Among the lessons I continually pound into my students is this: practical knowledge of human nature is necessary not only to thrive, but to survive.  Those that understand people, their hopes, fears, desires, distractions, and their motivations will simply do better in a life lived among human beings than those that do not, which of course, brings me to cell phones.

Cell phones?  Cell phones.

I am fortunate to work in a well-led school.  My principal has his heart in the right place and one of the best things about his leadership is his understanding of human nature.  He knows that high school kids need structure and guidance and he actually supports teachers in enforcing our dress and behavior codes (yes, we actually have such Medieval things!).  As a result, teachers have much greater freedom to pursue the primary mission of education: providing the best possible educational opportunity.

Among the rules that recognize human nature and that aid us in fulfilling our mission is the rule preventing the use of cell phones in school.  From the time the first bell rings until the final bell of the day rings, students may not use—or even handle—cell phones.  If we see them, we confiscate them and it costs $15.00 (for a first offense) for a student to retrieve their phone.  In a sense, this is very much like the broken window rule all police officers know.

When a single window on a home or building that is off the beaten path or appears to be abandoned is broken and not immediately replaced, every remaining window will be swiftly broken, and arson is not uncommon.  The point is that small license inevitably leads to—even causes–large license to do wrong.  When Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York, he understood this fundamental fact of human psychology and ordered his police to focus on the hundreds of small, seemingly minor violations of law that occurred every day.  As a result, a great many of the more serious crimes birthed in numerous smaller acts of lawlessness never occurred and the crime rate in New York drastically diminished.

The issue of adolescent cell phone use is part of an ongoing battle in education.  Proponents of cell phones often believe that technology will revolutionize education, and of course, it is the devices themselves—and their software—that embody that technological revolution.  Some argue that smart phones allow kids to do wonderful, transformative things in the classroom.  I’ve even seen teachers—and this with a straight face—propose major curricular changes based on little more than texting and creating Facebook or Twitter pages.  Some argue that teachers should discover what kids like and incorporate that into the curriculum and since kids love texting and Facebook and Twitter, why not go with the flow and fully embrace “student-centered” learning?

One of the current fads in education is “researched-based” this or that.  If “research” has been done, this or that must be valid.  Perhaps, but research once told us that phonics were unnecessary, and we produced a generation of kids who couldn’t read.  Research once conclusively proved that schools without internal walls would produce miraculous leaps in learning.  Instead, when the idiocy of that idea in practice became too obvious to ignore, we spent unbelievable amounts of money building internal walls in buildings not designed for them.  These brilliant concepts utterly failed because they ignored human nature.  Some people always believe they are so smart they transcend it.  No one does.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that if students were allowed to put their cell phones on the tops of their desks, life would be easier for teachers who could more easily monitor their cell phone use—or misuse.  Some even quote or produce “research” that purports to prove the superiority of such technology in enhancing, facilitating, or doing something wonderful to or for learning.  As Ebenezer Scrooge so presciently said, “Bah! Humbug!”

Smart phones—the most recent iteration of cell phone technology—incorporate a wide range of technologies.  Apple’s iPhone, for example, has essentially all but eliminated a profitable market for its own iPod music recorder/player because it incorporates that technology—as well as still camera and video technology—in one small electronic device.  Apple would do this, of course, because the profit potential for the iPhone far surpasses anything Apple could hope to attain with the iPod, which was quickly becoming last year’s technology anyway.  It is precisely the iPhone’s—and similar devices’—flexibility that makes it potentially useful in the school setting, but also, uniquely disruptive, even dangerous.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “there are lies, damned lies, and educational research.”  There are no known statistics, so like those quoting the cheery results of educational “research,” I’ll make some up.  Only .0023% of teenage smart phone buyers purchase their phones because they intend to use them to enhance their learning abilities in school.  On the other hand, 43% make their purchasing decision because of the phone’s texting features, 26% because of its photo and video features, 21% for its internet capabilities, and 9% because they liked the color or just thought it was “the bomb, man.”  Even though I made these up, they certainly sound plausible, don’t they?  I suspect they do because I based them on my every day experience in dealing with teenagers and cell phones.  In other words, I based them on human nature.

In the classroom, smart phones are little more than weak computers with tiny screens.  Their ability to access the Internet is limited by their lack of a functional keyboard, relatively slow speed, and limited battery power.  Some educators are enthralled with the iPad, but compared to even a competent laptop computer, they are limited.  They are indeed neat technology, but again lack a reasonably sized screen, a keyboard, significant storage capability, and the kind of speed only large amounts of internal RAM can provide.  Smart phones are even more limited.

