Banning Cell phones: Ongoing Tensions

Recently, there was a news item about a school in Toronto which chose to ban cell phones. My first thought was, “How can this still be happening in 2017?” My other thought went to the number of awesome educators from the same school District who are really advocating for the thoughtful use of technology-enabled learning. What do they think and why is this school not talking to them? But then, I realized that, like any other topic, there are always varying tensions that motivate people to make such a decision and we have to be careful about making broad assumptions.

Of course, a conversation ensued on Twitter (and Facebook prompted by Sylvia Duckworth) around this topic. Distraction because of cellphones is cited as the main reason to ban cell phone use.

David Carruthers put out a poll:

Because the poll is on Twitter, where there are so many like-minded educators, the results may be slightly skewed.  The reality is, there are so many teachers who really do feel that cell phones should not be allowed.

This blog began in response to this question by @ClarkStSchool several days ago. I needed more than 140 characters to articulate my opinion.

I get it. I am in a school. I have taught classes where students feel compelled to check Instagram or their group chat no matter how interesting and engaging my lesson might be. I feel the frustration. But I also see a whole other side and truthfully, if my school went to a cell phone ban, I would have to look for other employment. To give you a true picture, here’s what I did this past week (Wed-Fri).

Wednesday

I ran a morning and afternoon workshop for teachers at my school to help support their students with Literacy strategies and the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT). In the session, I showed teachers how to use Snapchat and Instagram stories for a close reading of text: aka Booksnaps.  I used my phone to demonstrate and participants used their phones to try it.  A few teachers looked at their cell phones from time to time, but I think that is natural; we were doing lots of intense learning and they needed the cognitive break. I wondered to myself, “When students do this are we as forgiving?”

Thursday

I worked with a teacher who is using Garageband for podcasting in her English class. Students were given the choice during my brief demo: take notes on a lined sticky or take notes on their phone. Well over half the class used their phones. The ones who used a lined sticky, used their phones to take a photo of their notes in the event that they lost the sticky.

When we gave them time to explore Garageband, many students used the school iPads, but a few students were concerned that they wouldn’t finish on time. Others wanted to work on their projects at home. We told any students who had an iPhone that they were welcome to choose. Many chose to use their phones.  We had one or two students who were “distracted” by their phone: the rest were creating their music and preparing their podcasts.

Friday

I worked with a teacher who is engaged in the collaborative Amazing Race Global project I am organizing. Students were using the period to research their assigned pit-stop location.  Most students were completely engaged and on task. They were working at their own pace and exploring interesting websites.  The classroom teacher and I had talked to them about the fact that we would be assessing their ability to “Work Independently” (a learning skill in the Ontario Curriculum). I had created a Google Form which has all of the learning skills on it, and saved it to my homescreeen on my phone. We walked around, phones in our hands, talking to students and assessing them, checking in with them, and chatting with them about their progress. All but one student got an Excellent.

Here’s a link to a folder which should allow you to modify this form for your own class as well as a self-assessment form for students to set their own goals around cell-phone use (Self-Regulation).

Students used their phones to refer to the questions they were supposed to answer so as not to have to close the tabs on their computers as well as update the calendars on their phones to record what they needed to finish for the next class.

Could I have done all of these things without access to cell phones? Perhaps? But why would I need to or want to when it was so much easier and more efficient this way?

The Toronto Star article likens a cell phone to “talking in class”, which I think is such an oversimplification of the very powerful tool students hold in their hands. Many smartphones are faster and more efficient than most of the computers in my school.

The crux of it is that, despite a very well-planned and engaging lesson, students will be pulled to their phones (aka their friends) just as in the past when they (we) passed notes to one another: peer relationships are crucial to adolescents.  But if students are going to be distracted, they don’t need their phones to check out.  I am not easily offended by this; I use it as a gauge to know when I need to change my teaching methodology.

Banning cell phones will not make this issue go away; it might however increase the likelihood of students needing to visit the restroom or hiding their phones in their desks. And ultimately, there is always an accompanying power struggle when the teacher tries to confiscate the phone. Instead, if checking phones and being off-task is an ongoing problem, I would tackle it by having a conversation and re-establishing classroom norms. I would also have students set their own goals and monitor their own progress–In Ontario, this is a learning skill (Self-Regulation) which I would explicitly focus on.  My  most common response has been to ask students if they are being distracted by their device and what they plan to do about it.

These are the questions I would ask a school that is considering a ban on cellphones:

  • Do you teachers and students see the devices in their hands as powerful tools for learning or a distraction? If the latter, who might support teachers to help them to use them differently?
  • How might students contribute to this conversation?
  • Are we creating a policy that would stifle the creativity and innovation of some teachers for the sake of appeasing others? Can there be a happy medium?
  • Is the decision motivated out of control, what’s  best for teachers or what’s best for learning?
  • Are there any schools in your District or area who might also be facing this challenge? What are they doing?

Cellphones are learning tools. Any classroom in which I teach will embrace them and help students to make the most of the learning potential and monitor their own use of them.

David Carruthers speaks to the issue of using cell phones as a BYOD strategy here.

Andrew Campbell’s thoughts are well articulated here.

Donna Fry makes a compelling argument here.

I share lots of ideas and example of how to use social media for digital leadership in my book, Social LEADia.

Please use the comments to continue the conversation!

 

 

3 thoughts on “Banning Cell phones: Ongoing Tensions

  1. Sherida Charles

    Cellphones have good uses it’s not a doubt. But I have a few students who are drawn to gaming and YouTube viewing and it’s not at all easy to get them to desist. Using kahoot doesn’t even compete.

    Reply
    1. jencasatodd@gmail.com Post author

      Hi Sherida,
      I completely understand and I agree that it is very complex. I wonder if the best solution is to show students, at younger ages, how cell phones can be used for learning? I find that by the time they get to high school, they have a very set understanding and use for their phones. I also think we need to challenge kids to think about their cellphone dependence. Have you ever tried that?

      Reply

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