Mobile madness

Supermarkets are really good at making things go viral these days. Who didn’t love the image of a whole shelf full of wine bottles labelled “office essentials” during the height of PartyGate? They know how to push people’s buttons on social media in order to keep their brand in the spotlight.

One can only assume that the potential to go viral was the purpose of this display, photographed and shared by an MFL teacher called David on Twitter this weekend:

Predictably, and presumably as part of Tesco’s dastardly plan to go viral, EduTwitter went beserk. Huge numbers of us, myself included, were pretty annoyed about the fact that Tesco were depicting a mobile phone as an “essential” for children heading into school. Yet this notion is not an outlier and Tesco certainly did not come up with it on their own; I am reliably informed by multiple friends who are parents that it is now considered to be a “rite of passage” for children to receive a smart phone when they enter secondary school (if their parents haven’t caved in already), so Tesco know what they’re doing here.

There is overhwhelming evidence that mobile phones cause problems in a school environment, which is why so many schools have moved towards banning them in recent years. Many teachers have expressed growing concerns that smart phones pose a significant safeguarding threat and a tool which aids and abets bullying and child-on-child abuse. This is now well-evidenced. Most fundamentally of all however – given that schools are meant to be a place where children learn – the basic problem with smart phones is that they are weapons of mass distraction.

A blogpost by Innerdrive sums up the research evidence on mobile phone usage in schools and it makes for sobering reading. While much of the research focuses on the usefulness of banning phones in a school setting, there is also a great deal of evidence which should give parents serious pause for thought about their child’s usage of devices at home, particularly at night-time. In summary: please don’t let your child have access to their phone after bedtime and please make sure that you have access to everything your child is doing and seeing online and that you check this regularly.

What has puzzled me most in this whole thing is the number of people still willing to defend the notion of children having access to these devices throughout the school day. Unsurprisingly, not very many of them are classroom teachers. They are “educators”, EdTech pushers or – occasionally – much-loved children’s poets. Most teachers have been concerned about children’s usage of smart phones from day one, and those who have defended the notion in the past have in many cases shifted their viewpoint. One of the most irksome arguments used against banning phones in schools is the viewpoint that children must be educated in their usage and that banning them is part of schools being “out of touch” with the modern world. Okay. Apply that argument to sex education: children should be allowed to experiment with sex in school because they need to be taught how to do it responsibly. Apply the argument to alcohol and drug usage: children should be allowed to use alcohol and drugs in school so that we can teach them how to do so responsibly. And so on. Of course students need to be taught about responsible internet usage and the dangers of social media, and believe you me they get this by the bucket-load. But to suggest that in order to learn about the use of smart phones they need to have ready access to these devices in school (as if somehow otherwise they wouldn’t know what we’re talking about?) is laughable.

One of my earliest shows for Teachers’ Talk Radio explored the relationship that teenagers have with their smart phones and my guest, Dr. Kathy Weston from Tooled Up Education, used the phrase “digital hygiene” to summarise the kinds of discussions and agreements that should go on between parents and their child at the point when a child is given one of these devices. It’s important to note where the responsibility lies here: with the parents who, after all, are paying the bill. Of course schools should be addressing mobile phone usage as a part of their PSHE programme, and I cannot imagine there is a school in the land not doing so. But dealing with this issue in schools is a dismal attempt to hang a sheet over a door that a horse has not only bolted through but slammed so hard that the door is off its hinges. In my show I also interviewed Matt Crowley, lead DSL (Designated Safeguarding Lead) in the school in which I was working at the time; the serious safeguarding risks and the systemic damage to a child’s mental health, self-esteem and personal safety which can arise from the use of these devices – in school and beyond – simply cannot be over-emphasised, I’m afraid.

Defenders of the smart phone in schools piont to its “education benefits” and there is no question that there are multiple apps that children can make use of in their learning journey. However, it is a full-time job to micro-manage this kind of usage and that can only be done by a parent or carer. If only we could trust all of our children to make use of their phones to access their Latin vocabulary on Quizlet during break and lunchtimes! In reality, anyone who thinks that’s what they are doing with them is seriously deluded. During the period in which smart phones had become endemic amongst young people when I was working in schools, I knew of numerous cases of children accessing pornography and videos produced by terrorist organisations; I knew of cases in which these devices were used for horrific and systemic bullying, to film teachers and humiliate them on social media, and for children to watch age-inappropriate films and play age-inappropriate games. You name it, I’m afraid they’ve probably done it and done it in school. Is that what people want for their child?

