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Should schools ban smartphones in the classroom?

A student using her phone carefully in class, hiding it behind her arm.
A student using her phone carefully in class, hiding it behind her arm.

A new Florida law lets teachers ban smartphones from classrooms.

How do smartphones alter a student’s ability to focus, stay on task, absorb new information, or their self-control?

In short, how do smartphones impact academic and social-emotional learning?

“They cannot help but sneak over to different websites: Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. They cannot resist it. So we need to have some level of control.”

Today, On Point: Smartphones in schools. Many districts and now the entire state of Florida have had enough. But is banning them the answer?

Guests

Jeff Solochek, education reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and school consultant. Author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”

Michael Horn, author of several books including “From Re-Open to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child” and “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.”

Also Featured

Orlando Ramirez, second year sixth and seventh grade math teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Transcript

Part I

ORLANDO RAMIREZ: My first year, I had a student call like their mom right in front of me, to complain about what I was doing in class. Like, “Can you believe this teacher’s trying to take my phone away?”

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Welcome to Orlando Ramirez’s world, where things are already a, let’s call it a joyful challenge, trying to teach math to sixth and seventh graders in Florida’s Miami-Dade public schools. Mr. Ramirez tells his kids to keep their smartphones on silent and out of sight, sometimes even in their backpacks at the front of the class. But yeah, teaching multi-step word problems gets a lot harder when the pull of doing other kinds of steps is just so strong.

RAMIREZ: It can be very sneaky, like in their lap. Or it could be really upfront and bold, especially during independent practice when the students are sort of let go to do the work on their own and try it. I would have students, you know, come out of their seats and like do a TikTok, just like straight up, put their phone on the floor and just start dancing. And I’m like, “Yo, you need to put that phone away. Remember, we’re doing our independent practice right now.”

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so spontaneous dancing, let’s admit, it might bring a bit of much needed joy to a classroom. But Orlando says smartphones in classrooms bring more problems than happiness. He’s seeing how the phones are changing how his middle school students are treating each other.

RAMIREZ: From my position in the classroom, I wouldn’t see much of the actual bullying, but I would hear students talking about it. They use, like, the social media. Like, what’s the big one for the kids now? It’s Instagram. You know, like,”Oh, look what so-and-so said about me.” “Oh, we’re going to jump this kid after school.” “Oh, we’re going to beat him up.”

CHAKRABARTI: The kids cut corners on their learning, too.

RAMIREZ: I didn’t catch a single student cheat on an actual test, but during like an in-class quiz, a homework assignment, the lessons that they’re doing, they would take out the phone and almost always either use Google or Photomath. So it’s like an application. You take a picture of the math question, and it spits out the answer.

CHAKRABARTI: Orlando has a specific smartphone behavior protocol. First time he catches a kid with a phone, he just asks them to put it away. Second, third, fourth times, it’s a conversation in the hallway. But if it keeps happening, he writes the student up, or gives them lunch detention or can make them sit out a class.

Orlando Ramirez isn’t alone in this endless tug of war. Teachers all over Florida, and all over the country, face the same thing every day. And trust me, you have told us about it. But Miami-Dade County public schools do not ban smartphones in the classroom. It’s left up to individual teachers to set the rules. And according to Orlando, school administrators are no help.

RAMIREZ: I remember a couple months ago talking to my assistant principal about cell phones next year, because they were thinking about changing some policies. And I was like, “Hey, since we’re changing the hoodie policy to remove, you know, students having hoodies all the time, can we talk about cell phones?” And he told me, specifically, “You can have that fight with the parents. I’m not putting my foot in that ring.”

CHAKRABARTI: Well, recently, Florida’s already pugilistic governor, Ron DeSantis, did hop into that ring. Individual districts around the country have banned smartphones. But earlier this year, Florida went further, with a new statewide law. Governor DeSantis signed a bill giving teachers the authority to ban smartphones during instructional time, a power that they arguably already have. But now it’s backed up by this statewide law.

RON DeSANTIS: I think that they have every right to say, kids, come in, just check your phone at the beginning, at the front of the room, leave it there, learn and then grab your phone and then go after that. We don’t want the kids on the phone the whole time.

CHAKRABARTI: The Florida law takes effect just a couple of weeks from now in July. And Orlando Ramirez says it’s about time. But for him, it’s also a little too late. He is not going back into the classroom next year to teach middle school math. He’s going to grad school instead. But if he were, he says he’d be glad the state law has his back.

