Banning Phones in Class Might be the BEST BYOD Policy.

A recent report  from , and the University of Texas at Austin has me questioning my professional decision last year to allow students to bring their cell phones to my classroom.

In Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity (summary, full report), Ward, Duke, Gneezy and Bos argue something that I’ll bet all of us have experienced:  When your phone is present, your brain is not because you are constantly wondering what is happening in/on your device.  The urge to check your phone — to look for new likes or favorites in social media spaces, to answer the latest email and/or text message that has landed in your inbox, to check your news feeds for the latest celebrity blunder or political disaster or blockbuster trade — can be impossible to resist even when you are determined to attend to the world around you.

Specifically, Ward and her colleagues found that the presence of smartphones — whether they are turned on or turned off — had a negative impact on the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in their study.  

Working memory is the ability of an individual to select, maintain, and process information relevant to current tasks and/or goals. Fluid intelligence is the ability of an individual to understand and solve novel problems.

Another finding was that the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in Ward’s study increased consistently as their phones were put in locations that were less visible and accessible.  Participants who were asked to put their phones in their pockets or their purses did better on tasks requiring high levels of working memory and fluid intelligence than participants who could see their phones.  Participants who were asked to leave their phones in another room, however, did the best on those same tasks.


What’s interesting is that participants could not detect the impact that the presence of their smartphone was having on both their working memory or their fluid intelligence.

When asked, participants in each of the three control groups reported that (1). they weren’t thinking about their phones and that (2). the presence of their phones had no impact on their performance.  Evidence from each experiment, though, tells a completely different story.  “This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance,” writes Ward and her colleagues, “suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.”

What’s also interesting is that working memory and fluid intelligence were impacted the MOST in participants who reported high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their smartphones.

Stated more simply, the participants who did the worst on the tasks designed to test working memory and fluid intelligence were the ones who reported the highest level of agreements with statements like “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone” and ““Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.”

Ward and her team make a few recommendations and draw a few conclusions at the end of their study.  Perhaps most importantly, they note that the only strategy that worked to mitigate the impact that smartphones have on working memory and fluid intelligence was separation from the device.  Their testing showed that participants still struggled with working memory and fluid intelligence even when utilizing common mitigation practices like turning devices off, leaving them screen-down on tabletops, or leaving them in pockets or purses.

They also suggest that their research is specific to smartphones only — primarily because of our persistent and complex relationships with our phones.  “The role of dependence in determining mere presence effects suggests that similar cognitive costs would not be incurred by the presence of just any product, device, or even phone,” they write.  “We submit that few, if any, stimuli are both so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones.”

So what does all of this mean for classroom teachers?  Draw your own conclusions, but I’m thinking that the BEST BYOD policy might just be to ban smartphones from our classrooms in most circumstances.  

I know.  That feels like blasphemy, doesn’t it?  Schools have raced to embrace technology at every turn.  We know full well that digital tools can make incredible things possible in our classrooms.  Students can ask and answer their own questions using digital tools.  They can connect to new information and individuals, find partners to think with and learn from, and direct and document their own learning using devices.  They are excited about their phones — and we figure we can leverage that excitement to do great things.

Just as importantly, we bear at least SOME responsibility for teaching kids to use their own devices productively, don’t we?  If our kids don’t recognize the power sitting in their pockets, backpacks and purses, we are failing them — and we can’t just assume that kids will automatically figure out ways to leverage their phones for learning on their own.  That’s the kind of expertise that WE can bring to the table and pass on to our students.

But here’s the thing:  We are also failing our students if we don’t help them to recognize how to mitigate the negative impacts that those exact same devices have on our lives.  

As educators, we tend to give technology the benefit of the doubt, assuming that more technology is always a good thing.  Ward’s study proves that’s not always true — and we owe it to our kids to help them see that sometimes — particularly in spaces where working memory and fluid intelligence are important factors for being successful (read: classrooms), the best plan for maximizing your ability to concentrate and to develop strategies and to find novel solutions is to leave your smartphone in your locker unless it is absolutely necessary for whatever task you are trying to complete.

In the end, that may just be the MOST important lesson that we can teach our kids about their personal devices.

Need some specific recommendations?  Try these:

  • Revise your BYOD policy.  Make sure that it explains that smartphones will be allowed in classrooms only on an as-needed basis.
  • Start a conversation about Ward’s research with everyone (parents, students, teachers) in your school community.  Emphasize the importance of working memory and fluid intelligence to classroom success.  Detail the positive impact that separation from smartphones has on working memory and fluid intelligence — particularly for people who report high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their phones (read: students of darn near any age.)
  • Begin recommending to parents interested in providing their children with devices that they invest in Chromebooks and/or tablets instead of smartphones.
  • Remind everyone in your school community that technology isn’t ALWAYS additive and encourage everyone to think more deliberately about the costs of the technology used in your classrooms.



8 thoughts on “Banning Phones in Class Might be the BEST BYOD Policy.

  1. georgecouros

    I know you like comments so here is one for you 🙂

    This quote:

    “Revise your BYOD policy. Make sure that it explains that smartphones will be allowed in classrooms only on an as-needed basis.”