So schools must hold the line and maintain their ban – not that I know of a single one that regrets it – and parents can (I hope) take inspiration from it. These devices are wondrous and I fully admit that I could not live without mine. I first attained a smartphone at the age of around 35, which is probably responsible enough. I cannot tell you how glad I am that they did not exist when I was a child.

My final thought brings me back to my new full-time role, as a professional tutor. It is a discussion I have had to have with numerous parents, advising them to take away a child’s mobile phone while they access my sessions. Working online, it is particularly difficult to spot when a child is distracted by their device, but I can still spot it. Most children find it too difficult to discipline themselves not to look at their phones whilst they’re doing anything (even something they enjoy!) so the odds of them being able to resist it during a tutoring session are vanishingly slim. So take control, which means take the device. They’ll thank you for it one day.

Why is tutoring so effective?

As a teacher of 21 years as I have spent my day job teaching groups of 25, 30 or even more. I remain fascinated by the different dynamics of the one-to-one setting in comparison to the mainstream model.

One-to-one tutoring is remarkably powerful compared to what teachers can achieve in the mainstream classroom. As a tutor, I have taken students from the bottom of their class to the top; I have also witnessed other tutors do exactly the same for students who were at the bottom of my own classes. So what is it about what tutors do that can make us so effective?

The overwhelming benefit comes – in my opinion – from the opportunity to delve in and unpick a student’s understanding – or rather their lack of it. I usually uncover a whole raft of small misconceptions or gaps in a student’s knowledge within the first session. I imagine a student’s developing knowledge of a subject as like a wall; students who come to a tutor for help have often got bricks throughout that wall that are either misshapen or missing altogether, causing the whole structure to be at risk of collapse. This is where tutoring comes in: repointing, replacing and reinforcing the bricks as required.

During the process, a tutor can build a real relationship of trust. Some of these students are so convinced that they’re “rubbish” or simply can’t do it that the revelation that they can understand the concepts in front of them is remarkably powerful. It is not that a tutor necessarily knows their subject and better than the classroom teacher – it is the fact that a tutor has one-to=one time dedicated solely to one child’s needs; it is also that the tutor is (or should be) skilled in identifying and resolving a host of minor misconceptions or gaps in a child’s knowledge that are holding them back. The result can seem like a miracle.

There’s a lot of talk in education that teachers can and should be doing this – that through the right kind of differentiation every single child’s needs can be met by their classroom teacher. The truth? This is absolute nonsense. Of course classroom teachers can’t do that, as anyone who has been one will tell you. Of course children with particular needs can fall behind in the mainstream classroom – those who have missed a large amount of the curriculum through absence, those with SEND, those who have fallen behand for whatever reason and indeed those who are ahead of their peers.

Students who often suffer the most are the quiet ones – they can fall behind without being noticed; yet they can have enormous potential in a subject – again without being noticed. I’ve thought a lot in my work about non-verbal cues, those tiny indications that an individual student can give off when they’re not following something – a twitch of the mouth, a furrow of the brow. In tutoring, that’s the moment to pause and rewind: it’s an absolute joy to be able to do so. In the classroom, not only do I not have time to respond to every non-verbal cue but the reality is I am more than likely to miss the majority of them in the sea of 30 faces.

Like anything, there are of course downsides to the one to one setting as well as benefits. Tutoring can be at risk of lacking direction – you’re potentially not following a set curriculum, rather tailoring each session to the child, and as a result the sessions can seem to lack direction and it can be hard for inexperienced tutors to assess where to go next in terms of content. Similarly, how does one pitch one’s expectations and also how does one manage those of a client who’s paying for our services? Some parents see a tutor as the panacea for everything, not realising that what their child needs is – for example – some basic but regular help with learning their vocabulary. Of course, tutors can and should advise on the methodology, and there is definitely a place for a skilled subject-expert working on vocabulary with a child as part of their time together; but parents sometimes need to invest a little of their own time in their children’s progress too. Vocabulary learning should be done little and often (ideally in short bursts every single day); so unless you can afford to employ a full-time live-in tutor (and believe me, there are some families who actually do so!) then you need to spend some time on supporting your child with their learning.

One of the biggest issues to consider in the one-to -one setting is the risk of cognitive overload, especially in sessions lasting an hour. (I counsel clients against the hour-long model for this very reason). One-to-one tutoring is remarkably intense, both for the student and for the tutor, so we really do need to consider how to pace our sessions to mitigate against this. Cognitive overload is counter-productive and can make students even more anxious and overwhelmed; tutors need to consider how not to over-burden students’ working memory during the session whilst still keeping the level of challenge high.

