In Pursuit of a Cell Phone Policy - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

May 1, 2015

In Pursuit of a Cell Phone Policy

How one teacher's policy on cell phones in class has evolved over the years.

Technology
Classroom Management
In Pursuit of a Cell Phone Policy - Thumbnail

Not long ago, most districts banned cell phones in school. Some schools still enforce such policies, but in others, students can use cell phones for personal communication within reason and employ these devices for learning. 1 Many educators sit somewhere between banning phones and incorporating them into teaching. Many of us, myself included, are finding our way on how to let students appropriately leverage this tool. Four scenes from my teaching life illustrate how my thinking about cell phones has evolved—and suggest how school policies might evolve so we can guide students in their cell phone use.

Scene 1. Teaching in a No-Phone Zone

It's 2007. I'm student teaching at a charter school in South Philadelphia. The school has a zero-tolerance policy around cell phones: If a student is caught with one, the phone is confiscated, the student is suspended for a day, and a parent has to come retrieve the phone.

This threat keeps the majority of students from bringing their phone to school—or at least helps them remember to conceal it. Teachers can't tell who has a phone, and most of them don't care as long as they don't have to deal with it. There are still infractions, however. In the middle of a lesson, my mentor teacher catches a girl texting and has to hold the phone—a flashy model that blinks red and blue—in her hand until she gets back to her desk.

A few months later, I hear a ringtone go off in a corner of the classroom. The room titters a bit. I've only been lead teaching this classroom for a few months, and the magnitude of what I'm supposed to do next makes me panic. I glare in the general direction of the noise.

"I didn't hear a phone, did I?"

"No, no," several students reply, as though being accused en masse.

"If I did, it would be turned off by now, right?"

They nod their heads vigorously.

I had few other cell phone infractions to deal with that year. But teaching in a school where phones were forbidden—and knowing that many schools enforce similar policies—led me to this question: How do cell phone policies affect education equity?

This isn't a question most educators ask themselves. Cell phones are often treated as just another thing to manage. But the wide range of policies that exist across state lines, or even within a single district, reveals how privilege, trust, and responsibility are unequally meted out among today's students.

For example, even though New York City public schools banned student cell phones for years, the ban was only enforced in buildings with metal detectors. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently ended the ban, admits that his son Dante always carried his phone to his high school, Brooklyn Tech, which doesn't have metal detectors. For students whose learning environments don't offer them that level of trust, options are limited. They can risk sneaking their phones into school, leave them at home, or check their phones at a nearby drug store—for a fee. As a result, students who are already economically disadvantaged have to pay money for an inferior version of the privilege more advantaged students get free, just like when check-cashing services take a bite out of the paychecks of workers lacking a bank account.

Such policies stratify the haves and the have-nots when it comes to who can access technology and information. With an ever-evolving landscape of electronic devices, we need to be aware of what message our policies send.

Scene 2. Playful-but-Serious Guidance

It's 2009, the start of my second year teaching at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia. The school has a one-to-one laptop program, and students have possession of their laptops 24 hours a day. We have an online course management system and an open-arms approach to device use in general. The environment is a world away from my student-teaching placement.

That doesn't mean I've got everything figured out, however. My first year, I'd taken a laissez-faire approach to how my students used technology in the classroom. The results were pretty messy. Students started class by writing in a paper journal for 10 minutes, and soon several students asked if they could listen to music on their phones while they wrote. That seemed reasonable—until I watched students devote 10 minutes to making the perfect playlist. Students who didn't have music on their phones protested; some got out their laptops for the same purpose. Suddenly, devices were everywhere.

This year, I'm trying a new approach. I don't want to go back to the draconian rules of my student-teaching school, but my students need some guidance. On the first day of school, I make this speech:

I'm not the cell phone police. I have no interest in controlling what you do or don't do with your cell phone. It's your property, and in the end you have to learn how to use it appropriately. Speaking of which, do you know what the cell phone rules are when you take the SATs? When you're in the exam room, if your phone so much as buzzes, you get thrown out of the exam, your scores are cancelled, and you lose the money you paid for the exam. That's four hours that you have to separate yourself from your phone.This year, we're going to work on getting you to a place where you can manage your cell phone use. Think of me as your coach. We'll be doing some strength training, starting with the beginning of class, which will be tech-free time. Whenever you come into the room, the expectation is that you get your journals out and put all technology away. That means no phones on your desk, no phones shoved between your thigh and the chair or hanging out on the windowsill. A lot of you are already there. But some of you—I'll be honest here—have an addiction. You can't separate yourself from your phone for 10 minutes. If that's you, let me be clear: you have a problem. And we're all here to help you.

I've given a version of this speech every year since. The question about the SAT policy gets students to respond and then to gasp when the truth is revealed. Likewise, the statement "you have a problem" elicits giggles from the class: They know exactly who hasn't yet developed control of their cell phone use. The line "we're all here to help you" is playful, but it sets the right tone: This is an effort based in caring, not enforcement.

This playful-but-serious approach works in an environment where leaders trust students, which we do at Science Leadership Academy. But an experience I had after teaching for several more years helped me ponder why many educators don't trust students to use cell phones for learning—like they would trust adults.

