Removing iPods And Mobile Phones From Students Is 'Discipline Theater'

from the won't-actually-help dept

I remember a few decades back, when I was in high school, our principal announced that her biggest concern and top focus was stopping kids from bringing walkmen cassette players to school. This was in a school where there were all of the more typical high school issues, including drugs, weapons and violence. The whole thing seemed so ridiculous. But, apparently, little has changed. We’ve seen lots of stories over the years, of course, about bans on mobile phones and iPods and the like. But, apparently, banning mobile phones and iPods from schools is becoming government policy in the UK. At that link, Bill Thompson notes the incongruity between things like mobile phones and iPods compared to other things that are banned (such as weapons and fireworks). But, of course, the reasoning is different. The thinking on phones and MP3 players is to keep kids from getting distracted, and to help teachers keep the attention of kids. In theory.

In a rather apt analogy, Thompson calls the whole thing “discipline theater,” akin to “security theater” found at airports:

It will do nothing to improve behaviour in schools where teachers are not respected by their students.

However, it could have a negative impact in other ways, as it enforces the idea that schools are places where “technology” is something out there, a word processor or spreadsheet on a desktop PC to be used for a particular purpose, instead of something that permeates all aspects of our daily lives and is becoming increasingly important.

He also points out that many schools are currently using such mobile devices in innovative ways within the classroom, and setting up a process to keep them out seems backwards. It’s too bad that the first reaction of so many people is just to ban such technology rather than (a) looking at ways to use it in a helpful manner or (b) understanding why the technology sometimes acts as a distraction.

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Comments on “Removing iPods And Mobile Phones From Students Is 'Discipline Theater'”

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danto10 (profile) says:

Why not...

Why not, instead of running away from technology, embrace it as a way to make subjects seem more relevant to a tech-obsessed culture? How about requiring teachers to run a twitter account for their respective disciplines, and update those pages with current events related to the subjects being taught? And then require students to follow those pages?

Wooster11 (profile) says:

Re: Why not...

I totally agree with you here, but there is one caveat that will make this impossible right now – maybe 10 years from now it’ll be possible if the funding is available. Not all students will have cell phones. Nor will the students with cell phones have a text message or data plan that will really let the system use the technology.

I would love to see some innovation here, but I think it’ll be really difficult to do because you have to still support those students who won’t have access to the tech.

I think the Twitter idea is a great one. There are also many other avenues to use the tech. We really can create a 24 hour virtual classroom. It’s just a difficult problem to solve when not all students, in fact a very large chunk of students, won’t be able to leverage the tech for themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why not...

Nothing like giving a private entity a monopoly of a government run institution. Bad plan. Bad.

CollegeBoard own the SAT, AP exams, and probably the ACT. The fact that most colleges take that private corporations word as gold terrifies me. That and the amount they can afford to charge being sole source.

danto10 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Why not...

It’s pretty far fetched to claim that using twitter gives twitter a monopoly over public schools. Definitely some problems with implementing a plan like mine, but in a world where media (and most things we deem important) follow us via technology, public schools ought to take advantage and alter their approaches to learning accordingly. Sitting in class and reading a standardized book isn’t going to engage a generation of instantly accessible, mobile information obsessed learners.

And the ACT is administered by a non-profit corporation. Not that there aren’t flaws in our college system, but many colleges do accept the ACT over the SAT now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Students using phones or other devices instead of paying attention is not a problem; it is a symptom.

The actual problem is that the students don’t find the classes interesting enough to pay attention. This could be for a number of reasons, but the bottom line is that banning phones and other devices will not make students pay attention, it will just force them to find another way to distract themselves while the teachers dispassionately read from a standardized test prep-book.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

seriously, despite being a technophile my entire life I never really brought electronics to school. there were plenty of ways to kill time while the teacher talked about Animal Farm with a piece of paper, a pencil, and a whole lot of teenage angst! Not to mention I got really good with making miniature origami.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Took the words right out of my mouth.

Lack of attention is a symptom. Students have been ignored teachers since the beginning of time. They don’t even need paper and pencil to zone out.

I never had a good teacher that I ignored. Meaning a teacher that was able to engage and connect with the class almost always has the classes attention.

