Classroom = No Phone Zone?

Yesterday, I saw a post on Facebook that made me stop and think, and then get frustrated.  The photo was originally posted by the account of a newspaper in Oklahoma and showed what appeared to be high school students in a classroom.  In the foreground, a box with slots held all of their cell phones.  The caption read, “Do you think this would be a good idea in schools?”

As I scrolled through the comments, I was surprised to see that almost every one I read said yes.  A handful thought the same practice should be applied at meetings, in the workplace, and in the home.  One said she thought it should be used while driving as well.  So far, I’ve only seen one person say no but it was because she felt students should have access to phones in case of an emergency.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there are many aspects of cell phones that are problematic.  Obviously, distracted driving is a major concern among teens (and adults).  And yes, I am a little concerned with the number of teens I see buried in their phone screen rather than talking to the table of friends sitting with them.  I do value humans engaging and interacting with one another in meaningful ways that don’t include technology.

But that’s where I have to draw the line.  What does it teach kids that we need to lock up their phones in order to teach them?  What does it say about our teaching that the only way to get students to listen to what we say is to take away their personal property?  I know, I know.  Cell phones are a distraction in class, kids can cheat on tests, and teachers are up against a pretty big competitor when it comes to keeping kids focused when phones are in the room.

Humor me for a second, won’t you?

What if it didn’t matter that cell phones were in the classroom during an assessment because the “test” being given didn’t have answers you could Google.  Or text to your friend across the room or in the next period.  What if students were using their phones to create new content based on the material, such as blog posts or videos that make it virtually impossible to cheat unless you copy and paste the entire thing?

What if students were expected to engage in a backchannel for additional questions or discussion during class?  The teacher could check for understanding, the students would be engaged, and those students who tend to keep quiet in class would have a forum for their viewpoints or questions.   And since many students have phones, the teacher wouldn’t even need to provide many (if any) additional devices to do it.

What if teachers were so engaging and their content so relevant to their students that the kids couldn’t help but pay attention?  Maybe the teacher has a gift for turning everything into a compelling story that students just have to hear.  Or maybe kids really want to learn about what they’re doing because they need the information for a project that they’re doing, particularly one that has real world application or an authentic global audience.

Now, I know you’re probably saying that I’m crazy or unrealistic to think that any of this would work.  Maybe I am.  But I’ve also walked past many high school classrooms that still largely consist of lectures and worksheet packets.  Now tell me that you’d be able to leave your cell phone in your bag and pay attention!

We as teachers need to make sure we are engaging our students as fully as possible.  Engagement, however, is not the same as compliance.  Just because students are sitting quietly and not disrupting class doesn’t mean they are engaged.  They need to be thinking, and more importantly, they need to be talking.  Multiple sources say that the one doing the talking in the classroom is the one doing the learning.  Mobile devices like cell phones provide another way for students to “talk” and discuss the course content.

As more schools start moving toward one-to-one access with mobile devices, this is an issue that deserves some critical thought and reflection.  What kinds of questions should we be asking students when they have Google in their pocket?  How can they connect with others, not just in the classroom, but around the world?  Why write something just for the teacher when it can be shared globally?  Why watch videos when you can create your own?  How can we use the available technology to personalize each student’s experience for his or her learning style?

These changes won’t happen overnight, but if these questions aren’t on your radar (or if you have been the teacher with the cell phone box), you need to start thinking about them.  Gone are the days when teachers brag about keeping technology away from their students.  Instead, pride yourself on teaching them to use it appropriately and responsibly.

In the end, kids are going to be using cell phones anyway.  Might as well have them use them for something worthwhile.


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