A proponent rethinks cell phones in the classroom

A teacher who argued in favor incorporating cell phones into classroom instruction in a 2010 Education Week essay rethinks that position in a new piece.

Writing in Ed Week about his emerging doubts, Kentucky high school teacher Paul Barnwell says, “While summarizing is a real skill, do we really want students to further fragment their thoughts and attention in this age of incessant digital distraction and stimuli with 140-character blurbs? Do we want students to spend even more time in front of a screen, bypassing opportunities to converse and collaborate face-to-face?”

Here is a short excerpt of Barnwell’s essay “Why Twitter and Facebook Are Not Good Instructional Tools.”

A recent report by the Economic & Social Research Council refutes the notion that today’s youth, the “net generation,” is truly tech savvy. After interviewing and collecting data from 2000 first-year college students in Britain, researchers found that only 21.5 percent of students had blogged, and only 12.1 percent of students had used wikis. Too few students are familiar or engaged with these sorts of technologies that are structured to promote academic rigor; instead, they opt to use Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, most often as distractions from their studies rather than learning tools.

I’ve come to agree wholeheartedly with the study’s findings. Do many students you interact with know how to do much more than Tweet, post to Facebook, or browse YouTube? Email is antiquated to students; after all, many kids are so used to fragmenting their thoughts that writing a substantial email is drudgery. Twitter is all the rage for teenagers and is a constant source and depository of mindless banter and instant gratification. Being tech savvy should include the ability to synthesize ideas and media forms, and create something original. So how can we promote more thoughtful use of technology in schools?

Despite my shifting beliefs about the efficacy of certain technologies in the classroom, I am a long way from giving up on technology altogether—indeed, I currently teach a digital media and storytelling course. There is tremendous power and potential in what we can teach students with sound, image, and video-based projects.

If students can’t communicate face-to-face to conduct interviews or set up photo shoots, there is little point in placing a camera in their hands or a laptop at their desk. As educators, we must find a balance between screen time and “face” time.

But until I’m convinced that cell phone and social media applications truly support deep thinking, my students will keep their devices in their pockets and backpacks.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

61 comments Add your comment

Randy Glover

June 20th, 2012
6:11 am

The question is, how did an experienced teacher ever believe that cell phone usage could be an ultimate positive in the classroom? This just leads to so many distractions and reasons for kids not to pay attention in class. Give me a good teacher with a piece of chalk and a board over the ‘technology guy’ any day of the week.

[...] A teacher who argued in favor incorporating cell phones into classroom instruction in a 2010 Education Week essay rethinks that position in a new…  [...]

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

June 20th, 2012
7:13 am

Every teacher in an underperforming public school needs a cellphone to record the antics of his/her many “students” who habitually demonstrate disrespect for themselves and others, disorderly behavior and an indifference to academic achievement.


June 20th, 2012
7:14 am

I penalize cell phone use in my classroom, have always done so, and will continue to do that. They are distractions, pure and simple. Could someone develop some kind of lesson that would incorporate the use of a cell phone? Sure. But someone could also develop a lesson that would incorporate the use of a Big Mac. So what.

I am glad Paul Barnwell has re-thought his position on cell phones, but I don’t have much faith in this guy’s abilities as a teacher. This was a stupid idea from the get go. That he failed to realize that from the get go speaks volumes.

retired teacher now

June 20th, 2012
7:35 am

Here’s Paul’s blog http://mindfulstew.wordpress.com/about/
Sounds like he started teaching around 2004 or maybe 05 so he’s a relatively young teacher just now hitting his stride in experience. I saw many beginning teachers try to incorporate cell phones and social media into their lessons. They gave it up in frustration.

love Dr. Spinks comment……so sad but true……


June 20th, 2012
7:44 am

maybe the attempt was a little misguided, but i’m comforted knowing that this young teacher was at least making some effort to make classes relevant to students. students are bored in class and we know that old fashioned lecturing does not work any more, even with the best lecture teachers. incorporating technology does not have to be a bad thing. many teachers are using PRS systems to do digital polls right in the classroom to great effect! i think it just takes trial and error. no one ever thought of the best ideas their first time around. this teacher had an idea, tried it, and let us know it didn’t work. this is great teaching and great classroom science.


June 20th, 2012
7:53 am

Cobb is starting “Bring Your Own Device” pilots in a couple schools this fall, including smartphones and tablets. We will see how this goes for them.


June 20th, 2012
7:54 am

I like to integrate technology in my lessons, including cell phone usage. I send reminder text messages (via a school software program) about hw deadlines, test dates, etc…

The down side is that not every child has the self discipline to stay off certain social media sites when they should be doing their work. But, for the child with ADD/ADHD, unfortunately, technology is another form of distraction that is detrimental to their learning.