The teacher is/should be better equipped to handle mis-uses of technology in the classroom than legislation.

j647 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sure, blame the teacher……while there are some poor ones out there, your “zoning out” smacks of professional irresponsibility – yours. Everyone is quick to blame teachers who don’t make it, but is possible that some percentage of students (10? 50? 76.5?) are culpable?

I also give no weight to the cheating argument. a) make your tests so it’s more trouble to cheat than to do the work or b) don’t give meaningless “A,B,C, or D” tests that only judge memorization, a skill that’s becoming as irrelevant as repairing wagon wheels.

Let them bring ipods/phones/etc; then ask them to use their phones to explain why the United States got involved in the First World War, what the effect be of too much carbon is in the atmosphere, or if a train leaves Philadelphia at noon traveling at 70 miles an hour and another leaves Minneapolis at 2:30 going 67.983 miles an hour, which one will reach St. Louis first and by how much? (I actually want to find out this one!)

kyle clements (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While you are partly right, teachers do need to be engaging to get through to their students, turning teachers from educators into entertainers is not a great solution.

A lot of the time, teachers don’t have much choice in the matter, the school sets the policy, and they have to enforce it weather they agree with it or not. And Curriculum’s, which must be followed, don’t always leave a lot of room for teachers to make something engaging and interesting.

When I did the overseas ESL thing, the school policy was, I think, a fair and reasonable one. If students were caught using something during class time, it was confiscated ’till Friday. Good behaviour meant they got it back sooner.
It was technology-neutral, it applied to anything they were mis-using during class time, and it left room for teachers to interpret and decide -“oh, he’s using his phone as a dictionary, I’ll let it slide this time.”

Blanket policies, bans and zero-tolerance rules are just the school’s way of saying “we don’t trust our teachers to make their own decisions”.

In my school days, I releaved my boredom by doodling in my sketch book incessantly. Now I’m a working artist.
Who knows what windows of opportunity schools are closing on these students by not letting them tinker in class.

Another AC says:


I don’t know about the “distracted student” argument, but the cheating argument tend to hold a little more water IMO. I’ve seen a fair share of articles about students cheating via texting. Also as far as the iPods are concerned, one could drop a text document cheat sheet onto one before class (yes, I’m aware that you can do that with your run-of-the-mill TI calculator too).

Just a thought…

qwerty teacher (profile) says:

Re: Cheating

I am more in favor of having technology restricted envioronments and areas. For instance the library is a common area where there are no lectures – let them use their ipods and mp3 players. Cellphones only outdoors or main hallways for calls. And complete restriction during testing or testing areas. Let’s teach our students how to be respectful mobile citizens. An altogether ban would probably result in more of a revolt.

vrob (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“They are useful in cases of emergencies, especially if someone needed to call you.”

1. An “emergency” and “someone needed to call you” are not the same thing.

2. Back before there were cell phones, there were phones with land lines. I am fairly certain that they still exist today and that every school has at least one. This means that when an emergency occurs, a family member can call the school office resulting in a person from the school office walking down the hall to interrupt your class and notify you of the emergency. This system has been tested and has been proven to work.

3. I have never been in a classroom where it was acceptable for a cell phone to ring during class time, and that applies to everyone; teachers, professors and students alike.

Jimr (profile) says:


Reminds me when Calculators where coming out. The schools wanted to ban them and said what would I do in the work place? I calmly stated that if my boss trusted my hand calculations over those done by a calculator then he would be fired – after all you have seen my math scores!

Schools need to innovate just like any business (except may movie and music business where law suits and suing your customer base is the business model).

Travis (profile) says:

Cell phone bans

While the argument against legislation to correct an issue such as cell phones in schools is understandable I think it misses the other problems that come along with cell phones. I think many people forget about what other issues are at stake with cell phones. Sure cheating is a problem, as I can attest to having worked for a text answering service. I saw many texts come in during “school hours” for questions that looked like they were taken straight off of a test. These were the questions I refused to answer for ethical reasons. Cheating is going to take place and teachers and professors can prevent it if they choose to.

What I take issue with is that a student answering a text message from their parents when the parent KNOWS that cell phones are not allowed in school. This undermines the school, teachers and administrators. I understand that many people don’t think administrators or teachers know a thing about what they are doing. Sure there can be a teacher that abuses their power, but at the end of the day that teacher is trying to teach your children some of the things that parents sometimes neglect. I’ve seen plenty of cases where the parents don’t teach their child manners or to show respect to authority.

