Phones in schools. A review and a rebuttal.

Busy times… I just fell exhausted off my exercise bike and fell over towards my computer to do the other thing that I keep meaning to get to… I have four or five posts that I really want to write… and have gotten tied between them. Today I’ll try and get some of the jumble out on paper.

The review

I was listening to cbc radio a couple of days ago (if you don’t listen… you should… they just might be our greatest export) and heard a very interesting conversation regarding the removal of student imported technologies in the classroom in Milwaukee. My interpretation of her position at the time was that we need to take the technologies out of the classroom in order to stop the disruptions and in order to protect students.

As all this stuff flies by, it’s hard to get any real grasp of what the issue really is. In this case, I’ve decided to do a little research, and pass it on to you folks. It seems that the rules are pretty specific. Here’s the cell phone guidelines from the administration’s website. There are three documents there, one for the parents, one for the administrators, and one that seems to be the actual ‘rules’.
The deadline for implementation passed last Monday…

“Students are not allowed to possess or use two-way electronic

communication devices such as pagers and cell phones while

on premises controlled by MPS unless approval has been given.”

I was very much prepared to react very violently against this policy when i heard about it. But, I must say, in print it looks pretty sound. There are a series of proceedures for punishing students who disobey the rules, as well as an injunction specifically demanding equality of judgement across schools. Nothing unexpected here. There is also the chilling line near the end

” Adults who engage in battery against school personnel will receive a criminal review for possible criminal charges. Any use of a device for criminal intent is subject to prosecution.”

It is clause number three in this ruling that makes me both very impressed with the work that the school administration has done in documenting their thought process… and makes me pleased that i actually took the time to check on what they were talking about.

3. Each school will establish a procedure for granting approval for students to possess and use cell phones.

According to the MPS rule, approval must be obtained for students who must carry electronic communication devices for medical, school, educational, vocational, or other legitimate uses. Obtain the request for approval in writing. Ensure that the student and parent understand that the device is to be used for the approved purpose only. Establish a procedure for communicating this information to staff members who come into contact with the student.

There you have it. A school that is trying to come to terms with a new technology… and is being very forthright about its thinking and still leaving a little room for the technologies to be used for educational uses.

The rebuttal

I think that the above response is the best bit of banning I’ve ever seen in this kind of situation. It is thoughtful, well organized and fair. It will probably accomplish the goals of reducing phone use in the classrooms… it will give teachers the support that they need in order to force students to focus on their lessons.

Most teachers I talk to are overworked… and the students they are teaching are not responding to the forms of discipline that worked even half a generation ago. The teachers are, also, undertrained, and are often overwhelmed by the vast number of ‘secondary literacies’ that they are forced to pick up just to keep up with their students.

What we have here is more evidence of the disconnect. The disconnect between our school system and the world that our students are living in. I’ve made this argument at length elsewhere… and will again in the next few weeks, but, in short

Twenty years ago my teachers felt they knew what I was going to need to know when I grew up. The things I did in class that got me thrown in the hallway

  1. passing hand written notes
  2. talking in the back of class
  3. pretty much anything else you can imagine that might be irritating 🙂

If you look at the literacy skill set there you’ll see that the things that I was doing in the classroom were actually different interpretations of the things that were already going on there. (that is, if you accept that my teachers were trying to irritate me… something of which i was mightily convinced when i went to school.)

Now, lets take a look at the things that are the cause for disciplinary action in the here and now.

  1. SMS messaging in class
  2. cyber bullying
  3. social networking (see myspace… you may have heard of it)

The literacies that these students possess are not really being valued… and they are moving on to the set of literacies that they will need in order to work in the next few years. When, I wonder, will we be able to change our schools so that those are the literacies that we are actually teaching?

The students are already leaving us behind.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

11 thoughts on “Phones in schools. A review and a rebuttal.”

  1. Kevin Guidry says:

    Well said, Dave!

    If it makes anyone feel better, those of us in higher education are also being left behind. Three years after it was founded, we’re still trying to figure out this Facebook thing that rules our undergraduates’ lives. Laptop computers are still fascinating objects of dubious educational value for some of us.

    I fear that many of us who are trying to teach and mentor young people simply don’t possess the literacies we should be teaching them. We don’t understand, participate in, or often acknowledge the media with which and the environments in which our students are living their lives. It’s difficult to know if those media and environments are lasting, ephemeral, or somewhere in between, but that knowledge of them appears to be limited to youths, those who want to remain young, and those who study the youths makes things very, very difficult for all of us.

