Cellphones in the classroom: A brain drain? Or a 21st century tool?

Cellphones should be banned in the classroom. Agree or disagree.

This debate spurred some great conversations. The agree team, Echo, Lovepreet and Amanpreet made some great points in their video and throughout the discussion on why cellphones are a distraction in the classroom. The disagree team, Bret, Reid and Leona brought forth some great reasons for keeping cellphones accessible in the classroom. In the end, as I have mentioned, many times during this course, balance is key. Educators need to effectively manage cellphone use in the classroom if they choose to incorporate them. It certainly cannot be a free-for-all. Balance, policies, agreements and modelling is necessary.

Here are my takeaways from both sides.

Agree: Cellphones should be banned in the classroom. 

1. Cellphones are a distraction!

Just like I mentioned in my last blog post on social media impacting childhood, cellphones are no doubt distracting, just like social media. Cellphones provide us with near instant information leading to instant gratification. Gone are the days of waiting to chat with a friend until you see them at soccer practice, waiting to watch that latest episode, or even waiting to go shopping. I know for myself, if I hear my phone “buzz,” I instinctively go check it. For students, cellphones become their main focus when they are nearby. It’s hard not to think about one’s cellphone when you are constantly getting messages, snaps, and notifications.

2. Cellphone management is tough!

Managing cellphones in the classroom is difficult. Using “cellphone hotels” and creating strong “acceptable use” policies at the start of the year is important. However, even with the best management and pedagogy, educators can still get caught in tough situations when students bring their own devices to class. During our debate discussion, a classmate shared a personal experience from her school division whereby cellphones in the classroom led to some difficulties. She shared that a student used a cellphone inappropriately to photograph a new substitute teacher. The students shared a meme of the substitute and it created issues where other subs did not want to come to that school because of that incident. Finding a balance is key when using cellphones in the classroom, one that “requires a community-wide approach involving parents, teachers, school boards, ministries of education, and broader social awareness” (Smale et. al, 2021). In this situation, it would be helpful for teachers to clearly outline the cellphone policy for subs, and ensure that students have signed an acceptable use agreement.

3. Cellphone access in classrooms widens the equity gap.

Even if all of your students bring a cellphone to school, not all of their cellphones will function the same way. Some may have data, others will require wifi. Some students may have an older phone that lacks storage and therefore they cannot download apps to create content. And for the kiddo’s that do not have a phone, teachers need to consider the way they will be singled out in the classroom during activities. 

Photo by RODNAE Productions: https://www.pexels.com/photo/students-sitting-inside-the-classroom-while-using-their-smartphone-6936137

Disagree: Cellphones should be banned in the classroom. 

1. Let’s embrace cellphones as tools to learn.

I will be the first to admit it, cellphones are amazing tools and I am so thankful to be able to use one. They are pocket sized libraries, cameras, video cameras, news outlets, weather stations, recipe books etc. This list could go on and on…My 7 and 8 year old students do not have cellphones, so I cannot comment from experience using them as tools in the classroom. However, if I taught middle years or high school students, I would certainly consider incorporating them as learning tools. The ISTE offers some interesting ways to incorporate cellphones for learning including:

  • Moblogging (aka mobile blogging) – Using a moblog, students can reflect on small group activities as they work. Moblogging allows students to post to a blog from a cellphone.This way, teachers gain real-time insight into the learning taking place in each small group. 
  • Text Alerts – Text Pals – Pair up students with a buddy in a different grade or classroom. Teachers can be on the two-way text alert to monitor the pen pal-type messages.
  • Oral History Recording – Students can capture oral histories using a cellphone through interviews with community members. These oral histories can then be uploaded to a blog.

Cellphones, along with tablets, can be used to engage students in learning, rather than be a distraction. 

2. Cellphones can create equitable learning environments.

Like I mentioned before, devices like cellphones can help students who need assistive technologies like speech-to-text, screen reading, word prediction, calculators and reminder apps. Cellphones can also provide music to students who need it while working independently or who may use it for calming purposes. Furthermore, in the article, Cell Phones at School: Should They Be Allowed?, we learn that students may require a cellphone to stay in touch with a family member for medical reasons like diabetes. Additionally, I can’t help but think about the many students who have anxiety about the recent mass shootings feeling more secure about having a cellphone to stay in touch or use for emergency purposes. We did, however, discuss how troublesome cellphones can become in emergency situations as students can quickly spread misinformation in a situation like this. 

3. Cellphones are simply a part of 21st century learning.

Cellphones connect us. They are undoubtedly a large part of the world today. Students need to learn how to appropriately engage with cellphones. It is a skill that needs to be modelled and honed throughout a child’s school years. When students own their own cellphone and enter the workforce, they need to know how to use it, when to use, and how to stay safe. Students need to learn how to balance technology and educators have a responsibility to teach them. 

Final Thoughts

Though both sides of this argument have valid concerns, I do believe cellphones can be used in the classroom with proper education and policy. Teachers, students, parents and schools need to have agreements in place that clearly outline acceptable use of cellphones. School-wide policies may be the best approach, although this can be problematic, too. School-wide expectations will help to clear the waters so students understand the rules and consequences that apply to everyone. 

Share your thoughts with me.

  1. Does your school have a school-wide cellphone use policy? Or does each teacher have their own rules?

3 thoughts on “Cellphones in the classroom: A brain drain? Or a 21st century tool?

  1. No doubt cellphones are both useful and cause distractions in the classrooms.
    Many times students can actually grow up and learn better online by using smartphones. As a parent and teacher we should be cautious with the cellphones of kids and keep an eye if they are indulging in any cyberbullying activity.
    I agree with your thoughts that it is difficult to manage phones in the classroom but I think having a locker facility would be helpful and kids can access their phones during break time.

  2. Hi Rae,

    Great Post. I too don’t think cellphones should be banned in classrooms but I think they have a time and place. I don’t believe students need unlimited access to them.
    Last year I worked in an elementary school with over 700 students and we did not have any school wide cellphone policies. We had a significant amount of cellphone issues duirng unstructured times like recess (students sending inappropriate messages, videoing/taking pictures of peers). This year I work in a school where teachers have control over cellphone use in their classroom but the playground is a NO cellphone zone. We have significantly less playground issues related to cellphones.

  3. I couldn’t agree more about the need for balance Rae! My thoughts on this topic were similar to yours, I chose to disagree that cell phones should be banned, however I also conceded to the concerns their presence brings to a classroom.

    You ask about a school wide cell phone policy, and I do have a stance on that. I do not believe there should be a school wide policy on cell phone use. We have not had one in the schools I’ve been in and I would argue the only policy should be, individual classroom cell phone use will be determined and shared in your teacher’s class expectations, and will have the support of admin. I’m not a school wide policy fan when it comes to classroom management, and I believe rules and structures such as cell phone use are classroom management topics. Individual teacher skill sets create different environments for students, and what works for one teacher, should not be forced upon another. Just as there are behaviors which are only appropriate in certain settings in the community, there are behaviors that are only appropriate in in some classrooms in the school. Last week’s debate got us talking about authenticity and genuineness, and I find blanket policies fit under this umbrella and having a teacher try to hold to a policy they do not believe in, basically removes the effectiveness of the policy anyways.

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