Cell phones also have other aspects that don’t belong in schools. Sexting is inappropriate for a minor to engage in, and if I found that my child had engaged in that behavior I would have a long talk with them about why I think it is wrong. Cell phones can also be used to bully other students or involve drugs on campus. With any of these issues they can be addressed by administrators but when we cry foul for them taking an action we limit their ability to keep the schools safe. We should cry foul when students rights are being violated, not when administrators are just trying to keep our children safe.

On the note regarding banning of calculators:

I was told to refrain from using a calculator in middle school and am glad that my teachers did that. When a concept is introduced in math the easiest way for a student to understand is to write the problem out step by step. A calculator can cause problems by simplifying some of the steps needed to really understand the concept.

Cowardly Annon says:

Have you ever been at a seminar where someone’s phone has gone off? Annoying isn’t it?

How about sitting beside someone on the bus who’s music is too loud? Also annoying.

One kid having a phone or mp3 player in the classroom doesn’t distract one kid. It distracts everyone in the class, from the teacher trying to teach to the students who are trying to pay attention.

No, this won’t stop kids who don’t want to pay attention for whatever reason, but it will cut down on the distraction for the kids who do want to pay attention.

Anonymous Coward says:

Technology in and of itself is not always of positive educational benefit. Recent study released following low income students who were given laptops and internet access at home showed an overall DECREASE in test scores, especially in math and science, vs a control group. Very disappointing results. Turns out the kids did what other kids do with tech; played games and socialized as opposed to using tech to study. Remember, we are talking kids, who by definition are not fully responsible and self directed yet. Given a choice, how many kids would play video games vs studying? Same thing happens in class. Given a choice between goofing off and paying attention, what do you think kids will pick. And don’t give me that “teachers are boring ” argument. Kids are not self directed learners at younger ages. That’s why they are in school. While I fully support the use of technology in the schools, it has a role but is not a cure all for education.

Scootah (profile) says:

I might be renouncing my geek creds here – but if the school isn’t doing anything terribly innovative or interesting with mobile devices, but is instead finding that the devices aren’t being beneficially used anywhere in the school, except by kids who are goofing off instead of paying attention, why not ban them – or at least require that they aren’t used during school hours?

Sean Carton (profile) says:

Any of you have kids?

I suspect that the person who wrote the “discipline theater” article (as well as many of the posters in this discussion) must not have kids. As a big-time technophile I have absolutely no problem with MP3 players, cellphones, etc. However, as the parent of a 13 year-old I DO have a big problem with her bringing any of them to school.

Why? A few reasons:

1. They’re a huge distraction…even if they’re not being used. The kids spend enormous amounts of time discussing them, playing with them, showing them off, etc. Sure, they’d do this with just about anything, but a shiny new iPhone or iPad takes things to a whole new level.

2. They cause discipline problems. They get stolen. Kids fight over them. They’re distracting when secretly used in class. Etc, etc, etc.

3. They’re a constant headache for parents because they become yet another thing for kids to keep track of. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve searched for phones, iPods, etc. because they’ve been misplaced/left at school/etc.

4. Kids break them! All the time. Maybe the wealthy amongst us see iPods as disposable, but for most of us $300 is not an insignificant amount of money.

Students need to study, not muck around with cellphones and MP3 players. They’ve got enough distractions as it is without these added attention-suckers. And as for the argument that these items are somehow “learning tools” that are going to help kids understand their world and technology better…comon’. By that argument, we’re disadvantaging children by making them keep their DS’s, PSP’s, and other handheld games at home.

As far as I can tell schools pretty much suck when it comes to integrating technology into the curriculum. But specious arguments like this one aren’t going to change the educational system.

Lance Bledsoe (profile) says:

Here's a teacher who's in favor of this one

Speaking as a high school teacher who’s also something of a technophile, I confess I’m not crazy about blanket technology bans, but I think banning the use of cell phones and ipods in the classroom is a good idea. These devices are remarkably compelling for teens and many would happily spend several hours a day, including all of their class time, texting with their friends and watching youtube videos. There’s something to be said for having kids “turn the TV off” for a while so they can focus their brains on something a little more cognitively substantial. And it’s much easier to get a teen to do that if you’re not constantly having to compete with their cell phone, to say nothing of competing with 30 cell phones.

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