Cellphones in the Classroom: Deming in Education with David P. Langford (Part 15)

Deming Institute Podcast

This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute

In our latest Deming in Education podcast, Andrew and David talk about a controversial subject: cellphones in classrooms. Should teachers have them? Students? Should they be banned? Or is there another way?


0:00:03.2 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz and I’ll be your host, as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today, I’m continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming’s philosophy to education, and he offers offered us his practical advice for implementation. Today’s topic is, “What would Deming say about cellphones in classrooms.” David, take it away.


0:00:31.9 David Langford: Thank you. I just find this topic so relevant today and just so interesting, I just wanted to have this little discussion about what’s going on because I’m reading articles that some high schools in Massachusetts, I think it was, are now banning cellphones completely, and so when kids come to school they have to put their cell phone in a hermetically sealed plastic bag that can only be opened by a teacher or an administrator at the end of the day. So, sort of like what Dagwood said in the comics one time, “It sounds like a good idea till you think about it.” So those schools now have become the cell phone police. Alright?


0:01:23.6 AS: Yeah.


0:01:24.0 DL: They have to have people at the door, and if you think you’re gonna outsmart a high school kid and get him… “Well, I didn’t bring my phone today… ” What are you gonna do then? You’re gonna search ’em? You’re gonna have a Geiger counter kind of the thing that they go through that will go off then, “You got a cell phone and… ”


0:01:44.6 AS: You have got a cell phone or a gun, I’m not sure.


0:01:48.7 DL: And then you lied. And so now we have to have punishments for that and one cell phone misdemeanor will get you half an hour after school, and then so we have to have somebody to monitor the after school program and then we go on and on and on and on. And is that really the business you’re in? And on the other hand, I can understand a teacher’s complaint about, we got these cell phones and they’re going off and everything, but I also want to tie it back into what are we supposed to be trying to do in education, what’s our purpose? And Deming talked a lot about constancy of purpose, and so when all these students that are going to schools with banned cell phones get out into society and they go to work for companies like yours or other companies, what are companies gonna expect about their cell phones are we still gonna be taking cell phones away from employees when they hit the door? I would say… [cough] Excuse me. Generally, that people just make up, not necessarily even rules or regulations but ethics around cell phones. I remember as an administrator having that problem that we’d have administrative meetings and you might have 20 or 30 people in the room and there’s people answering their email and they’re looking up stuff on their cell phones and this and that, checking this.


0:03:25.2 DL: And in some cases, it could be an extreme emergency and they need to be paying attention to that, so do you just wanna ban that and say, “Okay, no, no answering email or doing anything like that.” Or can we put some guidelines about what we believe? So it ties into Deming thinking, because the first thing that I’ve encountered this over and over, schools all over the world, and the first thing I would say is, “Okay, what’s the statistical variation that you have on cell phones?” And they’ll look at you blankly like, “Well, you know, it’s just bad.” [chuckle] Well, I can understand that, but does every child have a cell phone in the entire school? Are you dealing with that, well or either that system, or is there a system of inequity where only 30% of the kids can actually afford cell phones and what are parents views on cell phones and all the it’s other kinds…


0:04:26.2 AS: I was just thinking that, I’m sure whatever challenges you’re facing in the classroom that parents are also facing that challenge, so you actually have somewhat of an ally. I was looking at an article by CBS News, that just came out, and a quote from a guy named Tyler Rablin, a high school teacher in Sunnyside, Washington, he said, “It’s a losing battle for kids and their brains.”


0:04:55.6 DL: [laughter] That sounds like somebody that doesn’t really wanna join the 21st century.


0:05:01.3 AS: But also the other thing is in business now, we have apps where you’re communicating and you’re expected to be online and respond and all that, so it’s not like we’re gonna get rid of…


0:05:12.0 DL: Yeah you can take that away as well. Well, and then there are developing countries, like I’m pretty sure that it’s Nigeria that is actually issuing cell phones to every student because it’s a miniature computer and it’s affordable, and they can use it in multiple ways, working stuff through. So the idea of just, “Well, we’re just gonna ban something, we’re just gonna completely take it away, and so that’s gonna solve your problem is actually creating its own problems, and I’d actually wanna know the data on how many interruptions are you talking about per class period, per day, what’s a Pareto chart from highest to lowest of the type of interruptions with cell phones all the way to the lowest interruptions with cell phones. Have you actually come up with a cell phone etiquette for your school about how you agree to operate and have the students been a part of that, coming up with that etiquette, and what’s normal and what’s not normal?


0:06:15.9 DL: I know even with, as a school administrator, administrative groups, we actually had cell phone email time built into our work sessions, ’cause people said, “Well, I do need to check in and do this and there’s stuff going on at my school that I need to be aware of and… ” Great, so we decided to have cell phone time, there was like a 12-minute period or an 18-minute period, and they would tell us how much time they needed to do that, and everybody would go out and talk on their cellphones and call home and to see how the kids are doing, or whatever you needed to do. But then when you come back to the meeting, we’re back in session and we’re concentrating and we’re doing the things that we need to do over there.


0:07:00.8 AS: There’s a couple of things I’m…


0:07:01.2 DL: There are ways to deal with these things.


0:07:04.2 AS: I was thinking about a couple of things. Sometimes when I see a lot of distraction in a classroom, I basically tell people to turn off their phones and you can access them at the break, so we’re gonna talk for an hour and a half. If you can’t get away for an hour and a half, maybe you shouldn’t be in the classroom, for someone that’s coming for a training or something like that, no, you can’t. If you say that to a kid, they’ll say, “Yeah, exactly.” But the other thing…


0:07:34.3 DL: Think about how if you’ve got that kind of thinking in your classroom, what do you need to be doing before you get to the classroom? Well, I need to be making my phone calls, I need to be doing my texting or whatever I’m going to be doing, so when I get in the classroom, I’m not gonna be tempted to be distracted from those types of things. To me, it’s going back to Deming’s concept of understanding the system, what is this system that you’re trying to either prevent or create or work through? And I can absolutely guarantee you those kids are gonna run circles around those administrators and those teachers in those schools, they are going to find ways to make stuff happen. I’ll never forget when cellphones were actually first sort of coming out and my kids were going to university, Allison got this text from my son, who was in a business class listening to a lecture that he was bored out of his mind, and that’s back when we had the cell phones with buttons on ’em. And he said, “I’m texting you from my pocket because I’ll get in trouble if I take out my phone.” And he was doing the whole thing by feel ’cause the class was so boring, this was a whole lot more fun to see if he could pull that off, [chuckle] so that’s what you’re gonna be up against is…


0:08:55.7 AS: But the other thing is, I teach here in Asia, and most of my students are not native speakers, so they use their phones to record sometimes. Or yesterday, I had a class and we were running late, I had to run, but I needed to give them some advice on the next assignment, I told ’em, “Turn on your audio, I’m gonna run through seven things.” One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. “I’ll see you guys later.” Boom. So there’s that also. But what I’m coming back to, David, is that, it is really a battle for attention on what I can see the curse course of young people right now…


0:09:30.4 DL: Attention and control… And control. Who’s in control here? Right?


0:09:34.1 AS: Yep. But what I can see is that I see a lot of young people that are unable to focus because they’re constantly distracted, even for me, who didn’t grow up with this type of thing, it can be distracting. And so I do things like, I’d leave my phone outside my office, I start work early in the morning where I know nobody is gonna send me any messages, all kinds of little tricks and stuff. But it is a challenge, which raises another issue in education, do we have a concentration time? Maybe we need to teach children about, “Hey, what is the value of going 30 minutes on this? No distraction.” And teaching something like that.


0:10:17.1 DL: Yeah, I’d much rather that you had a Deming-focus in your school and you’re thinking about, “Well, how do we manage this cell phone issue?” Because when students leave the school, they’re gonna have to know how to use cell phones properly in work environments or in any environment that they go into. And so if we’re not teaching ’em how to do it and they’re not understanding how to work that through, it’s just gonna be chaos on the other side of that.


