Could smartphone bans help students achieve more?

A study from the London School of Economics found that banning smartphones in classrooms can assist in learning. Are kids plugging in too early? 

Whitney Leggett/The Sun/AP/File
From left, Katlan Hatton, Heaven Kelley, Josh Gosnel, and Orion Fellows, all students in Casey Harper’s creative writing class at George Rogers Clark High School, read their children’s book 'Timmy and the Race,' to kindergartners at Conkwright Elementary School on April 16, 2015 in Winchester, Ky. As kids are getting cell phones at younger and younger ages, the remaining question is are cell phones hurting or helping students' learning efforts?

Today's students the world over are losing an hour a week of productivity due to their smartphone activity.

That is what two researchers from the London School of Economics are arguing with their new study that examined 130,000 students in 91 British schools that employed various smartphone-use policies. Then, they subsequently looked at how their respective students performed on the 16 year-old national exams. 

In what may not come as a surprise to some, researchers Richard Murphy and Louis-Philippe Beland found that as schools' phone policies evolved since 2001, with some opting to completely ban smartphones, school test scores improved by an average of 6.4 percent. The increase in scores from underachieving students were even more stark as they saw their scores increase by an average of 14 percent. 

"The results suggest that low-achieving students are more likely to be distracted by the presence of mobile phones, while high achievers can focus in the classroom regardless of the mobile phone policy," the researchers told CNN. "We found the impact of banning phones for these students equivalent to an additional hour a week in school, or to increasing the school year by five days." 

Professors Murphy and Beland said their study does not mean that smartphones and other technology have no place in assisting learning. 

"There are, however, potential drawbacks to new technologies," they told CNN, citing the temptation to text, play games or chat on social media. 

Therefore, cell phones will not be completely out of classrooms anytime soon. Cell phone ownership among young people and children has skyrocketed in the past few years. A Pew Research collaboration with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University reported that as of 2013, 78 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 owned a cell phone, 47 percent of which were smartphones. 

By the same token, another 2012 Pew Internet study found that the median number of texts sent a day by teenagers was sixty, and 63 percent of all teens exchanged daily text messages with people in their lives, which was almost double that of the next closest medium. 

In 2012, the Atlantic reported that 20 percent of American third graders owned a cell phone and that number jumped to 80 percent by middle school. The benefits are obvious – parents can be in direct contact with their children in the event of an emergency, but is this having an effect on adolescent development? 

The same Berkman Center report included that teenagers and later-generation millennials are some of the most web-connected in history, as 95 percent of those under the age of 29 were regularly connected to the Internet in multiple ways by 2008 via their PC, smartphone, or tablet. All told, the technology at students' disposal might be serving more as a distraction than a learning tool. 

In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ended a decade-long citywide ban on cell phones in public schools and left them to make up their own rules because he argued that by denying access for some students, the city was exacerbating the achievement gap in students' performance.

Murphy and Beland countered that this might have the opposite effect because students are not generally not using their phones to assist in their classroom work during school. 

"Schools could significantly reduce the education achievement gap by prohibiting mobile phone use in schools, and so by allowing phones in schools, New York may unintentionally increase the inequalities of outcomes," the London School of Economics researchers told CNN. 

However, some educators have come to embrace the technology in their students' pockets. Teacher Ken Halla has been teaching world history and Advanced Placement government for 22 years but his students' smartphone ownership forced him to adapt his classroom dynamic where he no longer is the sole authority lecturing, according to the National Education Association (NEA). He now roams the classroom and encourages students to use their smartphones to help them complete their assignments, this way they are less tempted to let their devices distract themselves.

“It’s harder to do the negative behaviors when the phones are out and the teacher is walking around,” Mr. Halla told the NEA. “I’ve always been that type of person who likes to adapt and change as time goes on. Otherwise, I wouldn’t still be teaching this many years down the road."

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