A blessing or a curse? Cell phones in today’s classrooms

A blessing or a curse? Cell phones in today’s classrooms

Debate #6Cell phones should be banned in the classroom.

This topic is an especially difficult one for me. In the pre-vote, I easily chose “disagree”, but upon reflection, there have been a number of times in my teaching career so far where I have said “OKAY CELL PHONES AWAY EVERYONE I DON’T WANT TO SEE THEM AT ALL FOR ANY REASON ANYMORE” or something along those lines. Granted, this usually happens in moments of erupting frustration around some of the concerns voiced by the “agree” team.

In these situations, all you’re really left with is mad/annoyed teachers and bored/annoyed students. Not exactly an ideal environment for meaningful learning.

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Both sides of the debate did a superb job crafting their arguments and putting forth an overall strong case. The agree side, arguing that cell phones should indeed be banned from the classroom, highlighted concerns around these personal devices being too much of a temptation for young people. Bullying is another issue, as cell phones can make the issue significantly more pervasive, as touched on in the debate around social media use by children as well. Students can suffer from “no-mobile phobia” and allowing cell phones in the classroom can serve to feed addictive tendencies. Cell phones can also ultimately lead to a lack of concentration on school work, and to further the issue, some students in our classrooms do not have cell phones, and allowing their frequent use can contribute to the digital divide and widen the inequity gap among students in a given classroom.

The disagree side proposed that cell phones should be allowed in the classroom, arguing that policies like “bring your own device” does not mean that students are allowed to use their cell phones at all times in all ways in the classroom. These devices can actually help shrink the digital divide by filling in gaps where there are not enough devices for students to have 1:1 devices in the classroom setting. Cell phones are a useful tool in teacher-caregiver communication, they reduce parental anxieties as they create a “lifeline” of sorts to communicate with children, which, in some cases, can be lifesaving.

My thoughts (well, questions) on the matter

After the intro videos and the first conversations in the class debate portion, a few thoughts came to mind: do students have the developmental capacity to be disciplined enough to put their cell phones away and not use them? How do they fare against temptation in comparison to adults? Are they ready for a responsibility like this? In lockdown scenarios, are cell phones more harm than good? Do cell phones in classrooms widen or shrink the digital divide?

Diving in to the research

Selwyn & Aagaard (2021) present 5 concerns that a blanket ban of cell phones in the classroom could help remedy. What I find most interesting about this article is the notion that such a ban could serve the purpose of fostering a more appropriate environment for welcoming cell phone use into the classroom (Selwyn & Aagard, 2021, p. 17). I connected with this approach because I’ve struggled with wanting to implement and allow greater cell phone use and access in my classroom, but when attempted, certain constraints stop my vision from being fully accomplished (time allotment to teach necessary skills, academic pressures, achievement gaps, socio-economic disparities, students who do not have cell phones, etc.) In simple terms, there just aren’t enough hours in a day (or minutes in a rigid academic schedule) to implement a true, effective BYOD policy. Making this happen would require a rebuilding of education at a more structural level and rather significant policy changes (maybe it’s about time?)

This article by Breanna Carels sheds some light on my question of if school-aged children of certain ages have the ability to focus in the classroom with cell phones present. It discusses that cell phones indeed function as a distraction to student learning, as students learn best when focusing on one task at a time (Carels, 2019, p. 9). Carels also points out the anxiety students experience when being forcibly disconnected from their devices as a result of policies that ban cell phone use in classrooms (2019, p. 10). Borrowing ideas from Gao et al. (2014), Carels suggests that schools “develop effective policies that regulate negative behaviours and maximize the positive impacts of phones” (2019, p. 11). Once again, this reading points to a need for policy changes at a broader level than the teacher’s choice in each individual classroom.

The final article presented by the agree team (found here) also points out the negative impacts cell phones in the classroom can have on students (cyberbullying, academic dishonesty, sexting, poor mental health) (Smale et al., p. 60). The reading also touches on the benefits of cell phone use in the classroom, but ultimately aligns with other arguments surrounding the topic, expressing a need for clearer implementation policies that include balance and reasonable solutions for inequities.

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Now to the disagree side. In this video, Sam Kary, a former middle school teacher himself, argues that cell phones should be allowed in classrooms for several reasons, including increasing the likelihood of 1:1 tech within classroom settings, the opportunity for virtual reality, and the mere fact that because cell phones are part of our daily lives, they should naturally also be a part of education. Similarly, this video puts forth the idea that cell phones aren’t the problem, or at the very least, not the only problem that leads to distracted students.

The disagree side also listed two articles, one clearly outlining the pros and cons of cell phone use in the classroom, with the benefits including the line of communication cell phones provide and the importance of learning the critical and relevant life skill of responsible use. The other article (found here) provides 11 reasons why cell phones should be allowed in the classroom, including many of the same benefits mentioned in previous readings and videos and adding the points that cell phone use is good for the environment, saves schools money and diversifies learning in various ways.

Final Thoughts

In my own teaching, I’ve seen the benefits and pitfalls of cell phone use in the classroom, as I’m sure we all have. Sitting at my desk, I can scan the room and simultaneously see one student laser focused, using an app on their personal device to create an infographic for a project, another student across the room clearly sending a Snapchat selfie, a student without a cell phone using a school-provided laptop to finish outstanding homework but waiting for it to update, a student listening to music on their iPhone and responsibly working on finishing a math assignment, and another student caught up in showing a classmate their most recent Spotify playlist. As it stands, the cell phone integrated classroom environment could use some renovation.

I think there will always be pros and there will always be cons to allowing cell phones in class. These devices that unlock accessibility and more meaningful, engaging learning experiences at the same time open the door for students to sidebar learning and scroll through TikTok instead, easily shielded from supervision. Despite the opportunities that cell phones in the classroom create, is it worth banning them to avoid distraction and amp up time-on-task? I don’t think the answer will ever be clear. I do think the greatest benefit comes from a balanced approach in which educators allow cell phones in the classroom when appropriate for the task at hand, teaching the skills necessary to use them respectfully, purposefully, and to their full potential.

One thought on “A blessing or a curse? Cell phones in today’s classrooms

  1. Hi Christina,
    I didn’t get a chance to hear your insights in our breakout room discussion, so I wanted to make sure I read your blog post this week. Some really great self-reflection, questions, and insights.
    In regards to your questions – ” do students have the developmental capacity to be disciplined enough to put their cell phones away and not use them?”, etc… I fear that the addictive pull of cell phones is too much for young minds. Like so many things, we have to put structure in place with our students WHILE allowing them a voice on the topic. Why not create a cell phone policy as a class, with teacher guidance and final say? I fear adults make poor role models, as once again the addictive power of cell phones cannot be overlooked. In the case for lockdowns, I believe access to A SINGLE phone is important DURING the lockdown, but having been a part of a lockdown (with an active shooter in the house next door) panic and miscommunication only resulted from those (well-intentioned, frightened) students with phone access. As for accessibility, the argument was made that it shrinks the gap. I have never seen this at my community school. There are very few families with active home phone numbers, let alone child cell phone access.
    All that being said, you mentioned that policy changes are perhaps long overdue, and I wholeheartedly agree. Teachers and schools need training in purposeful tech use…and then, cell phones have the potential to be effective tools in our rooms. Again, thanks for all the additional insights….got my brain rumbling all over again!

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