America once again is in mourning over the 18th or 19th school shooting of 2018. Surely, common sense gun safety legislation is necessary, but educators also need to look in the mirror and ask why kids feel so alienated and aggrieved by schooling that they choose to shoot up their classmates and teachers.

Earlier tonight, I tweeted, “Can we please cool it with the irrational mean-spirited bullshit about banning cellphones in schools? They quite possibly saved lives today.” Immediately, I received a supportive response about the pedagogical potential of cell phones. With all due respect, this issue is much simpler and more fundamental than whether cell phones have a place in the curriculum,

There are two reasons why schools should stop banning cellphones.

  1. It is wrong to be arbitrarily mean to children. If learning is to occur, educators need to do whatever they possibly can to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children.
  2. The school has no right whatsoever to endanger my child or cut her off from communication. 

This has nothing to do with standards, teaching, or curriculum. It is a simple matter of human decency or common sense.

Then I remembered that I wrote about this very issue in the long-defunct Curriculum Administrator Magazine back in its November 2001 issue. For those of you playing along at home, that is nearly 17 years ago.

In 2001, I wrote the following in my column, Back to Rule:

Some technologies make our students and staff safer

Cell phones are perhaps the most often banned legal devices in American schools. Aside from the obvious convenience they afford, cellular phones have become lifesaving tools. In both Columbine and the terrible terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phones preserved life, called for help or offered comfort for family members. My childrens’ high school has unilaterally banned cell phones from the campus as have many schools across the country.

I adamantly believe that a school has no right whatsoever to jeopardize the safety of my daughter who is forced to wander a dark locked campus at 10:30 PM after drama practice. The payphones and vending machines are often more secure then the children. As a parent, it is I who should have the right to locate my child and have her call for help in case of an emergency.

Reducing classroom distractions is often cited as the rationale for this rule, but this is nonsense. If you walk into Carnegie Hall or an airplane, a polite adult asks that you please turn off your phone for the comfort or safety of those around you. Why can’t teachers do the same?

If a student disrupts the learning environment then that action should be punished in the same way we address spitballs, note passing or talking in class. It is irrational to have different rules for infractions involving electronic devices. We must address behavior, not technology. This approach will make our schools more caring, relevant, productive and secure. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Read the rest of the column for other examples of callous authoritarian school assholery and then be extra nice to some kids.

Thankfully, NYC students are no longer being robbed to store their cellphones outside of their schools

You might also be interested in my 2014 column, Why the NYC Schools Must End the Student Cellphone Ban.

While in While in Italy last week, I received email from Eugene Paik, a reporter for The Star Ledger newspaper. He read my blog post, BYOD – Worst Idea of the 21st Century?, and was seeking expertise for an article on a New Jersey school district enacting a Bring-Your-Own-Device/Technology policy. I dropped everything and responded to his questions immediately via email since I was overseas. Besides, you can’t be misquoted when you respond in writing, right?

Paik’s article, Bernards Twp. district encouraging use of mobile devices, ran in the December 4th issue of The Star Ledger. That article completely misrepresents and distorts my answers to his questions. I cannot claim to be misquoted since the attributions to me are not printed as quotes. Sneaky, eh?

The following is how Mr. Paik reports my views on the matter of BYOD in Bernards Township, NJ.

Gary Stager, an international school-reform consultant and advocate for laptops in classrooms, said there are other issues as well. Not only are there challenges in training faculty on different devices and phone applications, but many school districts also mistakenly assume all electronic devices are alike.

A focus on mobile devices could prevent students from becoming familiar with software and hardware that require an actual computer, Stager said.

Here are my major issues with the reporting of my views.

  1. I NEVER EVER use the word training. It is antithetical to learning. Anyone familiar with my work knows this to be the case. You do not train professional educators! Training is what you do when you’re trying to get your chihuahua to piss on The Star Ledger.
  2. While I understand the space constraints required by writing for publication, the author decided not to raise my major objection to BYOD policies – inequity.
  3. I never said anything about students becoming familiar with hardware and software. My advocacy of computers in education is based on depth, breadth and fluency.

I truly wish that educators and reporters would pay greater attention to nuance and stop tossing around terms like “training.”

 


Here are Mr. Paik’s interview questions sent to me and answered on November 27th. My quite precise answers are indented.

Gary,

Just a little bit of background about the policy. The district, in
Bernards Township in New Jersey, is mulling the proposal for its high
school and middle school students. They would use their smart phones,
tablets and laptops for instruction, and those who don’t have those
devices would be asked to share with students who do.

