Can we have an honest conversation about phones in the classroom?

I get to visit a lot of schools around the country, and I’ll admit that when I see signs like the one below, I often cringe.

No cell phone in this classroom

It’s not the sign’s fault, but I can’t help but think what kind of message this sends to our students. We don’t have these types of signs for anything else outside most classrooms. There aren’t many signs saying “no drugs in this classroom” or “no weapons in this classroom” or “no cursing in this classroom” (I’m sure some of these exist). The pervasiveness of these types of signs speaks to a varying difference in opinion between educators everywhere.

We all agree on most of the “things” that aren’t allowed in school and our classrooms.

Yet, cell phones tend to bring out a strong opinion on either side, without much focus on the gray.

The Argument Against Cell Phones

I was looking up resources and articles on this topic as I was writing this article. There is a lot out there from schools and teachers. These two slides spoke to me as big points of consensus from the “no cell phones allowed” crew.

use-of-mobile-phone-in-schoolscolleges-4-638 use-of-mobile-phone-in-schoolscolleges-5-638

While some of these reasons may seem ridiculous to those of you reading this article. They are all valid (except for the “will not text other teachers” one!).

Phones can be used to cheat (look up information online), play games (by yourself or with others), text (any type of messaging), and definitely can be used as a resource to ask parents to bring in forgotten homework (I thought that one was funny).

But, what it comes down to in the “against” argument is that phones are a distraction. They give students an easy avenue to not pay attention and do other things while in school.

Would any of you argue against that?

When I’m at a conference session (or in service session) and it is either boring or not relevant to me I either go on my cell phone and do something else other than listening, or go on my computer and do something else rather than listen.

I do not sit there compliantly listening to something that has no relevance to my life and/or work.

Don’t lie to yourself, most of us are the same. We pay attention to what we want to focus on, not something else.

While those teachers “for cell phones” may believe those “against” do not see the light, many of these teachers see things very clearly.

When students have cell phones they are tempted to pay attention to something else. Often that something else is much more engaging than the prescribed curriculum teachers have to follow, and no matter how much you try to spice up the lesson, Snapchat will probably be more interesting.

The Argument for Cell Phones

Many educators around the world have rallied around the notion of allowing students to use cell phones in the classroom.

They’ll make arguments like:

  • In the real world you get to use your phone, why not in class
  • It gives students access to a world of information we don’t have in school
  • It allows students to communicate and collaborate at higher levels
  • You can use it for many creative purposes
  • Technology is ubiquitous, how can we act like it doesn’t exist

Basically, their argument is summed up in this picture:

Cell-Phone-Policy-1-2g3t5cg

As with the arguments made by those “against” cell phones, these arguments for cell phones in the classroom are true.

Technology is all around us. We can’t act like it doesn’t exist. If they don’t have access to devices in the classroom already, then cell phones give them an invaluable resource to gather information, connect, collaborate, and create in new ways.

These reasons all make sense. I’m not going to argue that.

What’s missing from the conversation is context.

Let’s Be Real…

When you have a group of 28 fourteen-year-olds in front of you for 45-60 minutes the last thing you want to be worrying about is students going on Snapchat or playing a game on their phone. I know it annoyed the heck out of me when I was in the classroom.

That’s why it is easy to say NO to cell phones.

It makes our job easier as adults.

But, it sends a negative message to kids, one in which school is a separate place from the real world. A place where they have to do things and follow rules that they don’t have to follow at 3pm. A place that feels more like playing a game, rather than finding your own path.

However, giving students the freedom to use their phones in class is NOT empowering. It is not some magic formula that enhances learning and transforms everything we do.

In the real world, you can’t just whip out your phone and use it whenever you want. In the real world, we use it for a purpose.

So instead of creating all of these rules around banning cell phones or allowing cell phones.

How about we put the focus back on a skill (and mindset) that speaks volumes in any profession, in any relationship, in any situation.

Be present.

