Why Are Cell Phones So Threatening?


In Digital Literacy class, we’ve been talking about some of Will Richardson’s ideas about transforming education.

Richardson argues that we need to transform education because the world our students learn in outside of school–a largely digital world with its abundant information, access to experts, variety of tools, and web of connections–has little resemblance to the world our students learn in inside of school.

This was brought home to me in a big way a couple of weeks ago at my son’s middle school orientation. Very early in the presentation, we were informed that cell phones are not allowed. If they are brought to school, they must be locked in the students’ lockers during the day.

This is a problem.

Students at this school don’t have ready access to other devices. There are no iPads or laptops for students to use. In fact, there are precious few classroom computers. Besides the computer room, the only classroom where I saw computers for student use was in the reading class where students need access to computers for READ 180 assessment purposes.

How ironic that school is the one place for most of these kids where they can’t be connected or access information when they need it.

My son doesn’t have a cell phone, but most of his friends do, and it’s clear from the stories he tells me that his friends don’t think of their phones as learning devices. They think of them as social devices. And they don’t necessarily think of social spaces as spaces of learning.

I think about how I use my devices to support my learning. My phone, because it is always with me, always on, and always connected, has become my most important learning tool.

I use it throughout the day to look up information, connect with other teachers, connect with my students, share something I’ve learned, take photos to document my thinking and learning, take notes. My cell phone is a key part of the way I learn and share my learning.

These are the things students at my son’s middle school can’t do because they don’t have access to devices:

  • They can’t discover the curriculum for themselves.
  • They can’t ask questions of anyone other than the teacher.
  • They can’t find answers to their questions.
  • They can’t access experts.
  • They can’t connect with other classrooms around the world.
  • They can’t share with they’re learning.
  • They can’t create using technology.
  • They can’t publish.

My son’s school is preparing him for a world that no longer exists.

Why is the cell phone so threatening? Because we don’t know what students are using it for? Because we can’t control what students are using it for? Because we see it as a disruptive technology rather than a learning technology?

For how many of our students is their phone the primary device of their literate lives? My own students read, write, share, connect, and even publish using their phones. They live all over these digital spaces that we want to ban during school hours.

Locking the phones away sends the clear message that kids are right in thinking of their phones as social rather than learning devices. When we ban phones, we step away from the responsibility we have to teach kids that phones can also be for learning, that online social spaces can also be for learning. We aren’t helping students learn how to use digital and social spaces for good, for deeper learning, for meaningful sharing and connecting. We aren’t helping students become responsible digital citizens.

Who else is going to teach students about the possibilities and potential of literacy in digital spaces if not teachers? Who else is going to engage students in conversations about using technology productively, responsibly, kindly?

And we need to have those conversations.

The message my son’s school is sending students is pretty clear: the kinds of reading, writing, sharing, connecting, and publishing you do on your personal device has nothing to do with the kind of learning we value in school. It’s something you need to keep to yourself, to do on your own time. It’s something we find so threatening we need to close it behind a door and put a lock on it.

Of course, if every student had a device in their pockets with free and open access to all the websites that digital learners need to access, school would have to change. You can’t ask Googleable questions when everyone has Google in their pockets.

And perhaps that’s just it.

We don’t want to change. Or maybe we don’t know how to change.

Photo CC-BY MIke Klein


One response to “Why Are Cell Phones So Threatening?”

  1. […] Lots of questions about why schools aren’t teaching kids to use cell phones for learning  […]

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