Why banning mobile phones in schools is a bad idea

There has been discussion of late on Prince Edward Island about banning students from using mobile telephones in school; the discussion originated with the PEI Home and School Federation. The rationale? President Wendy Macdonald was quoted by the CBC as explaining:

…parents on P.E.I. have said they’re not comfortable with how quickly young people are using the latest technologies to change the way they communicate with one another.

When I first heard of this decision, I found myself in general agreement — “kids should be concentrating on learning about Magellan and quadrilateral triangles in school, not sending SMS messages to each other,” I said to myself.

But I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since we arrived in mobile phone-drenched Portugal, and I now think the decision is wrong-headed.

While parents may be “not comfortable” with the pace of new technologies — and are parents ever comfortable with the pace of new technologies? — these new technologies are here, they’re being used, and they’re being used in places that aren’t Prince Edward Island to a much greater extent than they are on PEI.

Here in Europe you can bank with your mobile, pay parking tickets with your mobile, get travel information, check your email, watch television and edit movies. Mobile devices are a part of everyday life here, and absolutely everyone carries one: I’ve seen them in the hands of kids in grade 7 and in the hands of seniors.

On a visit to the art gallery in Porto last week we saw high school students taking digital pictures of art with their mobile phones. On the train up to Régua this week we sat beside a group of older woman, many of whom were checking their mobiles for text messages from their seats.

If the experience here is any guide — and I’m pretty sure it is — the future is going to involve some sort of mobile device in the hands of everyone most of the time.

While we can debate the merits of this like we debated whether or not the coming of the pocket calculator would result in kids who couldn’t add or subtract, there is an inevitability here that makes it seem rather short-sighted to try and make the future go away because you’re “not comfortable” with it.

Surely if schools have any role at all, it is to shape and guide the use of new technologies. Taking the “prohibition” tack never, ever works with kids; you only have to look at underage binge drinking to understand what pretending to hide something away in a box does for educating responsibility.

So rather than trying to stamp mobile phones out of the classroom, why not make sure that every child has access to one, regardless of income. Build aspects of the curriculum around mobile devices, foster community, harness the power of ubiquitous network access, take advantage of the fact that kids are attracted to the technology to channel its use in positive ways.

I’m pretty sure that whenever parents say that they’re “not comfortable with how quickly young people are using the latest technologies” this should be a call to schools to grab onto whatever the latest technology is and allow their students to fly with it.


Kevin's picture
Kevin on May 25, 2006 - 13:05 Permalink

A study to which I once saw some sort of reference (I wish I could cite it but can’t seem to find it) said that when students study without music they retain and understand more than when they study with music. This held even for students who identified themselves as a person who ‘can’t study without music’.

If the mere distraction of music, orderly sound which triggers the pleasure centre of the brain, is sufficient distraction to reduce learning, then surely phones (and other electronic devices) in the classroom can’t be less invasive. Also, for those with Attention Deficit Disorder, a phone going off, or even being used, cannot be a good thing. And for those with what I call Hyper Attention Complex (aka, Autism, which is me, or the lesser-known derivative, Asperger’s Syndrome) these things would virtually eliminate learning of any kind.

But, I agree that if some kids have them, then all kids should have them. But, like checking your ‘gun at the door’ in an old western saloon, they shouldn’t be part of the daily learning of children. And neither should computers in the early grades, but that’s another rant.

Sam Abuelsamid's picture
Sam Abuelsamid on May 25, 2006 - 13:24 Permalink

I agree completely. I think humans in general are rarely comfortable with the pace of change. Kids are inhernetly more adaptable than adults. Both of my kids got cell phones when they were nine. The state of Michigan used to prohibit kids from having phones in school but they changed that a couple of years ago. Banning stuff like that outright is ridiculous and unworkable especially given the diminutive size of most phones today. On the other hand certain restrictions are perfectly reasonable. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to use their phones in class, no texting etc. That is disruptive and I have no problem with restricting it. Phones should also be muted. Since a large proportion of the kids (if not a majority yet) have phones, they should just be taught some basic ettiquete and leave it at that. With family share plans letting the kids have a phone is fairly economical too as long as don’t go overboard on talking and texting.

marian's picture
marian on May 25, 2006 - 13:38 Permalink

I beg to differ with you, Peter. There are probably enough distractions in schools (as well as outside them) without having SMSs and internet chatrooms competing for a student’s attention during class time. This has nothing to do with the newness of the technology but with the oldness of human nature. There is only so much time in a person’s childhood, and some of that time should be reserved for quiet contemplation. It’s true that Europeans everywhere are mobile phone obsessed, but European schooling is a lot stricter and you can bet that they don’t let students have their phones in class.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 25, 2006 - 14:09 Permalink

I suppose I forgot to mention that for mobiles to be effectively integrated into the classroom requires a rather significant change in world view, from “knowledge drains down from teacher into minds of student” to “teachers and students discover together.”

If schools are set up like church, then of course mobile phones will be a distraction because the priest will always be getting interrupted and the parishioners won’t learn the lessons.

