Smartphones in the classroom?

About five or six years ago, the faculty council at Newton South High did a lot of work to rewrite the school’s policy regarding cell phones in school. At the time many students had cell phones but the cellular coverage was spotty in most of the school. Cell phones were a bit of a distraction but not in class. Students would congregate in the one or two spots around campus where they could get one or two bars to make quick calls. This annoyed most of the adults in the building but we were willing to live with the reality that parents make the decision to buy these expensive gadgets for their kids and we would have to live with them. So we worked together to draft a new policy that acknowledged the ubiquity of cell phone ownership while asking students to use them responsibly and in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the educational process.

So now we have this policy today that asks students to keep their “phones” switched off in class and to use them only in the halls, common rooms and cafeteria. When we drafted this “forward-looking” policy we did not see the smartphone in the horizon.
Now roughly 8 out of 10 students possess either a smartphone or a web-enabled device. Our policy, well-intentioned as it may be, now seems ironic at best. Do we want students to keep these powerful learning and collaboration tools, the very tool I use right now to write this blog and share it with the world, switched off while they are under the supervision of their professional teachers in class? Are we more comfortable with students using these devices out in the hallways, in areas of the school where there is less supervision?
Clearly we need guidelines. We can’t allow electronic devices to distract us from our mission of educating all kids. We can’t allow the 16 students with smartphones In a class to disrupt the process for the four without.  However, it’s clear that our school policy regarding “cell phones” be revisited and updated.

In our faculty meeting on Tuesday of this week, our principal did a good job leading us through a discussion of this issue. By having an open, honest and respectful discussion with our peers, we teachers came to an understanding that on this issue we rely on our professionalism as a group. Some colleagues feel more comfortable asking students to keep their devices off and put away during class to provide them as close to a distraction-free environment as one can hope for in a room full of teenagers. These colleagues appreciate and support those of use who endeavor to help students use their web-enabled devices as learning and collaboration tools.
Right now we don’t feel there is a crisis around student use of cell phones, smartphones, or other web-enabled devices in school. But it is awkward having a rule that few have the desire to enforce.

Teachers and school leaders should listen to what parents of high school students think about smartphones in the classroom. Please feel free to post a comment on this issue by clicking “Leave a reply” under the title.

Do parents buy these devices for their teenagers with the understanding that the students will or will not use them during class?

What about those parents who feel it best to delay purchasing their kids smartphones? Would they change their minds if they could count on teachers to help students discover the educational value to these devices?

Shouldn’t parents have the right to protect their teenagers from the insidious distraction and potential addiction to being hyper connected that come hidden inside of these elegant little devices?

What rules regarding smartphone usage do parents make and enforce in the home?

What about in civil society? Do smartphones need to be banned in certain contexts to protect the greater good? Does having such bans really curb usage or do they just force illicit use?

It’s clear to me that we are never going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle.

Should teachers hold firm and try to protect the sanctity of learning in an offline mode, the way we all learned in school?

Or should we approach smartphones with a more cautious optimism and try to harness their educational power while learning to live with the unintended consequences?

Now that I’ve written this, the English teacher in me is awakening. These questions sound like a classic work of literature.

We might benefit from reading Frankenstein as our choice for One School, One Book next year.

I welcome your thoughts!

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One thought on “Smartphones in the classroom?

  1. Brian Baron

    The folks who spoke up in the faculty meeting and made the point that we have a responsibility to teach kids how to use their devices effectively resonated with me. However, I got the sense that a lot of the folks making these points were offering them in service of a ban on cellphone use, and I’m not convinced that such a policy is the best teaching tool.

    As a lot of people pointed out, any “ban” on cellphone use is only as strong as our willingness to enforce it. We would, first, need to decide to stop using our own phones and iPads in the hallways, which I don’t see happening.

    The social mores and norms around technology use also are constantly changing — generally becoming more complex — and I’m not at all clear that teachers themselves are the best judges of when/where/how to use technology. Is standing at the top of the Wheeler staircase and talking on the phone out of the way of traffic the same as walking around, head down, while texting? Is standing outside a classroom checking the class web site before class the same as texting your friend about your after-school plans? Our policy bans all of these, although in the real world both happen all the time, often in the presence of faculty. And at least in part because of this tacit contract we rarely talk with kids about effective and appropriate technology use. It feels to me like we need to engage with kids (and ourselves) in discussion, in multiple ways, over the course of four years, about how to use technology effectively. I don’t think a blanket smartphone ban gets us there — it’s neither realistic nor good pedagogy.

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