0:10:49.8 AS: What about this? I remember a fund management client that I had in the UK, and I tried to get a hold of him in the morning, and he contacted me, he says, “Sorry, I didn’t talk to you in the morning because our company doesn’t turn on the email delivery until noon.”




0:11:08.0 DL: Again, you’re not trusting your employees to make good decisions, and so therefore, we’re just gonna take care of it for you. That’s another… Another way that you could do the cell phone thing is you could have a bubble over your school that prevented any cell phone access.


0:11:30.1 AS: There you go. A shield. A dome.


0:11:32.8 DL: A dome or a shield over it. We laugh about it and stuff, but and it’s a very big problem for the teachers in schools and etcetera. If I was a teacher now and in a high school, I’d actually probably be requiring all of my students to have cellphones. Because I talked with one teacher about this one time, and that’s what she did and she had everybody’s numbers, she had everything, she would text stuff out and she said, “Oh, the kids were just like, take her cell phone away.” ‘Cause she was saying, “Remember we’re gonna have this test on Friday, and remember you to study this.” And she’s blanket that out to everybody in the class, and so they’re just constantly getting these text messages from her. But it’s the same thing as in business, the eight-hour work day is a myth, it doesn’t happen anymore. I know I’m on a 24-hour schedule because you’re in Thailand and your’re 11 hours different than where I’m at and… And that’s happening worldwide, and if we’re not teaching students how to deal with that… That’s the whole advantage of having a cell phone is that I can get messages and that I can receive them and answer them on my schedule and on my time, and when I wanna do that and work through that.


0:13:00.0 DL: From a systems perspective, it’s much, much more powerful to teach students how to make responsible choices and decisions, and then you’re gonna get the question about, “Well what happens when if they don’t make responsible decisions?” Well, are we talking about special cause, we got a thousand kids in the school and we got one kid or 10, right?


0:13:22.8 AS: Yup.


0:13:23.8 DL: Well, they’re gonna need some special help, ’cause obviously they need help learning how to control themselves. But in general, 99… 98% of the students don’t have this problem.


0:13:35.4 AS: So what I’d like to do is just wrap this up by thinking about a teacher who’s listening to this and thinking, “Yeah, this is a challenge I’m facing in my classroom and I’m looking for different ways to handle it, and from this conversation, next week when I go into class, I’m gonna take a different perspective on this, and that is gonna be based upon what you’re saying and your interpretation of Dr. Deming’s ideas about this.” So what kind of specific steps would you say? Like, “Maybe try this, try that, do this, do that, re-evaluate what your goals are and what’s your aim?” What would you say it is?


0:14:09.7 DL: The answer to these questions always is; it depends, right? [chuckle] So…


0:14:14.5 AS: Oh, David…


0:14:16.7 DL: The control may be totally out of that teacher’s hands, where the school or the district’s saying, well “This is our policy, and this is what we have to do.” If that’s the case, then you don’t really have much. But even a single teacher within a whole district, or a school, can change the system. So if I wanted to do something differently, I might go to my principal and say, “Look, can I run a PDSA; Plan, Do, Study, Act experiment on cell phones? And my students actually wanna have cell phones in their classes, and so we’d like to take a month, and in just my classes, we’re gonna have cell phones and we’re gonna learn how to use them really properly, and we’re gonna collect some data on improper use and proper use, and try to understand the situation.” And generally, I’d say that most administrators would probably say, “Yeah, that sounds like a logical solution,” right? But to actually understand it…


0:15:24.9 AS: You’re getting the students involved…


0:15:26.1 DL: Getting the students involved…


0:15:26.3 AS: That’s part of their key…


0:15:29.0 DL: That’s the whole key, the students are always the secret weapon. If you’re not getting them involved, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot, so I can guarantee at these high schools that are banning cell phones, there’s probably not a single student that came up with this idea that, “Oh, we need to ban cell phones.”


0:15:45.5 AS: Yeah.


0:15:46.1 DL: [chuckle] It’s just not what’s gonna happen.


