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Cell Phones in the Classroom

How this teacher-led cell phone policy improved student behavior and learning outcomes


The Tech-Age Student


Cell phones in the classroom – teachers have spent thousands of hours processing this concern, including you and I. With many of our students now owning cell phones, this is a hot topic in education. And perspectives vary, depending on which educator you talk to.

What we all seem to agree on is that technology is an important tool, and we owe it to our students to teach them how to manage and wisely use their devices.

As an educator, it’s incredible to think of the changes in our schools and clientele over the last 20 years. I remember my first years in the classroom. Although it was rare for students to have cell phones in the classroom, some of them did. It was only a minor irritation to manage those few phones. I used clear expectations and a lot of “wittiness.” As I worked the classroom, administering my formative assessments and supporting student learning, I got really good at telling who was texting under the desk! I called them “text message eyes”…you know, facing straight ahead at me, while their eyes darted up and down. Silly kids, they thought I wouldn’t notice!

Fast forward to today when I can safely say that at least 80% of my school’s population has a cell phone in their pocket or backpack at all times. I suspect my comprehensive high school is no different than your school, be it elementary or middle school. And for good reason! Parents want to communicate easily with their kids and ensure they’re safe; students’ social interactions take place both digitally and in person today. Phones are everywhere – and they definitely trickled into our classrooms.

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One School’s Experience with Cell Phones in the Classroom


Our comprehensive high school serves nearly 1,000 students daily. With a teaching staff of nearly 50 and half as many support personnel, there is a lot going on. To change our school’s culture didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it started with the best thing ever – a problem and a question.

Problem: Students weren’t fully engaged during classes. Question: How were cell phones in the classroom contributing to this problem?

In recent years, our school’s teacher leaders (namely our school’s AVID Site Team) started having courageous conversations about the impacts (positive and negative) of cell phones in the classroom. In 2018, teachers led out on a school-wide cell phone policy that has changed our learning culture.

Before I tell you more, here’s some things you should know about what we do believe:

  • Technology absolutely belongs in schools!

  • Cell phones and 1:1 devices like tablets and Chromebooks are here to stay. Love it or hate it – they are an important part of everyone’s lives.

  • Students should be taught digital citizenship.

Founded on these beliefs, the cell phone policy was built. Now in our second year, we can proudly say it’s being implemented with nearly 100% fidelity throughout out high school. That’s no small feat!

No Cell Phones from Bell to Bell: The “Why”


The first order of business: our teacher leaders rolled up their sleeves to find out what the research showed about distraction and long-term memory’s relationship, especially in the classroom. They compiled mounds of peer-reviewed research and data that showed the adverse affects of students being pulled in different directions during instruction. Included were studies about the cognitive ability of students to truly “multitask,” (they’re not super good at it yet) and students’ ability to retain information for long periods when cognitively distracted (information doesn’t move to long-term memory as easily).

Based on these findings, the teachers elected to propose a drastic change to one another. That year, the school implemented a “No Cell Phones from Bell to Bell” policy.

You should know, our school LOVES technology! All students have individual Chromebooks, all the time. The school has computer labs and nearly every classroom uses the Google Suite daily – Clasroom, Docs and the Drive, etc. We offer dozens of courses in technology, video game design, engineering, CAD, robotics, photography and more. We are not anti-technology. And this wasn’t an anti-cell phone policy, but instead was a “there’s a right time and a right place” policy. The team felt that this was an important element in teaching digital citizenship.


Getting the Word Out


Teachers designed and all agreed to implement the policy for cell phones in the classroom. The actual policy is a one-pager that outlined “what we believe” and “how it works.” This specified the process every teacher would use, should they find a student out of compliance with the cell phone policy. No adult could turn a blind eye – even while walking through the halls during prep periods. Every teacher signed the policy as a sign of willingness (not necessarily agreement, but a pinky-promise to one another to implement it). For students and families, we launched a PR campaign the preceding summer and made it abundantly clear to all students and families using “public service announcements” on our Youtube-based student news.


How It Works


When any student is observed using their phone from bell to bell, whether in the hallway, classroom or elsewhere, all staff members ask the student to turn it in at the office. Students call their families who have to pick it up. (Of course, this isn’t convenient, which is part of the goal/natural consequence — to encourage students to self-manage and consider the bigger consequences of their choice. We do allow parents to call in the first time if they can’t pick it up that day; we understand some students really need their phones for picking up siblings, etc.).

Families can still contact their students! Cell phone use is permitted between classes, before and after school, and during lunch. There’s also “the old fashioned way” where families call the school and we run messages directly to classrooms. We don’t mind this at all

Some students know they have a hard time NOT touching their phone during class; we purchased cell phone holders like these for all classrooms. Putting phones in the holders is completely optional.


And the Results?


The third year of this policy is nearly finished! In the first year, we anticipated a TON of backlash from students and families. That was not the case; I would say the support was 90% from families. This is understandable for two reasons: 1, some families do have unique, very important reasons to need to keep in close contact. Medical emergencies, etc. We work with these families individually. And 2, this is a change in behavior for all of us–and that is never easy!

Most importantly, classroom instruction has changed tremendously! Students are talking to each other more than ever. They participate in class like never before. Cell phones became a “non-thing” after the first week of school. Students and teachers are used to no cell phones in the classroom during instruction.

Do some students still try and push the boundaries around cell phone use? Absolutely! That’s their job as adolescents to test limits and follow impulses. We love our students and understand that this is very difficult! So we treat them with grace and use each moment as teachable.

When students understand the “why” behind this policy, they start to understand the great goal of setting them up for success, wherever their path may lead.


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