Monday, January 2, 2012

About the Ban

An interesting conversation took place this morning between my daughter, her two middle-school-age friends, my husband and I. It was about cell phones in school; the general complaint from the girls was about the ban on using cell phones, even at lunchtime.

The conversation turned to the ban in classrooms, and my husband, who I have apparently failed to bring up to speed on cell phone issues, brought up what he felt to be an issue of common courtesy: that kids should have cell phones turned off when in class, and their attention turned to the person who is trying to teach them. Reasonable, right?

My riposte: if a teacher can't hold someone's interest enough to keep their eyes away from their iPhones, what are you accomplishing by banning them? At first he was held up by the common courtesy thing, but I hammered away at the whole give-and-get-respect thing, and if he wasn't a quivering mass at the end of it....

Nah, he wasn't a quivering mass; he still holds that until the great education transformation,when all kids are pursuing their passions in and out of the classroom, we should still ask kids to be courteous to the teacher by leaving cell phones off. 

A lot of people haven't yet considered that when kids sneak peaks at their phones, when their fingers itch for the keypad during a lecture, it isn't a story that begins and ends with teaching simple manners. Yes, we need to expect common courtesy, but we also need to read the signs when we don't get it.

The message is that what kids are being asked to learn doesn't interest them. The attractive immediacy of connecting with their friends matters more. Contact with the living, instead of the dead material they are supposed to be learning, matters to them.

So what, my husband asks, if half the class is distracted by the other half that are texting away?

Why does that other half have to be in a class that doesn't interest them?

Unfortunately our whole system of education is based on kids learning stuff they don't care about.  Oh, sometimes there is a connection between kids and the content; a stopped clock is right twice a day, too. You can't defend a system because once in awhile a kid is genuinely engaged.

The first job of education is to find out what learning trajectory kids are already on. Ideally, it'll happen so soon in their educations that they won't grow up completely negative and pessimistic about the relevance of anything that might happen in the classroom.

If they don't seem to have a learning trajectory, it really isn't rocket science to find it.

Not only do we need to design schools that allow kids to connect to learning that matters to them, but we need to allow them to do it with their cell phones. I'm not an expert in how, but there are some good minds who are, (See Lisa Nielson and  Willyn Webb, who wrote Teaching Generation Text) and kids probably could come up with some ideas of their own. This is one of those things that also falls into the category of "not rocket science."

My husband's reaction is a very easily understood one. When we look at a problem or issue (especially in education), we don't always look under the hood and see what's really wrong; sometimes an issue seems clear, and we take it for granted that we have a good grasp of it. We don't associate the problem (a simple avoidance of classroom rudeness) with another problem (we're not producing learners).

It seems excusable for adults to be rude to students in big ways (i.e. an institutional disregard for what they believe to be important), but not OK for students to be rude to adults in little ways (fiddling with cell phones in class).

There are lots of problems in schools that can be associated with a disengaged student body. This one not only has a solution, but one that has potential to teach the teachers as well as the students. Don't make kids power down when they go to school. Allow them to power up and pursue their learning with the technology that our generation provided and made irresistible to them, and that they love.


  1. Thanks for writing this Lisa. Teachers can no longer keep students prisoners of their past. If teachers refuse to give students the freedom to learn, connect, and communicate with the tools of their world, they really have no business teaching in today's classrooms. As you'll discover in my book, teachers who stopped fighting and started embracing the power of cell phones for learning were met with great success. Students appreciate when their outdated teachers make an effort to update their practice. They also appreciate being respected enough to be empowered to be in charge of their own learning.

  2. I'm hoping that the "look under the hood" idea will slowly make its way out into the larger ed. change world. There are so many sound bites in the ed reform sphere, and they all sound good on the surface, many having been created by powers much stronger and richer than we are. Saying the problems of education are bad teachers and powerful unions has a simplicity and an inherent truth...or what Stephen Colbert calls, "truthiness." (My spell check doesn't like that word!)

    Part of our job is to point out that there is another side; that there is truth, and there is truthiness, and who has the moral high ground here?

  3. So, so true. At what point will those who shape educational policy realise this.

  4. Sorry, most cell phone use is about "me" and being the center of the universe. Rarely is about real learning. In the 70's kids though smoking should be allowed at school and in many schools smoking areas were set up. It did not improve learning just because kids wanted it. Kids spend too much screen time as it is. Please don't confuse entertained with learning. I think it is important learn that many important things in life will not give instant gratification. I use a lot of tech in my class but I do not confuse the tools (pens, pencil, paper, microscopes, book, or computers in any form) with active learning, critical thinking or critical questioning. By the time these kids are in the work force, electronic communication will have changed and they will need different skills and they will learn them. But we need to learning, critical thinking, critical evaluating and questioning as our goals. Kids will find plenty of time for the other. We need them to think about thinking and then they will have the tools to adjust to whatever tools become available.

