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!

#WHOISaps: What does Blended and Personalized Learning Mean to You?

Suzanne Rougier, Program Director of ECE in Aurora Public Schools, discusses her ideas for Blended and Personalized learning and how both will continue to engage and connect learners across the district.

If you want to find out more about the #WHOISaps project, here is the best link:

#WHOISaps: How should we design learning experiences that are engaging and relevant?

Nick Steinmetz, an EdTech Coordinator for Aurora Public Schools, tackles the ways in which we design learning experiences in this #WHOISaps interview. He also dives into just how relevant our schools, teachers, and content can be for our learners.

If you want to find out more about the #WHOISaps project, here is the best link:

#WHOISaps: What does 21st Century Learning Look Like?

This is an abbreviated version of John Damhof’s #WHOISaps interview. In it, he discusses his thoughts for how we can best support students for what is to come in college and career. He also dives into the ways in which teachers can lead the way.

If you want to find out more about the #WHOISaps project, here is the best link:

Launching #WHOISaps: Will you respond to the call?

There is no easy way to get to know a school district as diverse and multitudinous as Aurora Public Schools, but I know that I must make an attempt anyway. I must attempt to understand the students. I must attempt to understand who they are and the assets they bring to school every day. I must attempt to understand their teachers and leaders too, looking for ways in which I might be able to serve them better. I must do this because I am first and foremost, a learner.

I know that there is no way for me to learn without asking questions and understanding context. I know that insight does not come from ignorance or assumption. It comes from a place where I have heard the stories of others and allowed them to reverberate through me. For me, learning who Aurora Public Schools is and who it wants to be will not help me to do my job better, it is the only way to do my job.

So, that is why I am launching #WHOISaps.

It is a project in which I will ask as many students, teachers, and leaders the most important questions I know. These questions will continue to expand in order to include APS’ essential questions too. In this, I know that my questions are merely starting points for others to ask and answer. They are the threads with which I will attempt to weave the story of APS in the 2016-17 school year, to tell the full WHOIS from all corners of the district.

And what is a “WHOIS”, you may ask?

WHOIS is a protocol used by computers to perform a call and response ritual. It is sent from someone who wishes to know more about an organization or domain, and the response that is given is made public only through the asking. So, it is my intention to send out this call to everyone in APS who is willing to hear it, to everyone in turn who is interested in being heard.

This is my call to you:

If you wish to respond, you may do so by:

  1. Answering one of the questions from the above slides.

  2. Asking a unique question of your own to me (which is a response to the final slide).

The methods you have for responding to this WHOIS are entirely up to you, but I would like to lay out a few of my favorites:

  1. Self-recorded Video: You may make a video of yourself answering my question and asking yours. Feel free to use Instagram, Youtube, or any other video service, so that you can then share that video using the hashtag #WHOISaps.
  2. Interview Video: I will be setting up interviews within anyone in APS who will sit down with me. During that interview, you will answer one of the embedded questions and asking one of your own. This does not have to take longer than 15 minutes, but we can stay and talk at your school, in your classroom, or in your office for a lot longer if you wish. I can also do this interview via video conference if that is easier for you. If you wish to set up a #WHOISaps session, you can simply fill out this form.
  3. Twitter response: You can respond to one of the questions within the above presentation in one tweet and then ask your own question in another tweet. So long as both of them use the hashtag #WHOISaps, this will continue the call and response conversation across our district.
  4. Blog Post: If you wish to simply write out your Answer and Question, feel free to do so. This will allow everyone to see your deep thinking and I will be able to respond to you in comments or as my own blog posts.
  5. Annotation of this Blog Post: If you are game for simply annotating this blog post, please feel free to answer my question and ask a new one through this simple Chrome Extension (or just clicking the sidebar on the right).

It is my sincere hope that a great many people in APS will respond to my WHOIS. It is my hope that we start an ongoing conversation that allows each of us learn more about our own context and to learn the ways in which we might support one another and the learning of all our students. At this point I would normally ask you to let me know if you have any questions, but that is actually kind of the point of this whole project, so instead I will just ask you to hear the call.

I am sending out my WHOIS.


Next Steps

In my time at Denver Public Schools, I have held three official titles. I have had four direct supervisors and shared five different offices. I have created, shared, and contributed to over 5000 Google Docs. I have worked with hundreds of school leaders and thousands of teachers on projects big and small.

And that is why I am writing this blog post and sharing this video of thanks:

First, I want to let everyone in DPS know just what they have meant to me. They have spurred my growth more than any other organization I have been a part of. They have given me more to think about and more resources to build with than I ever thought possible. They have made me a stronger collaborator and better leader.

And for that, I thank DPS, and more specifically, the amazing people there.

And yet, my chapter in Denver is coming to a close. My work, while not complete, is something that I am proud of and something that I hope will live on within those that I have worked for common goals with and learned from in the process. I know that our collaboration has directly and positively impacted the success of students, teachers and leaders throughout the district. And that fact is what I will take with me, bringing me encouragement in what is to come next for us both.

And what is next for me, you may ask…

I will be joining the Equity in Learning team at Aurora Public Schools to serve as their first ever Director of Blended and Personalized Learning. This is an incredible opportunity to learn and lead in a neighboring district, one that faces many of the same challenges and opportunities present in DPS.

I embrace this new role, knowing fully that I am leaving behind some of the most capable and passionate educators I will ever know. This does not spell the end for our connection, though. Even as I try to build upon the work that Aurora has been pioneering with their digital badges implementation and their district redesign processes, I know that I will continue to learn from my former colleagues in DPS. If you are one of them, please do not be shy about reaching out or asking to work together. I will only be a short journey to the east.

If you are one of my new colleagues in APS, I am so excited to be a part of your world now. I join you with eyes open and ears listening. I look forward to building something amazing with you. If you are interested in getting in touch prior to my full-time start date on August 1, I encourage you to reach out on Twitter or via district email.

And just so you didn’t think my former DPS colleagues were the only ones who were going to get a video, here is a video of me making various funny faces for you to enjoy and laugh at: