“Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” US computer scientist Alan Kay, 1989.

Earlier this week Brian Aspinall shared the Bloomberg editorial “Kick Mobile Phones Out of Class“.

Cellphones in schools is a subject I’ve discussed at length before and one that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. It’s a bellweather issue, an issue that indicates clearly where you sit on the educational spectrum. Do schools teach students “the rules” or help students learn effectively?

I’m often skeptical when non-educators decide to “hold forth” on education issues. I’d never think of telling the editors at Bloomberg how to best run a business news network without first asking a lot of questions and becoming informed. But for some reason, people who haven’t been inside a classroom for decades think they have a valid opinion on educational practice. Just because I’ve eaten food it doesn’t make me a chef.

The editorial seems like a hastily pulled together piece without any input from actual educators. The position, “Kick Mobile Phones Out of Class”, rests on 5 pieces of research:

  1. Cellphones Are Distracting: Researchers at Florida State found that “cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task”.
  2. Cellphones Reduce Problem Solving Ability: “The mere presence of (cellphones) reduces available cognitive capacity”
  3. Cellphones Facilitate Cheating: Macafee’s Back to School report suggests that 47% of students “…claim to have seen or heard of another student using a connected device in the classroom to cheat”.
  4. Students Without Cell Phones Score Higher on Tests: Students with and without cell phones took the same test and “participants who had their cell phone taken away performed best on the test”.
  5. Technology, Distraction & Student Performance: A study of 91 high schools in the U.K. found that students in schools that imposed strict limits on mobile phones saw test scores improve.

Initially this seems damning, and we should immediately ban cell phones from all classrooms. However, let’s think a little deeper. The evidence presented suggests two main issues with cellphone use in the classroom. Learning improves when they’re taken away and they are a distraction.

First the learning issue. It’s important to ask, what kind of learning?

The two studies cited measure learning through test results. The value of tests as a measure of learning is suspect. Tests measure a certain kind of knowledge, and aren’t very effective at measuring the kind of learning most educators hope students demonstrate. I’m not trying for facts that can be quickly regurgitated and then forgotten, but deeper understanding that a student carries with them and builds on. I’m not convinced by research conclusions based on test scores.

The other argument is around devices and self-regulation. This is an important discussion for educators to have.

There is very little doubt that cell phones are distracting for many people. And it’s really no surprise given the efforts that tech companies are putting capturing our attention, as Tristan Harris explains very effectively here:

So if we accept that phones are distracting to students, what next?

The ability to self-regulate the use of devices is a critical skill if students are to become productive adults. It’s an issue with dire consequences as people are killed or injured every year because they get behind the wheel of a car and can’t put down their cell phones.

This, not their role in learning, is the most important reason we need cell phones in classroom. Students need to learn, from an early age, how to regulate their use of digital devices. Soon cell phones won’t be considered technology. They’ll be tools we use for certain jobs and then put away. But until then schools and teachers can play a vital role in teaching students how to use cell phones effectively and responsibly.

This won’t happen by banning call phones in schools as the authors of the Bloomberg editorial suggest. Students can’t learn to self-regulate their device use when their phones are in their lockers.

If students don’t learn these essential digital skills in schools, where will they? Where is the environment where students can try to use cellphones productively, fail, receive feedback and then try again? Who other than schools and teachers are better situated to help students learn this?