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Contrary to what some may say, never before in the history of the world has the human population been more literate. People of all cultural, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds are reading and writing more than ever before. 

This reading and writing may not look like what literacy has traditionally looked like, but thanks to the devices at most people’s fingertips, people are reading and writing all day long.

Many educators may feel like cell phones are causing many new problems in the classroom, but they are not going away. And, if we are completely honest, the adults these students are observing in their day-to-day lives are either on their phones or checking their phones all throughout the day. According to Asurion, Americans are checking their cell phones every 12 minutes.

The Pew Research Center found in 2010 that although 65% of polled teenagers (defined as 12-17 year olds) are in a school that completely bans cellphone use, 58% of those teenagers send text messages during class. 43% of all teenagers, no matter their school’s stance on cell phones, say they text in class at least once a day or more. 

This has had a dramatic impact on every classroom in every school and has thrown some teachers for a loop.

A study published in 2016 titled “Hold the phone! High School Students’ Perceptions of Mobile Phone Integration in the Classroom” interviewed over 600 American students. They reported that while 90.7% of the students said they did use their phones for school-related work, 30% said that they thought cell phones should be banned in schools.

Those behind this study believe that their findings point to the fact that schools should ‘develop clear policies on appropriate classroom mobile phone use as well as consequences for their misuse … expecting schools to completely eliminate the problems associated with mobile phone integration, however, is unrealistic; therefore, school stakeholders must carefully consider the benefits and barriers identified by students in determining policy.’

The problem is that students are not just using phones appropriately. Some are using them for cheating, sexting and cyberbullying. Students are instigating and encouraging fights so they can film and post them in hopes of their video going viral.

What do we do? We can either ban them and lock them up, or we have to find a way to  embrace and utilize them as tools (which also requires appropriate boundaries and citizenship to be taught, as well).

It’s not an easy decision to make, but don’t worry - schools across the country have been trying different approaches for years. In this post, we will explore the options schools have and look at the failures and successes of a variety of programs.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel!

To Ban or Not to Ban

For years now, some schools have been banning cell phones on campus. This was a trend across the country 15 years ago, but 70+% of schools that had previously banned cell phones have decided that this was not the best approach and changed their policies accordingly. Even New York City Schools who famously had students turn phones in at secure locations (sometimes for a fee of $1) decided back in 2015 to do away with this practice.

With that being said, many districts are turning to banning cell phones in an attempt to tackle the problem of distracted students. This year Maryland, Arizona, Utah, and Maine have either banned cell phones or passed strong restrictions against phones in schools. The nations of France and Canada have even banned cell phones in school within the last year. Lockhart ISD and Duncanville ISD in the state of Texas have recently imposed a complete ban on cell phones at their schools.

Lockhart confiscated any phone found on campus and required students to pay a $10 fee to retrieve their phones at the end of the day. The money collected from just one year funded  four $1,500 scholarships.

Duncanville’s PACE campus for high school students at risk of dropping out has students lock their cell phones in Yondr pouches. Each morning, students encounter an administrator who distributes the pouches. Students put their phones in the pouch; it is locked and remains with the student throughout the day. At the end of the day, students tap the locked pouch on a device kept by the administrator, and the pouch is unlocked.

Simple Solutions

It is pretty common to walk into a secondary classroom these days and see a calculator caddy filled with cell phones hanging on the wall. This can be a very simple solution. A cheaper option could be a shoe caddy. If this is used, it’s best if it is kept hanging behind the teacher’s desk in order to try and prevent phones from going missing. 

Some teachers have used a numbered phone caddy as a way to take attendance or given daily grades for turning in phones, but not every student has a phone, and some have a burner phone that they turn in so they can keep their actual phone. A better alternative is to use a positive incentive. Try hanging power strips next to the caddy and telling students that they can charge their phones during class as long as they turn it off and put it in the caddy.

Another tactic could be to tape off a cell-phone-sized square on each desk and tell students that they are allowed to keep their phones parked in the square during class, face down and on silent. Then use the positive incentive of a 3-5 minute phone break as a good behavior reward in the middle or at the end of class.

Simple Uses

Schools that have embraced cell phones as educational tools are finding many ways students can use them in class. 

A couple of very small ways students are using cell phones appropriately involve the camera and calendar features. Students are using the calendar to organize and keep track of assignments, due dates, tests, and extracurricular activities. 

Cell phone cameras have given students the ability to take pictures of notes or examples on the board (along with other students’ assignments or secure tests when not properly monitored). Cameras can also be a way for students to archive graded assignments and track their progress and learning. Some teachers have even encouraged students who tend to lose completed assignments to show pictures of the assignments for partial credit if they are lost.

Some students are terribly distracted by the countless little noises that occur in the classroom, whether it is the teacher explaining a question to another student, someone clicking a pen, a whispered conversation in the back of the classroom, or a disturbance in the hallway. For these students, simply allowing them to plug in their headphones and listen to music or even white noise while they work can be all that they need to help them stay focused. 

The difficulties here lie in properly monitoring students to assure that they are not taking inappropriate advantage and listening to something other than music, like a podcast or a movie, and also in making sure that they unplug when necessary so they are listening to instruction or participating in discussions.

Apps like Swift, Socrative, and Poll Everywhere allow teachers to monitor student understanding with live, interactive feedback from students. 

Many teachers have experimented with the flipped classroom in which students watch instructional videos at home and do the practice assignments in the classroom where the teacher can offer support.

There are many apps that can be used for tutoring. Apps like Duolino and Mango can be a supplement to students studying a foreign language. And Khan Academy offers tutorials in nearly every subject.


The truth is, businessmen and women, lawyers, even teachers use their phones at work regularly. Responsible adults monitor their phones, even in important meetings, and step out to take calls when necessary. Phones are used to look up unknown information, schedule appointments, calculate figures, capture important moments, and track calories.

Cell phones have become a part of common life. If schools choose to neglect teaching a healthy approach to using them, they are only delaying the task of learning digital citizenship for their students and stunting their social and academic growth. This understanding must be balanced with the reality that students are neither old enough nor mature enough to navigate making healthy decisions and establishing appropriate boundaries. 

If you want to do some additional reading on this topic, here are some articles our writers used in developing this article:

Should Cell Phones Be Allowed in Schools, American University School of Education

Mobile phones in the classroom – what does the research say?

Cellphones in Schools — should they be banned or embraced?

Using Smartphone Cameras To Improve Student Organizational Skills

By Opening the Door to Cell Phones, Are Schools Also Feeding an Addiction?

Lift the Cell Phone Ban

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