RAMIREZ: My principal is thinking about getting like, I don’t know, cell phone lockers for the students. I’d be like, “Oh, that sounds awesome to me.” But if he was going to, you know, take it like a step back, I might have gotten like, I don’t know, I might have gotten a crate from Walmart and been like, “This is my cell phone crate. When you’re coming in. You got to put the cell phones in the crate, you know.” And hopefully use these laws to be more like, “Hey, this is, I’m following the law here.”

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Smartphones are powerful tools, and like any tool, they can be used for immense good and can cause immense harm. With each passing year, as kids get younger and younger when they get their first smartphones, teachers are increasingly seeing how those devices are changing teaching, learning, behavior and student culture at schools. Many of them have had enough.

A number of districts across the country have banned smartphones in schools. But Florida’s new law may signal increasing willingness at the state level to do something about smartphones in schools. But is it the right thing? Is banning them the answer? What impact do smartphones have on learning? Well, let’s start with Jeff Solochek, education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, and he joins us now. Jeff, welcome back to On Point.

JEFF SOLOCHEK: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for inviting me.

CHAKRABARTI: So tell us a little bit more about what happened in Florida. The bill we’re talking about here is what, HB 379, right?

SOLOCHEK: Right. And it actually began a couple of years earlier with some lawmakers talking about the desire to control and teach kids about social media, which is where a lot of the problems seem to emanate from. Listening to the teacher who you interviewed, sounds like it was a big problem. And they wanted to start off by saying schools will teach kids how to use social media. And that bill grew, and this year it included this aspect of cell phones.

Now, it does not ban cell phones. It says specifically in the law that students may possess wireless communication devices in school, but it adds this language that they may not use them during instructional time, except for when teachers say it’s okay, and give them specific permission. And a lot of teachers say, like with the law saying that now, maybe we can finally put some controls back into our classrooms.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So I was wondering about that. First of all, thank you for the clarification. So to be clear, kids can still bring their smartphones to school, in Florida. But it’s up to individual teachers about, you know, whether they’ll allow them in the classroom or not. And specifically, during that instructional time, that’s really important.

But, Jeff, as far as we can see, this is the first statewide law that essentially sort of gives teachers the ability to say, look, the governor signed this bill, so I’m on the rights here. We couldn’t find another similar statewide law. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve been able to look and have found something else?

SOLOCHEK: I really haven’t seen anything like this previously. I know that Florida likes to be in front on so many different things. And this is one of those bills where Florida is saying, you know, we have teachers who are concerned about the things where we’re being vague. Here, we’re being very specific. This is for teachers.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so then tell me more about how this works into the other educational goals that Governor DeSantis has had. It’s interesting that it began as a we want to keep social media out of classrooms, but turned into this larger effort on smartphones.

SOLOCHEK: Well, there are so many things that Florida has been doing lately with regard to education, and one of them has been to focus on students, not systems, teachers, not unions. And this is one of those areas where the governor and the legislature are saying, “We’re trying to put some control back into the hands of the people who are using this system.” And not just saying, “School districts can do anything they want to the people who are in the system.”

And so we’re seeing that at the same time that he’s saying we’re going to really control the way that unions operate in the schools, we’re also going to give some powers to teachers, individual teachers in their classrooms to do things like, say, “Put your cell phone away right now.” I don’t know what the ‘or else’ really is, that will be up to school districts, because they’re going to have to set their rules. But at least the teachers will have somebody backing them up.

CHAKRABARTI: But just to be clear, though, I mean, teachers could do this beforehand. The main difference is now —

SOLOCHEK: Oh, absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: The main difference is that now there’s this state law that sort of clears the path for them.

SOLOCHEK: Right. Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So tell me a little bit more about, do you know the story of how it expanded from like sort of banning TikTok to phones in general? Is there more to that?

SOLOCHEK: Well around the state, there’s been a lot of discussion lately, and it really started happening after people started getting really involved in their devices with the pandemic and they saw that kids were starting to not communicate well with others. Behavior problems were starting to rise, and when they came back to school, teachers were really complaining that discipline was a huge problem.

And they started to point towards this whole being enamored with, or being addicted to, maybe, cell phones and the things that they were using. They want to go back to this in-person instruction. Florida is very strong on, “In-person instruction is what matters.”

But in order to do that, you have to have the students’ full attention. So we had a lot of school districts where board members, members of the public, teachers were saying, we need to really correct this. We need to get back away from … every kid putting in their earbuds as soon as they walk out a classroom, and they listen to music and text with their friends. We need to put some rails on this and get back to making our on time, in-person education be meaningful and not just a chaotic mess.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So here’s what’s really interesting to me. HB 379, first of all, passed unanimously in the Florida legislature. That doesn’t happen all that often, I gather. And second of all, it’s not just the, “We have your backs, teachers, if you want to, you know, keep smartphones out of your classroom.” It does have some specific policies about blocking access to social media on school provided Wi-Fi and specifically TikTok. Is that right, Jeff?

