Cellphones in the Classroom: A Response

I’ve been hearing a lot of negativity around using cell phones in the classroom. I thought it time to respond to some of the statements I commonly hear:

“I think cell phones don’t belong in the classroom. They are a major distraction and are not worth the trouble they can cause. How can you regulate a student’s personal cell phone? How can you keep them from texting each other and help them to remain on task? What do you do about students who don’t have cell phones? How will they participate? What happens to their self esteem when they don’t have a cell phone to pull out with the rest of the class? What about the students with really nice phones? How do you keep them from getting stolen? I could go on and on… cell phones in the classroom are not a good idea.”

Here’s my response:

We can’t forget that cellphones are powerful mobile mini-computers. There is a period of normalization that occurs with any new technology. We need to guide students through digital citizenship and appropriate use. We also need to get to the point in which students are self-regulating, which means some initial guiding and regulation on our part as teachers working with students. I guess what we have to ask ourselves is “do we want to pretend we don’t know students are texting behind our backs anyway” or do we want to be open and find an opportunity to teach them appropriate use and guide them towards self-regulation by helping them manage their attention?

Try putting students in groups when not all your students have cell phones. You’ll find the “haves” are willing to share with the “have-nots” during this time as many have data plans (though you should never insist on sharing and I can bet it would be a very rare case that someone objects anyway). This way everyone gets an opportunity for deeper learning, instead of no one. Working in groups of 3 or 4 is great. If you’re worried about the self-esteem of the ones who don’t have phones, it’s not like they don’t already know who the “have” and “have-nots” are. I remember back in high school when many of the girls around me were wearing designer clothes and I was wearing regular clothes. It’s a life lesson they’ve already learned.

I’ve actually never had a cell phone stolen in class before. When they’re out in the open, it’s pretty obvious which phone belongs to whom and kids rarely let them out of their sights. Though yes, it is a potential problem and you would need to share those risks with your students.

Right now students are texting with their phones because it’s a great tool in their social world, as they look for ways to keep adults out of a space while they work to find their identities. They engage in shifting social circles as they try to establish long-lasting friendships like the ones we now have in adulthood. I have spoken with students who feel pressured by their friends to text back immediately upon receipt. They get into a dangerous cycle of compulsion that is full of internal interruptions and social pressure. This is very different from how adults use texting. We can take our time getting back to people without feeling quite the same stress. As teachers we can try to get rid of the external interruptions in their environment but they will find ways around it. Controlling their external environment by banning cell phones does nothing to quell the internal interruptions that take place in the head, repeatedly popping up and reminding them to “take a look at that screen” and check where they stand in each other’s friends’ lists. In order to help kids control their compulsion, we need to teach them how to become autonomous.

We need to teach kids how to become self-regulators and how to engage in appropriate social etiquette. This can happen through allowing use at appropriate times during class, guided by helping them manage the type of attention required of the task at hand. We do this through adult guidance, attention cuing, mentorship, and teaching digital citizenship. You can’t teach these when you ignore what they’re doing anyway and your risk putting yourself outside of their world.

I produced a 37-minute documentary on this topic for my Masters. I interviewed David Buckingham, author and Director of the London Knowledge Learning Lab; Danah Boyd, author, Berkeley fellow and researcher for Microsoft and Harvard; Linda Stone, retired Executive from Apple and Microsoft; Dr. David Meyer, Psychology professor at the University of Michigan; and Neil Andersen, author, media consultant, and speaker with the Association for Media Literacy. I also interviewed teachers and school administrators, parents, and most of all..teens. You can view some of the clips from my documentary at www.janemitchinson.ca