Yep, that’s it. Be present in the classroom when we are having a discussion. Be present when we are working on something collaboratively. Be present when given choice in your learning path. Be present in your interactions with others. Be present in the challenges that you face.

Be present.

If we focused on helping students be present we would actually eliminate the arguments for and against cell phones.

To be present is to be engaged in our curriculum, and empowered in figuring out their future.

However, the opposite of being present is not being bored. Instead, it is being compliant. Compliance breeds mediocracy and complacency. Being present breeds curiosity, integrity, and an empathy for the world around you.

How can we help students be present in the classroom, with or without their cell phone? That’s the question we should be asking and answering.

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Join the discussion 41 Comments

  • Trish Simpson says:

    I whole-heartedly agree that we want students to use the tools that are available to them, and, like the rest of us, learn to be mindfully present. As we battle for compliance we diminish our students and ourselves. So often it seems like when we get out of the way our students far exceed our expectations. I know we need to teach, and be skilled in doing so, but when our students are excited about their learning, we no longer have to work to motivate, we can do our real job… teach them the skills they really need.

  • Dawn says:

    I allow cell phones if being used with purpose and they ask to do so. I do know one school here where the grade 8’s have to put them in a basket. Some were video taping the teacher as they got upset as the students poked and prodded them into a “blow up”, and then they posted it online. Not cool at all. They all lost the privilege.

    They are a tool for them, probably more so than us, and I try and teach them to use their tools for good. 🙂

  • Nena Greene says:

    Dear AJ,
    I just finished our school year, and now I have a list of things I have reflected on and decided to change next year. At the top of the list? You guessed it – how to BAN the use of phones in my classroom. The cheating, the distraction, the unsanctioned recordings have driven me to the point of complete and utter frustration.
    Phones in the hands of 14 year-old boys and girls is difficult, at best, to manage. Even my best students whom I trust to follow the rules, subversively use their phones for entertainment. My rule: phones are only to be used in the course of learning, until then they must remain out of sight.
    I do believe in using technology in the course of learning, but I cannot find a way to have students respect the boundaries and, yes, comply with the rules. So, I would like to ask your advice on how to solve the problem.
    If it is to read your book, will it be released in time for me to read and plan to implement your ideas prior to school starting on July 24?

    Respectfully,
    Teacher Frazzled Over Phones

  • What a great post! Schools need to teach students how to “be present” whether they have cell phones or not. Interestingly enough, we expect students to know how to behave appropriately with cell phones, but many schools don’t take the time to explicitly teach exactly what that should look like. Instead, schools just ban things ( cell phones, fidget spinners, etc.). I think cell phones are fine, but all too often people (both young and old) use it when they really shouldn’t be.

    • Melissa Love says:

      Yes! we do need to explicitly teach appropriate cell phone use in the classroom instead of banning, blocking etc. There are consequences for misuse that students understand before they loose the privilege. Just as there are rules in the real world we all have to follow–rules with cellphone use in the classroom. I am sure this is hard to police–if we can help students be in the present in the classroom misuse may be avoided.

    • Carol Pabst says:

      Unfortunately, adults have not establish a cell phone etiquette. It’s hard to teach students to be present when they go home or out to eat and everyone is on their phone.
      My pharmacy has a sign” end cell phone conversations before approaching counter”. That adults have to be told that is the beginning of the cell phone problem in class.

  • Jenni Maulsby says:

    I have a box that says good students…bad cell phones. I expect my kids to use their phones appropriately in our school setting. If they trip up, the phone gets a time out. It always gets a laugh and the kids get it. If we don’t teach them appropriate use of tech in school and work, who will?

  • Linda says:

    I allowed cell phones this school year for the first time because I looked around at our staff professional development meetings before school began in August and all the teachers had a phone sitting in front of them. I thought it only fair for the kids to be allowed to check their phones when they felt the need. However, my students were not mature enough to handle the responsibility. The games and texting are too much of an enticement to get off task. I found we were spending a lot of time going back over material because they were not “present” when something was first explained; so much wasted time.
    It is so easy to say “be present”.