June 20th, 2012
8:00 am

@ Ariel,you write “maybe the attempt was a little misguided, but i’m comforted knowing that this young teacher was at least making some effort to make classes relevant to students. students are bored in class and we know that old fashioned lecturing does not work any more.”

Ah, to be young and so full of wisdom. Why bother with school?

Realistic Educator

June 20th, 2012
8:17 am

A cell phone is a cell phone is a cell phone. Teens use it to communicate with their friends, pure and simple. I ask them to put them away as is the policy of my school system. I need them to communicate with me. They can see me. They don’t need an electronic devise to communicate with me. It is very hard to miss me right in front of them or on the side or anywhere in the room. I think the problem is block scheduling. We keep them in class too long. 90 minutes of trying to entertain and teach students when their attention spans don’t last past 20 minutes. The solution is obvious to me. Go back to a 55 minute class meeting. 5 min to get your goals across, 45 minutes for guided practice, group activities and evaluation, 5 minutes to sum it up. We need to stop beating dead horses..


June 20th, 2012
8:17 am

@redweather, i’m not quite sure what you mean.

Realistic Educator

June 20th, 2012
8:25 am

device, device…electronic device; Promethean boards and laptops are more appropriate…perhaps a tablet or two without phone texting capabilities or Facebook interfaces. Of course, we’re data driven and you need those little clickers to give your answers so that the data about your evaluations can be compiled more quickly so that the testers can create more and better tests for their investors who are making megabillions. oops! Right, we’re supposed to believe that technology is being used to improve education and not make the investors richer. I forgot.


June 20th, 2012
8:32 am

I applaud the teacher for taking a risk, exploring a new technology, and then gathering data to test his hypothesis that cell phones might improve learning outcomes.

Henry Ford II once fired a new junior exec whom he observed salting his food before tasting it. He said, “I don’t want anyone making decisions on my behalf before understanding the data.”

And, that my friends, is how you make sound decisions.


June 20th, 2012
8:36 am

exactly, jd. maybe some should not be so quick to judge a teacher so harshly, especially if they are in the field.

DOn't Tread

June 20th, 2012
8:42 am

A little off topic, but there needs to be an essay done on “Why Twitter And Facebook Are Not Good For Society”.

This particular cause was lost when cell phones came with texting capabilities, well before Facebook and Twitter came about. I can’t fathom any reason why a teacher would think students’ cell phones would be beneficial in the classroom.


June 20th, 2012
8:45 am

I’m having a difficult time trying to understand why anyone would think cell phones and social media applications would support deep thinking. That makes about as much sense as thinking watching soap operas will boost your IQ.


June 20th, 2012
8:54 am

I grow weary of hearing those teachers who lecture are boring, etc. Anything that is done all of the time grows boring. Working on the computer is boring. Playing a game gets boring. Doing worksheet after worksheet gets boring. There needs to be a variety of methods that holds the students’ interests. Too often we are quick to beat on the teacher that uses lecture but fail to look at the results. I have seen too many good teachers get labeled “boring” because they are skeptical of all the new-fangled hardware and all of the methods that “research says” is so awesome.

I work at a local high school and have come to appreciate the “boring” teachers because they have gotten the best results by any measure. They have low failure rates. Their students do really well on standardized tests. They have few discipline problems. And parents are always pleased with them because they know their children have learned something. These “boring” teachers make sure that their students learn the material and learn it well, not just for the test next week.

As for the writer, he is coming full circle. He has begun to realize he didn’t know it all but what he did know was not necessarily right. He is discovering what we educators have known for years. Education is always full of trends and we always jump on the bandwagon for something, whether it is technology, standards-based education, testing, or something else. These trends will come and go. Who is left standing are the teachers who said “It’s about the kids.”

Road Scholar

June 20th, 2012
8:55 am

“…many kids are so used to fragmenting their thoughts that writing a substantial email is drudgery.”

Just e-mail? Complete thoughts when discussing issues and answers? Isn’t it a part of a complete education…being able to clearly respond?


June 20th, 2012
8:58 am

How America managed to turn out literate, well-educated students years ago WITHOUT any of the nonsense frills we are expected to do/use today. But then again years ago, testing materials and textbooks and technology gadgets were not the billion dollar rip offs that they are today.

