It's 2019, Where do we stand on cell phones?

Alright, the title of this topic says it all… It’s 2017 and where do we stand on cell phones? It seems as if schools went from all out bans to “school appropriate” or “school allowed” uses of cell phones in the classroom, and I am wondering how other people feel about smart phones in school? I have been talking with a number of teachers (both local and in California), and most seem to say the same thing, that cell phones are a huge distraction and that they detract from the learning environment more than they add to it.

More and more research seems to signal that students perform worse on tests, assignments, and even participation when they have access to a smartphone. It is nearly impossible to tell when students are using cell phones for legitimate use, and I find myself constantly circulating the classroom and reminding students to stay on task and off social media sites. My school site has discussed everything from trying a renewed smartphone prohibition to using coupons that allow for a few minutes of unrestricted use in a given class period. I was wondering if anyone has heard of, read about, or has had success with a groundbreaking approach to monitoring cell phone use in school? Or, just where do you stand on cell phone use in class?

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I’m glad you brought this up, Rob. Here’s what we currently have in place:

Given the nature of our district, a blanket policy approach is difficult, and all discussions I’ve had with principals and teachers has yielded many different opinions. I’ve also seen research that supports both positions. I completely appreciate how challenging it can be to teach students how to manage their cell phones, especially when many of us are so attached as well.

I feel we all need to learn how to better manage time on task vs. time on our phones; it sure is a challenge. I am excited to hear everyone’s thoughts on the matter, as it could certainly help to shape how we move forward.

Thanks, Rob.

This is a huge elephant-in-the-room topic for me and I have found myself on all “sides of the fence” at different points on this issue.

I am currently reading a book called Brain Chains, by Theo Compernolle. There are some really hard truths about how our brains work, specifically what we are doing to our intellectual capacity when we are constantly interrupting our brain’s work by checking our phones. When we look at our cell phones every time there is a natural brain break – like after completing a task, or going to the bathroom – we don’t let our brains do the important “archiving” work it needs to do, and so the things we have thought about (or learned in class) don’t get “stored” the way they need to be. That’s just one example of how access to a Smartphone throughout the day can hamper a student’s learning.

I have not supported phone prohibition in our program because when we did prohibit them, students sneaked them in anyway, and I thought it sent a bad message – you come through the front door and we search you until you give up your communication device – it seemed like a bad look to me. However, lately I’ve become more and more concerned with how the devices really do badly interfere with teaching and learning. I’m not sure what the answer is. Obviously we need to be teaching about this issue, and to set expectations and hold kids accountable – but it’s tough to do. The devices have a powerful grasp on kids and I think we might be kidding ourselves if we think we can “beat” the device every day – as in provide a lesson that is more attention-grabbing. We can do this sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, but very often the device will captivate the child regardless of what we have planned. I am seriously thinking about getting a lock-box and just saying, “sorry, not in my class.” I don’t know.

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I was just listening to a speaker talk about how she uses this as a team building opportunity. She has the students decide. She will outline the problem and let the students decide under what circumstances phones are acceptable. Then she primarily allows them to police themselves on it and helps support what the group decided on cell phone norms. I think this would be the most Restorative approach to the matter. The teacher would also adhere to the plan the group decides. The group can decide their own consequences and rewards.

I think it’s worth talking to them about the anxiety not checking your phone constantly might cause. Also, talking about why it’s important to delay that kind of gratification for a few minutes would be beneficial. They have plenty of opportunity throughout the day to check in on their phones; not that many opportunities to disconnect for a bit.


This is a key point.

I agree that this seems to be the best approach. I am wavering in my confidence that I can sustain the vigilance this will require every day, with very challenging students and the “revolving door” of the ALC environment. From one month to the next your roster can change a lot. So the “first week of school” kinds of table setting things need to be revisited and repeated all the time. I’m not saying it can’t be done…but a lot to manage.

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Agreed. Setting norms requires so much more time and effort with the kind of rolling enrollment inherent in many of our programs. I’m not sure what other choice there is. Revisit on a weekly basis, or fight. On this topic, I just don’t see it as a fight we can win. It seems like one of those “must bend like a reed in the wind” kind of thing.

