The Great Cell Phone Debate

I have always been intrigued when schools choose to let some devices in the classroom and not others. It is fascinating to watch some teachers and leaders rationalize banning the primary communication device for many kids (i.e., cell phones). Many do so based upon mere belief in a more traditional way of teaching and learning, and those are the ones I find most fault with. If you simply ban devices because you didn’t need them in order to learn when you were in school, then there is very little to debate. You want a reality for your kids that simply doesn’t exist.

However,  leaders who go out and find research to support their arguments and then create policies based upon that research, then they have truly created the opportunity for a strong dialogue. They are making a case for a specific kind of learning environment based upon their vision for what a school and a classroom should be. While this vision is different than mine, I cannot discount it or wish it away any more than the individual student who is affected by these restrained policies can do so.

Rather, I would like to take the opportunity that this creates for the community of connected educators to respond to issues raised by the research. In fact, I would like to create a forum to discuss one specific policy. It is in use in one of our schools in Aurora, and it is by far the most well thought out statement of how technology should be used (or not used, rather) in classrooms. I am reposting the statement to this blog so that we might all take a moment to highlight a portion and share our thoughts using

So, please respond with how you feel. Comment with counter-research or actual practice that supports a different policy. Talk through how this policy would affect children and learning environments. Discuss the ways in which your policy and vision for the classroom are similar or different to this one. Please be respectful, and please be thorough. I want this space to be one of inclusion and of passionate dialogue.

In short, I want this to be: The Great Cell Phone Debate.

[Please note: The first three points are in educator-friendly language and points 4-6 are in student-friendly language, which is why you see the arguments repeated.]

Policy: Why are we strengthening our electronic devices classroom use policy?

1. Device use disrupts cognitive functioning and learning.

1.1. Learning suffers when students attempt to multi­task with their devices ; device use negatively impacts working memory, therefore preventing the movement of newly learned information into long­term memory ( ,, .

1.2. Device use distracts other students and harms their learning also ( , ).

2. Device use in support of learning activities is dubious.

2.1. “Heavy” investment in technology use shows no impact on “reading, mathematics, and science” scores in standardized testing . In fact, a recent global study by the Organisation for Economic Co­operation and Development (OECD) demonstrated that students who use computers “frequently” in the classroom show “worse” outcomes ( .

2.2. Using electronic devices for taking notes undermines long­term retention; using laptops for note­taking amounts to transcription, a gathering­ level activity (whereas more traditional note­taking promotes real­time processing and synthesis) ( . Using phones even to simply snap a photo of a slide in class lowers long­term retention (, ).

2.3. When instruction intentionally integrates device use into learning activities (i.e. processing, application, synthesis and integration levels of activity), students report higher levels of engagement, but 75% of those students also reported an increase, “in the amount of time they spent on activities unrelated to learning,” ( .

2.4. When schools ban phones, students’ academic performance improves (, ).

3. Eliminating devices enhances the social and emotional needs of students most conducive to learning.

3.1. Emerging research connects “self­ control” and gratification delay with “digital” distractions (21st century marshmallows). The original “marshmallow study” correlated impulse control and long­term success in a variety of areas. A more recent version of the study suggests a correlation between reliability of environmental resources (and/or trust­bonds with adults) and rational choice (a la impulse control) ( ). Kids who form trusting relationships with adults and who live in reliable environments are better able to delay gratification. Extensive device use impedes the development of effective impulse control, delay of gratification, and rational choice ( ,,, .

3.2. Extensive device use undermines student social/emotional stability and contributes to student allostatic load . This article discusses three psychological effects related to excessive cell phone use: addiction, obsession, phobia. Phone use activates the reward centers in the brain, thus manifesting a type of addiction. Phone use reduces anxiety and therefore functions as a kind of obsession (similar to ritualistic behavior in OCD). Finally, people experiencing social anxiety (phobia) use phones as a kind of shield to avoid interaction with people. (,,, ) .

3.3. Excessive device use harms family relationships ( , thus undermining parents’ ability to effectively support their children’s learning.

4. Cell phones disrupt the way we think and learn.

4.1. It’s harder to learn when trying to multi­task on our phones. Using our phones hurts our ability to use working memory (the kind of memory we use to do and process in any given moment). Because of this, new info cannot get into long term memory. ( ,, ).

4.2. Using our phones distracts and hurts other students and their learning. ( , ).

5. When people say we can use our phones in class to learn better they might not be correct.

5.1. Scientists have determined that “heavy” device use in the classroom shows no impact on “reading, mathematics, and science” scores in standardized testing . In fact, a recent global study demonstrated that students who use computers “frequently” in the classroom actually do “worse” ( .

5.2. Using devices for taking notes doesn’t help but actually hurts remembering things long term. using laptops for note­taking is the same thing as just copying which is a very simply activity (actually writing out notes allows us to think better and put things together more) ( . Simply taking a picture of information to look at later is even less useful (, ).

5.3. Some teachers try really hard to put cell phone use into the class and it does help understanding BUT 75% of those students who said using their cell phone helped, also reported increasing, “the amount of time they spent on activities unrelated to learning,” ( . Using a cell phone for class also increases the amount of time using a cell phone NOT for class.

2.4. When schools ban phones, our grades and test scores improve (, ).

6. Without phones we are happier and better connected to each other which helps learning.

6.1. Without phones, we are more in control of ourselves and can put off desires instead of little kid “I need this now!” A study about marshmallows said that people who can put off desires have more long term success. More recently, a study showed that the more we are able put off desires, the more access we will have to relationships with each other and adults. ( ). People who form trusting relationships with each other and adults are better able to put off desires. Using phones makes it much harder to put off desires, control ourselves, think about consequences, and develop relationships. (,,, .

6.2. When we use our phones a lot we are less stable emotionally, and it can often stress us out more. This article talks about three effects of using cell phones a lot: addiction, obsession, phobia. Phone use activates the reward centers in the brain (like eating candy does), making it possible to be addicted to using our phones. Using phones a lot makes us less anxious and therefore can be a kind of obsession (similar to some behaviors in OCD). Finally, when we are anxious some people use their phones as a shield to block out other people instead of connecting healthily.. (, , , .

6.3. Using phones a lot can hurt our relationship with family. ( . This will make it harder for parents and family to support our learning and help us through hard times.

Again, I would like to applaud the school and its leaders for creating a cell phone policy that isn’t based upon fear, but rather takes a close look at the implications of having a connected device in every student’s hand. It is only through their initial research and putting forth this proposal that we can all engage in this Great Debate. I thank them for that.

Now, I invite you all to take part. Please use the highlights that are already on this page to continue the conversation or use the right sidebar/slideover interface for to start a conversation of your own. And let me know if you need any help in the comments!

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