Cell Phones in Classrooms? No! Students Need to Pay Attention

    by Greg Graham
    September 21, 2011
    Photo by Thomas Favre-Bulle on Flickr.

    In the battle for the hearts and minds of students, the front line for educators has changed over the last couple of decades. Rather than the age-old struggle for access, the foremost concern today is one of attention.

    Sure, there will always be issues of access, but for the most part that battle has been won. We’re no longer suffering from an information deficit; we’re suffering from an attention deficit.

    There never has been a more dynamic learning context than face-to-face in close proximity. Everything possible should be done to protect that timeless environment from interruption and distraction."

    The shift from access deficit to attention deficit has some very practical ramifications for schools. Certainly it gives perspective on the question of whether to allow cell phones in the classroom. On KQED MindShift (and reposted here on MediaShift), Audrey Watters argued for cell phones in the classroom because they (or at least smartphones) are powerful research tools. But the ability to get to information is not the problem; what students lack is the critical thinking skills to sort, filter and interpret information. Recent research has shown that students are good at getting to information, but weak at knowing what to do once they get there. So we must be protective of the classroom as a uniquely effective learning environment.


    In 1997, writer and critic Howard Rheingold proposed two rules for our rapidly changing world: “Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.” This was before text-messaging, smartphones, Facebook, Skype, YouTube or Twitter. Not surprisingly, the business community responded quickly to the importance of attention. Business strategists like Michael Goldhaber began referring to our economy as an “attention economy.” Echoing Rheingold, Goldhaber stated in 1997, “What counts most now is what is most scarce now, namely attention.” Their words are much truer today than they were in 1997.

    Distracted students

    This scarcity of attention is certainly an issue with today’s media-multitasking students. A study released in January 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that total media exposure per day for young people ages 13 to 18 increased from 7 hours and 29 minutes in 1999 to 10 hours and 45 minutes in 2009. Use per medium increased, but the largest increase was time spent multitasking. My work as a teacher confirms this. At the beginning of every semester, I ask my students how many media they use while doing homework. The great majority of them admit using some combination of two or three of their cell phones, laptops, televisions and iPods while studying. Out of a class of 25, only one or two still value shutting everything off and focusing completely on their work.


    Taking Rheingold’s two rules and applying them to the classroom can give schools the framework for a well-informed policy regarding cell phones.

    Rule #1 – Pay Attention

    Teachers are vying for their students’ attention. Of course, this is a venerable struggle, but in the past students’ only options were looking out the window, passing notes, or throwing spit wads at each other. Most teachers will tell you the struggle is much tougher today; it’s one of those things they talk about at meetings and lunch breaks. Just the other day, the topic was brought up at a departmental meeting where I teach, and the stories and opinions (universally negative) immediately came gushing forth. The teacher sitting next to me told me he has a “one-and-done” approach: The students are warned in the syllabus and on the first day of class, and as soon as one of them pulls his or her cell phone out during class, he or she gets the boot. While I have a hard time being so strict, I respect his strategy; we teachers are all aware that our top competitor is that little electronic wonder lovingly buzzing in our students’ pockets or purses.

    New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been under constant pressure to lift a ban on cell phones that he instituted in 2007 for New York’s 1.1 million-student school system. According to CBS News, New York had long maintained an “out-of-sight, out-of-trouble” approach to cell phones until Bloomberg’s department of education started using metal detectors to not only search for weapons, but confiscate cell phones as well. Bloomberg has remained steadfast, surviving not only the outrage of parents and students, but a court battle as well. In March 2008, an appellate court ruled that “the Chancellor reasonably determined that a ban on cell phone possession was necessary to maintain order in the schools.”

    New York schools are not unique. School systems everywhere are outlawing cell phones, but students are undeterred. In a recent survey (PDF)by Pew Internet, 65 percent of students admit bringing phones to class even though they are banned. They put them in their socks, their underwear, their sandwiches, whatever it takes. Fifty-eight percent of the students in those same schools admit sending a text message during class.

    To make matters worse, parents are not allied with teachers in this. As a matter of fact, one can safely assume that the majority of students’ texts during school are exchanges with parents. In the same Pew survey, 98 percent of parents of cell-owning teens say a major reason their child has the phone is so that they can be in touch no matter where the teen is (a blessing and a curse to students). This business of parents always being connected to their children has wide-ranging implications (in her book “Always On,” professor Naomi Baron points to “the end of anticipation”), but as pertains to cell phones in the classroom, parents are simply added to the growing list of distractions.

    Rule #2 – Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention

    Students need to understand that their attention is an in-demand resource, i.e., everyone wants a piece of them. When I talk to my students about this, they are very receptive. They have an awareness deep down that they are too busy, too distracted, too harried. Many of them don’t have a point of reference, a time they can remember when things were simpler, quieter, slower. This is especially true of those born in the 21st century who’ve never known a time when they weren’t “always on” — virtually connected to loved ones and the wider world. According to Pew, 84 percent of cell-owning 13-17 year-olds acknowledge sleeping with their cell phone next to them, and it is a “fairly common practice” for that group to sleep with their cell phones under their pillows so that a call or text will awaken them.

    This issue of attention is more than just teachers wanting to control students; it is about the importance of students learning to focus on one thing. A growing amount of research by neurologists confirms what our mommas already told us — we think best and perform best through focused, undistracted attention. In 2009, Stanford researchers studied the cognitive capabilities of media multitaskers and came to the following conclusion: “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch form one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” When comparing the two groups, Stanford researchers sought to discover where media multitaskers are superior.

    Alas, says lead researcher Eyal Ophir, “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.” Students need to be challenged and trained in the art of single-tasking. Where better than the classroom? As Neil Postman urged in his book “The End of Education,” schools need to be engaging in technology education. He wasn’t talking about teaching students how to use technology, but rather “learning about what technology helps us to do and what it hinders us from doing.” In Postman’s mind, technology education should be a branch of the humanities, providing students with a historical perspective on “humanity’s perilous and exciting romance with technology.”

    Preserving the Classroom

    When I asked her thoughts on cell phones in the classroom, Dr. Baron, who is executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, pointed to the varied roles filled by the classroom. “A classroom is many places at once,” she said, “a room for sharing ideas, a space (literally) for contemplation, a setting for social interaction. None of these functions harmonizes with intrusion from the outside.”

    Indeed, the classroom has a hallowed place in our society, and it still functions pretty much as it has always functioned. Countless people point to a time in their lives where a certain teacher in a certain classroom made all the difference in the world. Just ask.

    The other day I was walking through a building on my campus. Inside one of the small classrooms was a goofy-looking middle-aged man holding court with 25 or 30 students huddled around. I have no idea what the man was teaching, but he did so with gusto. I slowed past his room, drawn to whatever was happening in there. He loved what he was talking about, and his students were sitting on the edge of their seats, leaning toward him. Just as I started picking up my pace, the entire room burst into laughter. He was just getting warmed up.

    That scene is repeated every day in hundreds of thousands of classrooms around the world. From the most prestigious halls of higher education to my son’s kindergarten class led by the delightful Ms. Norman, teachers keep joyfully passing on knowledge and wisdom to the students under their tutelage.

    There never has been — nor will there ever be — a more dynamic learning context than face-to-face in close proximity. Everything possible should be done to protect that timeless environment from interruption and distraction.

    Greg Graham teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas and is a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project. Specializing in facilitating literacy stories, Greg is a field researcher with Ohio State University’s Digital Archives of Literacy Narratives and co-author of a chapter in the forthcoming book Literacy Narratives that Speak to Us: Curated Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. You can follow him on Twitter or his blog The Digital Realist.

    Tagged: cell phones cell phones in the classroom kids and technology learning students teaching and technology

    38 responses to “Cell Phones in Classrooms? No! Students Need to Pay Attention”

    1. diana popa says:

      shut up !