Proud Teacher

June 20th, 2012
9:26 am

Yes, technology is great! We are teaching a generation of students how to successfully plagiarize and cheat their way through school. Not to worry, they can recite verbatim the standards on the standardized tests. They don’t have to find their way through material, they are given the skeletal structure of a topic and that’s enough to pass the test. The standards want the student to “flesh out” the standards into real learning, but sadly there isn’t enough time. The student must march quickly with enthusiasm and interest to the next standard where again there will be no time for the teacher to really teach and the student to really learn. Those businessmen and ivory tower gurus know just how to build a strong set of standards. Sadly, they don’t know kids and schools, but not to worry. Lowering the bar of learning and reciting those standards make everyone look really good at test time. Sadlyl, this is all true.


June 20th, 2012
9:47 am

The ooH shiny!!!!! generation as my sister who is the mother of a 16 year old calls them

It’s always about being entertained and taking the easy way out

Hey Teacher

June 20th, 2012
9:48 am

For my at-risk students, the gray area of being able to use his/her phone for educational purposes is too confusing. I don’t allow cell phones to be out in my classroom as is the school policy — enforcement is a constant battle (my fantasy is for there to be some kind of school-wide cell phone block) but with struggling learners, it is vital that the boundaries are clear. I’ve used blogging as a writing tool with limited success — most of the time students find a way to play around on the internet when they are supposed to be writing, even when I am standing over them.


June 20th, 2012
9:49 am

Have you seen the movie UP? The scene where the dog is “talking” to the humans and has a SQUIRREL!!!! moment?!?!?


June 20th, 2012
9:50 am

I was a proctor for a week of Georgia Graduation Tests several years ago, and while students were not supposed to bring any electronic devices to the test, many of them snuck in their cell phones. With roving proctors like me and observers from Fulton County sitting in the back, it amazed me how many students were cheating via their cell phones. I stood behind one girl whom I had seen slipping her phone from her pocket, checking it and then furiously filling in her answer sheet, only to sit back and wait for the next text. She glared at me, tried to wait me out so she could cheat, and finally slammed out of the test without even trying to do the work on her own. The cell phone had become her lifeline,and without it she wouldn’t even make an attempt.

That experience convinced me that these devices are more crutch than help, and don’t have a legitimate place in a school.

William Casey

June 20th, 2012
9:55 am

I’ll do my best Jonathan Swift this morning and suggest that perhaps technology will eventually lead to microchips containing all the knowledge/wisdom in the world being implanted in infant brains shortly after birth. Then, we wouldn’t need schools.

Two technology ideas that might help:

(1) Use a Kindle type device to replace textbooks. This could be a real money saver over the long haul.

(2) Use a smartphone (or its successor) to enable students to immediately electronically answer questions asked by the teacher in class. The answers would be recorded and preserved. This would allow the teacher to instantly know which students are “getting it” and which aren’t. I would have loved to have been able to say to some parents: “Well, I’ve asked 591 questions in class so far this semester and your little Johnnie/Susie has answered 42 correctly.” LOL I know, I know, the parents would respond: “Your questions are too hard!” Still, this would be useful data.

Technology has potential.


June 20th, 2012
10:02 am

Welcome to he party Mr. Barnwell. I have seen teachers try and get cute by integrating “technology” into lessons and promote this as sliced bread and canned beer. I have had all of the desktops removed from my class because they were not being used constructively, i.e., for school appropriate work. In the age of digital self-promotion and rampant cheating, I think the educational industrial complex needs to outright ban these devices sooner than later.

Ron F.

June 20th, 2012
10:18 am

It’s all about balance. Unfortunately, we haven’t really set any rules or acceptable use standards as a society- we’re making them up as we go. It’s good that a person who advocated the technology is seeing the need for some balance between the technology and simple personal interaction. You can’t replace the teacher with a computer program and have any critical thinking happen. I think each teacher in each subject has to find the balance of technology that works with a given group of kids. It will be interesting to see how schools decide what’s acceptable going forward as more and more of our resources go online. I’m still not entirely sure what works.

Cobb Mom

June 20th, 2012
10:26 am

There has actually been a fair amount of research done on digital media and learning. The MacArthur Foundation and MIT have published several reports, and more research is ongoing. As a few others have said, good for this teacher for at least trying/testing something new. What worked in classrooms in the 60’s or 70’s or 80’s isn’t necessarily going to be effective today. It’s a whole new world.


June 20th, 2012
10:27 am


June 20th, 2012
10:37 am

“Henry Ford II once fired a new junior exec whom he observed salting his food before tasting it. He said, “I don’t want anyone making decisions on my behalf before understanding the data.””

I once heard a similar analogy where a company, during the hiring/interview process, would take the prospective employee to lunch. If they salted their food without first tasting, they didn’t hire them for similar reasons.