SOLOCHEK: That is correct. They do it on school Internet systems and school-owned devices where they’re saying that certain things need to be protected. You have to have systems that guard student data when they’re using the systems. You have to not allow, specifically, TikTok.

And we know that TikTok is part of a larger argument nationally over the role of China and the role of data. But at the same time, it’s the same platform that kids were using to go and wreck school restrooms and have a contest. Or see how hard they can pinch their teachers’ butt. So, there’s something to be said for that.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Okay. Well, so Florida has taken a first step as a state then to do something, not just about social media in schools, but to give teachers a little bit more power, or at least have the state law at their back if they want to keep smartphones entirely out of their classrooms.

Other districts, individual districts have done it in various states across the country. But we’ll see if there are more efforts at the state level, as have been in Florida. So, Jeff Solochek, education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, joining us from Tampa. Thank you so much for coming back to the show, Jeff.

SOLOCHEK: My pleasure. Thanks again for inviting me.

CHAKRABARTI: And when we come back, we’re going to talk in-depth about what impact smartphones actually have on learning.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Sometimes I guess we inadvertently touch a nerve, because when we asked you last week to send us your thoughts about how smartphones are impacting classrooms, we heard from listeners in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon, California, Washington, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado and many other states. And let’s just say there were some common themes.

LISTENER MONTAGE: They are horrible.

It is a distraction. They are big distractions.

These kids are also very distracted.

Concentration and attention spans.

Students cannot focus on much these days.

It is just impossible to focus.

So their focus is not on what they’re supposed to be learning.

Their attention is completely diverted away from anything.

CHAKRABARTI: So focus and distraction. Those were the No. 1 issue that teachers told us about. Kids just have a hard time paying attention in class, they say. Well, Ray Rios sees this in his Fredericksburg, Virginia, classroom every day.

RAY RIOS: They cannot help but sneak over to different websites, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, whatever it is, they can’t, they cannot resist it. So we need to have some level of control in the classroom at an educator. So I am for banning cell phones in the classroom 100%.

CHAKRABARTI: And Tina, a teacher in Kenosha, Wisconsin, told us that even the most entertaining, the most engaging educator in the world, she thinks, doesn’t stand a chance.

TINA: Students will be on their phone during instruction. They’re watching TikTok. They’re watching cats fall off refrigerators. They’re not watching anything, and they are not being successful in school. It doesn’t matter how entertaining a teacher can be. You’ll see or hear about, oh, teacher engagement or lesson plans aren’t engaging. I’ll tell you what, I have 20 something years of theater and I’m pretty engaging. But I can’t compete with TikTok.

CHAKRABARTI: Truly just a drop in the bucket of the calls that we received about this issue. So Catherine Steiner-Adair is a clinical psychologist and a school consultant, and she’s author of the 2013 book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” Katherine, welcome to On Point.

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR: Thank you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: What do you hear in the voices of those both passionate and somewhat frustrated educators just now?

STEINER-ADAIR: I hear the same thing I hear every day when I’m consulting to schools in America and elsewhere. I think that we have to really push, reboot and reflect on why kids go to school, and are smartphones enhancing their educational experience or just, you know, distracting them from learning and all the many reasons kids go to school? It’s utterly consistent with what I hear.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so that is the fundamental question. What impact can and do smartphones have on learning? And then therefore, if it’s overwhelmingly negative, and that’s still an if, is banning them the answer? So, Catherine, give us some way to measure the impact that smart phones have on K-12 learning. I mean, where would we look to start getting the answer to that?

STEINER-ADAIR: Well, the good news is right now we currently have research that we didn’t have when we all got psychologically hooked and neurologically hooked on our smart phones. And that’s part of the problem. We are so dependent on them neurologically and socially.

But we have research now that is very clear that when not used for really good, differentiated educational purposes, which I’d love to come back to, having a phone on your body, in your backpack, in your vision, whether it’s turned on or off, distracts you. And just the mere presence of a phone we know creates anxiety and stress because they are stimulants to the brain, and we crave stimulants.

So you think you may have FOMO. Who might be texting me? What am I missing? And grownups can’t self-regulate with that. And certainly, kids can’t. The problem with having kids exposed to this developmentally is they’re not growing healthy brains that will help them live into their brilliance and their potential. Because we know that having a phone impairs attention and memory. And it keeps them from engaging with very frustrating work, which is what school can be.