    • Helen says:

      Nailed it!!!

    • Erin says:

      One thing that I’ve done is have all the students put their phones face down on the desk. I know all of my kids have them, so instead of them hiding them, they are out in the open. What I discovered was that since they were out and in their view, some of the excitement of allure of trying to hide their texting, inappropriate cell phone use dropped in my class. It also made it easy when they could use them for games (kahoot) or other activities, because they were right there. If a kid can’t handle it, they had to come put it on my desk and talk to me about it after class. I know it’s frustrating, but if we can teach them when it’s okay to use them, maybe we will be less annoyed by all the people who have their faces buried in their phones outside of school.

      • Cheryl Hunter says:

        One of the teachers at my school (we are a 1:1 Chromebook school) also uses the “face-down on the desk” policy and it has been very effective.

      • Kim Heilwagen says:

        I don’t have time to conference with students after class. They know the expectations and shouldn’t need a friendly reminder. I let them know I see them sneaking it and that’s it, then I take it.

  • Another great post. Again, you make me ask – have we been asking the right question?

    However, I would add that along with the context of cell phone use we need to add the developmental stage teens are in – that stage where their frontal cortex is not fully developed. From the article Decision-making is Still a Work in Progress for Teenagers – “Lower activity in the frontal lobe could lead to poor control over behavior and emotions, while an overactive amygdala may be associated with high levels of emotional arousal and reactionary decision-making.” (one of many articles based on research out there about this). This has a huge impact on their ability to make good decisions with phones when in the classroom (actually – who is to say they are making good decisions with phones OUTSIDE the classroom!).

    I don’t know what the answer is, but as teens both have the lack of brain development for decision making AND see lots of poor modeling of cell phone use by adults it is easy to understand the frustration this topic creates in schools.

  • Hope says:

    I have thought about having a sign outside the room that lets students know which days they should have their phones with them and which days the phone should stay in their lockers (14 yo) just as I list other supplies that are needed that day. I used to have an all day/everyday policy but it is no longer working. The distraction is just too much. My students have to touch the phone frequently it’s almost an addiction. I’d rather spend a couple of minutes at the start of class allowing students to get/put the phone away than to keep policing it throughout class. I’m also thinking of taking my clock down but I’d rather encourage those who can’t read an analog clock to practice. 🙂
    I also follow the same rules for my phone and keep in mind if you connect to your school’s wifi network what you send can become part of an FOIA request and/or be monitored by the school district.

  • Charles Martin says:

    Thank you AJ for your article. It is important to have those conversations. I am all in support of using technology as long as it adds value to the educational experience of our students. It is important to innovate and technology plays a large role in this.

    I must admit that I am extremely concern about the damaging effect of technology on the brain. The science data is starting to be pretty clear about the alarming consequences of having a phone in our hands all day.

    It affects sleeping patterns. Sixty percent of teenagers have trouble sleeping because of being on their phone before going to sleep. Lack of sleep can cause diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression, and overall lack of brain function. Moreover, it has been proven that as melatonin production reduces because of being exposed to self-luminous light, the amount of REM sleep is reduced and academic performance decreases.

    Science is also clear that technology leads to deficiencies in our attention span and in multitasking skills. Long exposure to technology and constant interruptions alters our brains and it loses its ability to focus for long period of time, which is why ADD and other attention disorders are on the rise in teenagers. Thinking deeply is where true insights come from. Some students are being conditioned to never really be fully focused on a task by the constant interruptions of their phone.

    Finally, technology and more specifically accessing your phone can become an addictive behaviour and lead to lack of face-to-face social skills. The constant alerts that attracts our attention at anytime of the day release dopamine, a chemical compound that stimulates the pleasure centre of our brain.

    A phone can become addictive. We all know people, children and adults, that are addicted to their phone. Student don’t need more technology in their lives. They need less. What they really need are thoughtful and intentional adults that make judicious choices when it comes to the use of technology.

