Interview on Cell Phones in the Classroom

Earlier this week, a high school journalism student reached out to me.  She was working on a column connected to the policies that schools have governing cell phone use in our buildings and had stumbled across a column that I wrote a few years back for Ed Leadership.  Knowing that I was still a classroom teacher, she sent me a list of questions and asked me to reply.

Figured you’d be interested in my responses:

Question: Do you feel that cell phones should be used as educational tools in the classroom? Why or why not?

My Answer: Absolutely.  The simple truth is that cell phones are an incredibly powerful tool for any learner.  They make it possible to connect to ideas and individuals at any time and from anywhere.   Overlooking that reality is a failure on the part of classroom teachers.  Our goal shouldn’t be to ban access to powerful tools for learning.  Instead, our goal should be to show the students in our classrooms how to take full advantage of the learning potential sitting inside their purses and their back pockets. 

Question: Coming from a viewpoint of a teacher, how would you prevent distractions with cell phones?

My Answer: This is going to make some teachers angry, but I’m not convinced that cell phones distract students.  Instead, I’m convinced that boring lessons distract students.  

When my students are off-task, I look first at the work that I’m asking them to do.  If that work is disconnected from student interests or focused on content that no one cares about, student distractions are a function of my choices as a teacher.  Why should I be surprised when kids use their phones as an escape from lessons that are divorced from any real meaning?  Students who are given the chance to affect real change in the world or to ask and answer interesting questions are rarely distracted by their cell phones. 

Here’s another take:  We are ALL surrounded by distractions every minute of every day.  When I’m bored — in faculty meetings, while on hallway duty, at church on Sunday mornings — I pull out my cell phone and start surfing the web too.  

Maybe it’s time that we start teaching students how to deal with that reality.  Banning cell phones from class may eliminate some distractions — but it also leaves students poorly prepared to handle the always-on world that we live in.  Openly talking about how to manage our attention in a world where being distracted is easy could be the most important lesson that we teach — and teaching it is impossible in buildings that ban cell phones.

Question: What age would you say would be appropriate for students to get a cell phone in general?

My Answer:  My first reaction is that schools should start allowing students to use cell phones in schools around grade six.  That’s simply because it seems like most students get their first phones by grade six.  

If the majority of the students in a grade level or a school have phones, it’s imperative that schools start showing students how to maximize the learning potential in those devices.  Ignoring devices that our kids already carry has consequences:  Students end up seeing their phones as tools for being social but fail to see their phones as tools that can help them to grow as learners.  

Question: Do the students use cell phones or technology at your school? If yes, do you observe the students benefit from it? Or do they get distracted easily? If no, would you ever begin to use cell phones or technology?

My Answer: Our school started a BYOD program this year.  What that means is that students can use their own technology — cell phones, tablets, Chromebooks — in our classrooms without fear of consequences for the first time.  I’m straight jazzed by that opportunity because North Carolina’s schools have been underfunded for the better part of a decade.  As a result, classrooms — particularly those in schools that have been around for a while — have almost no technology.  Allowing students to use their own devices means that I can actually plan lessons that use technology on a regular basis.  

I think the greatest benefit to the students in our school is that they finally have opportunities to learn how to tap into the power of the Web with the guidance of teachers.  If I can teach the kids in my classroom more about the role that the Internet can play in the lives of connected learners, they will leave my classroom with skills that will make them more successful regardless of the careers that they decide to pursue.


Question: As a teacher, how much technology do you use on a daily basis? Do you feel it is easier to use paper or computers for your work?

My Answer:  We use technology in our classroom in the same way that you probably use technology outside of school.  When we have a question that we can’t find an answer to, we turn to the Web.  When we are looking for partners to study with or experts that have information that they can share with us, we turn to the Web.  When we make discoveries that we want to share with someone else or when we want to make a difference in the world outside the walls of our school, we turn to the Web.  

That work is often informal rather than planned — but that’s the key to good technology integration.  Our goal shouldn’t be to use technology to learn.  Our goal should be to learn — and if technology can facilitate that work, so be it.  

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Related Radical Reads:

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices

#edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

Digital Immigrants Unite!

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