And it negatively impacts their reaction times, their performance, their fun, just the fun that comes from solving a hard problem. And it disrupts their developing cognitive capacity over time. And these are very serious. It also disrupts their social skills and their leadership education.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, Catherine, hang on here for just a second, because there’s a lot in what you just said. First of all, I mean, smartphones really burst on the scene roughly, I mean, the smartphones that we recognize today, roughly 2010-ish. So now we have 13 years of gathered evidence.

I mean, is it conclusive that especially amongst young people who, as you said, their brains are still forming, that on the issue of attention, attention, distraction and the ability to focus, that instead of just having sort of a momentary impact, that there’s a cumulative effect that smartphones have in the ability to stay focused for long periods of time.

STEINER-ADAIR: Yeah, we’re starting to have research now that shows us extensive use of a smartphone now impacts cognitive memory, short and long term. Both if you’re in a class, for your test in a month, for your test tomorrow. And cumulatively disrupts sort of the development of long- and short-term memory, which of course is what education is all about in many ways, amongst other things.

So there is research now, just starting to have it. And I think the real question is until we know what is really great use of, differentiated use of smartphones, which I think we know more and more about, what kind of harm are they doing? And that’s becoming more evident for sure.

CHAKRABARTI: So the last third of our show today is going to be exactly about like what is good, intelligent, differentiated use of smartphones in classrooms. We’re going to spend a lot of time on that. But I’m also seeing, you know, that there’s studies that show some pretty clear, measurable effects. Now, I’m not looking at meta studies so far, meta-analysis.

These are individual studies. But there’s one, for example, that appeared in the Journal of Communication Education that said, I believe these were for college students, that students who are not using their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, and were able to recall more detailed information from lectures. And actually, scored a full letter grade and a half higher on multiple choice tests.

Now, you can quibble with the test taking part of it, but is there something proven now about the impact that smartphones have on the actual engagement that students have in real time with the learning that’s supposed to be going on?

STEINER-ADAIR: Yes, there is. I mean, there are different research. One research showed that kids scored 30% lower on a test taken immediately after those who weren’t texting in class. And answering texts by studying, whether it’s in study hall or whether they’re supposed to be listening to a lecture or engaging, problem solving, we know can undermine grades.

And for some kids, it’s the difference between passing and failing. Kids in general, when they have access to their phones, about 10 to 15 minutes into the class, start to experience FOMO. Many of them do. Not all, but many of them do. And once you start texting or looking at TikTok in a class, that class is over for you in terms of full engagement.

CHAKRABARTI: Actually, let me go back for a second here, because I’m just fascinated by studies on this. There’s another study, just to reiterate what you were saying, Catherine. This is from the Journal of Educational Psychology from 2019. So it was before the pandemic even. I imagine that the findings are just further solidified post-pandemic.

But this study found that dividing attention between an electronic device and a classroom lecture did not actually reduce the comprehension of the lecture. If a teacher gave a quiz in class just after the lecture. But what it did was it reduced long term retention of that information. Yeah, go ahead. Tell me more about that.

STEINER-ADAIR: Well, you know, again, we’re talking differentiated use. Also, if kids are actually using phones in educationally sophisticated ways, and texting about the content and it’s showing up on the screen above, that actually can help with learning. That’s a highly personalized, individualized way of bringing smartphones into the class that are enhancing.

But if they are texting, and distracted, or you can imagine what it’s like to be a kid in the class where you see your best friend, you know, suddenly didn’t invite you to a sleepover. You just check out, you’re hurt, you’re upset, you still might be able to remember something that you heard, tomorrow or that day. But chunking it in your brain, and downloading it and processing it the way we need. You know, it doesn’t seem to be happening, and that’s very disruptive.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So not only are kids who are being distracted by their smartphones, again, when the phones are not being actually used for learning. They may not even be aware of the information that they’re missing out on during class. But you’ve said a couple of times something important, also. Not only are they distracted, but they’re distracted by things that are, you know, understandably of a social nature a lot.

So it’s changing the way kids are interacting with each other in school, which is a really important part of education, the social aspect. So I want to just play a couple of thoughts that we received from other educators. This is Amy Petkoff. She is an eighth-grade math teacher in Golden, Colorado. And she says how students treat each other on digital media is making its way into classroom behavior.

AMY PETKOFF: In the last couple of years, we’ve actually had them in a lockbox because especially at the middle school level, developmentally, they’re not quite ready for all this wide world Internet stuff. And there’s a lot of cyber bullying that goes on.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Amy Petkoff, an eighth-grade math teacher in Colorado. Then we also heard from Zachary Cerisa. He sees that social media impact even in his fifth-grade classroom in Grinnell, Iowa.

ZACHARY CERISA: You’re at home texting with your friend. The drama starts, and then you actually carry it on into school with you. And that’s when we’re really impacting education, is when social, emotional security of our students is being compromised by their own social media actions and their actions on cell phones.

CHAKRABARTI: Catherine Steiner-Adair, talk about this a little bit more.

STEINER-ADAIR: We know that when humans can be anonymous, they will say things they don’t say face to face. We know that the amount of cyber bullying, teasing, humiliating photos, embarrassing pics, starting rumors, deepfakes have all increased in the ten years or 13 years that we’ve had smartphones.

And at the same time, the average age in which many kids in this country are being given a fully loaded phone with unrestricted access to the Internet and the World Wide Web keeps getting younger and younger. When I originally did the first round of research for the book, most kids, many kids weren’t getting phones until eighth or ninth grade, and now fifth graders seem to have them without parental control.

Kids have iPads in their bedrooms with no restrictions, and they’re just exposed to the adult world. And the online world can be lifesaving for kids for sure, but it also can introduce them to hate, and porn and vulgar language and mean behavior and fake news. And they’re not getting the help they need when they are exposed early. And they’re struggling emotionally with an overwhelming amount of information that’s really hard to process.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, Catherine, I also imagine that because actually learning how to be an individual in the world, how to be a citizen in this world is a really important part of school. Learning as you grow to be autonomous for yourself, how to self-advocate, how to work with others. You know, these fundamental aspects of being present in the world. Do smartphones disrupt that for kids in terms of that kind of learning?

STEINER-ADAIR: It depends on how they’re being used. You know, social media, TikTok, etc. Sure. You know, we want our kids to have the technological tools they need as they inherit the AI future. And I actually think teaching classes early on in a developmentally appropriate way, that this is your brain on tech. This is what the tech industry wants to do with your intelligence.

You know, these are attention grabbing devices. I have great success talking to kids, inspiring them by teaching them how this industry co-opts their attention, their learning, their creativity, when it helps, when it enhances. But most of all, we want kids to develop the tools of our humanity. Empathy, ethics, social, emotional intelligence, DEI competencies that they’re going to need to survive and thrive in this AI and chatbot world. And I think we need to honestly rethink the core curriculum.

Because children need to learn how to use these devices, and they need to learn when to use them, when they are helpful, when they are healthy, and when they are hurtful. And when they are being, you know, distracted by an industry that doesn’t care about your kids, doesn’t care about their education, doesn’t care about their moral development. They just care about keeping them engaged.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, until we have that curriculum, though, I think a lot of schools are seeing such a profound and quick change that they are moving to banning the smartphones in the classroom. Because, I mean, I guess ideally what you want in a child’s development is you also want them to like, experience, you said this earlier, the joy that comes with the struggle of learning.

But if you’re never actually fully engaged in that struggle, you won’t feel that sense of accomplishment and joy. Now, Catherine, I do want to say that this is America. Of course, this is the United States. And we got some calls from people who were very opposed to a smartphone ban for highly one highly specific reason. So, for example, listen to Jodi. She’s a parent in South Florida.

JODI: I don’t think it’s fair that our children have to have active shooter drills. And then we take away the one way they have to effectively communicate with their parents and families in an emergency situation.

CHAKRABARTI: And we also heard from a young woman named Tanner. She’s 24 years old from Greensburg, Pennsylvania. She left a message on our On Point VoxPop app, and she told us that she remembers when flip phones were the big thing, and she didn’t like how even those things changed learning and social dynamics in her school. But she also says:

TANNER: However, we cannot eliminate the context of this question in the American school and the idea that students, almost any age level, probably shouldn’t have their cell phones, but might need them as a literal lifeline in the event of an attacker. It’s horrifying that we have to have that as part of the conversation.

I would love to talk feasible solutions like students turning in their phones at the beginning of class, or maybe having a one-to-one discussion with an instructor about why they might need to keep a phone on them or keep it silent. However, it is not feasible to say, just take all of these students’ phones when the student might need to call the police, or in the event of an attacker, or contact their family to let them know that they’re safe or to potentially say goodbye.

CHAKRABARTI: Catherine, we’ve got about 30 seconds before we have to take a break. I’m just wondering what you think about the safety issue.

STEINER-ADAIR: Well, there are different kinds of safety. I think the fundamental safety issue is guns in this country, and educators shouldn’t be even having to face this problem. And I understand the school shooting fear, but there are other forms of safety during the school day. Being bullied makes a child unsafe, being harassed because of your identity, or your race, your body size, or shape makes a child unsafe. Teasing that goes on in social media creates enormous emotional stress.

So we have to think about different levels of safety and what it means to feel safe in school. But let’s say there’s a school trip, and you know, you’re on a bus and there’s a bus accident of some kind, we need to get those kids off the bus. The last thing you want them doing is texting their parents back home. We want their eyes on the bus driver, and the teacher who says, you know, grab your backpacks and get off.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re talking about smartphones in American classrooms. Because next month, on July 1, the state of Florida has a new law, statewide law, that’s kicking in that will allow teachers in all public-school classrooms to ban smartphones from their classrooms. Now, individual districts across the country have already done this, but Florida is the first state to offer a statewide law to back teachers up, if they wish to keep smartphones out of their classroom.

So today, we’re really trying to take a deep look at what impact do smartphones have on learning in K-12? And then also, you know, a total ban vs. a TikTok free for all is kind of a little too all or nothing for us. So is there a better way to somehow use these ubiquitous devices to enhance education, rather than distract kids from it? We’re going to talk about that for the remainder of the show.

But in places where smartphone bans have been instituted, we had educators call us to talk about the really quick results that they saw. For example, here’s Steve, an administrator in San Diego, California, and he says he successfully stopped classroom smartphone use in three middle schools.

STEVE: And we saw a massive increase in student engagement when we did not have them allowed, turned off, put away in student backpacks, and we saw less drama, fights.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, there’s also a lesson for parents here because David Buchalter, he’s been teaching for 20 years. And he called us to tell us that he once assigned his kids a very special homework. They were to go home and ask their parents to turn off their cell phones for 30 seconds on one day. Then their parents were supposed to turn off their cell phones for one minute on the next day, 2 minutes and then five. So what happened?

DAVID BUCHALTER: They came in the next day and I said, “How did it feel?” And these children, these ten-year-olds, these fifth graders, one of them, I remember, said, “I felt so powerful.” Another one said, you know, my mom looked at me in the eyes, she’s usually looking at her phone, checking Facebook. And they were just, they said, “I felt powerful. I felt seen.” You know, it was amazing.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So some testimony there on what turning cell phones off or banning them from classrooms can achieve. But on the other hand, are kids missing out on something? Well, this is Naomi Nash, a substitute teacher in Austin, Texas. And you’ll also hear from Ed Sackett in Belchertown, Massachusetts.

NAOMI NASH: First of all, technology is our future. Secondly, as long as the kids aren’t using their smartphones on a test, then I don’t see an issue with it. I’m a substitute teacher for Austin ISD, and I don’t make kids put their phones away unless they’re using them for, you know, YouTube or something like that. If they’re paying attention and using them to look up and research, then I have no issue with it.

ED SACKETT: I made an agreement with my principal that my students could use their smartphones. Because I needed them to be able to access information that they couldn’t access through the school computers. So keeping smart phones out of schools is really trying to keep education out of schools.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’re joined today by Catherine Steiner-Adair. She’s in Tenants Harbor, Maine, and she’s author of the book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” I’d like to bring Michael Horn into the conversation now. He’s with us from Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and he’s author of several books, including “From Re-Open to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child” and “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.” Michael, welcome to On Point.

MICHAEL HORN: Thanks so much, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: So give me an example that you can think of, of how smartphones can be used. Let’s pick middle school, for example, to enhance a child’s educational experience in the classroom and not distract them from it.

HORN: Absolutely. It requires changing the learning model itself. Instead of assuming that all students should be looking at the teacher in the front of the room, marching in lockstep and various levels of engagement, which as Catherine said, is really important for learning. You can imagine that each student is on their own curriculum. It might be Khan Academy, it might be Duolingo, it might be Quizlet to get reinforcement.

And they’re going at their own personalized path and pace through the learning, actively working on problems, and then joining in on projects to do deeper learning with other students. And so the cell phones become part of the way to actually learn as opposed to a distraction, which I agree with, in a whole class model can be really, really unfortunate.

CHAKRABARTI: But can’t that differentiated learning that you’re describing take place through if a school, you know, can afford to have them, through laptops and tablets, upon which there aren’t the apps for, you know, TikTok and other social media? Because I think it’s not just the phone, the smartphone itself, it’s the sort of unregulated access to the Internet that people are concerned about.

