10 quick thoughts on mobile phones in schools

No cell phones!A few quick thoughts…

  1. Most people realize that mobile phones are actually mobile computers. But many schools that claim to be doing everything they can to get technology into the hands of schoolchildren then ban their students from using the computers that they bring in their pockets every day. The issue apparently is not technology, it’s control. We need to call this for what it is.
  2. Students know that mobile phones are powerful learning devices. They know that when we ban them, we are sending them messages that we don’t get it. Or that we’re not really about learning.
  3. We have to stop blaming the device. Classroom management stems from good instruction.
  4. We have to stop the ‘holier than thou’ pronouncements about today’s kids. We haven’t seen significant evolutionary changes in children in just a few decades. Our students (or their brains) are not substantially different, they just have different opportunities. Nostalgia aside, we adults were often bored out of our minds in school too. If we had Facebook, texting, Snapchat, and other avenues to alleviate our boredom, we would have turned to them as well. Let’s quit the arrogant attitudes of moral superiority.
  5. Banning and blocking does absolutely nothing to teach students about inappropriate or untimely mobile phone usage because it removes the decision-making locus from students to educators. Students don’t ever get a chance to own their mobile phone behavior when they are just passive – and usually resentful or bewildered – recipients of our fiats.
  6. Many schools say that they’re trying to foster more student agency. That should mean more than fairly-constrained choices related to content. Student choice in environmental contexts and instructional tools (ahem, learning technologies) matters too.
  7. No one – I repeat, no one – can concentrate without any distractions whatsoever for 45-50 minutes straight. Nor can they then repeat that 6 to 8 times a day. Is our goal with these ‘digital distraction’ bans to have students’ 100% attention at all times or else? If so, are we just punishing students for how our human brains work?
  8. Maybe it’s not the phone that’s leading to students’ distraction. Distraction can result from hunger, fatigue, illness, anxiety, boredom, an overstimulating classroom environment, the desire to engage in additional research, or a whole host of other factors (e.g., frequency of daydreaming is highest during undemanding, easy tasks). Let’s avoid simplistic solutions to complex contexts.
  9. If we involved students in the creation of school mobile phone policies – with authentic input and decision-making, including about ‘consequences’ – instead of fighting with them, we probably would be pleasantly surprised at the outcomes.
  10. When students use mobile phones despite our bans, maybe they’re not defiant. Maybe they’re rational given the context in which they’re embedded. Did I mention that classroom management stems from good instruction?

Image credit: No cell phones!, Joe Pemberton

14 Responses to “10 quick thoughts on mobile phones in schools”

  1. Well, I’ll be posting this one for my student teachers for sure. I can’t fathom how schools are still banning cell phones, but it’s common.

    I remember how galling it was for my daughter when the teacher banned her cell phone but then whenever that teacher assigned deskwork, he would immediately sit behind his desk texting (rather than, say, circulating through the class helping students). The teacher saw no reason why the “no cell phone” rule should apply to him–because the REAL rule was that everyone and everything in his class should be focused on him and his need for attention. (His texting still meant the focus on him, so did not violate the real teacher-centric rule.) It’s embarrassing when teachers demand behaviours from children that they themselves are incapable of exhibiting.

  2. I don’t see anything here about student responsibility. Does it really boil down to “if students are on their phones the teacher is doing a bad job?”

  3. My frustration is RESPECT. I teach Digiral video and my kids are faster editors and get their work done when they use phones. It’s the ones that push the disrespect on being g on them when I’m lecturing. Sadly it’s a message they can’t understand or will push the limits on. I know they know know right from wrong but the habit of the constant looking needs to be controlled until told they could use

  4. You are over simplifying a complex problem actually and sound exactly like what you accuse banners of sounding like … I allow phone use in my class when it makes sense (use calendar, take a picture, make a note, research if no laptop is available but we are 1 to 1, use an app to complete task, listen to music if it helps concentrate but tell them to close all other apps and notifications etc…). We do ban phone use and headphones during non class time (break, passing time, lunch, recess) and force students to get outside. Phones are allowed in class if there is a purpose. And it is great, middle school students have learned to play outside again… the school yard is loud and noisy. And kids are interacting. Many high school students have thanked us because now they are forced to talk to friends and even people they normally do not talk to as no one can sit and stare at their phone or be isolated with their headphones…
    Read the research on multitasking and effects of phones on brain (MRI studies show even a phone in pocket etc is enough to divide our attention/affect learning), the early research on bans/limits and learning and test scores, the research on persuasive design and addictiveness of tech, dopamine and tween and teenage brains, on the link between exercise and brain function/learning… having no rules is irresponsible and naive… having rules is harder but schools need to teach responsible use and management of devices… when to put away, when to turn them off, when to take out, how their devices affect them and their brains… how to control those devices (turn off notifications etc)… and not check compulsively. School also should have rules that differ by age and inline with COPA… I find bans are better than doing nothing… doing nothing is irresponsible… we also do a lot of work through pastoral time social media, device management, online behaviour etc…

