Smartphones in Schools

WHO’S THE SPEAKER? Phil Morgan is currently the Director of Creativity/Head of Human Technologies at the International College of Hong Kongas well as a certified Lego Serious Play facilitator. In this interview, Phil talks about: 

  • how the smartphone is affecting students’well-being and behavior in the classroom.
  • why criminalizing the mobile phone can cause more problems than it solves.
  • a strategy developed by ICHK that replacing criminalizing smartphones with an educational experience that develops students awareness of their habits.


ELENI VARDAKI: What are some considerations that teachers can take into account, with regards to the impact of smartphones in the classroom?


PHIL MORGAN: What I’ve noticed, more and more, is that the phone has become a default activity.


It’s almost like a reflex use.


I live in Hong Kong which is a very technological society. And when I step onto the underground, the MTR here, I noticed that people pull out their phone almost immediately upon transitioning from one place to another.


It’s almost like a thoughtless response.


And I’m seeing this encroaching more and more into schools.


I think this is partly to do with the way that platforms are becoming increasingly sophisticated – the construction of games and the construction of media, have becoming increasingly compelling for everybody. But most specifically for our young people who perhaps don’t quite understand what it is they’re engaging with when they’re engaging with these particular technologies.


Last year I was a Year 7 Form Tutor. I had 21 bright-eyed, fresh face Year 7  students. I’d have things planned for them that I want them to do in the morning.


Welcoming them into school and getting them ready to learn. Engaging them and waking them up, and giving them something to think about.


But if I don’t do that, very quickly the phone creeps out, and I see so much disengagement with perhaps the quiet students sat on their own looking at their phone.


Playing something by themselves, and communicating with somebody somewhere, individually. Or using the phone to kind of broker some sort of communication between them.


And this worries me greatly, because the conversation, and the face-to-face social interaction, seems to my mind to be eroding.


Because the students don’t understand exactly what it is that these technologies are doing to them, and how they’re acting on them.


ELENI VARDAKI: So it sounds like their conversation skills, and their relationship skills are being affected?


PHIL MORGAN: I think it’s very, very easy for a student to have the mobile phone as a default activity to do, when they’re not communicating with somebody else.


I think it has something to do with our ability to sit with momentary discomfort.


If I feel awkward, if I feel embarrassed, or if I’m in a room full of people that I might not know, it’s far easier to whip out the “portable wall” and put it there and engage with that, in ways that makes me feel really happy and really connected.


Rather than sit with the discomfort for a little while and going, “Okay, I’m gonna talk to that guy over there”, or “I’m going to have to use some social skills to communicate with the people around me.”


So I think it’s becoming a bit of a panacea for discomfort.


This worries me greatly.


ELENI VARDAKI: Yes, and it sounds like it’s worrying government as well. Because recently, the French government passed a new law that forbid mobile phones being brought into schools, end of story. What are your views on these types of strategies?


PHIL MORGAN: It’s not just my view, but the view of my school the International College of Hong Kong. You have to think a little bit about the way in which our school works. We’re fairly well opposed to creating a – well, what my head, Toby Newton, likes to call a Crimeogenic Environment.


The rules for the school are fairly simple, and there are fairly few of them.


We have fairly simple, straightforward codes of behaviour.


We don’t police uniform terribly. People wear stuff with the school logo on it. And if you come in with pink hair, I’m not going to send you home.


Because a huge amount of time and energy is spent – wasted, in fact – policing rules that are pretty much redundant.


And don’t really serve anything, apart from having to get people to toe the line, and conforming to what the school tells them to be.


In other schools I’ve wasted hours looking at the colours of people’s shoes laces, and whether the end of the skirt is an inch too short or long. You know, “Are you wearing eyeliner when you shouldn’t?” I don’t care!


Creating environments that are crimeogenic in schools aren’t going to service us particularly well.


And I think what the French have done is just go, “No”. Blanket ban on all phone. But there will probably be some sort of disciplinary consequences when the students rebel and sneak the phone in to school, and sneak it out in the class.


And then you’re into disciplinary procedures and escalating consequences for repeat offenders, and there is time spent on that, and then there is resentment.


And students may get a perverse thrill out of gaming the rules and being a little bit more rebellious.


And I know there are other schools in Hong Kong that have gone down that route as well, you know, “If the phone comes out of your bag, if I see your phone, it’s mine. I confiscate it.”


We’ve turned the role of the educator into the role of the police.


You know, “I spot it and I seize it and I take it away from you.”


That’s rules, and that’s punishment.



I ran a pilot last year with my Year 7s. It was the only class in the school that did it. 21 kids.


We thought long and hard about how to do this as a senior leadership team, and looked at the pilot before we had any further considerations.


What I did was buy a Perspex box. I got it from Taobao, which is basically the Chinese equivalent of Amazon. You can get anything from Taobao. It’s brilliant.