  • J. Knox says:

    So many great comments. I see so many “reformers” that want to treat children and adolescents as mini adults with the same ability to control behavior and problem solve. In my twenty two years of experience working with adolescents I have to agree with many of the comments. The 13-17 year old crowd can not monitor and regulate their own cell phone use. I’ve had students disengage from very engaging lessons because the cell phone was convenient and a habit. If you rely on a “when appropriate” policy, how do you deal with differences in judgment ls about appropriate use? Especially when difficult students or parents want to argue that you are picking on them. Just not worth the haste. No phones in class unless explicitly told that it is ok.

    • C says:

      Perfectly stated.

      • Madelaine Holmes says:

        As a new teacher struggling with this issue, I am always happy to hear the views of more experienced teachers. I think this is right. For the digital generation it is difficult to focus on any one thing for more than about 30 seconds. But maybe our job is to try and help them do this. Still confused because I know how valuable Google and technology can be to the learning process.

  • Brianna Carter says:

    This was an interesting read and I had an open mind going into it, but left feeling good about my policy. Students must have a purpose in a classroom–and it typically doesn’t involve cell phones. I give an announcement at the beginning of class to put their phones on silent or vibrate (I do the same and double-check it each period after the first class). Just before I go over our purpose (objectives) for the day, I remind that there phones will be taken for the period if seen or heard–we can’t afford to be distracted. I work in a large, urban high school where my purpose is to not only teacher American Government, but to fill the various learning gaps–and we simply can’t afford to be distracted. There will be times that I giver permission–Google a name or term for a warm-up exercise–but at every moment, I need my students to have purpose.

    One other thing that comes up often that I’d like to hear others’ thoughts: Do teachers let their students charge phones in their classrooms? I have been a stickler regarding this practice as I don’t permit it unless we’re doing some webquest activity and I can’t secure a laptop cart for the day. Thoughts?

    • Coleen says:

      I love when kids charge their phones because that means they will not use it at all that class (unless a specific assignment comes up and they ask to get it off the charger.) My charging station has 4 apple chargers and 1 android charger and is behind my desk and mah only be used with permission. The first to ask get to use it that class. Works great for me, even in my class of 30. I do not allow charging any other place in the room either.

      • Arh333 says:

        I agree! Honestly when I started to ban cell phones in a few classes that lost privilege due to misuse, many students came to me happy. It removed the pressure to respond to a text, check in on Snapchat, etc. plus some kids couldn’t afford a cell and either used iPod on old cell not connected to a plan to play around on and fit in. Leveled the playing ground for my 8th graders.

  • Hello AJ,
    The topic that won’t seem to go away. We’re 1:1 with iPads, initially they we’re openly configured, phones we’re a non-issue. Now the student iPads are locked down with restricted access, no app store. Phones, one again, are a classroom management issue. Classroom management, isn’t that a peculiar term. The slides are, interesting, humorous actually. Cell phones cause dishonesty and cheating on tests, really? The grade outweighs the consequence of cheating, otherwise there would be no reason to cheat. Let’s take an honest look at grades as a cause of cheating. Also, what does it say about the assessment if it can be completed quickly on a cell phone? Don’t get me started on homework, another idea that’s best days are long gone. Finally, why do people play games on their phones? Could it be the games are interactive, engaging, interesting, challenging? All words we would use to describe an effective learning environment. When our sensibilities get challenged, it’s easiest to blame a convenient target instead of dissecting professional practices, some which have been in place for decades. I am glad my dentist isn’t using tools and techniques from fifty years ago.
    Let’s resesrch, and have real conversations about why most students are choosing not to engage in classroom activities.
    Thanks again for sparking this conversation. I hope others will chime in on this.
    Bob

  • Our middle school policy on cell phones is off and away except for before and after school and during lunch unless the teacher has given permission in class for an activity or listening to music while working. Teachers all have “blue slips ” which are given to students who have disregarded the policy. The student then takes their phone to the office to be picked up at the end of the day. I call ahead to let the office staff know they are coming because we’ve had students who pass their phone off to another student or stop at their locker and claim they have no phone when they ge to the office. I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that adolescents need much guidance in regards to responsible cell phone use. It is sad but true that much mischief has been perpetrated by communications through Snapchat and Instagram this year at our school.

