Groundhog Day: Phones + Their Discontents
As a department chair, the first few weeks before school often feature meetings and conversations about implementing new and revising existing school policies and procedures with other school leaders. Revision of procedures to meet the needs of dynamic people in a changing environment is a healthy organizational practice, and, often, the conversations uncover ideological biases, ideologies, and assumptions that, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly, get written into our school handbook, course syllabus, or classroom norms. Interrogating the origins of our beliefs and values given our identities and experiences and understanding how they manifest themselves in educational spaces is critical if equity is at the forefront of our thinking and practice. Implementing policies without meaningful reflection about who they will impact and how is negligent, especially to populations who already face systematized discrimination. Often, the policies least interrogated are those that folks feel most strongly about; we become entombed by our certainty, so minds rarely ever change. Among the least interrogated, yet most wanted policies are schools are bans on mobile phones. If you’re want to win Twitter today, all you need to do is post something about a phone ban and watch the flood of parents, teachers, and other administrators like, retweet, and reply with furious and effusive praise.
Phones are sites where we work out our frustrations about the other things that we can’t—or won’t—name. As teachers, we know, logically, that outright banning tools with educational and connective purposes is both ineffective and unethical, but we, naturally, struggle with not being the center of the room or students’ access to massive amounts of information or our high need for control. Taking students’ phones is an easy way to get those likes and retweets, to show that we’re serious about learning, but, in the end, it does little good and harms both our relationships with students and the sense of independence we’re trying to foster. I’m aware of the research that talks about how students sometimes use technology in the classroom, and I’m not naive that this does, has, and will happen in my own classroom, too, However, these studies didn’t mention anything about any conversations people had with students about responsible and contextual technology use, though we might reasonably assume there were strongly-worded warnings in the syllabus and, that, on the first day students were sufficiently talked at about the perils of phone use, much like the scene from health class in Mean Girls. There’s also a load of problematic junk science on phones that folks rely on to craft harsh and oppressive policies, including the infamous study by Tom Bennett that is continuously brought up in these debates.
While this post may not change anyone’s mind about phones in their classrooms, I want to try to make a case against the full-scale banning of phones in classrooms and schools. It is important to acknowledge that research exists that suggests creating distance between teenagers and their phones can help them focus and increase their achievement.
Start With Trust
We know that total prohibitions are rarely ever effective in both preventing a behavior or educating people about why a behavior should be avoided. Our own experiments with abstinence-only sex education should be a clear warning about what happens when we aren’t presenting information that helps students make informed, educated choices. Phones, like pencils, paper, and erasers, are part of our lived environment, and asking people to refrain from them, especially when they can have legitimate educational and connective purposes, is flawed; we need to be talking withstudents about how to use the technology responsibly and thoughtfully. As Jesse Stommel writes, “We can talk to students about attention and have them talk to us about how attention works for them. This is the kind of metacognitive work that is the stuff of learning.” Together with our students, we can build collective norms that we individually agree to abide by as part of a community of learners. There is a fundamental difference between listening toand talking withour students about important decisions that impact their educational environments and surveilling them to ensure their compliance with ourrules, which often are meant to situate us at the seat of power. Like any inclusive, consensus-building activity, working with students build collectively agreed upon norms can be messy, but I’d argue here that the process is more important than the outcome: not only do these activities signal trust, they encourage students to be personally reflective about their own behaviors and make informed choices about their behavior. These arguments, by the way, are not even taking into account how outright bans on phones may negatively impact—and further stigmatize—students who need devices to learn, including those students who may not have a diagnosis.
Statements like I’m making here have gotten me eye rolls—and much worse—from colleagues and administrators; I’m frequently accused of being “pie in the sky” about my belief that students can and should have a say in the conduct of their classroom, and I’ve been accused of being a lax disciplinarian. School isn’t a panopticon, and I’m not a warden. I’m a teacher, and my most positive outcomes have been working with students as equitable partners rather than against them as a high-seated authority. It’s difficult for me to take seriously the forever-and-always calls for “building relationships” from folks who are also encouraging the enforcement of rules that lack student voice or perspective.
