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A Study Builds the Case for Classroom Cellphone Bans

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The unexpected ringing of a cellphone—especially the ones that play a snippet of a popular song—can be more harmful to learning than you might think.

That's what a team of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis claim in a study due to be published in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Environmental Psychology.

For the study, postdoctoral fellow Jill Shelton went undercover in university lecture classes. She programmed her cellphone to go off at an agreed-upon time and let it ring at least 30 seconds before silencing it.

The researchers tested Shelton's classmates later on the information the instructor was imparting when the cellphone rang and compared the results with those of students who had been in uninterrupted classes. They found that the students who had been subjected to the annoying cellphone ring tones were 25 percent less likely to recall the target information—even when the lecturer was just repeating something that had already been covered when the cellphone went off.

Shelton also did a lab experiment in which college-student volunteers were subjected to a variety of ring tones, from the standard sounds that come with the phones to the Louisiana State University fight song. (This earlier experiment was done at LSU, where the fight song has become a popular choice of ring tones.) The ring tone that had the longest-lasting detrimental impact on learning—you guessed it—was the LSU fight song. In repeated trials, though, participants were able to improve their performance even with the fight song playing in their ears.

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Shelton thinks the song's familiarity or its personal significance to listeners may have been what enhanced its impact, which means that other popular songs might be just as distracting to learning.

So think twice before programming "Boom Boom Pow" into your cellphone. The study is not

yet published, but you can read a more detailed article about it on Washington University's Web site.

UPDATE: I now have a link for the full study, "The Distracting Effects of a Ringing Cell Phone: An Investigation of the Laboratory and the Classroom Setting." Enjoy.

3 Comments

Banning cell phones in schools would be as wonderful as banning driving while talking on those infernal contraptions.

I I know I'm old-fashioned on this, not even borrowing a cell phone when hiking, but that also is illustrative. Hikers spposedly take more risks and reduce the amount of thinking ahead when they have the comfort (often false) of a cell.

I'd support exemptions for schools that want to use cell phones as a part of their instructional process. But that would just involve a few places that don't have disciplinary issues.

With cell phones, no dispute, no matter how trivial, ever seems to end. Someone has to always get in the last word. And even if the teacher bans text-messaging, he can't ban the student from being preoccupied with the "he said, she said," and the text message that she or he would like to be sending.

We as educators have some values and standards to uphold. We can't ban the future. But we need to create situations where we have a fighting chance to combat the "bathtub brain" mentality of being continually wired.

Finally in inner city schools, cell phones are just too dangerous. We might as well relax the rules on weapons in the schools if we are going to allow a communications system that allows forces to be arrayed during fights. Twice, I have come upon my own students who I couldn't recognize because they had been beaten so badly by mothers who had been summoned by cell phones.

C'mon John--games of "the dozens" that go on forever are not new. That stuff was going on when most of the kids that I worked with had no phones at all--let alone cell phones. We used to regularly go out and break up the fights that erupted as soon as kids got off the bus outside our building--fueled by threats of "wait until we get off that bus," and a host of onlookers selling wolf tickets.

Schools do not do well by trying to hold the community at bay--whether through locked doors and metal detectors or through cell-phone bans. In my district they set "no trespass" orders against parents so that they can arrest them on sight.

This is not good policy or practice. I have walked kids home from those off the bus fights, or called parents--and calmed them down and tried to problem solve--in a context that rejected getting someone to beat up whoever was on the other side. What I don't see schools doing is learning to use the technology well to counter the flying hysteria that accompanies teen-age drama. My son's school couldn't be bothered to even send a letter home when they "locked down" following an incident of violence, or threatened violence, or perceived threat of violence (or possibly no kind of threat at all--never really found out) by a parent. I got forty-two he said she said accounts, but nothing from the adults supposed to be in charge. They could have sent an email--but that would require acknowledging that such an invention exists--and asking parents for an email--and thinking about the value of keeping parents "in the loop."

An assurance that "the kids are OK" and a phone number to call for more info would have been a good idea--and would fit into a twitter.

The more we structure policy and practice around a belief that "they're not like us," the greater barriers we build to real and meaningful communication.

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