Dr Mark Williams Neuroscience Professor Author Speaker Facilitator
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Dr Mark Williams Neuroscience Professor Author Speaker Facilitator


I spent last week traveling around the Upper Hunter region of NSW with the Macquarie University LEAP Team. LEAP stands for Learning, Education, Aspiration and Participation. It is funded by the Australian government to actively support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to aspire to and successfully participate in higher education. We visited a bunch of High Schools in low SES areas and presented to both teachers and students. I love going on these road trips as it gives me a chance to spend time with a fantastic group of people from Macquarie University who are dedicated to this amazing program. It also gives me an opportunity to present to a large number of high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds and hopefully inspire a few to think about higher education (and science) as an option.

Difference between Schools

One thing I always find fascinating is the differences I observe between the schools we visit. I’m always cogitating as to why this is so, when the schools are very similar in all the obvious metrics. Similar location, similar SES, similar student numbers, similar funding etc. One thing I noticed on this trip was a striking difference between the phone use policy of two schools.

Strict Phone Use Policy

In one particular school, the careers advisor reminded all the students that phones were not to be used during any of the sessions. The school obviously had very strict rules around phone use and I did not see a single phone during the whole day. The students were also very engaged in all the activities, they made eye contact, they appeared interested, they answered questions and even asked questions, they had positive body language and several students approached me afterwards to discuss things they found interesting.

Relaxed Phone Use Policy

The following day we went to another school and the phone policy appeared to be more relaxed. Many of the students entered the hall while looking down at their smartphones, and many of them continued to interact with their phones during presentations. During my activity I insisted that the students put their phones away. There was still obviously less eye contact, only a few students in each group appeared interested, it was a struggle to get students to answer questions and I can’t remember any of them asking a question, many students had negative body language (slouching and crossed arms), and there was a real lack of enthusiasm.

After each session we always have a debrief amongst the LEAP team to discuss what worked and what could be improved. We are always keen to reflect on the day and this is a great chance to find out how everyone is feeling. Interestingly, the mood and overall feeling was universal amongst the team. The first school was highly engaged and motivated and the second was basically hard work. But why is it so?


One of the main reasons is attention. We know that simply having a smartphone near you takes some of your attention away. When we are driving, if our phone is beside us, that is equivalent to having one standard alcoholic drink. And that is for an adult who has a fully functioning frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the brain area that controls your attention and it is not fully developed until we are 25 years of age. These students’ attention would be far more effected by the smartphone in their pockets than an adult. Perhaps equivalent to three or four standard alcoholic drinks. No wonder they seem disinterested and grumpy. Of course, attention is absolutely essential when it comes to learning and memory. If you are not attending to something you will not remember it.

Private School Ban

Many private schools in NSW are now banning smartphones during school hours and all the feedback I have heard has been extremely positive. For example, a Deputy Principal commented just the other day that since they banned phones during school hours, they'd noticed a dramatic change. The boys “talk to each other during breaks and are more likely to be involved in physical and social activities in their free time. When a teacher is having a conversation with a student, there is no longer that anxious, far-away look in response to an un-heard vibration in his pocket that leaves him wondering who 'likes' him this period.” Schools should be about learning and anything that hinders learning should be restricted.

Smartphones are Everywhere

One of the questions I am often asked when presenting is “how can you ban smartphones from schools when they are everywhere and kids need them?” My answer to the first part of this question is that many things are banned from schools that are available in general society. We have banned nuts from schools because some students are allergic, we have banned knives from schools because they are dangerous, we have banned pies because they are unhealthy, my kids’ school banned pokemon cards because they were causing fights etc… So why can’t schools ban a device that is distracting and addictive (see https://www.drmarkwilliams.com/teens-are-addicted-to-smart-phones/). And to the second part of the question I often ask why does a student need a phone at school? Schools have fantastic teachers to assist the students if they need anything. And schools have phones in case of an emergency. There is no reason why a student needs a phone in their pocket at school.

The Future

I also often get asked “don’t we need to train them for a future where they will always be connected?” The issue with this question is the assumption that we will always be connected in the future. My hope is that we are starting to realise that connecting to each other in the real world is more important than getting ‘likes’ in the cyber world. And even if technology continues to dominate our lives, the skills that will be most important will be the soft skills that technology will be unable to do.

What should we teach?

Technology is good and will become better at handling large amounts of concrete information. The skills future workers will need are the skills computers can’t learn like collaboration, problem solving, creativity and innovation. These skills cannot be taught to a computer and they cannot be taught on a computer either. They must be taught by a teacher or mentor. They involve attending to someone and learning how to look someone in the eye, to read their body language and respond appropriately, to ask questions and learn how to learn, to enjoy art and music, to brain-storm and to think laterally and critically. Let’s ban the smartphones and give teachers the opportunity to teach what our kids really need for their futures.

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All the best!
Dr Mark Williams
Neuroscience Professor, Author, Speaker & Facilitator

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