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We tried the cell phone discussion, circumstances, and acceptable use being decided by the students and it worked for a short time. As Ben stated, it is tough when we have the revolving door and constant new additions to the classroom. It is also really hard to tell sometimes whether the students are using the cell phones legitimately or not. For example, a student could appear to be using the calculator app while switching to snapchat or some other app as soon as your back is turned or you are working with other students. The temptation to check or interact with some type of social media is just too great for most adolescents to resist. I wouldn’t mind if it didn’t interfere with learning, engagement, or retention but it most assuredly does.

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I’ve settled on “PEDs with Passing” in my room. When a student starts in my class they are automatically passing. Then weekly (Mondays) they need to show me they are passing that class to be on the list to have their PED while in my room. If they don’t show me or they are not passing, they are not to have the phone out in my room during my class. It’s a reason to get / keep caught up. (Non-compliance gets them on the school No PED list for a day and a Plan B conversation.) It’s worked ok with the revolving door of students as long as I catch them on their first day and assure them that, if they participate in class, they will still be passing the coming Monday.

We had a lot of debate in SECA and at one point pulled # Phone Referrals vs # Credits Earned; it was a quintessential textbook picture of “no correlation.” For me it’s not that different from being off task by talking to a neighbor, etc. If you know how to do that and get your work done, good for you. I also feel like it’s an equity issue with what the phones mean / represent in some of our students’ lives compared to what it means for my life.

As the brain research on the impact of phones continues, I’m sure as a culture we’ll get to new norms and guidelines, but I’m not in a hurry to try to stem the tide in my room.


Leslie, that sounds like a great idea! I like that it puts ownership on the students and it doesn’t unfairly punish the high achievers in the classroom.

I’ve been reading numerous articles on the whole debate and some schools have even returned to a “No cell phone” policy with some pretty astounding positive results. Several articles have linked cell phone use with higher incidences of cheating, more fights, and of course lower academic performance. What I found surprising is that much of the more recent research is showing that cell phone use is causing our lower achieving and lower income students to perform worse, while our high achieving students are seemingly unaffected. These results would highlight the undercurrent of a growing achievement gap between students with different socioeconomic backgrounds. In essence, widespread inclusion of cell phones in the classroom to reduce inequalities might actually be making them worse.


This is 2014-15 SECA data - found it when looking through my drive.

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Very thought provoking segment on 60 Minutes last night called Brain Hacking, about how our smart phone apps are literally being engineered every day to make us addicted to them. One of the silicon valley “whistle blowers” calls it the “race to the bottom of the brainstem.” I highly recommend watching and reflecting about where schools fit into this current reality. The segment is about 16 minutes.

60 Minutes Brain Hacking

(Ben - The YouTube videos were pulled so I added a link to one that works.)

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One piece that resonated with me: People tend to think of technology as neutral (neither harmful or helpful), but how people use the devices determines their impact. The take away from this is that the tech-is-neutral narrative is plainly false. The tech is not neutral. It’s being intentionally engineered to be addictive, which is at least somewhat harmful and possibly very, very harmful. Of course technology can be engineered for good, like how people use Fitbits to be active and healthy, but that seems to be the exception to the rule.

Let me make a comparison. For a long time, people resisted the idea that tobacco was harmful. Once that fact was mostly accepted, there continued to be resistance to the idea that the companies selling cigarettes needed to atone for the harm done. Eventually, it was revealed that tobacco companies were actively and intentionally working to make cigarettes more desirable and more addictive, even though they knew they were killing people. Eventually they had to pay, and tobacco is highly restricted. I think tech companies know that a society with a billion people glued to their phones is not really good for anything other than their own bottom lines. They know this, but they are actively working to make the apps and devices more addictive. Is Facebook the new Phillip Morris? I’m not sure it is… but I’m also not sure it isn’t.


I’ve learned a lot from all of the posts on this discussion. The mobile technology and addiction to social media is real. I do not think there is a perfect answer.

The one observation I have seen our staff at NECA do is teach the skills through the power of relationships. I have seen students voluntarily turning their phone into support staff or to their classroom teacher without a battle. This is accomplished through multiple conversations and establishing a meaningful relationship with students. It also helps when ALL staff are talking with students about what the students are learning about and doing in their classes rather than what their percentage is at in a class. This is not easy to do in the limited time we have and with the complexities of our students. But, I have had a conversations with a couple of students who have shared about how more they learned during a class when they didn’t have the phone. (Surely not saying this is a norm at NECA, but it’s fun to see happen with a few students)

I agree with Ben that we cannot go back to trying to take every device at the door. We are somewhat consequential with phone, as we take them the next day a student does not respond to the redirection. We are not consistent on this expectation, but there have been anecdotal stories of the consequence leading to some positive change for students.