  • John Bullock says:

    I solve this issue very easily in my room. Our morning routine, I remind the students to put their cell phones away in their backpacks which are in cubby holes in the back of the classroom ( Grade 7). However, if they need to use it for a class event or project, either I announce it or they ask permission.

    Also we play Classcraft and one of the HP rules is “Improper Tech use” and we have discussed what proper and improper is, so we have a pretty even handle on it now.

  • Tona Gardner says:

    I appreciate the message of “being present.” I think it is critically important to communicate, reinforce and model this to students. It focuses on positive behaviors and demands a level of engagement that can enable real learning. It also brings the focus back to the central point. At that same time, I can support teachers who, as part of this approach, want to draw a hard line and not allow cell phone use during class time. That time is designated for knowledge and skill building. If students have access to other technology tools that allow them to access resources and collaborate, it is not inappropriate to ask them to put away their phones. Boundaries are an appropriate part of all of our lives. In the work place there are times when it is not appropriate for an employee or professional to be on a cell phone. Customers, patients, clients, colleagues and others deserve our undivided attention at times. Future employees need to understand this. Students also need to practice the skill of working with sustained focus. Finally, classrooms can represent a safe space for some students. It may be the only time of day when they are not required to navigate relationships with friends, parents, girlfriends and boyfriends, employers and others. Allowing students to leave that at the door can temporarily free them from the burden of reading and responding to the ongoing demands of other people in their lives. Giving them permission to say, “Sorry, I can’t text during class” may allow them to focus and be present. I think implying that teachers who don’t allow cell phones are primarily doing it for their convenience is too broad of a statement. That may be true sometimes, but it may also be true that a teacher is making that decision based on the needs of his or her students.

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  • Lynn Cashell says:

    In my 4th grade classroom cell phones are not an issue, but I appreciate all of the commentary since I empathize with teachers are parents alike who are raising teenagers in this current era.

    I also love A J’s question and the idea of “being present” as that is something I see lacking among our younger students. While not using cell phones, we do use iPads and setting up the ground rules for their use has been vital. We began the year with some Common Sense lessons on technology, then set up our own specific classroom rules for their use. I always hold up a pencil and an iPad and ask my students how they are the same and different. What it boils down to is that both are tools that have specific uses at specific times.

    We have used the apps on iPads for purposeful, authentic learning, but young kids can take advantage of that by playing Minecraft or other video-type games while only instructional use is allowed. Often during a lesson, a question arises and without hesitation, one or more of my students has surreptitiously looked it up on their iPad to share the answer. At first, I thought they were not paying attention in class, but then realized they used the tool purposely and this often led to greater discussions about the topic, with other students extending the learning by looking up related topics.

    I believe there is a time and place for the respectful use of technology and we need to find that balance so we can all be present to each other and our world.

  • Kristen says:

    When I go to work, I am expected to focus on my job. When my students attend my class, I expect them to focus 100% on their job which is learning. A student does not need, nor are they allowed, to use a cell phone in my class. By the way, I am horrified that my own two teenagers tell me that their teachers are regularly on their phones. Where are these educators that have ttime to check their phones? I surely don’t.

    • Nancy Weil says:

      I have to say I agree with Kristen. I have tried for 3 years to teach my students how to manage their phones and class. It has turned unto such a time waster that I can no longer justify the attempt. I have found that most lack the maturity to balance. I will no longer allow their use in my classroom. I do not use my phone during class. If there is an emergency, my husband and (children’s teachers) can get a hold of me via the school phone or email.

  • Greg says:

    If a kid owns a car they should be able to drive it to school. Teachers do so students should be able to as well. Teachers drink beer so students should be taught how to use beer properly.
    Kids are not adults and shouldn’t be expected to deal with things adults are expected to. So banning these things is fine by me.
    Like how this person who wrote this article doesn’t actually teach in a classroom anymore.

