Less schoolwide bans on devices, more school climate initiatives!


Computers have long been a fixture in many American schools. Indeed, we had computers in our middle schools back in the day. And when we visit schools today — large and small, rural and urban — they (of course) all have computers. Many schools have computer labs or general-access machines in libraries or other common areas. In addition, many classrooms have their own computer(s), and teachers regularly use various technologies to deliver educational content or enhance instruction. Some schools have even provided laptops to each individual student (“one-to-one” schools). While there is some debate about whether these programs are worth the money, it is clear that technology is a big part of education. And computers have reduced in relevance in recent years, as we use our smartphone or iPad to do much of what we used to do on desktops and laptops.

Some schools have attempted to prevent inappropriate technology use at school by simply writing a policy that prohibits students from bringing their devices to school. Short of strip-searching students as they come through the front door, it is practically impossible to enforce a complete ban like this. Most administrators have largely conceded this point and therefore have enacted policies that say something to the effect of “If I see it, you lose it.” Our colleague Mike Donlin recently quipped that schools should approach cell phones the same way they do underwear: “We know you have them—we just don’t want to see them in class.” We believe a broad-stroke ban preempts opportunities that exist for students to use technology in positive ways.  And there are many.

Allowing students to bring their devices to school holds much promise for furthering their education. Most schools do not have enough resources to provide a laptop or tablet for each student, and since many students already have a cell phone, tablet, or other portable device, few additional expenditures are required (e.g., the school can lend devices to the handful who don’t own one). Once equipped, teachers can ask students to research particular questions using their devices. They can use audience response systems via clickers or cell phone live polling to assess student competency with certain concepts. They can assign creative, interactive projects using the camera functionality and photo- or video-sharing sites. Many teachers use Facebook and Twitter as supplemental instructional tools. Indeed, one ninth-grade science teacher in Atlanta has even used the popular game Angry Birds to teach complicated physics principles. The opportunities are as endless as the Web itself.  We have received many phone calls from administrators who are considering opening up their schools to student-owned mobile devices because of the headaches associated with attempting to keep them out and the positives that may accompany using them to help kids learn. According to a report published by Walden University, “Teachers who use technology frequently…report greater benefits to student learning, engagement and skills from technology than teachers who spend less time using technology to support learning.

While we clearly need to recognize the potential problems that may accompany the positives when students “bring their own devices” to school, it is important to stress that technology isn’t the problem. There is nothing inherently problematic about cell phones; they are amazing devices that have revolutionized the way we communicate. Similarly, there is nothing fundamentally dangerous about Facebook. Social networking through that site has allowed interpersonal relationships to start, restart, and thrive, generating many emotional and psychological benefits. However, some will choose to use technological enhancements to cause harm to others or, intentionally or unintentionally, cause harm to themselves. This harm is often not physical—although there might be physical ramifications and side effects. Rather, it tends to manifest in less visible but possibly even more damaging ways. It is those behaviors that we should focus on—not the technology.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death of teens. In 2009, approximately 3,000 teens died in car accidents.  Does this mean we should ban teens from driving? Of course not. But we do need to take steps to prevent accidents from happening, such as providing driver’s education classes, encouraging parents to model appropriate driving habits, establishing safety guidelines, and so forth. The same approach needs to be taken with technology. You wouldn’t just throw your teenager the keys to the family sedan and say, “Good luck and be safe!” But this is often what we do with technology: we assume that children will be safe and smart because we tell them to do so (or because they had to have heard and internalized all of the lessons from school and on the news!).

We need to be much more deliberate and comprehensive than that and regularly remind teens about issues they may run into. They are adolescents. How many times did you learn the lesson on the first go-around when you were a teenager? Probably not as often as you would like. Neither did we, so don’t feel bad. This should serve to inspire us in the ways we deal with and instruct teens. Parents have to do this in their households, and we believe they bear the largest load when it comes to teaching their kids to use technology wisely. However, school personnel unquestionably share a good portion of the responsibility as well, since those kids are their captive audience for much of the day. Most schools now realize that they need to educate students about appropriate online behaviors and take steps to prevent students from misusing technology at school. Educators also know that what happens online—whether during school hours or on evenings and weekends—often directly impacts what happens at school. We propose that schools can take significant strides to prevent cyberbullying and sexting by developing and maintaining a positive, respectful, and nurturing classroom and school climate.

We talk about improving school climate a lot because we believe in it, have studied the existing research about it, and have conducted research on it ourselves.  It matters, and it works.  The National School Climate Center defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students’, parents’, and school personnel’s experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.” In general, a positive climate is one that engenders respect, cooperation, trust, and a shared responsibility for the educational goals that exist there. Educators, students, and everyone connected to the school consequently take ownership of the mission of the school and work together toward a shared vision. If a climate like this is established, everything else seems to fall into place. For instance, it will definitely lead to more academic success and greater educational exploration.

No one program, policy, or practice can address all of the reasons why young people harm themselves and others. No single strategy can prevent strangers or staff members from jeopardizing the well-being of students. The most prudent course of action for all schools is to address safety comprehensively.
—Daniel L. Duke, author of Creating Safe Schools for All Children

We believe that there will be fewer behavioral problems at school and online, because students will not want to damage the positive relationships they have at school by doing anything that will disappoint or upset the educators or other students to whom they are strongly bonded.

“I am not going to post that online—Mrs. Smith is my favorite teacher and is really awesome and I don’t want her to think badly of me!”

“I don’t want my friends at school to think I was a moron for sending that message.”

“I am totally going to keep my profile page clean, since everyone else at my school does it too.”

“I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities and fall behind my peers, and so I have got to build a positive online reputation!”

“I don’t want to stand out for doing the wrong thing when everyone else is doing the right thing!”

We know that teens are more likely to be deterred from engaging in inappropriate behaviors by a fear of how their friends or family members (or others in their lives they look up to) might respond than by adult nagging. Indeed, we know from experience (and you will likely agree) that this deterrent effect is much stronger than prohibitive policies and laws. Therefore, by developing strong relationships between the school and students, among students themselves, and between the school and their families, this principle can be used to dissuade negative behaviors and encourage positive behaviors even when adults aren’t around—such as when teens are online. And the vast, vast, VAST majority are online, which has revolutionized the way they communicate and the way we have to handle these issues.

1 Comment

  1. Great point! Sadly, bans on devices or overly punitive consequences is another situation ripe for conflict with students. And we all know cell phones aren’t a temporary challenge. This is an opportunity for school staff to model collaborative behavior and help students use these devices appropriately. Adults need to work hand-in-hand with students to foster a positive climate, instead this creates an adversarial relationship. Thanks for the article.

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