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Cell Phones in Schools: One No-Nonsense Nurturer’s Perspective

I train coaches in schools around the country to support teachers with student engagement. This year, more than any year before, I have been consistently surprised by how many students have their phones out in middle and high school classrooms, and how difficult it is for teachers to get students to put them away. For example, in one class of 23 students that I recently observed, I counted 17 visible cell phones at one point. In numerous classrooms like these, I’ve observed that the majority of students are distracted by texting or social media, choosing digital peer engagement over academic learning.

This is consistent with data from The Pew Research Center, which found that in 2015, 95 percent of teens had access to a smartphone, while 45 percent report being online almost constantly. Similar research by Nielsen indicates that teens send, on average, 3,339 text messages per month.

Despite the fact that we know students are addicted to their cell phones, I find that many schools do not have clear cell phone policies, and many that do still struggle to implement them consistently.

In a positive example, one of the schools I work with has a policy that requires students to leave phones at home or in backpacks. If seen by an adult, phones are confiscated until the end of the day. The vast majority of adults enforce this policy consistently, and sometimes parents have to come to school to retrieve the phone if the student has it out. In this school, I rarely saw phones in classrooms. This schoolwide policy empowers teachers to enforce the cell phone ban in their classrooms.

In contrast, a number of other schools that I work with have no formal cell phone policy. Teachers often asked for phones to be put away, but do not have administration’s support with enforcing this request. One principal, for example, told me that it is her understanding that it is illegal to take a phone away from a child, and she refuses to have her staff confiscate phones for concerns of liability. She further argues that families want students to have access to their phones in case of emergencies and school shootings.

In schools without clear cell phone policies, individual teachers had different mindsets about phones. Some claimed they were very distracting and admitted feeling powerless to do anything about them. Others instituted creative ways of encouraging students to put their phones away for class. For example, one teacher used Kickstarter to raise $400 to purchase Yonder pouches (locked bags for cell phones that high profile comedians have used during shows to keep audience members from filming or taking photos). Another teacher had a pocket chart cell phone charging station by the door and encouraged students to leave their phones in it. In some of these classrooms there were fewer phones out, but in others, students placed phones in the pouches or charging stations at the start of class but took them back later, and in others, students did not check phones in and instead half wore earbuds connected to phones in their pockets, often without the teacher knowing. In short, teachers in schools without schoolwide cell phone policies can still have agency over phones in their classrooms, but do so in an uphill battle.

I’ve found myself grappling with this complicated challenge, often as a thought partner with school leaders. Having never had a phone at school when I was a student, part of me wants a simple solution that removes phones and the distractions they pose from students’ education experiences altogether. However, a mentor and colleague of mine reminded me that this is a fixed mindset. She suggested a more empowered mindset that includes harnessing the power of students’ attraction to phones in the academic setting. Despite my experience and biases, I’m beginning to recognize the inevitability of phones as a part of kids’ lives in 2019, and that they bring some benefits, both socially and for students’ education experiences.

In addition to the basic safety benefits provided by phones, such as better communication with parents, and providing parents and students with a sense of safety in schools that are increasingly perceived as unsafe, phones bring other more nuanced benefits. In some schools that lack technology, for example, the availability of cell phones is an asset that allows students to access information and do research. Others argue that in an increasingly disconnected society, technology fills an emotional need that is not met for youth otherwise. Maybe these devices help us meet our primary and dominant emotional need for togetherness (Hammond, 2015). MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle interviewed hundreds of young people about their web-based lives for her book Alone Together, in which many young adults identified their phones and laptops as ‘places for hope’, and ‘places where sweetness comes from’ in their lives.

I’m left with more questions than answers, but from this more nuanced consideration of cell phones and the needs they may fill, I’m interested in a couple of strategies that may help educators and students navigate the role of phones in the classroom:

  • Educators should have more intentional and transparent discussions with students about how phones can serve academic lessons. This article provides some great guidance. After this type of discussion, teachers and students may be better positioned to create a collaborative and mutually-agreed-upon policy for how phones will be used in the classroom. 
  • In the spirit of preparing students for life after graduation, another idea is to explicitly teach ways that phones can be useful in a professional setting so that students don’t jeopardize employment and family life with inappropriate phone use. This website has some great ideas, including some about setting boundaries.
  • A final idea (and it is not a new one) is for the teacher to create engaging relationship-building opportunities for students in the classroom so that the pull for students to escape into digital relationships is less strong during the school day. Here are 10 out-of- the-box ideas for facilitating relationship building in the classroom.

I am new to thinking about this topic, but from where I stand now, I believe that the educator, as the trusted adult, has a crucial role in supporting teens to use technology appropriately and to steer clear from addiction. The solutions lie in relationship-building opportunities in class and enlisting students in taking responsibility for creating boundaries and productive use of phones in classrooms. Best of luck, fellow educators, in finding balance in this brave new world of technology in the classroom!

References

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE Company.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

By Leah Pearson, CT3 Associate
Click here to read more about Leah’s background as an educator in Denver, CO.

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