    Who decides that? That policy often means when the teacher deems fit, not when the learner sees it is as needed.

    Also, as adults, would we practice this? I have watched many administrators pop out of professional learning to grab a phone call. Would we really model this in our own professional learning? Personally, I turn all notifications off of my phone so that I go to my device when I see fit, not the other way around. That is a strategy I had to learn by having access.

    Would love to know your thoughts. Thanks for pushing my thinking my friend! Hope you are well!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey George,

      First, thanks for stopping by! Hope you are well. This particular topic is roiling its way through my mind right now.

      And here’s my answer to your question: When we are talking about places where deep learning is happening or where we rely on commitment from our learning partners, I don’t think ANYONE should have a phone in the room. That goes for teachers in learning team meetings with their peers, students in classrooms, principals who are engaged in conversations with teachers or parents. I’d revise the statement from my blog that you quoted to read, “Make sure that you explain that smartphones will be allowed in any space where we are learning only on an as-needed basis.”

      Now don’t get me wrong: That’s going to create all kinds of uncomfortable conversations about whether or not a space is a learning space or not. For example, is a faculty meeting where a principal is just droning on and on a learning space? Is a classroom where kids are completing YET another worksheet after working through YET another PowerPoint a learning space?

      And it’s also going to create all kinds of uncomfortable conversations about how many of those absurd experiences happen every day in schools.

      But that discomfort is a good thing because it will force people to consider the kinds of learning experiences that we are creating, the commitment that we have to the learning experiences that we are a part of and to the people that we are learning with, and the impact — both positive and negative — that devices are having on those learning experiences.

      Those conversations are long overdue — something I’m reminded of every time I sit in staff development with colleagues that spend more time on their phones than they do interacting with people who are sitting around the table with them.

      One of my favorite ways to think about this came from a Harvard Business REview article a few years back that argued for “Top less Meetings.” Clearly, I clicked on that link. ; )

      What they meant by top less meetings, though, were meetings where devices weren’t allowed on tabletops at all. The goal was to prevent the inevitable distractions that we are talking about right now.

      Maybe this is a matter of degree. Maybe the middle ground is defining specific types of learning experiences where devices are not allowed. Group conversations, shared readings, etc. Then, the expectation — for adults and students — would be that devices be “put up” during those specific learning experiences. Who determines what those experiences would be? Maybe the group brainstorms the list together and turns it into a norm for their team.

      All I know is that what we are currently doing isn’t working — for teachers or for kids

      Rock on,

  2. Lyn Hilt

    I have been more productive of late when my phone is out of reach. But it doesn’t help when my texts and social feeds can be read on my laptop while I’m working 😂 BYOD, to me, can really amplify the inequities among students in terms of haves and have-nots. But in lieu of nothing, certainly that phone can offer access to resources, ideas and people that a disconnected classroom cannot. It’s a tough call and one that I think each student group, teachers, parents, and admin of a school have to have tough conversations about.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      You are right about all of this!

      I think my biggest concern is our assumption that simply having the device is a prerequisite for learning. If Ward’s research is accurate, having the device can actually hamper learning.

      I think my vote would be for phones to be left in lockers or backpacks unless it is essential for a lesson. Teachers can make those decisions on an as-needed basis. The “always on/always accessible because we live in a connected world so you are missing something if you aren’t always arms length away from YOUR connected device” system of providing access seems to do a heck of a lot more harm than it does good.

      Hope you are well and happy,

  3. Chris Jakicic

    Hey Bill, Thanks so much for the research synthesis as well as the practical application. I think so many people develop a cell phone policy based on their opinions. This makes the decision really meaningful. While I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think about adult workshops and whether adults should have their phones out and available!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      One of the funniest things that I ever read on Harvard Business Review’s website was a guy who proposed “Topless Meetings” to his readers!

      I clicked on the link — don’t judge me — and found out that he was referring to meetings with no devices out and on the table to avoid distractions and to encourage attention.

      Too funny, right? But more importantly, too true!


  4. kheywood34

    Wow. That’s a really interesting perspective (and one I initially scoffed at before reading the article). I wonder though if the way cellphones are used impacts the results? For instance, would kids in elementary school who might not be as attached to their phones (not as involved on social media yet, no email/text, no news feeds, etc) as older kids and adults see the same impact? Also, many of our kids who get a phone to use in class for BYOD have no cell/data plan. Would that lead to similar findings?

    Just some random thoughts. As a former science teacher, can’t help but think how to extend the research. 😉

    Thanks for sharing, certainly gives me some food for thought!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Great questions, Pal!

      Here’s a question I’ve been mulling: Is working memory and fluid intelligence only important in our classrooms because we still have a “knowledge first” curricula? Would the benefits of phones in class outweigh the negatives if we had a curricula that prioritized different outcomes?

      I do know that the research — combined with my frustration with adults who stare at their phones forty seven times every time I’m involved in a meeting/conversation with them — has me thinking that there’s no reason NOT to try banning phones from class whenever we aren’t using them for something targeted and specific.

      Rock on,

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