This seemingly simple topic ends up being what one professor and pedagogy expert calls "a Rorschach test for so much that's going on in education."
Recently, the California state teachers' pension fund weighed in — as a large investor in Apple, the makers of the iPhone. In an open letter, along with another activist shareholder, they called on the company to study digital distraction among youth and to make it easier to limit young people's use.
The letter cited a national survey that found two-thirds of K-12 teachers said the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing. Of those teachers surveyed, 75 percent said students' ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased.
Research at the college level backs that up; a small, 2017 study at the University of Michigan found students in an introductory psychology course spent up to a third of class time surfing the web to non-academic sites — even though they knew that the researchers were tracking their computer use.
Sounds ominous. But the debate over devices in the classroom has many more perspectives. I spoke with four professors, a high school teacher, a psychiatrist and a technologist to get a range of different views.
No way, no how
Allia Griffin teaches in the Department of Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University in California. Her policy is simple: "Phones/devices must be turned off and not visible during class time."
Her reason is simple too: "Phones are distracting. My experience has been that no matter how invested a student may be in a class discussion or lecture, if something on their desk or in their pocket dings, rings or vibrates — they will lose focus."
And she worries about missed opportunities to socialize face-to-face. "Beyond being distracting, students also use phones/laptops/devices as objects to hide behind to avoid participating in class or interacting with their peers."
Frequently, Griffin adds, "I will walk into a classroom on the first day of the quarter and will find 30 students sitting silently in their seats and individually texting or Instagram-ing on their phones. This is a tragic scene. The college classroom is ... a unique space to exchange ideas and thoughts and develop the ability to communicate with a variety of people."
"Candy" is unhealthy
Katherine Welzenbach teaches high school chemistry in Overland Park, Kan. She, too, bans cellphones — and even backpacks, where phones often hide — in her classes.
These devices are worse than distracting, she says. They can connect teens to cyberbullying, hate speech, sexting and other "unhealthy" experiences.
Welzenbach is vocal about her stance, despite what she calls "shaming" of teachers like herself who take a hard line. "Teachers who see cell phones as distractions are often labeled as being 'unengaging.' "
She understands the argument that teens need to learn to use the Internet appropriately. But she uses healthy eating as an analogy: Don't give kids unlimited access to "Halloween candy and Christmas cookies while they are still learning to eat a balanced diet."
Distraction has an upside
What you're really talking about when you talk about laptop bans, says Jesse Stommel, is student freedom.
"Ultimately, I see strict laptop policies (and especially blanket bans) as a form of control," explains Stommel, who directs the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.
And that, he tells NPR, is a bad thing. "I don't think the attention of students is actually something teachers can or should control."
Stommel, who's been engaged in many debates over laptop bans on Twitter, calls the issue "weirdly divisive" but also, in the end, "a red herring."
Instead of an "authoritarian approach," he suggests a conversation.
"We can talk to students about attention and have them talk to us about how attention works for them," Stommel says. "This is the kind of metacognitive work that is the stuff of learning."
Distraction, he adds, can actually be a gateway to learning. It can be necessary for "peak experiences like making connections, having epiphanies, understanding abstract concepts."
There may also be times, he says, that the phone or computer can be an in-class tool. "We can also ask students to use their devices in ways that help them and the rest of the class, looking up a confusing term, polling their friends on Facebook about a topic we're discussing or taking collaborative notes in an open document."
On the other hand, says Stommel, there may be times and places to shut it down, too: "We can ask students to close their laptops at particular moments, recognizing that it is useful to learn different things, at different times, in different ways."
Catherine Prendergast, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also believes that blanket bans are a bad idea. But her concern is a little different than Stommel's. She's thinking about students with special needs.
"Federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], extends to protect students' classrooms," she tells NPR. "If a student needs to use a laptop as an accommodation, they have a right to do so."
But making the student ask to bring a laptop could be seen as an invasion of privacy, Prendergast says. Better to allow them for all: "The ADA enjoins us to affirmatively seek to remove barriers to education and to make our classrooms more inclusive, not less."
Some students need to be device-free
Victoria Dunckley, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and the author of Reset Your Child's Brain, has a different perspective. She prescribes strict limits on screen time to young people who are suffering from a variety of psychological ills. She says she's encountered "pushback" when trying to shield her patients from using devices at schools that have integrated them into the classroom.
If your students are distracted, then improve your teaching
Derek Bruff is a mathematician and director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
He says research finds that note-taking by hand can lead to better recall than note-taking by typing on a computer. The reason is that when you write more slowly by hand, you have to think through what you're hearing and put down only the most important bits; touch-typers tend to transcribe what a person is saying without doing much processing of what they're hearing.
However, Bruff adds, comparing those two scenarios misses a point that's backed up by even more research: Lecturing while someone takes notes is not a very engaging or effective mode of teaching to begin with.
"If you're going to spend 80 to 100 percent of your class time lecturing, phones are going to be distracting to students," he says.
What works much better? Getting students to collaborate and debate in small groups, for one thing. He's also seen anecdotally that, "If you give students something productive and on-topic to do with their devices," it reduces idle browsing. He calls this the "Google jockey" approach.
Like Stommel, he believes there is a time and a place for laptops and phones, but also a time and place to exclude them. "Sometimes you want three students around a piece of paper."
Fight technology with technology
Alanna Harvey is the co-founder and marketing director of Flipd, a phone app that limits the use of your phone. You can set a timer to lock yourself out of all functions except for basic texts and phone calls.
Not long after launch, they noticed that college students were among their biggest user base, and began aiming the app at educators.
"Our research and discussions with customers have consistently found that digital distractions are negatively impacting the learning experience for students and educators," she says.
Harvey argues that Flipd offers a fresh, not coercive approach. Rather than instituting a ban, the company encourages professors to offer extra credit for installing the app and using it during class.
Highly engaging lesson plans, as Bruff advocates, are all well and good, but they're no match for the latest game or social network, Harvey says.
"Some of the most engaging professors I know are Flipd customers," she says. "Which I believe suggests that the problem isn't the professor, it may not even be the students, but it's the devices we know that are designed to influence and manipulate our behavior in many ways."
Bring policies in line with values
John Warner, who teaches English at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, has been on both sides of the device divide.
As recently as four years ago he had a policy of "no laptops in class, except for specific, designated activities," and banned cell phones except for emergencies. But after engaging in debates online with Stommel and others, his position shifted.
He sees himself as "more of a catalyst for learning, rather than a conduit of information." In order to live up to that value, he in turn needed his students to be what he calls "self-governing" over technology.