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

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About htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.
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One Response to Should students be allowed to use cell phones in school?

  1. NK says:

    Henry,
    Always interesting. I will check those links.
    I had a different observation on all the emails discussing rules. Considering that we are debating electronics and information systems, can’t we devise a better form of electronic conversation than email or Survey Monkeys? Neither seems too effective at tracking threads or allowing for joint editing.

    I worry when people write anecdotes about incidents with students that they may be forgetting that all these emails are public documents and some anecdotes may not read well in the Tribune.

    There must be some way to have a blog or chat room where we can collect and review each others’ ideas more effectively, allow teachers to opt in or out without flooding their inboxes with lots of emails, and have some cover that this is meant to allow internal discussion.

    N. Koorapaty

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