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Alice Mercer and I have recently had a couple of discussions about the use of cellphones in the classroom, and there have been a number of other recent blog posts about it — including in Darren Draper’s fine blog.

However, I’m still not convinced cellphone use in the classroom is generally a good idea.

I think having a zero tolerance for use of, and even seeing, cellphones during the school day has been a small, but important, element of the growing success of our inner-city high school. It has reduced the odds of students calling friends or family to come and participate in fights (or potential) fights. In addition, many of our students come from hectic home situations, and the added distraction and temptation of using a cellphone in class, I think, carries with it more negatives than positives (on another note, we’ve also recently banned students using ipods and mp3 players, and I’ve got to admit that I believe that this change has also been a positive development for our school culture).

I also want to note that our school certainly does not have a “police-state” mentality. We have a very relational culture, divided into small learning communities, and we overtly refuse to “teach to the test” and instead focus on developing life long learners. We have a very relational discipline system that tries to get to the root causes of conflict and does not just rely on punitive measures. We are recognized internationally for our creative use of technology in instruction. And we recently became one of the few high schools in the country to come out of Fourth Year Program Improvement status under No Child Left Behind.

I’ve been trying to keep an open mind on the topic, but still haven’t been convinced. I’m not sure where many of the primary proponents of cellphone use teach, and and wonder if any work in an inner-city high school environment.  I’d be very interested in hearing about their specific experiences if they do.

12 Responses to “Cellphones In Class”

  1. EFL Geek says:

    I teach at a university in Seoul and cell phone usage is at the instructors discretion. I don’t allow them in my class because students are not focusing on the lesson or activity – however if I had a lesson that involved cell phones sure I could see the use of phones.

    But really, I don’t see how phones can be used in the classroom as anything other than a distractor.

  2. Tucksoon says:

    Hi Larry,

    I shared the same bit of skepticism. I wrote my reflections in one of my earlier posting.


    I believe most educators do see the potential in using handphones in teaching and learning. However educators must also consider the administrative, ethical and social issues involved when students use handphones in schools.

  3. While the jury is still out for me on the matter of cellphones in the classroom, I have to speak out in disagreement of the ban on iPods/mp3 players.

    There are extremely positive things happening with iPods, in ESL/ELL programs especially. Go to http://www.beyond4walls.org to read about Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD in Texas, where their Language Acquisition Pilot using iPods is making news all over the state (and beginning to be known in other states) for its success.

    Students not only listen to and create their own podcasts, which other schools do as well if they have embraced instead of banned this technology, but they also use microphones attached to the players to record their own voices through various assignments (watch this brief video clip to hear assignment ideas presented by Dan Schmidt of CFBISD: mms://videoondemand.cfbisd.edu/mm/schmit_interest.wmv)

    I work as an Education Specialist at Region 16 Education Service Center in Amarillo, TX, and we had representatives from CFBISD do a presentation here. We were BLOWN AWAY with the educational potential for this tool!!

    We shouldn’t make our kids “power down” to come to school, but instead show them productive ways to use the tools they use every day when they are away from school.

  4. EFL Geek,

    Thanks for the comment — I’m certainly in agreement.


    Your blog is blocked here at school, but I’ll look forward to reading it at home tonight.


    I know that some creative stuff has been done with ELL’s and iPods. I took a quick look at the site, and tonight will look at it more carefully.

    I agree that student recording their voices is an excellent learning strategy, and use it a lot on computers with my own students.

    It was a little difficult for me to see on the site if any large urban high schools were using that iPod strategy. I know that if I tried it here, I’m sure that many (though I can say confidently that not all) would primarily use it as a learning tool. However, when school-wide iPods are a detriment to a learning culture (which is what we have found) it’s a challenge to differentiate between those using it to learn and those non-ELL students who are being distracted by it.


  5. Larry,

    While I am very much an advocate for using digital mobile technology with students, I can understand your concerns. The aim of education is to have students learn and how can we embrace something that can distract students from that aim?

    I would like to ask three questions. Was the decision to ban digital handheld technology made at your school because trials had proven unsuccessful or because staff as a whole thought it would be best to ban (without trying to use it first)? My second question has to do with teaching strategies. I agree that bringing in digital devices in classes and trying to use them using traditional teaching methodologies does not work. Has anyone taken the risk to experiment with new teaching models that would embrace the strengths of these devices? Lastly, does your school incorporate any other technology in the classroom such as Interactive While Boards, laptops, etc.

    I ask these question with the greatest sincerity. I am honestly interested in discovering the motivations behind the school ban.

    Thank you.


  6. Rob,

    Those are all good questions.

    Creating an environment where students felt safe was one impetus behind banning the use of cellphones on campus. It has clearly reduced the likelihood of their being used in a destructive way. It was a small part of an overall strategy for creating the kind of campus climate where now anonymous surveys in our district show that students feel personally safer here than in other district high schools.

