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EREA: Mobile phones in schools provide an opportunity, not a barrier to learning

Following the Queensland Government’s decision to implement a ban on mobile phones in state schools from the beginning of 2024, and the subsequent public and media interest, it seems timely to articulate another possible approach to this issue.

I (Dr Matt Hawkins) have the privilege of leading 23 Flexi Schools across Australia, 14 of which are located in Queensland. Our schools are Catholic in the Edmund Rice tradition, hence are not included in the state government’s policy regarding mobile phones.

While I completely understand and respect the logic of the government’s decision and approach, we have chosen not to follow suit in our schools.

Our schools are not oblivious nor immune to the many challenges that mobile phones in schools help to create, nor do our schools advocate or support an “anything goes” approach to handling the use of mobile phones. We simply do not believe we are tackling the core concerns of this issue through the banning of phones in schools.

Our approach is educative rather than disciplinary.

One may consider that our cohort of young people, many of whom have experienced trauma, neglect, abuse, and significant family dysfunction, might need a far stricter approach when it comes to matters like the use of mobile phones and technology. This is because we now know, through a growing body of significant research, that trauma seriously impacts a child’s brain development and in turn affects that young person’s behaviour and their ability to self-regulate.

However, our evidence-based approach and philosophy, through which young people are empowered to make decisions that affect their own learning, suggests three key reasons for our decision not to ban mobile phones in our schools.

First, we acknowledge that mobile phones are innately connected to the lives of our students, and do indeed present challenges. We believe that to assist young people in navigating a world with mobile phones, our staff and our schools are best placed to lead conversations, provide guidance, and help our young people handle the challenges that arise through the use of their devices.

This way, we seek to empower young people to make appropriate choices in using their phones, and when they don’t, we have the necessary conversations.

Second, we know that any time a black-and-white policy such as this is implemented, there is a direct impact on staff in schools. Our clear preference is that staff spend as much time as possible, in an increasingly crowded workday for teachers, educating and building relationships with young people, rather than looking for hidden mobile phones or sitting in lunchtime detention.

Finally, while we acknowledge the significant challenges that come with mobile phones in schools, we also see the amazing learning opportunities that can be created by harnessing the potential of the devices in our students’ pockets.

We choose not to see phones as a barrier to learning, but as an opportunity. Phones provide not only access to a universe of knowledge, but an opportunity to discuss how we relate to each other and behave in the real and virtual worlds. Having phones in our schools provides an opportunity to have these conversations and teach these lessons in a safe and controlled space.

Our work in EREA Flexi Schools is based on the concept of Operation by Principles. Rather than imposing a long list of school rules, our staff and young people are asked to work within our four principles: Honesty, Participation, Respect, and being Safe and Legal. Mobile phones in schools provide the perfect vehicle to teach young people about each of these four principles, and we do not wish to pass up that opportunity.

By Dr Matt Hawkins, CEO of Edmund Rice Education Australia Flexible Schools Ltd

First Nations education in Australian schools: making it a priority

Q&A with Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA) Flexi Schools Director of First Nations Education Liz Kupsch

Liz is a proud Waanyi- Gangalidda and Wankamadla woman who was born and bred on Kalkadoon Country and currently lives on Turrubul Country in southeast Queensland.

Liz has worked in various rural, remote and urban centres and has developed and delivered a variety of programs for organisations like Education Queensland, Reconciliation Australia and Brisbane Catholic Education. These programs have centred around Indigenous education and improving life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities.

Throughout her career, she has gained deep knowledge, skills and understanding of how our First Nations students experience education and how systems can and have enhanced or inhibited their life outcomes.

Q: What do you see as the top priority for First Nations education at the moment?

A: The level of cultural capability of those who educate our students.

When I say students, I am referring to all students. In the various roles I have held, I have delivered professional development sessions to hundreds of educators and have asked them to think about one important question: “Thinking about the formal education you received through 12 years of schooling, then college or university, another 4-6 years, how much of that formal education was dedicated to learning about First Nations peoples? What would your percentage be?”

Consistently, the response from these educators would be that they would have received on average around 5 per cent. So, if you haven’t received any formal education about First Nations histories and cultures, how can you relate to it and then teach it?

This is not new data, and educators are saying that they want to know more, do more, and get engaged, but are either too frightened for fear of offending someone, of doing it wrong, or don’t know how to do it at all. How can we expect our educators to be teaching the next generation of children if they don’t have the cultural capacity to do it? This needs to change, we need to do better.

Q: How important is truth-telling in education and what should educators be doing to integrate this into their strategies/classrooms?

A: Truth-telling is a process that is integral for healing for First Nation Peoples, so it needs to be fundamental in the education we deliver to young people.

The process of truth-telling requires truth-listening. For First Nation Peoples, truth-telling is the historical sharing of events from their perspective. The remembering and retelling of these events may be traumatic and will require deep levels of support for healing to occur. 

Those engaged in truth-listening have the responsibility to ensure they have prepared themselves to listen and to be critically self-reflective. Part of preparing is understanding crucial elements, like what culturally safe spaces are and how to create them, how to be respectful, how to be present, and what deep listening looks and feels like.

Truth-telling in schools has begun through the curriculum and I would say is in its infancy, but is a small step in the right direction. Ultimately, the perfect outcome would be for First Nations Peoples to lead the process of what truth-telling is for them.

Q: How has the referendum shifted the ways schools should approach Indigenous education?

A: In a way, the recent referendum results have further highlighted to me that as a nation, we have more work to do to enable Australian citizens to make informed and educated decisions.

As educational institutions, we need to raise our hands and own up to our part in that process. Schools’ responsibilities lie in delivering education about Australia that is fully inclusive of its First Nations Peoples' histories and cultures.

I’ve asked people to think about this statement: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the oldest living continuous culture on the planet.” I’ve asked them to sit and consider what that means to them as Australians. In my experience, this amazing fact seems to float above them and doesn’t quite soak into their psyche. I believe this is due to the way that we have been conditioned over the last 200-plus years.

Times are changing and our young people are leading the way. We need to operate in a way that is much more inclusive, humanistic and dynamic. We need to look closely at First Nations ways of knowing, being and doing and be open, as there are big things to learn. We need to take this opportunity in time, to readjust our paradigms and to be attuned to what the information is telling us.

07 3741 1111


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