0:15:49.7 AS: I was thinking about one idea could be that students may come up with this, maybe we could use this two… We could do partners, like two people, one cell phone. And how do we explore, see what we can find on a particular topic? Or how do we… Just all kinds of ideas would come up, and plus these guys, they know how to use these, that it is a tool, and maybe through that process, you would be teaching them to see it as a tool, not as a burden or not something that you gotta restrict, but how do you get the most outta this tool?


0:16:24.1 DL: Well, that’s… I’m sure that your day is much like mine. Any time, any second, that I think, “I wonder what the answer to this is?” Or “I need to do a little research on this,” or etcetera, I don’t run to my computer ’cause it’s… I’ll pull out my cell phone and within 30 seconds or less, I’ve got the answer to that, and…


0:16:49.6 AS: It’s funny because I…


0:16:51.0 DL: I wouldn’t wanna deprive students of that in a school.


0:16:54.5 AS: I was talking with my mother and she was talking about one of our houses that we lived in, in New Jersey, and I remembered a picture of that house. I asked her, “What’s the address of that house?” And she could remember it, even though she’s getting older. And I went on Google, and I zoomed in, and I go, “Mom, is that the front porch of the house,” and she’s like, “That’s it.” And just, like, there’s so much that you can do with this tool, so…


0:17:21.6 DL: Yeah, so just think of, you’re just blanketly depriving people of access to using that tool. I mean, to me, it just doesn’t make any sense, and from a Deming perspective, I think it’s not tenable. It’s certainly not sustainable. And I absolutely could guarantee you that, in five years, those very same high schools are gonna be done with that policy and, because they don’t wanna be the cell phone policemen anymore.


0:17:50.2 AS: Yup.


0:17:51.9 DL: So eventually you’re gonna have to learn how to teach people to use them properly within the existing systems. It’s gonna come…


0:18:03.1 AS: So, maybe I’ll summarize by thinking about some of the questions about cell phones, even is, does every kid have a phone? And…


0:18:11.1 DL: That’s right…


0:18:11.8 AS: What’s the situation?


0:18:13.8 DL: Yeah, could be an equity issue, right? Oh, we’re gonna ban cell phones because only 25% of our kids can actually afford to have a cell phone. Okay, well, that’s a whole different issue than we’re just gonna ban this…


0:18:29.0 AS: Well, that’s why I was thinking about teams, if you had a room where a certain number of people didn’t have a cell phone by setting up… If the students came out and say, “Hey, why don’t we work in teams?” Boom. You also talked about, maybe we should think about cell phone etiquette, maybe get parents and, obviously, students involved. And the other thing you said, are you trusting your employees? Are you trusting your students? And you also talked about, maybe, the thing to do is, let’s study it, let’s do a PDSA on cell phones; how to use them properly, how to use them in the classroom and try to learn and develop something that you’re developing with the students, and finally, see the phone as a tool for reaching the goal of the system. Which is, let’s say, to educate young people. Anything you would add to that?


0:19:21.4 DL: Yeah, I’m sure there’s people listening to this and saying, “Well, those guys don’t understand our reality,” well, you can create your own reality. [chuckle] I’d rather be in a school system where everybody’s responsibly using cell phones, even the administrators, and teachers. Where was I? In Australia or some place, and I said something about, “Some of our schools think they have a cell phone problem,” and the administrators said, “You mean with the teachers?”




0:19:55.3 DL: And I hadn’t even thought about that. He said, “We have a really big problem with that, the teachers are just always on their cell phones and using… Texting, and doing all their stuff, and… ”


0:20:03.0 AS: Yup. Well, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re like, “You guys don’t know, and this and that… ” Well, if it’s getting you a little bit frustrated, you’re questioning it and stuff, that’s the part of the process of learning, is getting some new information and thinking about that. David, I wanna thank you for challenging us to think about cell phones, ’cause even in my case, I kinda went into this with a little bit different view, but you’ve got me convinced to get the students involved, and maybe their parents, and think about what’s our real aim here. On behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. For listeners, remember to go to deming.org to continue your journey. Listeners can also learn about David at langfordlearning.com. This is your host Andrew Stotz, and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming, “People are entitled to joy in work.”

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