Cellphones in Classrooms, Part 1

Many schools and teachers continue to ban students' cellphones for classroom use. But the wisdom of these bans is suspect, especially considering the wasted computing power and instructional opportunities.

by / December 19, 2016 0

Here in Santa Fe, N.M, a recent story appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican about a local charter school that’s implemented a total ban on student cellphone use.

Monte Del Sol Charter School is a seventh- through 12th-grade school with a supportive group of parents and governing board. According to the article, the ban's not going away, even though some students aren’t thrilled with it. Teachers and administrators are pleased with the impact it’s had on the kids — they’re engaging more with each other between classes and during lunch, times previously spent staring into their phones. “We have them back,” says one relieved teacher.

Banning cellphones in schools is nothing new. Many districts and schools enacted such rules once phones began arriving with students. The New York City Department of Education maintained a decade-long ban on student cellphones, supporting confiscation of those brought into schools. But few were happy with the rule, aside from teachers, administrators and the trucks and bodegas (small stores) that kept thriving businesses checking in students’ phones for the day. So the city abandoned its ban last year, and most other districts with similar bans have done likewise.

Today, it remains common for student cellphones to be prohibited in classrooms, and students risk confiscation if used. But they’re typically allowed to be used during non-classroom times. So this is what makes Monte Del Sol’s don’t-even-bring-‘em-in-the-door ban unique around here. But is this a growing trend redux, or is the school just avoiding the inevitable — like when my '70s-era high school tried continuing its rules against girls wearing pants and boys having facial hair?

In December 2015, I wrote about Shirley Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation and the troubling implications, especially for children, that she ascribes to our growing cellphone addictions. After reading Turkle’s findings, and those of other contemporary sociologists, it’s no surprise our schools might want to turn back the clock to a pre-cellphone era where students were more personally engaged and walked down hallways talking and laughing with their physical peers, instead of staring down, absorbed in their phones, which frankly looks pretty sad to most adults.

But there’s also some twisted irony here. While we ban students’ cellphones from our classrooms, we overlook the computing power of these devices and simultaneously spend large sums of money to put technology into the hands of our students.

Cellphones — which for most students are now smartphones — are small computers with phone capabilities. But they’re also hugely distracting little rascals that most educators haven’t yet figured out how to harness for good use in classrooms. In time we will, if only because we have to. So more on this later.   

But just as many schools have successfully adopted bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs to leverage students’ personal digital devices, smartphones are generally excluded from the schools’ approved lists. Though as students’ devices — laptops, tablets and smartphones — continue morphing together, what then?

We should expect the same for smartphones if we look at how students’ calculators went from being banned to their current role as essential classroom tools, especially in middle and high school classes. Some schools will hold off for as long as possible and put up a good fight, but they’ll eventually succumb.

So it’s obvious that we educators should get busy and figure out how to use these things for good before we can no longer hold them at bay. But doing so will likely require a dramatic shift in how teachers instruct in their classrooms. And it may also hasten the shift to more personalized instruction in our schools. But we’re overdue for those changes anyway.

And the depressing scene of kids walking down crowded halls, sitting in lunchrooms, and hanging around outside, ignoring everyone around them while enthralled with their phones? Well, we’re going have to figure that out, too. But looking around at any adult gathering place shows the disruptive impact of these devices goes way beyond schools. So we’ll all have to continue grappling with that one.    

In part 2 of this discussion, we’ll explore some ways schools and teachers are putting student smartphones to productive classroom use.        

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.