Interview on Cell Phones in the Classroom

Earlier this week, a high school journalism student reached out to me.  She was working on a column connected to the policies that schools have governing cell phone use in our buildings and had stumbled across a column that I wrote a few years back for Ed Leadership.  Knowing that I was still a classroom teacher, she sent me a list of questions and asked me to reply.

Figured you’d be interested in my responses:

Question: Do you feel that cell phones should be used as educational tools in the classroom? Why or why not?

My Answer: Absolutely.  The simple truth is that cell phones are an incredibly powerful tool for any learner.  They make it possible to connect to ideas and individuals at any time and from anywhere.   Overlooking that reality is a failure on the part of classroom teachers.  Our goal shouldn’t be to ban access to powerful tools for learning.  Instead, our goal should be to show the students in our classrooms how to take full advantage of the learning potential sitting inside their purses and their back pockets. 


Question: Coming from a viewpoint of a teacher, how would you prevent distractions with cell phones?

My Answer: This is going to make some teachers angry, but I’m not convinced that cell phones distract students.  Instead, I’m convinced that boring lessons distract students.  

When my students are off-task, I look first at the work that I’m asking them to do.  If that work is disconnected from student interests or focused on content that no one cares about, student distractions are a function of my choices as a teacher.  Why should I be surprised when kids use their phones as an escape from lessons that are divorced from any real meaning?  Students who are given the chance to affect real change in the world or to ask and answer interesting questions are rarely distracted by their cell phones. 

Here’s another take:  We are ALL surrounded by distractions every minute of every day.  When I’m bored — in faculty meetings, while on hallway duty, at church on Sunday mornings — I pull out my cell phone and start surfing the web too.  

Maybe it’s time that we start teaching students how to deal with that reality.  Banning cell phones from class may eliminate some distractions — but it also leaves students poorly prepared to handle the always-on world that we live in.  Openly talking about how to manage our attention in a world where being distracted is easy could be the most important lesson that we teach — and teaching it is impossible in buildings that ban cell phones.


Question: What age would you say would be appropriate for students to get a cell phone in general?

My Answer:  My first reaction is that schools should start allowing students to use cell phones in schools around grade six.  That’s simply because it seems like most students get their first phones by grade six.  

If the majority of the students in a grade level or a school have phones, it’s imperative that schools start showing students how to maximize the learning potential in those devices.  Ignoring devices that our kids already carry has consequences:  Students end up seeing their phones as tools for being social but fail to see their phones as tools that can help them to grow as learners.  


Question: Do the students use cell phones or technology at your school? If yes, do you observe the students benefit from it? Or do they get distracted easily? If no, would you ever begin to use cell phones or technology?

My Answer: Our school started a BYOD program this year.  What that means is that students can use their own technology — cell phones, tablets, Chromebooks — in our classrooms without fear of consequences for the first time.  I’m straight jazzed by that opportunity because North Carolina’s schools have been underfunded for the better part of a decade.  As a result, classrooms — particularly those in schools that have been around for a while — have almost no technology.  Allowing students to use their own devices means that I can actually plan lessons that use technology on a regular basis.  

I think the greatest benefit to the students in our school is that they finally have opportunities to learn how to tap into the power of the Web with the guidance of teachers.  If I can teach the kids in my classroom more about the role that the Internet can play in the lives of connected learners, they will leave my classroom with skills that will make them more successful regardless of the careers that they decide to pursue.

Question: As a teacher, how much technology do you use on a daily basis? Do you feel it is easier to use paper or computers for your work?

My Answer:  We use technology in our classroom in the same way that you probably use technology outside of school.  When we have a question that we can’t find an answer to, we turn to the Web.  When we are looking for partners to study with or experts that have information that they can share with us, we turn to the Web.  When we make discoveries that we want to share with someone else or when we want to make a difference in the world outside the walls of our school, we turn to the Web.  

That work is often informal rather than planned — but that’s the key to good technology integration.  Our goal shouldn’t be to use technology to learn.  Our goal should be to learn — and if technology can facilitate that work, so be it.  


Related Radical Reads:

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices

#edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

Digital Immigrants Unite!

