Banning mobile phones is cargo cult science

Banning mobile phones is cargo cult science

Making waves this week on twitter and blogs is this study by the London School of Economics suggesting that schools that have enforced a mobile phone ban have seen an improvement in their results.

Delve into hoo-ha further and it appears that what these schools have done is to toughen their behaviour policies generally, with the ban on mobile phones being a part of it. This has led to an improvement in high-stakes test results within individual schools, especially in those schools with low achieving students. The research did not look at whether banning mobile phones improved results, say, in comparison with other schools that do allow their use on occasion. This is an important distinction.

Leaving to one side my concern about the belief that whatever improves results in high-stakes testing must be good for children, there is also the issue of (deliberately?) conflating mobile phones and other mobile devices, such as tablets. For example, you may be surprised to hear that, in my setting, though children are given a tablet, the use of mobile phones is generally not allowed unless a teacher specifically allows it.

Damning, as the researchers and the sources in this Guardian article do, the use of mobile devices as “a distraction” betrays a narrow view of what constitutes a good education and a lack of understanding of how mobile devices are actually being utilised in schools where their use has been shown to contribute positively to improving educational outcomes. In support of this last assertion, this inspection report comes to mind, as does this one.

I fear that it may be escaping us entirely that, in many settings, the use of mobile devices to support teaching and learning and robust behaviour policies are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Below is some twitter commentary that caught my eye:

I think they are spot on. Not only does this research completely ignores how mobile devices are being used effectively, it simply states a correlation. Correlation is not causation. It reminds me of that sketch in Father Ted when Dougal and Father Ted are sitting at a hospital waiting room and Dougal says to Ted “do you ever notice that it’s usually sick people that end up in hospitals?”

From this perspective, the banning of mobile phones and improvement in test results is just a correlation, a spurious one maybe. My reading of this research is that it simply does not prove convincingly that a mobile phone ban alone causes an improvement in high-stakes test results.

From this follows my biggest criticism of this research and its suggestions: this may be cargo cult science. By separating the mobile phone ban from the wider toughening of these schools’ behaviour policies, we may be fooling ourselves into believing that by replicating single aspects of these policies – e.g. enforcing a mobile phone ban – test results will improve. It just doesn’t work like that.



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