    In the classroom, should all classes be engaging enough that students shouldn’t feel tempted to text their friends? There’s no doubt about it. And we put an enormous amount of energy into professional development to develop instructional strategies and teacher abilities to implement them. I think there is a general sense in our school, and I agree, that there are many strategies that can be extraordinarily effective in engaging students that are non-tech related and are as good or better than the use of technology — and not offer the potential distractions that handheld technology applications would. These teaching universals — relationality, accessing student prior knowledge, looking at our challenging students through an “asset” lens instead of a “deficit” one — are difficult enough for many teachers to master without putting a tech layer on top of it all.

    Use of technology takes time and money. I believe, and I’m sure our teachers also believe, that computers offer a “bigger bang” for that time and money “buck.”

    I also want to say that I have no doubt that cellphones and iPods can indeed be used as in effective instructional tool. I think the same can also be said about many other things. The question is one of looking at potential negative “blowback” as well as time and energy constraints.

    But, to answer your question, there has never been a schoolwide discussion on handheld technology in education. Again, it’s a matter of time and energy. It’s safe to say that I am probably, by far, the teacher who is most adventurous with tech, and if I have little interest in discussing it, I doubt that any other faculty have even considered it.


  7. While I’m no position to discuss your school culture, I do find it sad that a learning tool is dismissed for safety reasons. I’m sure the decision was made with lots of discussion but in general that’s sad.

    If you substitute the word “cellphone” for “computer” would it still be okay? I realize there are some major differences between the two but how long will it be before these two devices have fully converged? The iphone suggests sooner than later.

    I also wonder if individual teachers may have felt differently and are now restricted by this policy.

    I can speak to a classroom and teacher who uses them extremely effectively albeit it’s a rural school but again it’s a sad commentary when we have to devise policies that potentially restrict learning.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  8. Eric says:

    Larry – You make several important points and context matters. I understand your scepticism.

    While I can’t comment on the cellphones in innercity public schools, I can share some positive experiences in an ESL class in summer IEP programs and a private university program.

    From day one when students introduce their conversation partners/classmates to the larger English class, students will take out their cellphones and record their friends. Whether done for educational or tourist purposes, this recording seems very natural to this younger, wealthier generation.

    After observing this happen in a few summer classes, I decided to build on their instincts. When they present oral reports, I encourage them to record each other and watch them at home. I added both peer and self evaluations for their 5-7 minute presentations – on a voluntary basis. I provided, however, the simple form below. The reaction was quite positive.

    Feel free to copy, modify, or share the form to fit your ESL/EFL/speech classroom needs.
    STUDENT: ____________________________________________________
    TOPIC: ____________________________________________________
    PEER: ____________________________________________________




    Please circle the appropriate overall rating:
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

    Cellphones, like so many other technologies, seem to be a double-edged sword. They work best in some contexts, and create and exacerbate social problems in other contexts. Each teacher, it seems to me, has to find the right balance for their own students in their own classroom.

  9. http://www.debrennersmith.com My kids are teens. I am a teacher. At my kids’ HS, Cellphones are banned in the classrooms. Ipods are banned in the classrooms. HS is not cool. My kids are college bound.

    They are reading books that I read in HS 25 years ago and they think that their teachers are old (they are since they taught me!). Is it tradition that drives the decisions? I wonder?

    I wonder if teachers need to think about how to ban cellphone fighting but use the current technology that the kids love to reach into their lives anyway. Our children are comfortable with the technology so let’s use this technology to teach. I am sure that I don’t know the answers though.

  10. [...] Ferlazzo, by contrast, argues in favor of his school’s cellphone ban. At his school they’ve found cellphones break up school community by making it easy to [...]

  11. jille says:

    It seems as though I share the same view as you in regards to cellphone usage in the classroom. At the school I teach at, there is a zero tolerance policy for cellphones. Posters that read “We see it, We hear it, We take it!” are posted all around our school. While I might agree that there could be some educational uses for cellphones, where do we draw the line? Just the other day in my school, a student was caught using their cellphone to record part of their musical composition they were creating in music class. While this seems like a very minor offense, it brings up the question/concern that, do we as teachers need to worry about our students recording us teaching or disciplining a student for that matter? Of course, we hope that all teachers are acting in a professional matter at all times when dealing with discipline concerns of students; however, it would be easy to take those recordings out of context as well as edit portions of it and taylor it to what you want your listener to hear. I strongly believe technology is something that should be embraced in the classrooms, but we need strict guidelines to help our students understand when these means of technology are appropriate.

  12. [...] Ferlazzo, by contrast, argues in favor of his school’s cellphone ban. At his school they’ve found cellphones break up school community by making it easy to [...]

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