“Use a Kindle type device to replace textbooks. This could be a real money saver over the long haul.”

Potentially, yes. Even so, I recieved a Kindle Fire for Fathers Day, and it has the capability for internet access, email, etc. Basically the same functionality of the iPad.

Bottom line, use technology where it makes sense. IT and Techy guys think their toys can solve all the worlds problems. However, sometimes, you still have to get your hands dirty and sweat a bit.


June 20th, 2012
10:44 am

Talking about cellphones, doesn’t anyone have any outrage at how Dekalb County and other local school systems are being forced to gut their public schools without any hint of State help while at the same time Deal and his buds are throwing extra public funds to private schools and charter schools through voucher type schemes?


June 20th, 2012
11:03 am

I’m with catlady. DUH.

Embrace it!

June 20th, 2012
11:12 am

My recent high school grads came from a high school that allowed cell phones. They found it enormously helpful, taking pics of the whiteboards and emailing it to themselves for use later because the technology would sometimes breakdown in class, but not their cell phones. I am thrilled they will not have to overcome the learning curve when entering college as freshman to using technology. For their grad present they got. . . ipads. They are already getting it setup for their college classes. Technology should be embraced in education. Our teachers taught class instead of fighting kids to put up their cell phones. We all know the kids are going to have them, so why not adapt it to your advantage?


June 20th, 2012
11:13 am

As much as I hate to agree with Casey, replacing paper books with electronic readers makes good sense. Especially since google offers free etext books online for schools. You can even get the McGuffy Readers free from both Amazon and Google, just for fun download them and see how much our educational system had declined! If I were doing home schooling or private schooling, I would give serious consideration to incorporating the free McGuffy Readers into my course work. These readers were the books all american school children had in common up until the 1940’s, when the book publishers lobbied to have them removed as “outdated.” How does basic reading become outdated? Basic math? Yet that is what the teachers whine in demanding new textbooks.


June 20th, 2012
11:13 am

man you take my cell phone and I won’t pass anymore test.

drew (former teacher)

June 20th, 2012
11:19 am

You’ve got to at least admire Mr. Barnwell for having the balls to admit he was wrong. In writing! This tells me Mr. Barnwell has a grasp on what education is…sometimes to find out what does work, you have to try some things that don’t work. That’s education.

Cell phones have no place in the classroom (at least K-12 classrooms). Can they be useful? Perhaps, but it would require students with a level of self-control beyond what I’ve seen in the classroom.

The root of the problem is that we have raised a generation of kids that think everything should be entertaining and fun. Unfortunately, learning is NOT always entertaining and fun; sometimes it requires WORK. WORK? WORK? God forbid these poor children actually have to endure a boring lecture, or read a book, or write a paper!

Unfortunately, too many education “professionals” have come to believe that ALL technology is good, and should be incorporated into the classroom. But the fact is, technology is NOT always good. It’s a double-edged sword; it giveth…and it taketh away. For example: the National Safety Council reported in a 2010 report that “it estimates at least 28% of all traffic crashes – or at least 1.6 million crashes each year – involve drivers using cell phones and texting”. So sure, it’s certainly convenient to be able to phone and text while driving (it giveth), but on the other hand it causes 1.6 million crashes each year (it taketh away).


June 20th, 2012
11:29 am

Teachers will always battle distractions. It is up to us to keep what happens in our classrooms RELEVANT and challenging.

Recent studies have also provided details about a social gap in how teens use technology. Students affected by poverty are much more likely to use technology as a toy while others are more likely to use it as a tool. Bottom line is that family values are reflected in every aspect of a person’s life and technology is no different.


June 20th, 2012
11:30 am

I disagree with Dr Spinks on this one – too much of what we see are people imitating the ‘reality’ tv show behavior. Put a camera in the classroom for the teacher to ‘record the antics’ of the students could, in the hands of a stressed out teacher, quickly become incitement o further antics. There need to be ways to monitor and control classroom behavior and video may be a part of that but not when used in a way to spotlight certain students. When video clips of bad behavior are blasted at kids all the time they can start taking the presence of a cell camera as the cue that they’re ‘on’ and it’s the opportunity for 15 mins of fame.

William Casey

June 20th, 2012
11:32 am

@SOLUTIONS: Perhaps a truce. We’ve agreed on two things in last 48 hours.

Hillbilly D

June 20th, 2012
11:40 am

I would give serious consideration to incorporating the free McGuffy Readers into my course work. These readers were the books all american school children had in common up until the 1940’s, when the book publishers lobbied to have them removed as “outdated.” How does basic reading become outdated? Basic math? Yet that is what the teachers whine in demanding new textbooks.