HORN: Absolutely. And I think it’s a valid concern. I think what you just named is part of this. There’s an accessibility question, in many cases. There’s a question of affordability and making sure that people have access. And many times smartphones are the ways that we make this more democratized for more students. I’ll give you one more example, though, which is I often love when classes get outside their classroom, they go into nature, they go to the nearby pond, and they do scientific study and stuff like that.

Well, having a smartphone with you to take water samples or things of that nature can be a really powerful use of a mobile device that you couldn’t necessarily do with the laptops on hand or even in some cases, the tablets. And so having that ability to be purpose-driven, I think, is incredibly important as an option, not necessarily even the default.

CHAKRABARTI: Purpose-driven, there’s a key phrase. Well, it actually lines up really well with something that Amy Price told us. She’s a high school teacher in South Carolina, and this is how she’s incorporated smartphones into her teaching.

AMY PRICE: In my classroom, cell phones are off. But if I do an experiment, if the kids want to use their cell phones and take a picture, I teach science. And they want to take a picture of their cheek cells, that they just swabbed. I show them how to use it. Use your cell phone. Video the lab that we’re doing. If you have a question I can’t answer, get your phone out. Let’s look it up. Let’s use it as a teaching tool in the classroom. And if we are not using it as a teaching tool, let’s put it away.

CHAKRABARTI: Catherine Steiner-Adair, I mean, this sounds actually like one of those, it’s so simple and obvious as a solution that I wasn’t even thinking about it. Does it sound feasible, though, to you?

STEINER-ADAIR: Oh, that’s the million-dollar question, Meghna. I think that it really depends on the kids you’re working with and what the school climate is like and what the expectations are. Self-regulation, when it comes to social media, is very, very difficult for kids. There’s no question about it. And different kids experience it to different degrees. About 30% of kids say they are quote, and little lowercase a, addicted to their phone because of social media.

So I think differentiated use is critical. And I think we need to teach children, beginning at the moment we give them any kind of technology, “Here’s how you get on. Here’s how you get off. Here’s how it works. You know, how to set up safety rails for them.” So I think that there are ways in school, definitely, to use and integrate a smartphone in the way Michael Horn is talking about. I’m a huge fan of his work.

That said, I absolutely agree that they are profoundly disruptive of kids’ mental health during the day, and their ability to concentrate and their ability to develop complex moral reflection and deal with frustration, learning’s hard. Learnings hard and gosh, getting that hit off Instagram or Snapchat is such a high. And you feel so high and the stimulant makes you think, “Oh, I’m paying attention to school and I’m really having fun.” But you’re not. You’re not. You’re not learning.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, Michael, go ahead.

HORN: Yeah, well, I agree with what Catherine’s saying. I think she’s exactly right. That the problem is, when you’re having it in this traditional model or you’re just moving on to it to get that dopamine hit. Look, I think the evidence is extremely compelling that social media is a negative for probably large parts of society. But certainly under 16, incredibly challenging. That seems like one set of guidelines that we need to deal with.

The second question, I think, is really do we allow the educators to make a professional judgment about the model that they’re using and the students that they have, and when it would be helpful versus when it’s detrimental and making sure that the educators are empowered. And frankly, that might mean giving them infrastructure like those Yondr Pouches or lockers to, you know, get the phones out of the way when that’s the right step for students.

CHAKRABARTI: So for people who don’t know what the Yondr Pouches are, sort of a rough description is they’re pouches with these electronic locks on them. So kids are supposed to put their phones in the pouches at the beginning of the school day and then as they go home, at the end of the day, they sort of wave the pouch in front of what an RF ID card? It unlocks the pouch. Is that right, Michael?

HORN: That’s exactly the idea, right? And it’s just another tool to give educators the power in their classroom, in their schools and their learning environments to make the right choice for what’s going to benefit the students.

CHAKRABARTI: So here’s the thing about smartphone technology. It’s obviously ubiquitous. It has changed the way we live. Therefore, it’s also changed school culture. I mean, the two are closely intertwined. Because kids bring into school what they’re living outside. And to that point, we heard a really interesting bit of hesitation from a particular teacher. This is Kerry Denzler. She teaches in Denver, Colorado. And she says that from an educational standpoint, she absolutely agrees with the idea of banning smartphones in classrooms. But there’s another aspect of the idea that she does not think many people have considered.

KERRY DENZLER: I don’t think what we’re doing now is working. But I have a problem with the idea that teachers are going to have another job on top of all the other jobs that we already have, including health worker, including social worker, including, you know, differentiating special ed experts. I just think there’s so much that we already have on our plate. And to add cell phone policing in this way, I think is just too big of an ask.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Catherine. I mean, teachers are already having to police cell phone use in classrooms. I mean, that is their reality. But what do you think about this concern that, wow, if there’s a total ban, it’ll just add another required thing that teachers have to take a look at, that they don’t have the time for.

