Cell Phones In School & At Home – Ban Them Or Use Them

mobile-phone-2558523_960_720The topic of whether cell phones should be allowed or banned in schools has been discussed ad nauseam across blogs and message boards over the last several years, so I hadn’t planned on talking about it at all here (but it means I can link to a lot). Then a college friend who is also a teacher posted a video from the World Economic Forum about how France is planning to ban phones in school beginning in 2018, and I felt compelled to respond.

As someone who utilizes technology as both a parent and a teacher, I find it incredibly frustrating when people from previous generations (like mine) have a tendency to equate a set of rules/morality from their time and extrapolate to an experience (like smartphones) that didn’t exist at the time. I see memes like,

“You know back in my day, we didn’t use seat belts, ran with scissors, had cement playgrounds, ate expired food, learned from out-of-date encyclopedias…and I turned out fine…not like today’s selfish Millennials.”

sho3o.jpgThat attitude is wrong on several levels. First, just because of your anecdotal experience of surviving despite certain regulations or safety precautions doesn’t make them less worthwhile especially to families who did lose loved ones because of lax protocols and poor conditions. Secondly, young people have been shown to be more civically involved than previous generations and researchers who have tried to paint Millennials as selfish have largely been discredited. Granted it’s easier to see selfish young kids now because there are so many more platforms visibility. Civic engagement though may begin on those same social media platforms too. That’s not all. Even a cursory glance at the news will show that engagement doesn’t end there with protests over immigration, violence, racial issues, and the environment dotting the country. Even if you don’t support those causes, they are clearly showing dedication and community participation. Granted, Baby Boomers do tend to be more charitable, but that may have more to do with an economic slowdown and wage disparity than a penchant for generosity. Yes, some of humanity’s worst traits are visible in anonymous online posts, but so are some of our best achievements and opportunities to grow along with all the cat videos.

Rant done-now back to smartphones.

As A Teacher

kids-with-phones.jpgCan cell phones be a terrible distraction in class? Yes, they can be a huge time drain. Either that or American teens have somehow become obsessed with staring at their laps. Does that mean we should ban them? Some would tell you that students were taking calls and listening to music on their devices. If kids are jamming with headphones and openly taking calls, then maybe it’s not just the phones that are the problem in that class. That same writer/educational website creator (that’s right he has an ed-tech website but opposes smart devices?!) says that after banning phones students are now actually learning. By what measure?

Other educational innovators have called for us to think outside the ban and have provided strategies to help with that. There are reasons that several Silicon Valley parents prefer schools with fewer devices. There is great value in the project-based learning advocated by those schools. I have discussed it on this blog. That said, technology can function as great equalizer amongst schools and students who can’t easily access other curriculum and materials. There are places to get your questions answered about allowing devices or not. Here are a few reasons that as a teacher I don’t think a ban is the right answer.

  1. Distractions are not new. In the past students were distracted by other things. Kids nowadays text. In the past, they passed notes or whispered to each other. Now they look at screens and play games. In bygone years, they looked at comic books, out a window, or stared blankly ahead. I actually programmed my graphing calculator with various games to play while still appearing to work. If kids don’t want to pay attention, they won’t, phone or not. All of this is because what they are being taught is either not engaging or not made to feel applicable to their experience. We’ve all been in boring meetings as adults where we’ve disengaged (maybe with our phone).
  2. Students need to learn to be responsible with their device. Banning a phone doesn’t teach a student how to manage their behavior or appropriately use that phone. Yes, a phone, like scissors, should be taken away if a student uses it inappropriately (don’t cut Susan’s hair!), but eventually, we need to teach how to use it properly and responsibly. It should begin with a conversation, not a ban. Schools should actively be teaching appropriate digital citizenship. This is a device that they use everywhere outside of school, so why not train them to use it appropriately when they’re in school so as they get older they’ve learned not to stare at it during a staff meeting.
  3. They can be used as a valuable learning tool. In NYC, there are several schools that don’t have the means/access to 1:1 student devices device program for students that use a BYOD model. Students use their phones to document projects, complete research, and engage in formative assessments. Check out how Google Expeditions uses them for classroom exploration.
  4. They are useful for students with disabilities. Students with disabilities often use them to improve classroom accessibility & communication. For some students with visual and auditory impairments, their smart device is the means by which they access the “regular world”.


636331_1280x720.jpgSmart devices can be a distraction in a car or a classroom, but they can be valuable tools as well. A phone can cause an accident, but a HUD can be used for directions and collision warnings. It’s all about how it is used. There definitely should be limitations, and some schools, who don’t have the training/inclination, have found it easier to ban the phone rather than train in its appropriate use. In general, though, I would say schools should look at why it’s a distraction. Are the students without phones, automatically more engaged and able to provide greater insight? If they are banned at school though and students are not constrained at all at home, what are they really learning from that lesson?

My 10-year-old son’s response when I asked him if cell-phones should be banned or used in school was, “we use computers and things, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t use them.” Yes, you could say that he’s only 10 and doesn’t understand what’s best. Of course, he wants to play on a phone all day. It does show, though, that his generation doesn’t necessarily differentiate between tools with a screen (TVs, projectors, or cell phones) like we do. He sees it as another school tool.

It is the moments I’ve had students get bored doing their assigned work on their laptop, tablet, or phone that I knew it was in no more need of a ban than a textbook. It’s capabilities that make it a valuable tool also require greater vigilance in monitoring and managing them, but, since when did teachers shy away from extra responsibility. We have already at various times been already mentors, counselors, role models, disciplinarian, educator, protector, surrogate parent, or friend. Why shy away from another role? In fact, some of the resources below for parents can be used in classrooms also.

As A Parent

2959807121_d6315cfd1b_b.jpgIs there talk of banning cell phones at home? My Google searches only seemed to loop back to schools. Why is that? Should the state and schools have a role in raising children properly? In many ways they already do and it’s more cost-effective for a country to raise good kids than to correct bad adults. That’s the concept of pre-k instead of prison. That said parents, schools, and the community should all play a greater role in teaching appropriate phone etiquette and it can’t be done with a ban.

Here are some steps you can take to improve device use at home:

  1. Start by modeling good phone etiquette yourself. I know that can be hard. Don’t talk of bans that don’t include you.
  2. Set time limits, but understand that it’s more about screen use than screen time. Spending hours on a report (or a hopefully uplifting blog post) is not the same as hours spent conquering Mesopotamia in Civ VI. Trust me I’ve done both.
  3. Set boundaries. It may mean that phones may remain in absentia in certain areas of home and school. This may mean a device-free dinner or no phones in the bedroom. According to the CDC, Americans aren’t getting enough sleep and more positive dinner conversation certainly can’t hurt.
  4. Silence phones at school and at home. This may mean airplane mode when not in use. As an added side benefit, it will increase your battery life.
  5. No phones when driving unless mounted for directions. Gladly some devices have an automatic do not disturb function to keep you from distraction.
  6. Actively teach positive phone behavior. Set the rules and have conversations about what is good digital citizenship.
  7. Get resources to help. Common Sense Media is a great resource for guides and tips.

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Remaining committed to a bygone way of doing things doesn’t help students or society. Former coal miners are learning computer programming through Programs like Bit Source in Kentucky. Programs like those show both the power of not ignoring and banning technology in favor of what we once did. It also makes me proud of the state where I went to college that they are investing in the state by investing in the future of its residents.

Our students are that future and ignoring it in favor of nostalgia hurts both them and us.

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