Should students be allowed to use cell phones in school?

……….An interesting thing happened after an email was circulated regarding cell phone use in our school. An exchange began after a short survey regarding the issue was answered by many interested teachers, administrators and other staff. Some respondents attempted humor or heavy handed sarcasm, but their interest in the issue was belied by the fact that they took the time to respond to the email. Other responses showed frustration with the issue or resignation to the idea that we cannot do anything to curtail the proliferation of such electronic devices. Some respondents took a zero tolerance approach to the devices, while others expressed their interest in adopting the technology into the classroom.

……….What was most apparent to me about this brief and still growing exchange, was the divergent perspectives about what the technology represents to different people and the frustration with the lack of guidance about how we should handle this obvious disruption to our daily school lives. Even the teacher who was tabulating the results said, “Lots of questions have an almost 50/50 split among staff members. It’s no wonder we are having trouble coming up with a cell phone policy everyone can agree on and enforce!!”

……….One teacher pointed out the fact that we already have rules in our student handbooks for handling this kind of disruption, and that the problem is that there is “no consistency” in enforcing the rules. Another teacher said,“My guess is that we just might need to adapt to a changing world where technology like mobile devices is not only commonplace but somewhat necessary to communicate, market, inform and educate the population”.

……….Wherever you may fall on the spectrum of this discussion, the truth is that it is an ongoing conversation in education that has to be continually revisited as the technology evolves. Our current policy, for example, still lists “pagers” as a prohibited device, but makes no mention of “tablets” or “e-readers”. Needless to say, we are not alone in thinking about such things, as evidenced by the list of articles below:

……….Most observers agree that a zero tolerance policy is untenable (sorry, Mayor Bloomberg), especially as the technology continues to both evolve and become more integrated into our daily lives. So, obviously, the only thing left to do is to reconsider the way we are doing things in our school and see what makes sense for us. As we think about making these changes, I offer some of my own anecdotes, observations and further reading for your consideration.

  • When it comes to learning, brains are serial processors and multi-tasking is a lie: Cognitive research has shown over and over again that human brains are only able to concentrate on one thing at a time. Sure you can walk and chew gum at the same time because these processes are coordinated by different parts of the brain, but deep thinking involves language areas which can be distracted by outside stimuli. The fact that our students enjoy listening to music while studying, writing or reading is actually due to the fact that our brains enjoy distraction, but the cost is efficiency. Real concentration and hyper focus are actually difficult to do, but they are skills like so many others that get better only with practice. No environment has been shown to beat near silence when trying to master a new skill or learn a new concept.
  • Compartmentalizing your life is an absolutely necessary skill for modern existence. Nowadays our private lives are so much more exposed to public scrutiny, thanks to so-called “social media” which has exploited our own narcissistic tendencies to talk about ourselves. This is especially true (and overlooked) in the lives of the younger generation. Students using school networks may have no idea about how their privacy is being compromised by using a network that belongs to a government entity. Students using their personal devices may also compromise the network’s security if they are unaware of the safety protocols or if they know how to get around the network filters using their own electronics.
  • Cell phones are not just phones any more. As one teacher so aptly put it, “When I first came here 6 years ago the phones were mostly being used for texting. Now they are playing games with others, streaming video and audio, Twitter, FaceBook, you name it.”  Without a way to monitor who is doing what on their personal devices, how can we be sure that students are staying on task? I’ve already written about my own exploration of the school’s network and how often I find students playing games or using social networks. The worst part is that I know many of the students who are repeat offenders of such distraction, and needless to say, they are not excelling at academics. Too many have an over inflated sense of their own academic skills and are convinced that they “don’t have anything to do” or “have done all their work”.
  • Teenagers are especially critical of hypocrites. Anyone remember Holden Caulfield? You’re all phonies! How about the 60’s credo to, “Never Trust Anyone Over 30”? Virtually every YA title I’ve ever read is about the adolescent protagonist(s) having to confront the duplicitous nature of the adult world where the rule seems to be, “do I say, not as I do”. This has become a bone of contention with how we treat cell phones and other personal electronic devices in school. Students regularly see teachers walking through the halls or sitting at their desks texting away and don’t understand why it’s okay for the “adults”, but not acceptable for them. It doesn’t matter if you agree with this position or not … it is the reality of working with teenagers, and has to be taken into consideration when reviewing our policy.
  • Electronics are status symbols. When I first started working in education, computers were just being integrated into schools and one of the biggest concerns we all had was that there was a great digital divide. Some families have had computers in their homes for twenty years now, while others may have limited access via a game console or smartphone. Allowing students to bring their own devices to school for use may highlight these differences and my even lead to theft or bullying. We are talking about devices that cost several hundred dollars and permitting them for in class use may pressure parents who cannot afford it to spend money on a smart phone or tablet believing it is a “requirement” for school or success.
  • Every school is its own culture. No matter how much data and information we collect from other schools and/or agencies about how they deal with this issue, it will be up to everyone in the school to determine what actually happens here. That is where theory and practice often part ways, since people do not necessarily conform to the rules as stated. Whatever we decide makes sense for us here, will not be lifted from some other school’s policies, but will have to come from our own community of teachers and students.

