Should Cell Phones Be Allowed in Classrooms?

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Should Cell Phones Be Allowed in Classrooms?

image by: Intel Free Press

A Washington high-school teacher disallows cell phones in his classroom, and it’s nationwide news. But the most remarkable thing about the story is that it’s not the norm.

Culture ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time people looked at what was going on around them as they walked down the street. When we got together to catch up, they gave each other their undivided attention. We didn’t read or type while we drove, and we would never have dreamed of watching a movie on a 4” screen.

But in the 21st century we have come to accept the darnedest things, as evinced by the fact that even if you missed the title of this article, you knew less than halfway through the first paragraph that I was talking about cell phones, a remarkable technology that we commonly use in dubious ways.

Among the most dubious are the ways in which we let minors use cell phones. And perhaps nowhere is this more puzzling than at school, where we let kids use them right in the middle of class.

While most schools may have rules disallowing such activity, these prohibitions are fairly empty gestures when it comes to actually preventing students from pulling them out of their pocket and surreptitiously texting or watching the latest viral videos. The only way to prevent this sort of cell phone usage is to take the devices away from kids before class begins.

That’s exactly what Michael Lee, a high-school photography teacher in Spokane, Washington, is doing, having students store their phones in lockers (which charge them—a nice touch!) as they enter his classroom. Not surprisingly, he’s pleased with the results. “I've noticed students are talking more about photography because that's kind of the thing that's in front of them at the time not what's happening on social media," he tells Seattle’s King 5 News. “[…] No one has said to me, ‘Mr. Lee, can I please not lock up my phone?’ They'll just walk in, lock it up. They get to work, and that's exactly the intention of it."

What is most remarkable about Lee’s solution is that it’s uncommon enough to be national news, picked up by media outlets coast to coast.

Lee was not the first educator to make such a move. The same week that he was getting press for his lockers, the Times-Picayune reported on a similar program at International High School in New Orleans, which now requires all students to lock their phones in pouches for the entire day, a solution one teacher says "drastically" reduces the amount of time school staff spends dealing with student phone use. The pouches, which are made by Yondr, are reportedly in use at over 600 schools nationwide.

Considering that there are roughly 25,000 high schools in the United States, even if we round the number of school with policies similar to International High School up to 1,000, that means only 4 percent of our schools are effectively stopping students from being distracted by cell phones in class.

Some countries take a much harder line on the subject. As reported by CNN, in France not only have cell phones been prohibited in classrooms since 2010, but beginning this year students may not use their phones at any time during the schoolday.

But is that going too far? Italy, which in 2007 became one of the first countries to impose such a severe restriction, lifted its ban last year, with Education Minister Valeria Fedeli calling smartphones “an extraordinary tool to facilitate learning.”

The educational possibilities inherent to smartphones cannot be denied. In many areas a student’s smartphone may be a better research tool than any technology the school district can provide. As teacher Paul Barnwell wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 2016, “The phone could be a great equalizer, in terms of giving children from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds the same device, with the same advantages.”

However, then comes the rest of the paragraph: “But using phones for learning requires students to synthesize information and stay focused on a lesson or a discussion. For students with low literacy skills and the frequent urge to multitask on social media or entertainment, incorporating purposeful smartphone use into classroom activity can be especially challenging. The potential advantage of the tool often goes to waste.”

While the question of whether cell phones should be allowed in schools may not have a simple yes/no answer, the results of a recent nationwide survey point to how far away the U.S. is from striking that balance. According to that survey—the first attempting to chart cell phone use in middle schools—56 percent allow students to keep their cell phones all day.

That sort of permissiveness is what Italy wants to avoid as they move from a complete ban to a more nuanced approach. “Use must be regulated,” Undersecretary of Education Davide Faraone told La Stampa. “We do not want to create [a situation such as exists in] the Far West.”

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. Contact: [email protected]

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