haves and the have nots, leading to resentment, squabbles and possible security issues.

On the flip side, why should the progress of pupils who would benefit from this form of technology, be forfeited, for the sake of potential classroom management issues?

Missing the point?

Some would argue that the source of this issue is not the use of personal devices in lessons, but the lack of interest, attention or disruptive behaviour of some pupils in response to tasks? Tom Bennett touched upon this view when he stated that: “Learning is hard work and children are all too aware of this. So when they have a smartphone in their pocket that offers instant entertainment and reward, they can be easily distracted from their work.” (DfE, para. 11)

Would it not be fair to say that if personal devices were outlawed from the classroom, pupils who were intent on engaging in off-task behaviour would find some other form of distraction anyway?

Maybe what we really need is to tackle the underlying cause for the pupil disengagement.

Tackling disengagement

Does your school:

  • Teach pupils how to improve their levels of concentration?
  • Find ways to foster a culture of determination and resilience?
  • Offer a supportive environment for pupils to make mistakes and learn from them?
  • Provide lessons which are engaging and pitched at the correct level?
  • Ensure that pupils are aware of what is expected of them?
  • Reward and reprimand pupils in line with these expectations?
  • Appropriately support pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, so that they can achieve their potential?

What is your school’s stance on personal devices? Use our Personal Electronic Devices Policy to implement changes.

[1] Richard Vaughan (2015) ‘Ofsted warns against ‘extremely disruptive’ tablets in school’, <https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/ofsted-warns-against-extremely-disruptive-tablets-school> [Accessed: 14 December 2015]

[2] DfE (2015) ‘Impact of smartphones on behaviour in lessons to be reviewed’, <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/impact-of-smartphones-on-behaviour-in-lessons-to-be-reviewed> [Accessed: 14 December 2015]

[3] Telegraph (2015) ‘Ebooks boost boys’ reading abilities, research finds’, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/12040488/Ebooks-boost-boys-reading-abilities-research-finds.html> [Accessed: 14 December 2015]

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