Good point. In my part of the world it was the Blue Back Speller, though.


June 20th, 2012
11:57 am

There is plenty of technology availed to kids that the simply do not need to use their cell phones. They’re constantly looking at them, texting, playing a game, tweeting, updating facebook.
It is a pain and one I am tired of battling. If their parents need them, they can call the office like my parents did.


June 20th, 2012
12:11 pm

Deep thinking from this generation? More like deep doo-doo.


June 20th, 2012
12:15 pm

My college daughter tells me that one of the big things now is using iPads. There is a iPad cover that comes with a small keyboard the students are using. Also, there is a digitized pen they use to take handwritten notes onto the iPad.

Me? If I have to text more than “OK”, I’ll just call them…..


June 20th, 2012
12:30 pm

@Casey and Solutions–I agree it’s a money saver.

Students loses/forgets/damages textbook VS brings/remembers Kindle/Laptop is a no brainer.

Paul Barnwell

June 20th, 2012
12:34 pm

As the author of this Education Week essay, I’m excited by the amount of debate it has prompted. To hear a bunch of great responses from mostly educators, check out the comments from the original article:

I then posted my own rebuttal at my blog:

To abandon all technology in the classroom would be foolish, but there needs to be more consideration to how technology implementation reflects various values, culture, pedagogy, etc…

Ron F.

June 20th, 2012
12:52 pm

“Me? If I have to text more than “OK”, I’ll just call them…..”

LOL! I do the same thing. My boys hate it because I usually text full words and use capital letters and periods. I feel like a dinosaur sometimes…

the Ipad is coming along quickly and will, to some degree, replace traditional paper and textbooks. Could be good if done right, but we’ll see.


June 20th, 2012
12:56 pm

I have one daughter who is all about technology (because it has helped her immensely in taking notes and studying) and one who does better with a textbook, notes and a highlighter pen. I don’t believe the technology itself makes for a bad student. If someone is going to cheat and can’t do it with their phone or laptop they will do it the old fashioned way-look on another persons paper.

However, I don’t see the value in using Facebook and Twitter in the classroom.


June 20th, 2012
1:02 pm

I wonder what the editorials were like when slide rules were invented? The pencil? the book?


June 20th, 2012
1:40 pm

jd – I started out using slide rules, the SR10 (by TI) was the first mass produced calculator at a reasonable price, a four function calculator for $160 or so. New generations of calculators came out almost monthly in those days, and we had the calculator wars with constant upgrades, as we all sought an advantage on the tests. Trig functions were a big addition. We learned to do multiplication and division in our heads, to save time on tests. Even today, I can sometimes beat the calculator, due of course to the slow fingers of the person I am competing with. Do they still teach long division in grade school, or is it all calculators now? I know I purchased several HP-84/85’s for my son when he was in high school, people would steal them out of lockers and sell them for a few bucks. I think they were 80 to 100 bucks new. My son just took the tests first semester at tech in calc, second he attended lectures, third he had to study some, and fourth semester was hard, he had to actually work. Walton high school in Cobb county did a good job of preparing him for calculus.

living in an outdated ed system

June 20th, 2012
1:56 pm

This is nonsense. With all due respect, before you start bashing the expansion of utilizing digital technology in the classroom, yet again, @Maureen, consider these facts and observations:

1. The average age use of a child’s first use of a digital device is during or before kindergarten.
2. The problem is not how this so called “proponent” characterizes usage regarding kids only using twitter or facebook. The problem is the lack of professional development, teacher training, and capital available to develop educational content using devices that kids use in their daily lives.
3. Our international brehtren are eating our lunch. The WSJ came out with an article yesterday that referenced a Pew Research report showing that Asians are the fastest growing, most educated, and highest earning population in the United States. This gap will only increase as these cultures are hungry for education, are more tech savvy, and are coming to our universities to tap into our research institutions, then bring that intellectual capital back to their home countries. I am very fascinated with the aspirational philosophy embedded in Asian cultures and have spent considerable time in that region of the world.

Before you start bashing the expansion of technology, @Maureen, I suggest you and your audience take a good hard look at the opportunity we have in front of us. Technological innovation should be embraced, not based as you do time and time again on this blog. It is time that teachers unions and governments sit down in a spirit of collaboration to find ways to invest in digital learning solutions.

Your continuous opposition to digital learning is foolhardy and, quite frankly, not constructive. It’s time we work together to incorporate digital learning into schools, and at the same time, install the “rules of the road” that are not oppressive, but flexible and adaptable.