So, this is a topic that will go on and there is not a simple answer. I’m just thankful to be working with a team who is open to the conversation and is focused on what is best for kids.


I’ve been looking at ways to teach students on this issue. Here’s some stuff.

  1. Experiments that illustrate the ineffectiveness of multi-tasking. For example, time yourself writing the word MULTITASKING, and then number the letters. So your final product would look something like:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Record your time. Now Round 2. This time rather than writing the word and then numbering, alternate between letter and number. M, then 1, U, then 2, L, then 3, and so on. Spoiler alert: it takes significantly longer the second time. You might find there is a loss in the quality of the written product the second time, too. We did this with students but had them write something a bit longer so it would really illustrate the point. Now imagine you’re working on a hard math project but you’re switching back and forth between that and a text conversation. What are you costing yourself? How are you limiting yourself?

There are probably other fun challenges to do with students that would bring this point home even more. The reason multi-tasking doesn’t work is because our brains don’t think in serial fashion like a computer. Our working memory is more like a slate or a whiteboard that gets partially wiped clean every time we switch contexts.

  1. Take an inventory of your screen time. There are apps that give you really good visual data on how many times you check your phone, how much time you spend, broken down by task or by app you are using. I am trying QualityTime for Android right now. Moment Screen Time Tracker is a popular one for Apple devices. Here’s a fun little Buzzfeed video about this. It would be great to get students to try this and take an honest look at their phone use and see if it aligns with their priorities and their passions.

  2. I mentioned the Pomodoro Technique in another thread. The idea is you work in short, uninterupted bursts, and then take short breaks. For many students it would be a great success if we could teach them to be able to disconnect for up to 20 minutes in order to allow themselves a chance to experience uninterrupted, deep conversation, deep reading, etc.

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What a great conversation!

This is interesting, but I wonder if it’s a bit misguided? Taking cell phones away moves the problems that cell phones create away from the school environment, but it simply moves the problems to the non-school environment. It doesn’t get at teaching the skills kids need to manage their social media usage better.

In the same way, if a school simply permits cell phone access to students without both helping them to understand how to manage the devices and the temptations of social media, and without changing instruction to tap the potential of cell phones to accelerate learning, then all that is left is the lowest common denominator of human activity—exactly the sorts of things that these articles report.

The conversations here about helping students understand the impact of their phones on achievement and productivity, and working with students to use phones better strike me as great building blocks for a more intentional plan surrounding device use.

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This is a fantastic discussion. Thank you all! I believe that our existing BYOD procedure gives teachers the flexibility to do what is necessary, and I think having that flexibility is the key.

BYOD Procedure

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+1 to this! My favorite discussion on the whole forum.

I think that you hit the nail on the head regarding how an all out ban simply moves the problem to another area. I know that some of my students have been let go or fired from jobs because of issues with using or being on their cell phones.
At Gateway we have approached this topic most recently in circles during our advisory period just to see what students have to say. It is interesting the number of students who by their own volition have brought up the fact that their cell phones may be a problem both at school and in the world at large. Right now we are just discussing things and feeling out how the students are viewing their personal electronic devices so that we can have an open and honest discussion between the staff and the students. We are also trying to collect ideas on how they would like to be held accountable and what rules, if any, need to be implemented.


It strikes me too, that we as adults struggle with the same device challenges that the kids are struggling with. I can quickly think of several examples where parents, coaches, and other adults were using phones inappropriately.

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There was a recent 60 Minutes story on how programmers are using neuroscience to program apps to be more addicting. At one point in the story, they did a little experiment on Anderson Cooper. His phone was out of reach and they started sending it messages so he’d receive notifications but he couldn’t see them. He didn’t know that’s what they were doing but they measured his physical responses and anxiety. The researchers said that most people feel compelled to check their device ever 15 minutes even if they do not receive a notification otherwise they experience heightened levels of anxiety.

My take on it is, if we take phones away, they’ll find a way to use them anyway. And, if we take them away, we’re creating anxiety in them. We’re just setting ourselves up for a battle we cannot win if we say, “No phones.”

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