Despite the zero-tolerance position taken by many educators, smart phones are not the enemy of education. However, incomplete or thoughtless smart phone policies can create tremendous division between teachers, administrators, and students, and even conflict among teachers.
The solution is not
… eliminate cell phones from the school, or
… eliminate phone restrictions entirely.
Smart phones can be windows into the world for our students. They can open new vistas of direct communication with experts from around the corner, or with other students from around the world. But smart phones create problems in schools and in the development of adolescents, and for these reasons educators must be intentional in their approach to setting policies.
“Classic” Cell Phone Problems
Student phones, just like pagers before them, can be powerfully disruptive in the classroom. They can ring at unpredictable times to break the train of thought of teachers and students. So as schools strive to create longer periods of work and concentration time, the cell phone policy (or policies related to any interruption to concentration) needs to be carefully considered. When a phone rings during a lecture, a video, an explanation, or even during quiet independent work time, it immediately disrupts the flow of the work occurring in the space. Fostering our students’ concentration means working intentionally to increase access to the conditions for “flow”, that is, to create periods of uninterrupted quiet.
Even if a student manages to receive them discreetly, texts and posts can carry inflammatory messages and inspire volatile emotions. Nearly every teacher has a story of consoling a student who received a disturbing or insulting message via text during the school day, or of having to intervene in a confrontation or fight caused by a message sent via social media. Limiting their access to these messages does not mean they will never receive them. It just reduces the chance that they will disrupt a student’s already limited instructional time.
Worse, with the relative permanence of pictures and text in the internet era, they also can expose students to a sort of bullying and defamation unknown to previous generations of students.
“Modern” Smart Phone Problems
You have seen the tragic headlines: a teen convicted of involuntary manslaughter for using social media to bully her boyfriend right up to the moment he took his own life, young men and women so enthralled with their screens that they do not attend to the immediate task of driving with fatal results, adolescents so traumatized by a post that they refuse to attend school or even leave the house. The effect of smart phones can be deadly.
Nearly as worrisome is the rise of adolescent cell phone addiction. Modern teens, drawn in by engaging media, have become addicted to cell phone usage. The results of this addiction include the expected low self-esteem and low cooperation. However, it can also cause an unhealthy level of introversion or high avoidance of risk, and an altered sense of reward for completing tasks or participating in social interactions.
A modern impact on this is that up to 60% of teen auto accidents are caused by distracted driving, and the primary distractor is the cell phone. Teaching kids the habit of turning off their phone and ignoring its ring could potentially save their lives.
Some have argued that students need to learn how to manage these types of disruptions and interruptions. It is true that children need to develop these sorts of skills, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the only way to learn the skill of managing time and temptation is by placing that temptation in every student’s pocket or bookbag and seeing what happens.
Successful adults have learned an important lesson that can be imparted to children of every age. Self-control does not always mean placing yourself in a position of temptation, then resisting it.
In the classic Frog and Toad tale “Cookies”, from the popular children’s book series by Arnold Lobel, Toad bakes delicious cookies and shares them with Frog. They then find themselves perpetually tempted to eat the entire batch. They eat one last cookie, and one more last cookie, and one more final cookie, before putting the rest in a box. Frog says that this will create willpower. Still tempted, they tie a string around the box. Then they place the box on a high shelf. Finally, still tormented by their temptation, and the realization they could climb a ladder, take down the box, cut the string, and eat all the cookies, Frog devises a final step. He feeds the cookies to the birds. “We have lots and lots of willpower!” he proclaims.
Teaching our students to turn off temptation by putting their cell phone off and away is a powerful life lesson about willpower. We can be certain that, despite our best efforts other distractions will find their way in.
It is important to draft policies that meet the needs of the classroom while protecting vulnerable adolescents, and promoting a sense of community and creativity.
“No Cell Phones” Policy Problem
Smart phones are an important aspect of life around the world. They are an invaluable resource for connecting with others, checking information, and remaining connected with work, where it is often expected that a person have access to a smart phone all the time. Phones are used increasingly as creative tools, and to improve emergency response times during a crisis. Smart phones are so pervasive that it is likely that even without any teacher’s instruction on their use, we can be confident that students will know how to use them.