  • Jennifer

    Good answers

    I agree with your thoughts that if a lesson is boring, phones are used as an escape.  My team is against using phones in class and it bothers me because we are not taking advantage of this tool not only for learning but organization help for our middle schoolers.  I am viewed as a "rebel" because I let them use their phones for research and reminders.  In my classes, I spend time teaching time management by using the calendars on their phone and showing them how to manage after school commitments with school work. Some kids have shared different apps they use to help them.  I'm ok with being a rebel because in the long run, I'm helping them prepare for "the real world".  

  • PetraSchmid-Riggins


    Bill, it is wise to teach students how to effectively incorporate electronic devices to promote and heighten learning. 

    Some obstacles:

    a. Not all children have electronic devices since their parents/guardians cannot afford them. 

    b. Schools often heavily restrict access to the Internet resulting in students not being able to retrieve important information. 

    c. Often Internet/Wifi connection is slow, not available or shuts down when to many users are accessing it. Underfunded districts may not be able to purchase high-speed connection.

    d. Not all parents sign a waiver allowing their child/ren to use the Internet while at school.

    e. Not all lessons are entertaining ergo students often mistakenly consider them boring. 



  • Ali Collins

    Love this post… But have questions

    I am interested in this concept in the context of a 4/5 grade classroom. I've taught at the HS level and agree with your observations and ideas. I'm interested in how you think this might apply in upper elementary. I like the idea of BYOD but would worry that 1) if tech got lost/stolen it could create problems 2) kids who "have" would experience a bump in social status as compared to kids who "don't have" most of our kids are working class. We are finding that even where many may not have computer access, kids DO have tablets at home. 

    Any recommendations?

  • William

    I agree completely with your

    I agree completely with your post. I agree because kids should use their phones in school in case of a question that comes up that they can search and find the answer to. Not only that they can use it as a calculator or just for the fact you won't have to go to the computer room to find the answer and they can have it right then and there. 

  • Benjamin Lally


    Let me see if I follow this logic…

    A student on a cell phone is a result of a boring lesson – the student needs an escape to something better that provides real content, real satisfaction.

    We go on our cell phones all the time in our post high-school life, so banning phones is unreasonable.

    So… we go on our cell phones in life because of a boring life? What an entirely bleak world view. When I see hordes of parents glued to their phones during their own children's gymnatics practices, soccer games, etc – then according to your logic, these parents need to be better entertained by their kids. Their kids' lives are… let me find a quote from your interview … "content that no one cares about." When you are watching a television show, and the show puts up a hashtag to encourage discussion, then is the show admitting that it isn't entertaining enough? I hope you don't feel too personally burned the next time someone checks a text message or a sports score on their phone while they are in your presence. If I had to grapple with such constant reminders of my own dullness, I don't know how I would ever be able to handle that.

    I don't believe you've thought this through very well. Instead, you're blaming teachers for being dull instead of grappling with a question that might actually reveal that there's a stain on the armor – that there is a price to pay when touting a 21st century digital environment. I absolutely think there are great benefits to phones & devices in the class. There are too many to even begin to mention here. But I am sick of this feeble and convenient counterargument to the undeniable distractability issue of cell phones in the classroom.

  • KimGwizdala

    Overcoming the distraction

    Cellphones and other technologies have become a natural part of our worlds, so it doesn’t make sense to ban them from the classroom. Our school *technically* holds a policy of no cellphones in the classroom, but with the inclusion of 1-1 technology in our classrooms this year (chromebooks), that line between what is allowed and what is not has become blurry.

    I agree to an extent that a student’s cellphone is a reaction to their surroundings, but I don’t know if I would agree that a “boring” lesson is solely to blame. I find myself sometimes checking my phone when I’m engaging in a debate with someone or when I’m watching an enjoyable show or when I’m reading a book. I don’t want to do it, and I sometimes find myself surprised by my actions; it’s almost as if something is taking control of me.

    Finally, I agree that teachers should not outright ban cellphones but rather teach students to use the technology appropriately and effectively. But I wonder, are all teachers (even those without instructional technology training) equipped to take on such a task?

  • Kosiba Oshodi-Glover

    Cell phone use at school

    I agree with the comment about not banning such a powerful tool in a learning environment. Cell phones now a days functions just as well as computer. Classes can be formed and taught to students on how to use your cell phone as a research tool, it can also be used to host class forums and discussions, etc.