  5. @Ms. MacKinnon, I'd never compare allowing kids to ingest carcinogens that will ultimately cause serious harm to their health with allowing them to use the tools they need to succeed in their world inside of schools. You don't need to be able to smoke to succeed in the world. It is, however, helpful to know how to harness the power of the technology you own for learning.

    You will find in my book examples of dozens of educators who stopped fighting and started embracing the use of cell phones for learning. They empower students to use the tools that they feel will most effectively meet "their" learning goals.

    I use my phone every day to engage in active learning, critical thinking, and critical questioning. Teachers who are aware of how to do so should not frustrate those of us who are aware by imposing bans as Travis Allen explains so well here

    You can share just about any learning goal with me and I can share how it can be enriched and taken to a whole new level with the use of cell phones.

    If you're interested in learning what happens when teachers think outside the ban and empower students to learn with their tools I invite you to read my book or any of the dozens of articles I've written about on my blog that highlight educators who've had success harnessing the power of the tools students have in their pockets

  6. Ms. McKinnon, thanks so much for posting; I think your views are shared by a lot of people. I think what Lisa and I are asking is for people to consider the possibility that you CAN build critical thinking skills and use technology at the same time, and by doing so, you will be using a method of learning that YPOTs(Young People of Today)love.

    It is our generation that made these devices so bloody irresistable, and it's our generation that is making them power down in school! I think we can expand our horizons as adults and figure out how to let kids take the lead on their learning using those tools.

    Lisa, what you said about taking any learning goal and figuring out how to achieve it using cell phones made me think of a conversation I have all the time about video games: let kids do what they want and what they'll do is play video games. I can work with that. Creating a video game can go in a few good directions for learning: create characters, a plot, a setting. That's short-story writing! Rudimentary game creation, for my son, soon turned into major Action Script programming. What is the impact on the body of engaging in World of Warcraft? Heartrate, blood pressure, etc?

    The things that seem to be roadblocks are actually opportunities, if looked at a certain way.

  7. Banning something never gets you the Desired result. We need to teach kids how to use the tools properly and yes, how to use them respectfully.

  8. Are state-mandated tests, the ACT, and the SAT given using cell phones? I agree with Ms. MacKinnon that technology changes so fast that by the time students are adults in the working world, a whole new set of skills will be necessary. There is no proof, research that demonstrates technology creates better students.

    Instead we are using technology to crowd out budgets for the arts and libraries. So much of technology is mindless surfing. Students need to learn to concentrate and to reflect. Technology use should be STRATEGIC. Unfortunately, students are learning to be emotionally attached to an instrument instead of to people.
    Lorraine Richardson

  9. Oh goodness @Lorraine Richardson. I hope we aren't making decisions for children based on archaic outdated, standardized tests! Also, ACT and SAT are not state-mandated and many of the better colleges are getting smart and no longer requiring them. They understand that artificial memorization and regurgitation often does not = success.

    The point is not that tech changes Lorraine. It is empowering students to use the tools and technology available to them today rather than keeping them stuck in a manufactured past that is more convenient for the teacher but not at all helpful for the child.

    What are you talking about as far as there not being research stating that using tools of the real world doesn't lead to student success? If you read Teaching Generation Text, you'll find plenty of research that demonstrates technology helps students succeed.

    I also am not making the connection as to how using the tools students own crowds out budgets???? It doesn't cost a dime and can save school a bundle. With a phone you often have a calculator, dictionary, translation device, camera, a more.

    If you think tech is mindless surfing then whose responsibility is it to turn it into something more valuable?

    I use my phone every day to concentrate and reflect deeply. Many students do as well and it is not fair for adults who don't know better to impose their outdated way of doing things onto children.

    Finally, I ask, if student devices are banned in school whose fault is it that they are learning things you think are wrong.

    Most importantly, students aren't becoming attached to instruments. These instruments allow us to attach to people. Now we can connect more effectively and efficiently than paper and pen allowed us to do in the past.

  10. Lorraine, thanks so much for your post. I agree about children needing to reflect. I can tell you as a parent that my kids don't reflect on stuff they don't care about. Pondering issues, thinking things through, weighing choices, it's all very hard to do if you just don't care about it.

    We need to change school to be much more student-driven so they have they are asked to reflect on hard issues that have meaning to them. But we also need to make the school setting one that is friendly to their need for connection.

    Remember that our generation created the toys that we disapprove of them playing with so much. We have a responsibility to coach them on responsible use, and to use them to open their worlds up to the larger one.

    What we're asking is that you stay open to the possibility that we can create good educational experiences by using those devices that our kids love so much.