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

By AJ Juliani, 41 comments

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:


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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