“But smart phones have this app. and that app!”  Yes, but again, most smart phone applications are, of necessity, far smaller and less capable than their full-sized computer cousins.  As an English teacher, I use computers in the classroom for a limited number of functions:

(1) Word processing;

(2) Dictionary access (though I demand my students also use print dictionaries);

(3) Research (though I also demand my student use print and other sources);

(4) Presentations (such as Power Point, etc.).

Of these four primary uses, smart phones can only accomplish dictionary access reasonably well.  In truth, while we could always use more and better computer facilities, we have sufficient for our needs.

The primary problem with cell/smart phones is they are among the most effective and compelling distractions ever invented.  They do not contribute to, rather they detract from, adolescent’s ability to recognize and take advantage of the educational opportunity teachers work so hard to create.  Here’s why:

(1) The Temptation To Text: teenagers are social animals, and texting is fast becoming a primary means of social interaction.  I actually have students, particularly girls, who all but begin to break down into flop sweat and muscle spasms if they are not allowed to text for too long.  If the ability to text is made even the least bit convenient, kids will take advantage of it.  Few can help themselves.

Texting can be anything from a means of tuning out what is going on in the classroom, to a means of organizing disruptive activities, criminal activities, cheating on assignments or tests, or simply goofing off when they should be working.  A student texting in room 203 is also disrupting whichever classroom the recipient of their text inhabits.

The idea that having kids put their phones on their desktops will make policing illicit phone use easier cannot survive contact with actual teenagers in a classroom setting.  If a teacher sees Bobby apparently texting, by the time they can get to Bobby, he will have switched his phone off, or switched to a dictionary site.  “Texting?  Me?  Oh no, I was looking up a word Mr. Smith, honest.”  As we all know, teenagers would never lie about a thing like that.

With all phones in sight—more or less—a teacher’s attention must continually be on what students are doing with their phones rather than teaching.  On the other hand, if Bobby isn’t supposed to have the phone in his hand in the first place, it’s far easier to deal with such issues while still allowing teachers substantial discretion.

(2) Video Priority: when smart phones are capable of showing not only photographs, but of actually streaming or otherwise playing video, a significant portion of kids will prefer those options to whatever is going on in class.  Some things that can be viewed on a smart phone—such as porn—will always be far more interesting than whatever a teacher can produce live.

(3) Game Mania: Video games are always far more interesting than anything occurring in a classroom to a significant portion of kids.  Given the opportunity to play them, they’ll gladly take it while giving the external appearance of paying attention.

(4) Smile! You’re On You Tube Camera!  Hardly a day goes by without some poor teacher finding them selves on You Tube via a student’s smart phone.  Kids have even taken to outrageously provoking teachers into disciplining them while secretly recording them.  Of course, the behavior that provoked the discipline is never on the You Tube video.

I have no problem with a principal or parent observing any of my classes at any time, because I am always—without exception–working toward the mission.  But considering issues of context, to say nothing of the fun a kid can have with editing software, it’s career suicide to make it easier for kids to stealthily photograph or video their teachers or fellow students in school.  If students are allowed to keep their phones in the open, the probability of this happening is very great indeed.

(5) Entitlement Mentality: kids conditioned to certain things come to believe their have a right to them, a right which teachers may not infringe.  Allowed unrestricted access to cell phones, kids will push those boundaries as far as they can into other areas of misbehavior.  This too, is simply human nature; and they’re teenagers.

(6) Consistency: as much as they hate to admit it, teenagers need consistency.  Having three teachers who allow a given misbehavior makes it that much more difficult for the other four teachers that fairly and uniformly enforce school rules and behavior expectations.  Wider latitude produces greater opportunities for misbehavior and argument.  Fewer arguments over rules and expectations translate directly into greater learning opportunities and higher performance.

Final Thoughts:

Smart phones can’t do anything truly useful in school that cannot be done faster and more efficiently with other technology.  At the same time, their ability to distract and disrupt in the educational environment is unique and great indeed.

The best of all possible worlds would be to simply disallow phones from school property.  However, that’s unreasonable and impractical.  The best compromise is doing what my school does: from the first to last bells, no cell phones in sight or use.  This policy doesn’t prevent a teacher from allowing a student to make a call to a parent for a legitimate purpose, or from using their phone for any non-disruptive or potentially useful purpose in the classroom.  It does, however, greatly reduce the chance for mischief, avoids giving birth to larger misbehaviors, and supports the real, primary mission of education.

Technology of any kind is merely a tool.  The process of learning–as it always has–involves the eyes and ears of each student, eyes that must be on the curriculum rather than a cell phone screen, and ears that must be listening for insight rather than a ring tone.