    There are jobs where you are not allowed to take your phone with you while you work.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hey Greg, real person here, named A.J. – Wrote this article because I work in a public school district and I’m in classrooms every day discussing both sides with teachers who see it both ways. Obviously, you see it one way. Which is fine. Thanks for the comment!

  • Anna says:

    The proof is in the pudding. As with adults, no learning experience is going to pull them away from CandyCrush if THAT is where they want to be. I worked in Savannah/Chatham Schools System when they implement a no cell phone allowed in the school building policy. It was mostly done for safety reasons which is something you didn’t touch on in this article. Gangs or just teens with cell phones in the school can all be notified if something very dangerous is going to happen that day. Savannah also implemented a school uniform policy. It was so much easier to get my students to interact in differentiating peer work and projects. Also, I almost immediately noticed in a higher degree of debate and participation. Of course, it made my job easier not to constantly be taking up cell phone, but it would be hard pressed to convince me that my students didn’t learn more effectively either. I wish every school had a no cell phone policy.

  • Jeremy Stahl says:

    Hey AJ, great article to get educators thinking. I agree teaching students how to be present is a key element for their future success. I am also an educator and will be doing research on this subject this upcoming Fall when school starts back. The cell phone intervention will be dubbed a “Teacher-Student Collaborative Cell Phone Management Plan”. Basically the teacher will develop a plan together with the students at the beginning of the year for appropriate cell phone use during different parts of the class. The different parts of class could include warm up, lesson, independent work, or group work. Depending on which part of the class is happening, the appropriate use could change. It is a bit more involved than that, but that’s the basic jist. I along with around 15 other educators will be implementing this plan, then I will gather data to measure its effectiveness. Research shows that by giving the students a voice in the construction of the rules, they are more likely to comply. The goal is to get students less distracted and teachers less frustrated, so more learning can take place. I guess we’ll see!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Jeremy, like this plan a lot! Really practical and an interesting perspective of how to make it work in a classroom. Thanks for sharing!

  • A. Scott says:

    I think I would be much more open to your argument if you were to make two crucial changes. One: provide concrete examples and strategies for your suggestion of focusing on ‘being present’ so that it has a practical element for your reader. Two: present your ideas in a professional way. Your post is littered with sentence fragments which make your writing sound very immature.

  • Steve M says:

    I am a world history teacher and just read this article on my cell phone. Now my neck hurts.

    I agree that integrating technology in the classroom is good. But cell phones have ALL the personal distractions in one handy, tiny device, with no restrictions. So really, how can they “be present”? It’s crazy to think that I can somehow teach students to use their cell phones “responsibly” or for “educational purposes” during my 50 minute of class time when the rest of their waking lives is spent on social media and other distractions on that same device.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Steve, I think it is different for every classroom and every situation. This post was not meant to be a solution, but to spark a conversation around the real issue. It’s not about cell phones, it is about our current reality in a world full of on-demand information, entertainment, connection and of course, distraction. Some teachers in my school use cell phones for a learning purpose. Others don’t want them anywhere near their classroom. Still, others have the students place them on their desks.

      Now we’ve introduced Chromebooks (like so many other schools have) and these can present the same issues as cell phones in terms of distraction and the same benefits if used with purpose.

      So, I agree with you wholeheartedly about cell phones having all the distractions in one place. Being present is a much larger cultural issue that we tend to not talk about or work on in school. Instead, we EXPECT students to pay attention as if that is their job, meanwhile many of us have the same issues of being present in our work due to the same distractions. I’m hoping to open up more dialogue and see what others have done in terms of possible solutions.

  • Christopher H Sibley says:

    What about all the research that shows schools banning cell phones have dramatic increases in students results? And about cell phones affecting the brain like cocaine?

    https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/16/schools-mobile-phones-academic-results

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/health/teenagers-drugs-smartphones.html

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