I have enjoyed my 21 years at the chalkface immensely and my time in the mainstream classroom has gifted me with what I hope will be a long-lasting insight into the problems that my clients are facing when they come to me; it also grants me an insight into the challenges faced by teachers and my aim will always be to support them in the almost insurmountable challenges they face. Tutors should never undermine the classroom teacher, nor use resources that could ruin their lesson: there is nothing worse for a classroom teacher than handing out a resource and then hearing a child pipe up “I did this with my tutor at the weekend!” So don’t do that, please! In an ideal world, a tutor should be able to communicate with the classroom teacher to enable a powerful support network to form around a child who is struggling – I think we are a long way off teachers reaching that level of trust just yet (something I might explored in another post), but I hope to see it happen before the end of my career.

How to get the most from your online tutor

Online tuition is potentially life-changing; transcending geographical barriers, it can connect your child to the perfect provider. As a relatively recent convert, I am a cautious technophile, who places high demands on technology to work pretty much “by magic” – I don’t like wrestling with equipment and I get mightily exasperated when I have to. Yet with the kind of apparatus and software that so many of us have access to these days, I have been delighted to find that the technical hassles are minimal.

However … (you knew there was a “however” coming, right?) … there are certain pitfalls to online tuition, some downsides compared to home tutoring. Happily, these are largely avoidable with a little bit of planning. Never forget: you’re paying for a service, and tuition with an experienced, qualified teacher doesn’t come cheaply. Don’t let the fact that you access online tuition in the comfort of your own home lull you into taking it that little bit too casually, or you may well find you get a poor return on your investment.

Is your equipment up to the job?
For online tutoring, there’s no escaping the fact that you will need reliable, fast internet access: this is a must. Whatever software your tutor chooses to use, they will be talking to your child in real time on the web – this is very demanding on whatever service you are using, so a poor WiFi connection or painfully slow broadband will scupper the session. 

You’ll need to think about how your child will communicate with the tutor. Integral cameras, microphones and speakers are usually fine, but experiment with supplementary equipment if your child struggles to concentrate – students wearing headphones, for example, often find it easier to avoid distraction and focus on the session. Speaking of focus …

Session location: is your child in the right place?
Aren’t iPads wonderful? Many of my tutees access tuition via an iPad or similar tablet, and the advantages are obvious. However, don’t let the freedom that an iPad offers you detract from the fact that your child needs a quiet place to concentrate. If you’re having a conversation, cooking or vacuuming in the background, not only are you distracting your child but you may cause noise interference to the extent that the tutor will really struggle to hear them. If your child is wearing headphones, that will help them to zone out the sounds around them but the same will not be true for the tutor – most microphones will pick up a great deal of extraneous sound, and the effect can become close to unbearable for the tutor if people are talking or using household equipment in the background during a session. 

Ideally, your child should be in a quiet room where they won’t be interrupted by noise or curious siblings. You may wish to be present while your child is being tutored for safeguarding reasons; this is fine, but you should prepare to do something quiet such as reading book. Alternatively, and if the only reason you wish to be present is for monitoring, you could consider recording the sessions – many of the platforms used by online tutors allows for this option.

There has been some recent anxiety on social media re. the safety of Zoom and similar platforms. The package works on closed meetings and the only way that an unsolicited third party could join a meeting is if the link to a meeting is shared online. If your tutor shares the link for each session with you and you alone, there truly is nothing to worry about.

Session timings: is your child ready?
If your child finds it difficult to get out of bed, you will need to think carefully about how to manage a morning session. I have tutored students on a mid-morning that have clearly just rolled out of bed; dazed and groggy, they are not even close to being fully awake and this means (of course) that their focus is poor. So, even if your child is entering that inevitable phase when wake-up time becomes something of a battle, do try to peel them out of bed well before the session is due to start, allowing time for them to have a shower and something to eat. They then have a fighting chance of their mind being on the tuition session ahead, not still under the duvet.

One of the great joys of online tuition is the time it can save you. Some clients that are near enough to me to come for home tuition have still opted to go online; I am based in a heavily-populated area of Surrey and the reality of rush-hour traffic can turn even a 5-mile round trip into a potential nightmare. Online tutoring can open up a wider range of possibilities when it comes to time: take advantage of this and make it work for your child.

One final thing …
Your child is smart! They know that an online tutor’s field of vision is significantly limited compared to a tutor that’s in the room with them. So what do you know? They may well try to use their phone during the session! So, especially if your child is currently preoccupied with a particular game or social networking app, do make sure that they leave their phone with you for the duration of the session. Otherwise technology is simply too tempting!