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Phones and fables - fear the sharks or teach our children to swim?

Monday, 11 September 2017

Principal's Blog

In recent days there have been reports of a number of schools taking a hard line on mobile phone usage in school, claiming to be the first school(s) to ban phones and assuring us that their actions are to protect children. Whilst we must clearly be alive to the dangers which modern communication and the evolution of social media creates, this feels worryingly like King Canute. Surely rather than attempting to send back the tide, schools need to be teaching their children to swim in these digital waters, wary of the sharks who lurk around them but not paralysed by fear or being dragged under by a lack of experience.

Just as parents might allow their children an occasional drink in their teens to encourage a healthy approach to alcohol, so our approach to technology should be about encouraging children to make the right choices with all options available; it is good decision making and role modelling rather than prevention and ban which should be the key. At Monkton we run a ‘ten second rule’ for year 9 and 10 pupils on campus during the day - checking your phone is fine, a quick response is also possible. Aside from being able to use phones to get homework reminders, pick up additional notes from class or check something they were learning earlier for discussion with friends, this allows them to maintain a 21st century sense of being in touch whilst not living life through contact with a screen. Surfing social media is something which is kept to evenings and weekends. The intention is to recognise the ever present digital world in the minds of our pupils but to teach them not to be controlled by it, rather that they can take control.

At the end of last term, Monkton found itself in a moment of social media attention as a video which captured something of the Monkton spirit went viral across a range of platforms; for one tiny moment we replaced a world of kittens riding ponies and puppies catching butterflies and reached something like 15 million people before the world moved on. It was interesting to note that whilst many could have asked, ‘Who’s the idiot in the gown?’ or, ‘What makes them think they can sing?’, the comments of thousands of people were, in fact, almost entirely positive; people liked, commented with joy and shared. For a brief period messages flooded into the school offering gratitude for lightening the load.

Communication in the social media platform is a new world; as Darwin found in the Galapagos, so our children have a birdseye view of creation in an untouched space. We can spend time warning them of the Komodo dragon that may appear from the caves or we can point to the huge opportunity that this island paradise might offer them. We can ban them from exploration and keep them on the boat or we can encourage them to find the things which inspire them and share them with others. We can give them the chance to shape this new world.

Do there need to be rules? Of course. We don’t give a sharp knife to a child without teaching them how to use it; we don’t give social media access to five year olds. But by the age of 13 you are ready to start taking responsibility for your actions, both in the real world and online; whilst children are still at school we need them to explore this world so that they can shape and share the best bits with others. There is scope for great cruelty, anger and vitriol - something far too many of us saw in the run up to the UK election when Facebook became a minefield of outrage and fear, wherever you sit on the political spectrum. We must model the right behaviour ourselves and teach children to take the same approach as we encourage in life outside digital borders. If we encouraged every child on every phone to take five minutes from their online time in every day to find something which inspires them, like it, comment with gratitude to its owner and share it with the world, think of the tidal wave that would sweep the social media moon that orbits our digital world. And everywhere we would see surfers, young and old, riding the waves of positivity and whooping with joy at the world we had created.

Chris Wheeler
September 2017

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