    I, of course, am “hip” and “down with” much of the new technology – it’s everyone else that I’m worried about! 🙂

  2. Nice job digging for the story behind the headlines! I’m heading to Milwaukee today to get to the bottom of this. Coincidentally, my sister lives there so I have a place to crash for a few nights while I further this investigation. At EdTechWeekly (part of EdTechTalk on the Worldbridges network), we don’t just fluff our way through the headlines – we will forego all exercise for as long as necessary and travel to all ends of the earth to get the story right!

  3. bon says:

    yep. i think many of us who are now either out of school or behind the teacher’s desk tend to assume that the mission of schooling is timeless, and that, as ever (an assumption based on questionable premises in any era but particularly recently) schools are still going about their jobs preparing students for life outside the classroom walls. instead, the whole construct of the classroom is becoming increasingly obsolete and removed from not only the technologies but the entire skill set required by the working world. sitting quietly in your desk and waiting to be asked to speak looks not so hott on the resume, these days. the emperor is naked, and the students are starting to notice.

    and yet, i can completely understand how, for individual teachers trying to do their best in a particular classroom with particular subject material, the presence of cellphones or “two way communication devices” can be at best, distracting. i’ve always been hostile to phones in my classrooms…but not necessarily to the forms of communication they represent. that’s what i’m wondering about in the Milwaukee situation. in banning the devices, what are they assuming the impact will be in the classroom? simply more focused students with less instant messaging going on, or are they hoping for a paradigm re-set entirely?

    i think the students left us a lot of us behind awhile ago. and as long as we expect to be the knowers in an old-school model of learning, we’ll never get back into the conversation again.

  4. Rashel says:

    Cell phones have become and extra limb for so many students today. I’ve seen kids go into full blown panic attacks when faculty or administration has taken up their phones. Just this week a student verbally threatened to physically harm a teacher for taking his cell phone up in class! To further the issue students think answering a text message or call from a parent is an exception to the school policy. The more ridiculous thing is that many parents agree.

    How do you take what is becomming such a “necessary” device in our lives and prevent it from being a distraction? As a technology teacher I would love to be able to harness the excitement surrounding these devices and integrate them into lessons. I would love to expand on how these devices work and explore their hardware and software. My computer science students still think I’m kidding when I tell them programming for cell phones is a booming career. They don’t know anything about what is behind them, only how to use them. However, this is probably not something I will be able to explore within the confines of my school walls anytime soon because cell phones are “bad”.

    Yes, we have been left behind. I say let’s get our phones out and make educational friends with them.

  5. Eric says:

    I am a college student pursueing a career in education and I have to admit that cell-phones are and always will be a hindrance to the classroom. Even in college professors can’t seem to get their students to put the things away. I was just wondering when I get into the classroom how can I best control this problem.

  6. admin says:

    I’m not sure how this qualifies as ‘admitting’ something Eric. I will ‘admit’ that cell phones don’t blend very well in a transmission style classroom… and no, they don’t blend very well with our traditional classroom…

    do we blame the technology or the classroom?

  7. Good discussion here, Dave.

    I really enjoyed Bonnies’s point that, “instead, the whole construct of the classroom is becoming increasingly obsolete and removed from not only the technologies but the entire skill set required by the working world. sitting quietly in your desk and waiting to be asked to speak looks not so hot on the resume, these days. the emperor is naked, and the students are starting to notice.”

    This has been my issue for a long time now, and perhaps the prime reason why we are giving our boys the option of homeschooling. We are in a time of immense change, and not just at school.

  8. Gary says:

    I teach high school biology in Alberta. Our school has banned cell phone use by students during school hours. This probably is appropriate since it reduces the incidence of conflict between students and teachers when a phone rings during class time. It also reduces the possible use of the technology during classroom tests when text messaging or digital file access may not be appropriate. Regular land-lines are available in classrooms and teachers are open to students using these phones to make “necessary” calls at appropriate times. However, there may be times when cell phones might be a useful tool. Please see for some of my thoughts regarding this.

  9. sue harper says:

    Our school used to have major problems with phones being used in classrooms and to cheat. We are now using a system from phonebuster. It is an effective detection unit that each teacher has and can recognise whenever a phone is on and being used. Seems to have done the trick.

  10. Hailey says:

    The topic of having cell phones in school is very common, but it all comes down to should we really allow students to bring their phones to school? I believe that cell phones should not be allowed in school. Even though there are reasons to want and have your phone in school. Students must think to themselves, am I really ready to take the risk of having my cell phone, stolen, getting lost, or even getting it taken away. A possible consequence of having your phone in school could be not paying attention in class which will lead you to a failing grade. So say you sit in the back of the room, and you are texting your friends, so for that reason you are less likely to be paying attention to the teacher. When you are in school, your purpose there is to learn. How are you going to learn if you are on Facebook or Twitter?

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