Banning Cell Phones Prepares Students for The Past

A recent study from the Center for Economic Performance in London makes a disturbing recommendation to ban students from using their digital devices for learning. The study making the rounds in stories like this one (The Conversation), this one (ABC On Your Side), and this one (NY Mag) disregards what innovative educators know and research shows: Paper assessments are a poor indicator of student achievement.

The study indicates that after schools banned mobile phones, test scores of high school students increased by 6.4% of a standard deviation, which they say means that it added the equivalent of five days to the school year. It goes on to say the results indicate the ban has a greater impact on special needs students and those eligible for free school meals.

But before schools and districts start pulling devices from our the students who need them most, it is important to take a look under the hood.

Research (such as this study from Teachers College) has long showed that paper and pencil assessments severely underestimate the achievement of students accustomed to a digital world. Our student’s brains have indeed been rewired for the 21st century where innovation and creativity are valued over the drill, kill, and bubble fill requirements of outdated tests.

In fact, we need to stop assuming that cell phones are weapons of mass distraction, and start embracing them as tools of engagement. Nearly 60% of teens use their own mobile devices in school for learning even when schools are not supporting such use. Savvy teachers who are tapping into students' love of texting are helping them increase their literacy skills too. Numerous studies have shown that the more kids text, the more literate they become. One study from California State University found that “texting can improve teens’ writing”; others from Cambridge Assessment and Coventry University have corroborated this conclusion.

The problem with this study is that it looks at the traditional classroom designed to prepare students for their teacher’s 20th century pasts, rather than the connected world in which they live. As education visionary Marc Prensky reminds us, "Testing students without all the tools they will have at their disposal in the real world is no longer appropriate." In fact, there are forward thinking school districts that empower students to use technology for learning and assessment. Had these students been able to demonstrate their knowledge using 21st century tools, the results surely would have been different.

In classrooms where teachers are equipped with 21st century teaching practices they are incorporating school-provided and student-owned technology into learning. As one teacher told me after empowering her students to bring their own devices for learning,

"My students have become more alive and motivated. Students with problems, especially English language learners and special education students, have improved their behavior and are more into learning when we allow them to use their mobile devices."

We must stop forcing students to power down when learning and taking assessments. Instead, we must support students in effectively, respectfully, and responsibly using the digital resources they will need to succeed in their connected world.

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.

Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator. Nielsen is the author of several books and her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Tech & Learning.  

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.