So I got a big Perspex box, with 25 lockable doors.


And I just put it in the classroom, and the students were like, “Oh, what’s this?”


And I said, “ Well, we’re going to put your phones in that, next week.”


Horror, shock, horror!


You know, threats of rebellion.


So I let them explore.


I let them have a poke around and play with the keys and open the doors.


Some of them thought it was quite cool and some of them absolutely hated the idea.


And then our amazing handyman, Marco, stuck it up on the wall for us.


And I said, “Okay, you can play around with this and you can choose to do it for a few days. Next Wednesday, it becomes mandatory.”


“And you are coming to Advisory (so at 8 o’clock in the morning), and the first thing you will do is you will remove your phone, and you will put it in there, and you will lock it away. And you will keep the key. It’s yours. I am not taking this away from you. You’re going to lock it away.”


“And if at any point of the day your teacher says, ‘Can you whip your phones out because you need to take a picture?’ or something, or you need to use a certain app in class, come back and get it. And then use it, and then put it away. I’m offering this to you as a different technology for dealing with the technology of the mobile phone. So it’s a technology for managing a technology.”


Ahead of doing this, I sent a note to parents…and I accidentally sent it to all parents!


I only meant to send it to Year 7 parents, but I sent it to the whole community, because I hit the wrong key.


And I got a torrent of support back – I didn’t have a single naysayer.


Our parents are fantastically supportive, but I had just an outpouring of support.


“Fantastic! We love this idea. Can I get a box like this for home? I think it’s a good thing that you are doing and I would be very interested to see how it goes.”


So we ran this pilot for about 6 or 7 weeks, and yes of course there are teething problems, you know, they’re year 7.


There are lost keys. They’re coming to me and going “Oh, there are students who’re rushing for the bus and forget to take their phone home for a weekend”, which obliterates their social media activity over the weekend.


“Okay, unlucky. You forgot it. It was your responsibility.”


So in this way we’ve tried to flip the responsibility.


To reduce the criminality of mobile phones in school, and turn it instead into a responsibility.


And this works really nicely.


The biggest success has been not the fact that it has happened; the students got used to it very quickly. It become routinized from day one.


If there’s a phone in the compartment at the end of the day, I’ll have stuck some Haribo gummy bear type things on the door, you know, just kind of little incentives.


For me, the win here was really the conversations that it promoted and enabled.


Because it’s the room that I live in, most of the time at school. And so I can see when they’re coming in to get the phones. I’d say “What are you using the phone for?”, and they’re like “Oh no no! I’m using it for this”, and I’d say “I’m not policing you, I’m just kind of curious.”


And I’d go, “So how is the phone thing going?” And they’d say, “ Yes, it’s fine.”


And for the vast majority of them by the end of this, we finished at the end of the term, I’d just go “Yeah, it’s fine”. I’d just shrug.


I noticed the impact that it had on the quality of social interactions in my Advisory room was great.


I mean, I did replace the phones with a couple of things. I don’t know if you are familiar with this game: Exploding Kittens?




PHIL MORGAN: It’s a really wicked card game. I said, “ If you’re stuck for something to do, if you’re stuck for ways to start a conversation…”, you know, that was a tool that I threw in there. So we’re just playing around with that in the morning.


I had one really serious detractor.


I had one girl (who I won’t name) at the beginning, when it was suggested, she blank out refused.


She’s like, “No, I’m not going to do that. Don’t want to do that.”


When it came to the Wednesday where I made it mandatory, she said, “Oh, my parents said I don’t have to do this.”


I said “Okay, that’s fine. I will give them a phone call later on and then I will explain to them in great detail why I think it’s a really good idea.”


That turned out to be not untrue.


She was doing everything that she possibly could to evade it.


She was holding the phone almost like was a $500 Worry Stone, you know. She’s holding onto it in a comfort way, or something.


It was the need to touch the phone that was really shocking to me, just the “Can I get it out and just hold it…”


That’s alarming.  


ELENI VARDAKI: It’s very interesting both the work that you’re doing with your colleagues, and the results and insights that you’ve got out of this pilot strategy. Is there anything else that you’d like to add, before we wrap up?


PHIL MORGAN: What I wanted to do with this pilot was to have those conversations with the students, and demonstrate to the student that they don’t need these as frequently as they do.


The story has a happy ending for my recalcitrant student.


Four days into this (and she was grumpy for like the first three days…like, proper grumpy) I go, “How’s it going?”


And I was expecting more grumpiness.


And she said, “No, I actually quite like it, because I don’t have to think about it.”


ELENI VARDAKI: That’s powerful. Powerful, powerful stuff, and amazing work that you guys are doing. It’s very inspiring. Thank you so much for your time, Phil, it’s been wonderful and very eye-opening to hear everything that you’re sharing with us and the work that you guys are doing.