Scene 3. A Double Standard?

It's 2014. I've been at SLA for seven years and have written a book on the school's pedagogical approach. I'm speaking at the Future Ready Superintendent Summit, organized by the U.S. Department of Education and hosted by the White House. One hundred superintendents from around the United States are there, all dedicated to integrating technology use into their districts. Much of the morning is spent in an auditorium adjacent to the White House, going over the logistics of the event we'll attend in the East Room, where President Obama will say a few words. Every single person has a smartphone or tablet out during this time, and our liaison reminds us to put our phones on silent before we enter the White House.

Sure enough, after we walk over to the White House and settle in the East Room, somebody's phone goes off. The room doesn't do anything in response—although I recall thinking "wow, that person's stupid"—and three more phones ring in the hour before President Obama enters the room. (Mercifully, no devices sound during his speech.)

When speaking on a panel later that afternoon, I contrast our situation in the East Room with that of many students. "Did anybody get thrown out of the White House today because they forgot to put their device on silent?" I ask. "Did anybody's parent have to come pick up their phone?"

To get to the point behind my rhetorical questions: Why is it easy for educators to deny students privileges that they allow themselves; why is it acceptable to mete out to minors a punishment that adults would laugh at?

The typical response would be that students "haven't yet learned" how to manage their technology responsibly and that the learning environment will go to pieces if nobody steps in to manage their development. But in classrooms where the presence of electronic devices is normalized, the focus doesn't evaporate whenever a phone rings. If students can't practice using technology responsibly in a low-stakes setting like school, how will they prepare for high-stakes settings like job interviews—or White House visits?

This double standard carries over to the tasks students use their devices for. In 2012, Pew Research Institute surveyed public school teachers who teach advanced placement courses. Sixty-four percent said that digital technologies "do more to distract students than to help them academically." But 99 percent of the teachers said they use search engines for academic purposes, and 73 percent characterized themselves as "very confident" in their online research abilities. 2

How did these teachers get to this place of confidence and skill? How did they learn to use these technologies for academic purposes, not for distraction? Presumably, many of them finished school before the rise of online research tools and figured out how to apply their traditional skills within the new medium. Why not model this process for students?

Scene 4. Drawing a (Non-Draconian) Line

The week after my White House visit, I'm managing a class of juniors that has just started a series of book club meetings. Students assemble in their groups, pull out their novels, and begin discussing last night's reading.

While they talk, I'm dismayed by the pervasive presence of cell phones on desks. At most tables, at least one student is texting or swiping through a social media feed while another student is talking to them directly. It's one thing if they're getting distracted while I babble on, but watching students ignore one another in this fashion makes me fume.

"All right, everybody. Stop your book clubs for a moment." The conversations slowly grind to a halt.

"I have an announcement—you're all on notice with your cell phone usage. I don't know exactly what it is with this group, but you have a problem."

Nervous laughter spreads around the room. For a moment, I'm not sure they're taking this seriously, but I press on.

"Starting now, if I see a phone out in class, I'm taking it, and it's going to be mine until the end of the day. You can come pick it up right after school. Consider this cell phone detox."

The vibe in the room is one of slight disbelief ("Damn, she's not playin'"). The cell phones disappear, and conversations restart. I tour the room, tuning into different discussions and occasionally offering a guiding question, while also keeping an eye out for surreptitious texting under desks. Occasionally, a student asks, May I use my phone to look up a word we don't know? The answer is always yes.

After class ends, I feel conflicted. I've drawn a hard line in class just days after I spoke at the White House about how my students can manage their technology on their own. Have I circled back to the draconian policies I despised?

In the weeks that followed, however, drawing that line helped my students start to use their phones appropriately. Sometimes students were grumpy when their phone first disappeared into my desk drawer, but by the time they came to collect their device, they were apologetic. After two weeks, I took them off notice. Now the expectation in this class is simply no phones out on desks: You can take it out and use it responsibly, then back in your pocket it goes. And the list of responsible uses isn't short. Students can look up quick facts and definitions, take photos of notes on the board, add reminders to their calendars, complete assignments if their laptop is broken, and even record moments of joy and silliness. That last one may seem irrelevant to learning, but anybody who has ever sat in a classroom devoid of joy knows that it's anything but.

No Problem

Making decisions and implementing sensible policies about devices takes time and attention. It's important not to think of policies like coaching students to lessen their phone use as solutions to a problem, because cell phones aren't a problem to be solved. (Would we solve the problem of students doodling during class by confiscating their pencils?) As long as we treat students like responsible adults and invest energy in fostering responsible behavior, we can not only accept cell phones in schools, but also use them for learning.

End Notes

1 Fifty-one percent of U.S. school principals allow mobile device use in school, according to a 2013 by Project Tomorrow, reported in The New Digital Learning Playbook: Understanding the Spectrum of Students' Activities and Aspirations.

2 Purcell, C., Heaps, A., Buchanan, J., & Friedrich, L. (2012). How teachers are using technology at home and in their classrooms. Washington, DC: Pew Research Institute.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?