……….In closing, I would like to add that what I have seen happening in schools since I first started teaching nearly twenty years ago is sometimes disheartening, sometimes uplifting, but it is always intriguing and interesting. Whatever we decide going forward, it will not be perfect and it will not always make everyone happy, but hopefully we will decide to do whatever makes teaching and learning better in our school. That should always remain the focus of what we do and why we do it.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you have a fruitful and productive week.

 Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2013. All rights reserved

April’s Online Finds

……….No long essays or observations about the world in this post. What I have instead is a grab bag of online tools I’ve (re)discovered and would like to share.

Research Tools

Massachusetts Databases: If your computer is in Massachusetts, then you can access the free database available here. According to the site it is, “maintained by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that fosters innovation, leadership and a lifetime of learning.” The great thing about the search returns is that the articles highlight your search term AND they provide you an MLA citation you can cut and paste. Nice.

Google Scholar: Practically everyone uses Google, but how many people remember Google Scholar? Hidden somewhere in the dozens of things that Google is trying to do in it’s attempt at online dominance is Google Scholar. But you’ll have to search hard to find it through the drop down menus. The easiest way to get to Google Scholar is to type “Google Scholar” in Google search. The hits in this search do not include Wikipedia and the typical internet finds, but books, articles and PDFs. Some hits require you to buy the book or pay to download the article, but there are enough free finds to make it worth the trouble. Best of all, the articles all feature a “CITE” link that provides citation information in MLA, APA and Chicago styles. Again, very nice.

Clustering Search Engines: Regular search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo do a great job of returning relevant hits. Clustering search engines, like Yippy and Carrot, return the same hits you get with your favorite vanilla engines, but also have a list that breaks down and/or expands your search term. Try it to see the difference.

Brainstorming Tool I wrote about this website a while back and mention it again only because it is free and it is fun. It doesn’t make you register, unless you want to save your work, but it does allow you to print your concept web … which is all I usually want.

Springboard Tool I think I don’t quite get yet, what I can create with this website. But that’s okay because I love exploring the “Infographics” gallery that is on the site. It’s a great way to teach kids about design and presentation when it comes to getting ideas across. One of my favorite (albeit sad) graphs is the one that points out that, “Sharks kill 12 people a year, while people kill over 11,000 sharks …. every day.”

One more stunning graphic is the “Sea of Plastic”. Very cool (and sad, again).

Even if you can’t use the site to create your own graphics online, exploring the available gallery should give you (and your students) ideas about how to create your own unique “Infographics”.



Paper Rater: Paper rater is a free online tool that allows you to cut and paste your text onto its site and then have them … rate your paper, just like the name says. It’s basically a sophisticated version of tools your office software probably also contains such as spell check and grammar check. Additionally, Paper Rater analyzes your sentence and paragraph length, the level of your vocabulary, your use of transitional words and it gives you statistics about the readability of your text. Each kind of writing error is highlighted in a different color, and some suggestions are useful. The site is easy to use and there is no registration required, but beware, Paper Rater does not “understand” what you are writing. Yet.

TED Talks: Still one of my favorites online resources for inspiring talks. They have expanded their offerings to include many “educational” videos, though in my opinion every video in this collection fits that bill. Here’s a wonderful talk by Wade Davis, filled with beautiful photographs of a majestic Canadian landscape, that may soon be littered with roads and pipelines … drilling for energy.

Thank you for stopping by and I hope you found something useful and interesting.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2013. All rights reserved