However, if a student were to walk out of school without ever having been taught the proper use of the cell phone – beyond merely being permitted to use it or forbidden from using it – the school will have missed a powerful opportunity for education.
Schools must right-size their approach to cell phone use, mirroring daily life.
There are times when access to the phone should be essentially eliminated. This mimics the use of phones and other screens in many formal meetings, or presentations or performances.
However, there are times when use should be promoted. Schools need to harness the creative power inherent in phones that can capture and edit audio and video gathered on the internet or – more powerfully – created by students in the classroom.
We attempted to capture this duality at Gamble Montessori. We devised a cell phone policy that is paraphrased as: Cell phones must be off and away during the school day. Phones can be used in the classroom under the direction of the teacher for a specific academic purpose.
Here are the important concepts embedded within this policy, and how they address the concerns raised above.
Eliminate or limit use in social situations
Schools serve an important role in a community by bringing together children from different traditions, income levels, belief systems, and neighborhoods. Schools are, in this regard, perhaps a country’s greatest resource for creating a shared vision and values. It is important to intentionally foster a sense of community by promoting interaction.
Perhaps nothing could be more disturbing than encountering a table of people of any age who are each privately engaged with their own phone, oblivious to the others seated around them. Enforcing expectations for social interaction during lunch or between classes is beneficial to students. We can be sure that students will find time to be with their screens despite our involvement. In a recent study by Common Sense Media, outlined in this article in the Washington Post, teens report spending about 9 hours a day interacting with their smart phones.
For the purpose of promoting pro-social behavior, and eliminating conflicts, we feel that it is appropriate to eliminate the use of cell phones at lunch and in the hallways between classes. Students have a limited amount of time during the day with their classmates. We place a value on this time by protecting it, much as we protect time during a performance with provisions against cell phones usage. This is not a claim that all use of cell phones is a waste of time. Instead, it is an assertion that time with friends in the educational community is a precious and limited commodity, to be treated as such.
Promote intentional and creative use in academic situations
In Cincinnati Public Schools, and increasingly in schools everywhere, online gradebook programs allow public access. Students and parents can essentially look inside a teacher’s gradebook and check progress any time of the day. Students should have increased access to computers and cell phones at key times in class to investigate the source of troublesome grades, or to plan ahead for upcoming assignments.
Similarly, students may occasionally need to look up a key piece of factual information. For this, the cell phone (and clear instruction on determining facts from fiction online) can be an essential tool.
Schools who require student to complete service projects or work with experts outside the classroom might encourage students to call those professionals from their own phones, under a teacher’s guidance to assist with unexpected questions. If a classroom of students is doing similar work, access to cell phones is a necessity in order for more than one of these calls to happen at a time.
Far too often these limited suggestions are provided as the reasons to allow cell phone use in class. In fact, cell phone advocates miss far stronger uses of the phone for academic purposes:
- Video record a class presentation as practice, or perhaps as the final project, with a rubric requiring editing;
- Record a science experiment, including “outtakes” or errors where the experiment did not go as planned;
- Create a podcast with a modern take on an historical event;
- Create videos that explain key processes around the school, such as how to manage the lunch line, or
- Create a playlist to accompany a key concept recently mastered in class;
- Set up an interview with an expert on the subject you are studying – someone who wrote the book, wrote an article, or perhaps even participated in an event being studied; or more.
George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, suggests that at times the primary limits placed on students’ creativity are technological limitations of their teachers and schools. Perhaps we are hindered by relying too much on the way we were asked to do things when we were in school. “’In our world today, what is a student more likely to be asked to write: an essay or a blog post?’ This question pushes some people to a place of discomfort.”
We must develop policies and procedures that are aware of the changes in technology, while being responsive to the timeless needs of adolescents. We have an unprecedented and unparalleled tool for reaching our students and allowing them the chance to be creative and to become experts in fields that have not yet been invented.
Last year (2017) some of the most-viewed channels on YouTube were created by teens and young adults – many of whom were able to garner millions of page views and subscribers to their channels, and generate millions of dollars in endorsements and advertising. Yet some major school systems block YouTube content from their student servers. These antiquated rules need to be supplanted with intentional education and reasonable approaches to helping students maneuver through the world they are helping to build.
 American Addiction Centers, Psychguides.com, https://www.psychguides.com/guides/teen-cell-phone-addiction/, December 29, 2017.