    2. ANGEL says:


    3. Deesteer says:

      Cellphones should never be at school.!!! It distracts people

    4. Deesteer says:

      No cell phones at school!!

    5. Deesteer says:


    6. Deesteer says:

      Not cool

    7. Deesteer says:

      No cell phones at school

    8. Deesteer says:

      Yep your right

    9. Deesteer says:

      LOL /

    10. No says:

      I believe schools should allow phones in scholl because we are in a new generation and need to know new things.

      • ManWithThe1000PoundBrain says:

        Yes, and one of the things they need to know is that there is a time and a place for cell phones. A car and a classroom are two places they should be put away.

      • Art says:

        School not “scholl”. LOL

    11. ManWithThe1000PoundBrain says:

      Allowing students to use their personal smartphones to do research is a novel and admirable idea but getting students to put them away and keep the put away and to use them only for educational purposes is like putting a bottle of beer in an alcoholic’s hand and telling him not to take a drink. Multiple studies have demonstrated that cell phones are addictive and comparable to gambling and drug addiction for many people. Once the phones are out (and they will be even if you are telling students it’s time to put them away) it will be very difficult to keep students focused on the matter at hand. At first, students might exercise some self control but as time goes on, they will begin sneaking in a few text messages; will go to a social network sites or will start playing a game in addition to snapping photos and video recording staff and students. Good luck.

    12. ManWithThe1000PoundBrain says:

      It’s not about whether someone likes or doesn’t like technology. It’s about focusing on the matter at hand. You should speak for yourself regarding whether students are concentrating. They sure aren’t concentrating if the are snapchatting, on Facebook, playing games or doing other non-educational activities with their phones. If you think they will stay focus on educational tasks while their phones are out, you have not spent much time with students in a classroom. Good luck.

    13. ManWithThe1000PoundBrain says:

      A Kindle is not a smartphone.

    14. Kevin Charles says:

      I allow them in my classroom; it’s all about how you integrate them. My view is that teachers that ban them are simply blaming technology for their own inability to cope with change.

      Also, school isn’t a privilege, it’s a necessity. No kid is going to toe the line for the ‘privilege’ of spending seven hours a day listening to lectures. Unless, of course, you help make the learning environment not as intolerable. Such as by allowing (and integrating!) cellphones.

      • Thanks for the comment. Most (not all) of my students (college freshmen) are in favor of banning cell phones in the classroom. They are irritated by their peers who are constantly doing something on their phones. They see the value in setting aside some “cell phone free” time.

      • datotherguy16 says:

        I so agree with you! I’m 13 and I can follow whatever rules in order to have a cell phone and most of my class will too.

    15. samhunter says:

      sam said or nahhh

    16. Mia B says:

      me too

    17. B-dubbs says:

      i agree

    18. Eleanor says:

      You shouldn’t use cell phones in school. End of discussion. How can schools even allow that? Texting instead of doing work. CHEATING by looking at the answers on the internet. Distracting other students. How can they not be banned??!!

    19. Tristen Agar says:

      Cellphones need to be allowed for students to use, as long as they gain an understanding of the subject and don’t disrupt others, they should have that quick escape, else they might lock up and not learn anything when being bombarded with information and not having a break to relieve stress and tension.

    20. phillip rob says:

      cell phones are a comforting device people, if you dont want cell phones in class because there a distraction then you might as well get rid of tapping pencils, and draw strings on hooded sweatshirts because those can also be distracting. swag me out.

    21. Juliene says:

      Phones in school cause too much of distraction. Kids won’t pay attention and will not learn a single thing. That is why I am writing a long argumentative essay about the subject.

    22. bored says:

      cell phones will distract many kids by going off or a alarm

    23. hfrewedwwafgd says:

      hi guys

    24. myra willis says:

      hi my name is siri

    25. DAVID THE BITCH says:


    26. jjc says:

      I believe that cell phones should be used for School but only for certen reasons like for after school clubs or research

    27. jjc says:

      I don’t ….. Believe this

    28. Jasmine says:

      How can I use this information on my paper?

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