I’m starting to realize that there’s no single topic that brings out more passion in educators than trying to figure out just what to do with cell phones in schools.  I could post a thousand entries on teacher working conditions or merit pay and never receive a single comment, but when I make a suggestion that cell phones are teaching tools, I hear from what seems like a hundred readers!




by  Michael (mx5tx) 

My recent post—suggesting that boring lessons might explain student tendencies to use their cell phones as a distraction in class—–was no different.   Parents, prinicipals and teachers all chimed in, either defending cell phones as valuable teaching tools or calling them unnecessary distractions.

It was a great conversation that has pushed my thinking and has me mentally wrestling with a few of the common cell phone concerns that my readers shared.

For today, I wanted to explore something that Steve wrote:

From an administrator’s perspective: Students ofteen use phones to cheat on tests and take pictures of the test. Students can also text the answer to test questions to their peers. Students can use their cell phones to sell drugs and send threatening messages within the school. Students can play on the Internet, chat with friends and ignore the classroom teacher while playing video games on their phone….

Currently, cell phones are viewed as a Budweiser t-shirt, a bandana, a mini-skirt, and excessive talking. In other words, a cell phone is considered a ‘disruption to the learning environment.’ 

Steve’s right, isn’t he?  Cell phones really are treated like Budweiser t-shirts and mini-skirts in most places!  Educators often see them as nothing more than “disruptions to the learning environment.”

Which leaves me completely confused because my cell phone has done nothing but enhance and expand my learning environment.

I’ll give you an example from yesterday:  I was travelling back from a teaching conference in Washington DC and got stuck in the airport for a few hours.  Rather than dreading the wait for my late-night flight on a cramped commuter jet, I pulled out my phone, logged in to my Twitter account, and started to scroll through posts from dozens of teachers working in interesting classroom settings around the world.

Their 140-character messages spotlighted new tools and resources that I was able to explore instantly.  They also included links to interesting blog articles about teaching and learning, and announcements for online learning sessions that were free and open to anyone.  Combined with the news services that I follow who post important headlines every hour, I got lost in learning while sitting at the bar drinking a nine-dollar beer in Reagan International Airport.

Five years ago, I would have spent that time crawling the walls—-or, I’m ashamed to admit, reading articles in the National Enquirer about aliens invading some small midwestern town in order to kidnap farm animals for their foreign world—–and neither would have left me any smarter!

The ability to instantly access information and networks of like-minded colleagues that my cell phone has brought to my life has literally changed the way that I learn.  No longer do I see “education” or “professional development” as something that happens in formal sessions delivered at pre-scheduled times.

Instead, I know that I can “study” while in the car waiting for my wife to get out of the grocery store, while brushing my teeth in the morning, while in the hallways as students are switching classes, while I’m walking to the car after a long day of school, while I’m sitting on the pot having my morning constitutional…

(You didn’t think I’d go there, did you?!)

My cell phone is rapidly becoming the primary tool that I turn to whenever I’m looking to learn.  The only thing that it is “disrupting” is my traditional thinking about who experts are and how content is accessed—-and those disruptions have empowered me to take more ownership over my own education and growth.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m tired of schools hammering out wonderful cliches like, “We’re teaching students to be life-long learners,” yet doing little to examine the ways in which “learning” has changed over time.  We’re stuck in the mindset that “learning” means sitting at desks plodding through a pre-determined course of study delivered by a teacher.

And honestly, that’s sad because that’s not what “learning” has to look like anymore.  While there will always be a place for a “curriculum” that outlines what students should know and be able to do, we hold students back when we refuse to show them the kinds of tools that they can use to independently and efficiently explore their worlds.

Are there challenges to using cell phones productively as learning tools?

Sure—-and they’ve been outlined clearly time and again.  To start with, we’ve got to begin teaching students to use digital learning tools responsibly and we’ve got to find ways to ensure that every child has access to data plans that allow for anytime, anywhere learning.  I’ll write about these in an upcoming post.

But to ban cell phones—-instead of systematically working to address these challenges—-is to leave children completely unaware of—and unprepared for—-the kinds of learning opportunites that will become the norm in the next 5-7 years.

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