Using cell phones in schools

An interesting email landed in my inbox this week.  Drew Bailey—a student at Regis University in Denver—wrote to ask me a few questions about using cell phones in schools.

Here’s what he asked:

In your October Ed Leadership article, you say that “75 percent of all kids ages 12-17 have cell phones” (Ferriter, 2010, p. 85, para. 2), and that 70 percent of such students have unlimited text plans (p. 86). 

The way I see it, in any academic facility you have to put every student on an even playing field with all of the same resources at their disposal…

My challenge to your idea is; How do you address the needs of the MINORITY? 

In other words, 75% of students are good to go, but do you just leave the other 25% to “fin for themselves”, leave them out of the equation all together, or do you do something to supplement such as the school providing a temporary cell phone? 

I’ve shared my reply to Drew below.

I hope it helps you to think through the reasons why schools should be working to embrace the tools that our students can already bring with them when they walk through our doors.

Rock on,

Bill

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Hey Drew,

Good to hear from you and your questions about what to do with students who don’t have cell phones are perfectly legitimate and incredibly common.

Here’s how I typically reply.

One of the stumbling blocks to almost every reform initiative in schools is our stubborn refusal to move forward until the conditions are perfect for change.

The result:  Change never happens.

Some of the leading thinkers on change in organizations argue that you have to take the first step somewhere.  You can’t let perfection stand in the way of innovation.

For schools considering the use of cell phones, that means taking action and taking action now. 

I don’t care if 1 out of 10 students in your school has a cell phone.  That’s still one more device for learning than your teachers had before–and it is one more tool for learning that many schools don’t have to provide.

In most middle and high schools, though, the rates of cell phone penetration really are much higher.  To ignore the fact that 3 out of every 4 kids in our middle and high schools is bringing their own device to school is just plain crazy.

Think about it this way:  If you were a science teacher—which is what I teach—and I told you that I could instantly put 20 dictionaries, calculators, student responders and timers into a classroom of 30 students without costing a dime, you’d jump at it, right?

If you were working in most classrooms, you would! 

You see, the typical science classroom in most schools has one working computer, no calculators, no timers and about 15 antiquated dictionaries that are really hard to use.

That’s a resource failure on the part of schools and it keeps teachers from being effective in their classrooms.

What’s worse–almost unforgivable in my opinion—is that it is a resource failure that can be resolved if our schools didn’t ban cell phones during the school day.

Now as far as the nitty gritty details of equitable use go, the fact that the vast majority of kids with cell phones have unlimited texting plans is key.

What that means for me as a classroom teacher is that if I can have kids work in groups of three—something that I do nine days out of ten anyway—then I really only need one student to have a cell phone with unlimited texting.  The odds of that are pretty high in most middle schools.

From there, groups can do anything.

They can text Google for definitions and facts.  They can text Poll Everywhere with responses to classroom questions so that I can gather formative assessment results.  They can use timers for labs.

And if I wanted every child to respond to individual questions, I’ll bet that the students with unlimited text plans—and their parents—would be more than happy to let student with no cell phones to use theirs as long as I explained what we were doing and why it mattered.

I mean, who is going to argue about sharing a few extra texts when you have an unlimited plan?

I guess what I’m saying is that the majority of teachers will spend the majority of their careers working in classrooms that are under-supplied.

Take my school—which is in an affluent suburb—as an example: The budget for our entire science department—which serves almost 400 students and has to cover consumables for the labs that we like to teach—is $600 in a good year, less in most.

I’ve got one working computer in my room.  My academic team—-which includes about 120 sixth graders—-has close to 70 “working computers” in their lockers that we’re not allowed to use because cell phones are banned during the school day—a policy that is really common in middle and high schools everywhere.

That’s got to change—-especially if people are as hell bent as they say they are to hold teachers accountable for student performance.

Does this make any sense?
Bill