Outright bans on phones further entrench schools in asymmetrical power dynamics where students have little voice or say in the rules and norms they are being asked to follow and are often given very little rationale for why the rules and norms exist. Look around your next faculty meeting and see who is in violation of your school’s cell phone ban. In a recent meeting I was in, more than half the participants had their phones out and used them at one point during the meeting. If we aren’t willing follow the rules we set down for our students, then those rules are likely flawed, unless we only care about solidifying our place at the top of the hierarchy.
Implicit Bias + Discipline
A new study, led by Kate Wegmann at the University of Illinois, shows that Black students receive fewer warnings than their white peers for misbehavior. White students were generally given more warnings, which are opportunities to correct behaviors, than Black students who faced harsher punishments earlier and more often. Our implicit biases manifest themselves all over our classrooms—from our beliefs about student achievement to grading—so it isn’t surprising that is has an impact on who we discipline and how we discipline them. What feels like an equitable policy—an outright ban—probably isn’t in practice, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is equitable might be very well hurting students who have already been traumatized by our systems and policies. In other words, it’s easy to look at inequity as something that just happens rather than something that’s explicitly caused by our values, beliefs, and actions.
The disproportional outcomes students face when overzealous rules are put into place are harmful socially and academically, but the processes used to get to those outcomes are also in need of examination and change. My concern with these kinds of blanket rules is that teachers, some wittingly and some unwittingly, will replicate the traumas of “zero tolerance,”subjecting Black and Brown students to harsh punishment for minor violations. Indeed, it is easy to see how these policies can lead to “broken windows policing” in classrooms where teachers are looking for violations and acting swiftly and harshly to “make an example” of the student so others won’t mimic or replicate the behavior. All the while, the teacher can claim they were following the rules of the school, which are clearly and carefully laid out. A violation is a violation, after all, and exception shows softness. Before we argue about lost academics from cell phone use, let’s also acknowledge that an estimated 20 percent of the Black-White achievement gap is attributable to inequities in school discipline, which are often related to the zero tolerance, broken windows policies described here. Moreover, harsh punishments for banal violations can actually cause more disruptions and higher rates of misbehavior among the punished.
All policies that we enact and enforce reveal our assumptions about our students—they make our implicit biases explicit and codified—and blanket phone bans are no exception. If phones are the sites where we play out our unspoken fears, where our generational and positional proxy battles are played out, it is worth examining what we’re saying and who were saying it about when we ban them.
What’s Next: Try Using a “Liquid Syllabus” for Classroom Policies
I was introduced to the term “liquid syllabus” by Michelle Pacansky-Brock in 2014, and, in addition to make course syllabi more beautiful and appealing to engage with, she encourages us to think about making them interactive and crowd-sourced. Indeed, the whole idea of the “liquid syllabus” is that it’s malleable and shifts based on the dynamism of our environments and the people within them. As we head back to school, it’s useful to keep your syllabus open for a period of time—maybe we a week or two—and have students engage with it, provide you feedback, and reach consensus on key issues. Not only will this invest them in the content of the syllabus, you’re showing, early, that their voices will be taken seriously and the environment is one where their ownership is encouraged and valued beyond just show. The process matters, as we want to teach our students to make decisions, to reach consensus, and to be part of a democratic system. If this is too much, too soon, there are baby steps: you might keep a few non-negotiables while letting your students determine the rest, but, remember, you can’t just throw them the scraps. They need to have a legitimate voice in the pressing matters of the classroom. Student have to know that your serious about providing them a voice; they won’t participate meaningfully in an exercise that doesn’t lead to substantive engagement or change (nor should they).
The “liquid syllabus” is uncomfortable for some, as it may reveal—and students may comment on—implicit biases and unfair assumptions embedded in rules and policies that we thought were equitable and reasonable. Over the years, students have asked me about and pushed me on practices that were lodged deep into my pedagogy. Their questions weren’t mean or rude—they were genuine attempts to both understand and push—and this is where I’ve gotten the best instructional coaching of my career. It’s easy to get defensive, but it’s important to remember that our temporary discomfort in confronting our biases matters far less than the weight of oppressive systems that traumatize our students. There’s a lot to be said for modeling how to be vulnerable, take feedback, and grow for the students in your classroom.
Next week, I’ll be using a “liquid syllabus” protocol with my Writing Center students to build working agreements for our time together throughout the year, and I’m excited to see what our new tutors bring to the discussion while also understanding what our returning tutors learned from their previous experience.