Do Cell Phones Belong in the Classroom?

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Mobile devices are ubiquitous in American high schools, and their use is harder to regulate than old-fashioned note passing. But here's why teachers should be paying closer attention. 

teens-phones.jpgTwo U.S. high school students compete in the LG Mobile Worldcup Texting Championship. According to a Pew study, American teenage girls send an average of 100 messages a day. (Reuters)

If you were to drop in on most any American high school these days, what would you see? Cell phones. Lots of them. Virtually all students have one, and it's typical to see them tapping away or listening to music through their ear buds -- not just in the hallways during the five minutes between classes, but also in the classroom, at every opportunity the teacher gives them.

Most schools allow students to have cell phones for safety -- a reaction to the Littleton, Colorado, high school shooting incident of 1999. Apart from emergency situations, most schools don't officially allow students to use cell phones during class time. However, when the teacher is busy helping out another student or writing on the board, out come the phones as students send instant messages to friends, listen to music, or watch videos on the Internet. Eventually, the teacher notices and warns them that their phones will be confiscated. The phones disappear with reluctant obedience -- until the next opportunity arises to surreptitiously pull them out again.

At a time when middle-class homes are filled with computers and mobile devices, schools are grappling with the question of how much technology to bring into the classroom. A recent Washington Post article profiled two private schools in the Washington, D.C., area - one (the Flint School) that surrounds kids with gadgets and another (a Waldorf School) that doesn't even teach students to use computers. Most schools fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

But whatever a school's approach to technology, cell phones seem to be nearly ubiquitous. An April 2010 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the University of Michigan found that in schools that permitted students to have cell phones, 71 percent of students sent or received text messages on their cell phones in class. In the majority of schools -- those that allow students to have phones in school but not use them in the classroom - the percentage was almost as high: 65%. Even in schools that ban cell phones entirely, the percentage was still a shocking 58%.

Many teachers have given in and allowed their students to listen to music through their earbuds while they're doing individual class work (reading or writing or conducting research). "I concentrate better on my schoolwork when I'm listening to music," is the rationalization from many students. Many teachers seem to accept this reasoning, little knowing about the data on multitasking and its deleterious effects on concentration and the ability to think clearly. Two years ago, for example, Peter Bregman wrote in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%, increase stress and cause a 10-point fall in IQ.

But thinking clearly doesn't seem to be one of the principal objectives in our high schools -- for the teachers or the administrative staff, much less for the students themselves. After all, this is a generation that is used to being entertained. Attention spans are short. During a block period -- which is two regular 40-minute periods back-to-back -- some teachers cajole their students to do some work during the first hour, and then promise them time to do whatever they want at the end, just to keep them from disturbing others.

In some cases, schools have actually embraced cell phones and incorporated them into their teaching. The educational benefits of cell phones have been argued as follows by various education writers:

  • They give students a chance to collaborate with each other, or connect with peers in other countries. (Marc Prensky)
  • They can be used for high-tech alternatives to boring classroom lectures, letting kids take part in interactive assignments like classroom polls. (Kevin Thomas)
  • They can serve as notepads or as an alarm for setting study reminders. (Lisa Nielsen)
  • They can be recording devices, letting students record impressions during field trips and create audio podcasts and blog posts. (Liz Kolb)

However, none of these supposed advantages can overcome one very basic disadvantage: Cell phones distract students from schoolwork and class activities. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day. According to the Pew study, "Older teen girls ages 14-17... average 100 messages a day." It's naïve to imagine that students armed with cell phones won't be quietly typing away under their desks, sending messages or surfing the Internet. And this activity is much harder to regulate than traditional note-passing.

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Robert Earl, a partner in a strategic consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia, has served in the federal government, in the defense industry, and in the Marine Corps.  He is a Naval Academy graduate and Rhodes Scholar and has spent many years observing public school classrooms.

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