    • I appreciate all of the positives you describe here, Daniel. And I also don’t think I advocated ‘doing nothing?’ As I said above to my friend Alfred, I keep coming back to E and I…

      We’re supposed to be preparing citizens for an active, engaged democracy. Can we honor students as essential partners in their own schooling experiences and do school WITH kids rather than TO kids?

  5. Recently we asked our year 7 students not to use their mobile phones in non-contact times. They can use in class if appropriate and with permission. As a result we have seen a significant change in how our Year 7 cohort interact and behave at break times – back are the handball games, playing UNO, sitting in groups socialising. If they need to make a call, they need to go to a designated space and ask. We have had limited kickback from students – thirst who used the time to games – and lots of support from parents.

    • I love the idea of students being asked to put their phones away during “no-contact” times. At the school my students attend, the rules state that students are only supposed to use their phones during “no-contact” time unless allowed by the instructors. If you walk down the halls during passing periods or lunch, you will see student sitting in groups staring down at the phones in their laps. They have forgotten how to communicate and associate with each other.

      Human contact and interaction is essential for youth who will one day have to enter society as capable adults. How are they supposed to know how to act and behave in the workplace or in society in general if they have never interacted with anyone outside of their phone?

      This is a great policy that I would like to watch work in our public schools here. Thank you for the information and ideas.

  6. I agree with your argument in E. about banning and blocking, but that logic could really be applied to almost anything a student might bring into a classroom. For example, a hammer is a tool that a student might need on occasion. How can a student learn to be responsible with a hammer if they are not permitted to carry one around? It is probably not a good idea to permit students to bring a hammer into a Math or English/Lang. Arts classroom.

    • Hi Hector. Isn’t the difference that hammers aren’t necessary to do Math or ELA work but digital tools are (or should be) necessary to do learning work these days? It’s awfully difficult to do modern knowledge work – which is completely suffused with technology out in the real world – without digital tools? Similarly, we sure need hammers in certain CTE courses. Would we say that we’re for banning hammers in a woodworking class, for example? Let’s preserve access to the necessary tools for the job to be done…

  7. I agree that mobile phones are mini computers and they are one of the portals to learning. As usually stated in schools we try to progress with the times and use technology to our advantage. If mobile phones capture the engagement of students minds then why not use it? I incorporate technology in my classroom 40% of the time and continuously trying to increase that percentage with any tech savvy activity I can find. On the other hand students at my school are not allowed to use their earphones nor phones unless the lesson incorporates phone usage. I can see why the earphones and phones are not allowed to be used outside of classroom and its because of safety reasons. Students do need to understand when and where it is appropriate to use their mobile devices.

  8. I think students need to have these portable phones in the matter of using technology in classrooms. Smartphones nowadays play the same role as laptops and computers. However, I think students also should be more responsible for when and how to use their phones in classrooms.

  9. I am preparing to student teach at the high school level and appreciate the thoughts that you brought up about phones in school. I agree with point H, such that a student may not be distracted by their phone, rather they are distracted by other factors in the classroom or in life such that they feel they need to complete such business on their phones in order to regain focus. I agree that there is no simple solution to the complexities that may go on in a high school student’s life. I feel as though the focus must shift from banning phones altogether to finding ways to teach students to be responsible and respectful phone-users in preparation for life after high school. I feel that point I is a step in that direction by including student voice in the creation of school phone policy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I hope to remind myself of these points in my student teaching.

  10. I love the article. I see how the use of cell phone have some value in the classroom, but cell phones can be distractions. Cell phones are a mini computer, but as a mini computer, the devices also has the same power as a mini video game console. Cell phones are so connected and social that it can interfere with getting the students to become engaged. I do see how we can implement so many online activities such that we can have some engagement from the students. I can see the benefits for cell phones, but I can also see clear cons to cell phones being in the classroom.

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