Cellphones Should Be Banned in Schools

I want you to harken back to your adolescence. Imagine you’re a 14-year-old in government class. Today’s lesson is on something the teacher claims is “extremely relevant and important,” the electoral college. But this isn’t just any classroom; this is a special classroom.

The teacher can make his lesson more dynamic and engaging than ever before. He incorporates news clips about how the electoral college impacted the last election, he links in expert analysis from constitutional scholars, he provides interactive electoral maps, and he facilitates a class discussion.

But that’s not all. In the next corner is an arcade. It has countless video games, most of which are purposefully designed to be highly addictive. Unlike the electoral college lesson, these games require very little cognitive effort and are immediately gratifying.

In the next corner is a movie screen that is nothing short of magical. It can access movies from all eras and genres, as well as hit television shows and more pornography than a person could watch in three lifetimes.

In the last corner is a stereo system that can play any song. It even has perfectly tailored playlists to match your mood. Sad about a recent breakup? Access your breakup playlist.

Out of Their Hands

Smartphones are the most engaging, versatile, useful, and entertaining devices ever created. But to put one into the hands of adolescents and expect they will pay attention to even the most engaging lesson is unreasonable. Their developing brains lack self-control, executive function, and focus. Also, their primary focus tends to be on developing peer relationships, and teens are producing a peak level of sex hormones. These factors make the appeal of a smartphone too great for the young person to resist.

If you believe teens are playing on their smartphone while paying attention, think again. Most neuroscientists or psychologists will tell you that multitasking is a myth, with virtually no one capable of doing it, especially not adolescents.

If schools allow adolescents to have access to smartphones and expect them to learn, schools are setting their students up for failure. Simply put, they’re incapable of using them effectively. A study done by the London School of Economics found that banning cellphones was the equivalent to adding a week to a school year and led to an average of a 6.4 percent (or half a letter grade) improvement on test scores. France recently went so far as to ban cellphones in schools nationwide. Schools in the United States need to take a hard look at their cellphone-use policies, and seriously consider banning them from their classrooms. That is, if they expect their kids to learn.

Matt Miles is a teacher in Northern Virginia and author of Screen Schooled.

Cellphones Should Not Be Banned in Schools

Take a moment to Google “high school mission statements,” and read a few of the statements that you find. My experience is that most will contain something about teaching students to be productive citizens. Of course, I agree with this emphasis on teaching students what it means to be a good citizen who contributes to their community in a positive way. Who would argue with this emphasis on citizenship?

With a common agreement that teaching good citizenship is a priority, we also must have a clear understanding that we cannot teach citizenship in today’s world without also teaching digital citizenship. Our job is to prepare students for the world outside the doors and not keep our blinders on about the impact that outdated policies will have on them. With this in mind, allowing cellphone use in school is imperative. We cannot teach students how to use these devices in a responsible manner by taking them away.

Changing the Rule

At Burlington High School, we changed our policy about 10 years ago. Teachers started coming to me saying that they would like to allow students to use their phones for research topics or for the calculator. In addition, teachers in the art room were asking if students could use their phones to listen to music while they worked. All of these teachers were concerned about breaking our “no cellphones in school” policy.

The next step was a no-brainer; we changed our policy to “cellphones may be used in the classroom at the individual teacher’s discretion.” We also allowed students to use their cellphones between classes and at lunch. This type of freedom allowed teachers to set up guidelines within their own classrooms and have discussions with students about the appropriate use of these devices. While the parameters from one classroom to the next could differ, this was much more of a real-world experience for students due to the fact that outside of schools, the usage of devices from one setting to another tends to vary.

However, the most important part of the rule change was that it allowed us to have conversations with students about being more aware of when it is appropriate to pull out a cellphone. These conversations can’t happen in an authentic way when we simply ban cellphones from our schools. It would be like teaching a student to drive without ever letting them get inside a car.

The outcome of this change for Burlington High School 10 years ago was not catastrophic. Teachers were impressed with the students’ adherence to the guidelines, and they were also relieved to see that they still talked to one another in the lunchroom and did not have their heads buried in their phones. The clear lesson here is that when we give our students a chance to do the right thing, they typically exceed our expectations.

Patrick Larkin is assistant superintendent of Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts and an NASSP Digital Principal.