STEINER-ADAIR: Well, in the schools I’ve worked in that have a total ban, and that are transparent about why and explain to the kids and explain to the parents, the faculty feel empowered. It actually takes the pressure off of tech policing. Because it’s really clear, “This is what we do at our school.” And one of the things I have seen in schools that have impacted effectively a ban, certainly on social media and in smartphones as distractors, is that school spirit and engagement really rises.

And kids seem happier, and kids seem like kids again, rather than sort of robots with their heads down in the hallways, and everybody notices it. I did a focus group with seniors in the high school, where the school decided to eliminate phones. And at first they were furious, and they did just what you want 18-year-olds to do. They said we can vote. You can’t tell us we can’t have our phones. By February, they all agreed that their relationships with each other, with new friends, with their teachers, had all improved. That school was actually a happier place, and they were relieved not to be getting texts during the day from their parents.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Okay. Well, as I said, we keep looking for solutions that may not necessarily have to be all or nothing. And we heard from so many teachers on this. I keep saying that, but it really was quite a deluge. This is Carrie Bodner. She’s been teaching high school science in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for 25 years. And here’s her solution.

CARRIE BODNER: I require that smartphones, all phones, be placed in a over-the-door shoe mesh contraption, and they’re numbered. And each kid has to turn in their smartphone at the start of class. And that’s what I use to take attendance. So they don’t turn it in, they’re marked as cutting class. And then, in fact, you can use the phones as rewards.

If the class behaves and gets their work done, and does what’s appropriate, you can say, okay, you can have the last 15 minutes of class work on your homework and you can use your phones to listen to music. And if you’re open about, “Hey, it’s class time, this is learning time, your phones are on the door.” Then they have them if they need them, in case of an emergency, but you have their full attention. Because they’re not on them without your knowledge.

CHAKRABARTI: So that was Carrie Bodner, a high school science teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And we’ve got one more here. This is Dean Howarth, a high school teacher in Northern Virginia, and he told us that he thinks smartphones in the classroom might provide a hidden lesson, because kids need to learn how to cope with distraction.

DEAN HOWARTH: Some kids only learn the hard way, and maybe goofing around on TikTok instead of actually learning something will come back to haunt you.

So unless you want to make sure that you’re not in the wrong bucket when the wheat gets separated from the chaff, maybe you should learn how to put the phone down or use it for its positive use. If Isaac Newton had a cell phone, we’d probably colonize Mars by now. But I’m pretty sure that if he did have one, he wouldn’t be wasting his time on Instagram.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Michael Horn, so that I think is actually one of the most important questions. Is that if short of outright bans, if we’re to achieve the kind of differentiated learning or really purposeful learning that smartphones could potentially bring into classrooms, it means that teachers will also have to, you know, teach kids on how to balance distractions. And I think that’s kind of tough given the number of distractions that they have outside the classroom. How do we do that inside the classroom?

HORN: Yeah, I love the question. And the teacher’s comments both brought smiles to my face. But I think the important thing is that the International Society for Technology and Education put out this report that a lot of the policies around smartphone use in school talks about what not to do, as opposed to what to do. What are the possibilities and positives? Things like, I would put my device away when the teacher says to, for example, I will use it in this sort of responsible manner.

And part of that is doing what schools have always done, which is teaching character or habits of success in the context of the academics, things like self-regulation, self-awareness, mindfulness, executive function, which quite frankly are maybe more needed than ever as we become adults. Because as some of the folks you had on said, parents and adults struggle with this, as well. And so learning these skills as kids in the context of academic learning isn’t just, you know, a distraction. It’s actually a very big positive as we go out in the real world.

CHAKRABARTI: But, Catherine, we have 30 seconds left. I’m going to give you the last thought. I hear everything that Michael’s saying, but it seems to me that with smartphones coming into kids’ hands at every younger age, it’s like trying to push back against a tsunami. A tsunami of distraction. Schools have a tough time.

STEINER-ADAIR: Well, the first question is, why are kids getting fully loaded smartphones without getting the education and the support at home about how to effectively get on them, and get off them and to put up the guardrails they need.

I think that these phones are part of our lives, but we have to be very thoughtful about when, and how and why they’re being used. And schools have been struggling horribly with the loss of education, engagement and kids’ mental health and well-being. And to the extent that phones disrupt that, let’s start at that bottom line. Work up from there to Michael’s inspiring thoughts.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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