Here are my questions:

1.) The most common concern I hear about is that students would use
their cell phones to goof around (chat, use Facebook) under the guise of
information gathering. Obviously, the issue goes far deeper than that,
but I’m wondering if you agree that this would be an issue. Or are
critics incorrectly calling this the biggest problem when there are many
other issues to be concerned about?

I have worked in schools where every student has a personal laptop computer since 1990. Most recently, I launched 1:1 in a new Korean international school where every student down to first grade has a personal MacBook computer. Theft, breakage, loss have not been a problem anywhere in the world from Harlem to Sydney.

As for goofing around, there is a good deal of anecdotal and scientific evidence that children with computers are not only more social, but their social interactions tend to be work related.

If kids are goofing around or aimlessly surfing the Web, this is a function of an unimaginative curriculum or lackluster teaching.

I view the computer as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that amplifies human potential. When the goal is not to use the computer to teach what we have always hoped kids would learn, perhaps with greater efficacy or efficiency, but to learn and do things that were impossible without the presence of computing, the work takes on a sense of life and urgency much deeper than Facebook.

It seems odd to me that an affluent district with a long tradition of educational computing, like Bernards Township, would adopt such a policy. Bernards’ students are much more likely to own real portable computers than kids in other districts where the BYOD policy seems to be “Let them eat cellphones!” Even if every kid can afford the quality of personal computer I advocate for learning, BYOD is still terrible public policy.

2.) One of the issues arising out of this is the divide between the
“haves” and the “have-nots.” It would appear that this would set an
uneven playing field for certain students. Could you explain a little
more about the significance of this? Would sharing devices be enough to
solve this problem?

First of all, if schools did not create moronic knee-jerk policies banning things kids own, they wouldn’t need to enact new policies to allow them back on campus. While there might be educational potential in cell-phone use, the real reason not to ban them is that we should not be arbitrarily mean to children. Schools need to do everything possible to lower the level of antagonism between adults and kids. Any idea, passion, question, expertise or gadget a kid brings to school should be viewed as a potential gift. It is incumbent upon teachers and administrators to build upon such gifts. That does not mean that BYOD is sound policy.

One problem with BYOD is that it enshrines inequity while pretending to be democratic. Some students will have much more power and capability when educational policy is left to the accident of family wealth. Not every object requiring electricity is equivalent. Since the computer is today’s primary instrument for intellectual and creative work, every child needs as much power as possible. The cost of providing every American youngster a multimedia laptop computer has never been more than a few percentage points of the annual per pupil spending and that price would fall dramatically if we committed to every child having a portable personal computer as Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon proposed in 1971.

3.) You mentioned the issue of teacher anxiety, and I’ve heard stories
in New Jersey about some teachers who aren’t familiar with smart phones
at all. In your opinion, do those kinds of teachers represent most
educators? Even if they form a minority, how big of a problem would that
be?

Teachers, for a variety of reasons, are among the least comfortable users of computational technology in society. Asking them to teach in an environment when kids have random “devices” only exacerbates the problem and raises their anxiety. This is a bad idea for two reasons. 1) Not all devices are created equally. So, educational activities need to be predicated upon the weakest device in the room. 2) There is a tendency to think of technology in education as “looking stuff up online.” This is the low-hanging fruit and represents the most trivial potential of the computer.

4.) Considering the shrinking budgets many school districts are seeing,
why shouldn’t this policy be considered a good compromise between
educational quality and cost? I’ve heard some say that school-issued
laptops for students typically are not well maintained or cared for.
Wouldn’t students take better care of the equipment knowing it was their
own?

Kids do take better care of their computer, even if it is on loan from the school. However, it is terrible policy to leave 21st Century learning up to the financial liquidity of children. Educators will suffer more dire financial conditions when they endorse the idea that the public need not finance high-quality public educational opportunities for all of its young citizens.

5.) I thought your argument about BYOT policies narrowing the learning
process was intriguing. What are the skills that students would not
develop under this policy?

Science, technology, engineering, mathematics, computer modeling, programming, computer science, music composition, film-making, personal fabrication are but a few of the learning opportunities rendered impossible or very difficult on a cell phone or tablet device – at least for the next couple of years.

Thanks so much for the quick turnaround. I appreciate it.

Eugene


Feel free to contact Mr. Paik and express your concern about this reporting.

Read my original post, igniting this controversy.

In a perfect world, members of the edtech community would know better and stop equating cellphones with computing.