General Education

Banning Cell Phones in Classrooms Doesn’t Work — Here’s What Will

Banning Cell Phones in Classrooms Doesn’t Work — Here’s What Will
Most schools block games on school devices, and students caught working a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle are punished. But are these really bad sites? Image from Unsplash
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Micah Halpern July 2, 2019

Classroom prohibitions on cellphones don't work, and they deprive students of a valuable tool. Why we should be more intelligent about smartphones in school.

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A student walks into school, places an iPhone in the assigned slot in the lobby, and runs to homeroom. Or maybe it's not the lobby; maybe it's a big bin or bowl on the homeroom teacher's desk.

And maybe — quite possibly, actually — it's not really his phone.

This may come as a shock to some parents, but yes: some of your children have a dummy phone (not to be confused with a dumbphone). It may be an old, out-of-use phone, or it may be an actual non-working dummy, like the kind stores put in their display windows (you can get one for under $20).

That's what we've come to. Many schools have now become "phone-free zones," requiring students to deposit their personal cell phones somewhere off their person. In some schools, it's only for part of the day — typically during class time, with students allowed access to their phones during free periods — and sometimes it's for the entire school day.

And then, reaching a pinnacle of illogic, the schools then hand those students iPads or Chromebooks — with the understanding that the students will use them only for schoolwork, of course. :eyeroll:

Why smartphone bans don't work

The problem is this: many of these students are quite convinced that they literally cannot live without those phones. (Well, maybe not exactly literally, but pretty darn close.) And so they resort to all manner of subterfuge to keep hold of them. They hide them under their clothes, under their books, even under their school-issued iPads.

They don't use them to make phone calls in class, but then again, most people under the age of thirty never use their phones that way. They use them to Snapchat and to Instagram and to text. They will, in fact, text with the student sitting right next to them in class, the way students of a more analog age once passed notes.

Most schools take an absolutist approach to these smartphones. They require parents and students to sign contracts stipulating that the phones will be deposited when and where required by school rules. Infractions can result in what, to kids, seems an extremely harsh punishment: a call home, or a meeting with parents and the principal. In some instances, parents and children conspire to work around what they perceive as these too-restrictive rules.

And then the schools hand students another computer, typically either a tablet or a Chromebook. Sure, they provide students with a list of acceptable websites and create firewalls to block access to unacceptable websites. If that system actually worked, it might make sense, maybe. But in fact, most students are adept at hacking their devices or finding backdoor access to the sites they really want to visit. They are skillful, motivated, and numerous; a school's tiny IT staff (often just one person) is no match for this army of determined hackers. They are also admirably generous, gleefully sharing their illicit discoveries with one another.

Being smarter about students and smartphones

Currently, students are allowed to access good, sound, educational online resources so long as they use approved devices, i.e. school-provided tablets and laptops. These sites have been selected because they enhance the students' learning experience and provide in-class educational experiences, or because they can be used for note-taking and test-taking and essay writing. Sometimes these sites take the place of hardcover textbooks. We do this to prevent student transgressions, but of course, it doesn't work; the kids find workarounds, as we should know they will.

In some cases, we are handicapping our children in the process. For example, the graphing calculator on the iPhone is far superior to the $120 Texas Instruments calculator that many schools require. So, students hide their iPhones when they use them to graph. Or, they and their teachers agree to ignore the rules and permit students to use their iPhones in math and science classes.

In other cases, we are drawing an arguably arbitrary line. Most schools block games on school devices, and students caught working a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle are punished. But are these really bad sites? They too are educational, even if they're not just what the teacher is teaching at that moment. The way students think today, getting caught on one of those sites is equivalent to getting caught studying math during a history class. At worst, it's the equivalent of good, old-fashioned doodling. It's treated as something much worse.

In too many instances, we are allowing students to do things they can do on their smartphones, but just not on their smartphones. At other times, we are setting arbitrary rules with harsh penalties. In the process, we are stigmatizing a technology that is, by nearly all estimates, an essential tool of living in the modern world.

The problem with this is that technologies are essentially neutral. They are capable of both good and bad, much like water or fire. Are we sending the right message?

A better way forward

It's naive to assume that we can give our children access to technology and expect them to use it only for good. We are not so naive.

We also know that our children rely on us to guide and educate them through the technology maze just as we guide and educate them about drugs and sex and getting into cars with strangers. They need our help, and we must help them the same way we help them with everything else connected to the modern world.

Shutting out the modern world is not the answer. It's not even an answer. Understanding and mastering the modern world, using it, and participating in it is the answer. Shutting it out is a recipe for revolt and ultimate failure.

It's a difficult line for schools to straddle. And it's difficult for students, too. There are many ways to educate about modernity and technology. Cell phone misuse and overuse is simply one issue that has encroached on our community and seems to be running rampant.

To address this looming new age problem seriously, cell phone education must become part of a curriculum with guest lecturers, debates, exercises, readings, videos. It should be done in small groups and in classrooms, as a grade and as a school. These activities should become regular, even weekly.

Students should know that their teachers, administrators, and parents are committed to a real learning experience. Not a top-down dictate, but a real moral struggle over good versus bad. Not good versus evil: good versus bad. The answer to the smartphone problem isn't dumb prohibitions; it's smart usage. That starts with education and conversation.

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