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If We're Banning Phones, We Won't Connect Our Students To The Future

     For those of us that follow the news, especially education news, we don’t have to wait very long for an educator, or educators, to give us the excuse for a blog post. This week’s winner goes to the principal and staff at Korematsu Middle School in California’s East Bay Area.
     They were recently featured, and apparently heralded, by an article in Ed Source ( for their recent compliance and control upgrade that bans students from using their cell phones at lunch and during their free time.
     According to principal Matthew Burnham, they tried to let the 7th and 8th grade students use their cell phones last year during these times and it was, according to them, an abysmal failure. The school claims that due to the students being “glued” to their cell phones, no one was talking and interacting with one another. And after watching the movie “Screenagers” and drinking from that proverbial firehose of biased information, this school was trying to have the students spend less time with headphones on, listening to music, having their necks bent forward and dozens of other student ailments caused by cell phones.
     The article also said that the students were engaging in conflict and drama via social media and they wanted to put a stop to that. Furthermore, the article quotes an English teacher at Korematsu who found a student pretending to read a book while actually looking at their phones. Principal Burnham even directed students over the microphone to talk to the person next to them at lunch.
(photos courtesy of Joe Sanfelippo)

     What have we become? What is our definition of teaching, leading or mentoring? Are we not satisfied to be facilitating what students are doing during their class time that we need to dictate to them what they during their personal time?
     I can’t help but imagine what these educators would do if any of us told them to get off of their phones and talk to one another while in the teachers’ lounge or at Starbucks. And we all know that the best way to teach students anything, especially responsibility, is to just ban it. Right? WRONG!
     To me, this actually epitomizes the divide we are experiencing in education. It’s the classic compliance vs. creativity. In an effort to solve a problem, or teach responsibility, too many times educators lean towards the compliance side of thinking. Kids are to be quiet, obedient and controlled. If so, they are learning, according to this mindset. The problem is that this is the exact opposite of two things: (1) Teaching our students to live and work effectively in a digitized, globalized and transformed society, as well as (2) doing things that actually work.
     Education, or educators, are famous for continuing to promote and implement things that have actually never been very effective (if not counterproductive) - i.e. homework, detention, overreaching dress codes, etc.
     Do we want to approach students as young adults and how we’d like to be approached? Or do we want to continue to control them? To me, it’s that simple. I’m not suggesting that we don’t have rules, guidelines or policies. I’m asking that they be common sense.
     And what about the actual problems? Things such as isolation, distraction, drama and conflict are not technology or cell phone issues. They are human issues that we need to address comprehensively and personally - not by banning use of phones during personal time.
     In my experience, the more we make things taboo, the more they become attractive. Creating new policies and rules is not a substitute for actual teaching, training and respect. I worked at a school that allowed students to have their phones throughout the day and especially at lunch and breaks. And you know what? Students were talking, socializing and playing all of the time. And it wasn’t because we asked or directed them to. It’s because we worked to create a happy and healthy atmosphere and culture overall. And it’s also because we didn’t try to direct or mandate their every move.
     If we treat students like they do at Korematsu Middle School and others, I don’t think we’re training them for the future of work where they need to be able to master not only the technology, but independence. Are the employees at Google, Apple, Microsoft and others told not to be on their phones at lunch or break time? Of course not. So, what world are we training our students for? Certainly not for the 21st century workplace and economy. We’re just leaning on what we seem to know best - control and compliance. Instead, we should be focusing on engaging, empowering and unleashing our students. We can focus on control or creativity but cannot master both.


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