Are cellphones educational tools, or a scourge on learning? School districts and educators are divided on whether cellphones should be allowed in the country's classrooms.
Some cellphone bans have recently been reversed — most notably in New York City. Other districts have instituted new bans. Here & Now's Robin Young checks in with Washington Heights, New York, middle school teacher Jose Luis Vilson (@TheJLV) and Lewiston, Maine, middle school principal Jana Mates, who fall on opposite sides of the debate.
On arguments against banning cellphones in schools
Jose Luis Vilson: "I'd say no ban for the specific reason that, you know, this debate reminds me a lot of sex ed where, if you think about the ways that people keep saying, 'Oh we have to be abstinent, abstinent, abstinent,' and all the while, kids feel that pressure to not have to do it. But then once they feel the pressure, they also feel the pressure to rebel. So instead of trying to push it out of our schools, why don't we make it an integral part of our schools and have kids be more responsible with it? And why not make those tools that they have in their pockets into tools for learning? And oftentimes I find that when we teach children not to do something, when they become adults, they have a harder time actually using it in a responsible way."
On whether educators are asking for trouble in trying to teach kids to use cellphones responsibly
JLV: "I would say no, for the specific reason that, there's a whole ton of arguments to be made for saying that we should ban every single thing. There has to be a point where we as a country take some responsibility for the cultural norms that we establish. And if we're introducing cellphones, that we're basically saying, 'OK, this is something that you may be addicted to at some point, but we're gonna teach you how to use it responsibly so you can pull back a bit.' It's a lot like healthy eating, it's a lot like the other things that we have out there that perhaps are perilous if we don't set some sort of standard, or at least have a sense of saying, 'Let's have a conversation around this,' instead of trying to say, 'It doesn't exist.'"
"Oftentimes I find that when we teach children not to do something, when they become adults, they have a harder time actually using it in a responsible way."Jose Luis Vilson
On how cellphones can be useful in the classroom
JLV: "Here's what I'd say: I mean, in my own classroom, I teach my kids to be responsible, and this is the way I do it. First, I pull out my cellphone. I say, 'Look, this is a device that I have. And if you ever hear it go off, you're gonna see me pull it out, and then turn it off and then put it back in my pocket, and I advise everybody to be responsible in that way.' And so far it's worked pretty well: For 99 percent of the kids, I haven't had to take a cellphone away in the last four or five years.
"Then, there was a other part where, OK we may have iPads, we may have laptops — and we're able to get that because of the school that I'm in, and I'm blessed for that. But, there are times when the Wi-Fi won't work or the internet won't work, and so of course we have these cellphones. It's like, 'OK, well why don't you look up this and tell me what you think?' And once you use that cellphone by saying, 'Look it up, you can go ahead and do that.' That creates a sense of student agency that they normally wouldn't have."
On why Lewiston Middle School banned cellphones
Jana Mates: "Mostly in response to the overwhelming amount of negative use, social media, a lot of the office referrals, a lot of the talk in the community, all revolved around conversations that we're having on social media — and some of them during the school day — and I just feel like it's too much pressure for a kid. They're here to learn, they're here for structure, they're here to focus on being a kid, and that wasn't happening."
On how the ban is going
JM: "We were pretty transparent about the change in this policy, and why we were doing it, right from the beginning. We put it right in our Lewiston Middle School policy handbook, we put it on the website. And then the first two days of school we pulled kids down into the auditorium and we just told them why. I think if kids understand where you're coming from — and that it's not to be mean, or to put more rules in place, but because we genuinely care about them — it's actually been a really positive outcome. I think kids are actually getting it, and the pressure of not having to worry about what's happening on social media during the day is almost like a weight off their shoulders that they didn't anticipate was going to happen."
"They're here to learn, they're here for structure, they're here to focus on being a kid, and that wasn't happening."Jana Mates, on why Lewiston Middle School banned cellphones
On difficulty for teachers in getting students to give up their phones
JM: "Here, not using cellphones has always been a suggested practice. But what was happening is kids were going to the bathroom 10 times more than they should so that they could go use [their phone], or they were late to class because they were in the hall texting or on social media. And those pieces have been taken away. And so there's been a handful of times where we've had to, you know, our policy is the first time it's a warning, second time the phone gets taken away until the end of the day. Third time a parent has to pick it up, and we've yet to get to the point where a parent has to come pick up the phone."
On the argument that having phones in the classroom presents an opportunity for students to learn
JM: "I think there are age limits on lots of things in life for a reason. We have computers here for students, anything that they need to go on educationally, they're able to via MacBooks. And I don't know, I think in our society, is it really our job to teach kids how to use Facebook? When 50 percent of our school isn't reading on grade level?"
This article was originally published on September 27, 2017.
This segment aired on September 27, 2017.