The Battle Over Cell Phones

Posted by on Saturday, August 8, 2009

Should We Ban Mobile Phones in Classrooms?Image by In Veritas Lux via Flickr

This summer, spending more time at home with my teenage daughter, I had to confront my ambivalence about how we use cell phones in our society. On the one hand, I've been intrigued by the possibility of liberating the cell phone in the classroom, which would entail a fundamental shift in how many of us teach students -- a switch from a teacher-centered classroom to a project-based learning (PBL) environment. Here are some possibilities others are exploring:
But as much as I want to embrace this innovative, perhaps inevitable way of student learning, I am troubled by how cell phone use "causes" us to interact with others. I put the word, "causes" in quotes because I clearly feel that we have a choice: we don't have to respond to every bleep and blip emitted by this device, but it seems to me that the school-age culture doesn't share my view.

An example is how many teens equate texting with "talking"; i.e., that the message which has just appeared on the handheld screen is just as important as the conversation in front of them, or, just as important as the person in front of them with whom they may or may not be conversing. The New York Times published a tongue-in-cheek guide for parents and children called "Cellphone Etiquette for Kids", which did list some important implications of this explosion of technology. It advises kids to:
Look them [people around you] in the eyes. The technical term for it is “interpersonal communication” — and it’s such a big deal that the educational psychologist Howard Gardner counts it as a multiple intelligence. You don’t develop these skills if you’re glued to a screen.
I frequently text friends and family but I draw lines when I am in the presence of others. But maybe I'm being too old-fashioned and "counter-cultural": if this is the way things are headed, shouldn't we simply embrace this phenomenon of divided attention and 24/7 connection to one's social network?
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SMeech said...

Do you think that attitude is an aspect of schools and organizations banning of mobile learning? If we embraced these devices as positive learning tools than maybe we could confront the negative aspects a little more. Whenever we ban something, the alternative is to develop their values on their own in their own world. I don't have a study to prove it by any stretch but I wonder how things would be different if we approached these devices differently.

S. Bolos said...

Hi Scott,

I appreciate the response and to be clear, I am not at all interested in banning cell phones -- in fact, I'd hope for exactly what you suggested.

However, having lived with teenage texting for a while, I worry about the near constant social "tether" that gets established and its heretofore unknown consequences. Even though I agree with what researcher danah boyd has argued on behalf of teens: "we're addicted to our friends, not the computer [phone]", what can or how should we advise this generation of kids that has unprecedented access to their friends?

Charles said...

danah Boyd. Oct 7 Wilmette Junior High 7 pm info at

S. Bolos said...

Charles -- fantastic -- I've been following danah's research for a long time and this is such a wonderful opportunity for both parents and teachers to hear her expertise on the teenage social networking phenomenon.


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