“The cellephant in the room”

“The cellephant in the room”
Students are using their phones as a means of distancing themselves from learning. Photo courtesy of The Commons

Walk into many Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) middle and high school classrooms on any given day, and you’ll spot several students using their phones—not in conjunction with their formal learning, but as a means of distancing themselves from that learning.

In a significant number of FUSD sites, the non-academic use of cell phones—along with earbuds, for many students—has become a new normal. The phenomenon is already entrenched in school culture, and it predates the rise of Covid.

One FUSD teacher calls this phenomenon “the cellephant in the room.”

To be sure, the FUSD’s official stance on this issue envisions a markedly different classroom atmosphere. Back in December 2002, the district adopted a policy that forbids students from using phones “in any way which invades another’s privacy, places another in a false light, is used to cheat on tests or other assignments…or which a reasonably prudent person would deem to be inappropriate.”

Checking social media, watching videos and the like during a class period would clearly be deemed “inappropriate.”

A revised version of this policy came into effect in March 2004. It stated that students “may possess portable communication devices on district property and at district-sponsored activities,” but admonished that they “must ensure that the device is turned off and out of sight during times of unauthorized use.” Unless they need their devices to be turned on for medical reasons, they’re required to keep them shut off during instructional time.

The discrepancy between these pronouncements and everyday reality in many classrooms could hardly be more blatant and more troubling.

Students are using their phones as a means of distancing themselves from learning. Photo courtesy of The Commons

An FUSD spokesperson said that these are the most recent district-wide guidelines regarding cell phone use. The FUSD, she stated, has given principals leeway in the approach that they choose to handle this touchy issue.

Given the seriousness and scope of the problem, however, it seems that a uniform and robustly enforced district-wide policy could help to get things back under control—as opposed to relying on the virtues and initiatives of individual principals.

Continuing to ignore the cellephant could well have serious and far-reaching consequences. Many educational professionals have grave concerns about this issue, as do many who have researched it closely.

One of them is Richard Freed, a clinical psychologist who wrote Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age. An Atlantic Monthly article quotes him as saying that “high levels of smartphone use by teens often have a detrimental effect on achievement, because teen phone use is dominated by entertainment, not learning, applications.” 

Indeed, he argues that “it’s like giving kids equal access to cigarettes and candy.”

Failing to keep student phone use in check can negatively impact the ability to focus and inhibit progress in learning. It can also exacerbate the danger of digital addiction.

Enforcing limits on cell phone use during school time can have dramatic benefits.

An article in the U.S. News and World Report examined one middle school that imposed a complete ban on cell phones during the school day. The outcome: fewer incidents of cyberbullying or students using social media for harm.

According to the same article, fully 90% of principals surveyed in 2020 supported limiting phone use in middle and high schools.

The district’s 2004 policy statement spells out what should be done when infractions occur. If staff members or students see someone using a phone inappropriately on district property, they “should promptly report this information to the principal or designee.” Furthermore, those who violate the phone policy “will be subject to disciplinary action,” which might involve a parent/guardian conference, confiscation of the phone “and/or up to five days suspension.”

In the early 2000s, when the author was still a full-time instructor in the district, this approach was in fact being implemented at his site. Teachers were instructed to send students who were using their phones at the wrong time to the office, and the site administrators backed up teachers when they enforced this measure.

Nowadays, however, teachers at many sites can’t rely on that sort of consistent administration support.

Many of them have given up, one individual familiar with several FUSD schools said. They’ve responded to this new reality by ignoring the problem—by simply choosing not to make an issue of occasional or even fairly constant phone use. 

Others have tried to use a gentle approach.

“I have some students who I approach ever so politely,” one teacher wrote to me, “and they just will not put their phones away. Their phones will be on the desktop and often in their hands.

“They will ‘check’ their phones every few minutes and, if they think we are not doing something ‘important’…they will use their phones continuously…I still have several students in every class who will be on their phones no matter what I do.”

Others have tried a third route: incorporating phones into their lesson plans, drawing on apps like Quizlet. To the extent that these activities support learning, that’s an admirable strategy.

What remains, though, is the vexing problem of students who are regularly going digitally AWOL, turning instructional time into something quite different. If behavior like this isn’t consistently addressed with meaningful consequences, then it won’t go away.

Also facilitating nonacademic phone use is the lax enforcement of the dress code at some sites, which enables many students to keep their earbuds in all day, concealed underneath scarves or hoodies, for example.

Recently, the administration at Bullard High School attempted to tame the cellephant. Yondr locking pouches were issued to students, and they were instructed to place their phones inside the pouches at the start of the day and keep them there throughout the school day.

Enforcement of the new procedure has become spotty, with some staff members reportedly not holding students to the new standards.

Opinions as to the success of Bullard’s approach vary. 

Some ways to circumvent the regulation have emerged. Students can carry a second phone to school, or they can simply keep their phones or other devices in their backpacks—which instructors aren’t allowed to search.

“The pouches have been a waste of money,” one Bullard student stated bluntly. Nothing has changed in his classes since the pouch policy was introduced.

On the other hand, it impressed some of the faculty.

One teacher concedes that some students are being less than forthcoming about their devices. He’s quick to add, however, that “I rarely see a phone out in class and that’s the issue we were really trying to solve. So it’s working in a sort of backward way.”

Crucial to learning, teachers are often told, is time on task, the time that learners actually devote to acquiring new knowledge and skills. Vital to navigate a tech world successfully is the ability to use devices reasonably and in moderation.

An updated district-wide policy, one that’s enforced consistently—as was the case several years ago—would facilitate student learning and cut down on problems such as cyberbullying and diminished attention spans. All educators who are serious about their professions want students to reach their potential; this type of policy would help to make that a reality.


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