If students are given an opportunity to explore the use of technologies in a supportive environment, etiquette will evolve of its own volition.

Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on May 25, 2006 - 14:59 Permalink

Yeah, I find that people with cellphones are all about the etiquette.
How long before these fantasy schools (oh, hold on, I got a call I have to take… … … …) How long before these fantasy schools of yours begin operating, Peter? And, until then, what do we do with the problem of cellphones in schools?

marian's picture
marian on May 25, 2006 - 15:34 Permalink

u r correct. I c the lite. Give them PSP

Kevin's picture
Kevin on May 25, 2006 - 15:59 Permalink

It’s difficult to see phone ettiquette evolving in the same environment from which came bullying. Classrooms are like churches, that’s a shortcoming. Until that model evolves to something new phones would not only distract the ‘priest’ but also the paritioners. In the end we’d have kids who can use phones like Garret Mason plays guitar but would write like Marian’s example above.

Katie's picture
Katie on May 25, 2006 - 16:03 Permalink

I agree with you Peter on the use of the technology to facilitate learning. I have students in class with their laptops, fully connected to the internet — probably working on other homework or answering email — or in my dreams googling what we are talking about to get more information. I rank that up with reading an assignment for a different class instead of paying attention to what we are discussing — not great, but hey we have all done it at one time or another.

I just bring up one more thing to think about…testing. Talk to any college professor and they will say that mobile phones are the key way students are cheating these days during exams. I feel like a jerk when I have to enforce my no mobile phones as calculators (the dependance on calculators for simple math is a whole other can of worms) on an exam — but text messaging and taking photos of the exams are the key ways they are being used to cheat during exams.

Phones in schools — ok. Phones in classrooms — not ok in my opinion. There are plenty of tools that can be used, and maybe phones are one of them, but not on a daily basis.

Valerie's picture
Valerie on May 25, 2006 - 17:28 Permalink

I hope that in my (college) classes that my students and I create an intimate learning community possible only when they turn off their cell phones and live in the “here and now.” I sometimes ask them to honor a 5 minute cell phone ban as they exit class, hoping that they will ponder our conclusions about the day’s discussion before they reconnect with everyone else in their world.
There is a place in education for technologies available through cell phones. But as we consider in what ways those technologies are furthering our students’learning, maybe we, as teachers, should be asking whether we are also creating experiences and opportunities that can only happen without cell phones.

oliver's picture
oliver on May 25, 2006 - 17:34 Permalink

Chewing gum was a new technology once.

Don Carter's picture
Don Carter on May 25, 2006 - 18:18 Permalink

Although Portuguese grannies may be great cellphone users I doubt sincerely that Portuguese teachers allow cellphone use in class. Time to research the matter before you leave Oporto.

Ken's picture
Ken on May 25, 2006 - 19:34 Permalink

Schools of the future will have their own cell phone networks. GSM, CDMA, analog will all be served by ‘cell sites’ that supersede access to the regular public network. Emergency 911 dialing will always be available to all students, however other services will be customized to the students. Every student will have a phone which at a minimum will work within this school cell network. Text messages will be used to manage homework assignments, report grades, school news, etc. While on campus students will be subject to the service restrictions based on which class they are in, if they are taking a test, etc. The outside world will be screened by a voice menu system, and if an urgent call needs to reach a student, it will require a pin number on the parents part to reach their child, or manual intervention by a scretary to allow the call to get through.

Each student’s phone will be like an extension of the schools PBX system and PA system. Attendance could be monitored as well within this system.

Implementing this ‘campus cell network’ will be something PEI could lead the world in. Then students, teachers, and parents could control the functionality of this school cell network to best serve the goal of teaching.

The teacher’s phone would report any activity of their student’s phones during class time, based only on the students in their class.

Campus cell networks. That’s where it’s at.

Ken's picture
Ken on May 25, 2006 - 19:54 Permalink

As for now, Aliant, Rogers, and any other service providers should be required to install a cell site that covers just the school campus.
This puts the infrastructure in place to develop the ‘campus cell network’.
For now, only outgoing calls and messages would be allowed from within any public school on a cell phone. That means no ringing, ever, of a cell phone in a public school. This means student-to-student calls could not be placed while on campus. You could however call home, or 911, or anywhere.

This is better than jamming all cell phones completely.

And silence would be golden. In fact, if a cell phone rings on campus, a report would be made to the cell service providers to follow up on any holes in the coverage on campus.

NO INCOMING CALLS! OR SHORT MESSAGES! Isn’t that simple enough?

I suppose after school hours, two way calling could be restored, so when the final bell rings it would be service as usual.

Danielle's picture
Danielle on May 26, 2006 - 02:19 Permalink


joe's picture
joe on May 26, 2006 - 19:26 Permalink

Parkdale Doris chucked her cell into the garbage.

David's picture
David on October 30, 2007 - 00:38 Permalink

this idea of ban phones is not good for the people at school

Brian's picture
Brian on May 14, 2009 - 17:20 Permalink


Brian's picture
Brian on May 14, 2009 - 17:20 Permalink

that is a grate idea!