Distracted enough without adding more

Some great reads this week on the schedule.  I thought the article about setting student’s minds on fire through active learning (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Setting-Students-Minds-on/126592) was a great reminder that sitting in a chair while someone lectures is not really learning.  I’m grateful most of my teachers have gotten us more involved than that.

I also found the article about phones and laptops in the classroom to be interesting (https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/01/24/578437957/laptops-and-phones-in-the-classroom-yea-nay-or-a-third-way).  Although I see benefits to technology in learning, I definitely find myself siding with people who want cellphones out of the classroom.  Kids (and I include myself and my collegiate associates) are distracted enough without adding more distractions.  I would hate to count the number of times I check my cell phone to see if I have new messages, even when I’m not waiting for anything in particular.  (In case you were wondering, there are plenty of apps to help you track how many times you check your phone – see https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/05/apps-smartphone-use-_n_6096748.html.  Of course, the irony of an app to see how often you use apps is not lost on me.  But it can be an interesting reality check to realize how much of your life you waste on a phone) I think it’s a sad state of affairs that we have gotten to a point where we find it shocking that teachers wouldn’t want kids to have phones in their classrooms.  Class should be a time for learning, discussion, interaction, and respect, and I can’t think of too many cases where having a phone actually helps that.  When screens of any sort are out, you’re ability to engage in a meaningful discussion is compromised, even if you’re eyes are on the teacher or classmate, your mind is elsewhere.  Aside from that, have we really gotten to a point where we ignore how disrespectful it is to be on a phone while someone else is talking?

This may be a shock to everyone, but students will not die without their phones.  In fact, few things are probably healthier for young and growing (or old and stagnating) minds than to disconnect from our phones for a while.  We live in a world where we can’t go more than a few minutes without being fed another piece of click bait or a message or a post or something.  I think that has hampered our ability to focus and learn and communicate.  We are not doing our students any favors by fostering that behavior.  We are addicted to technology.  If you want to read an excellent case study, check here https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/14/google-glass-user-treated-addiction-withdrawal-symptoms.

Maybe one of the most convincing arguments to me AGAINST phones in a classroom is watching people try to justify the need to have them in a classroom.  I thought Jesse Stommel’s argument was weak when he said that we shouldn’t put limits on phones in classroom simply because those would be a “form of control,” and that would be bad?  Learning, conversation, social interaction, literally everything we do is subject to controls of some sort.  And that isn’t bad.  Again, this may be shocking, but it is okay to have rules of engagement for our classrooms.  Are there bad ways to set those up?  Of course! I don’t think you have to be authoritarian to set guidelines for your class.  Setting rules controlling when phones can’t be used also allows you to set rules for when phones, media, etc. CAN be used in your class.  To go back to Stommel’s point about having a discussion with your students about attention and what works for them, I have no doubt most of the kids missed that discussion because they were on their phones.

I see benefits to involving phones or computers in useful ways in class if we use them productivly.  “Asking the oracle” through google is a great way to learn, search, and discover. But if we and are students can’t handle disconnecting when the searching is done, our phones are no longer a tool for learning.  They’re just one more flashy distraction.  I love that my kids’ teachers have carts with laptops they can wheel in and out of class.  When the computers are out, they’re using them for something beneficial, and when they are back on the cart, they are back to engaging with the teacher and each other.  We can’t do that with our phones (although it’d be funny to see someone try), but I think the principle is a sound one.

I taught high school students for 2 years and, as you’d expect, ran headlong into the phone issue.  It gave me an opportunity to experience both sides because we had two semesters where we didn’t use phones and 2 where we did.  The discussions we had in our phone-free semesters were orders of magnitude better than those where we allowed phones.  Students who slept or read their phones the whole class were suddenly more engaged and actually appeared interested.  Turns out, shockingly enough, that if there isn’t a phone to occupy your attention, you have to fill it with something, and, if you happen to be sitting in a classroom, you might as well fill your attention with that.  Which brings us to the point about teachers just being boring which is why students use their phone.  Although teachers are often boring, that may be the worst argument of all.  Anyone who thinks a teacher can compete day in and day out against a flashing phone screen, games, and YouTube for all their students is naive or ignorant.  Obviously, if we ask our students to disconnect and remove distractions from their lives, we better have something worthwhile to fill the void, which is why I like the article about active teaching and getting students involved.  If we remove distractions and then use the newly discovered phone-free time to actually engage students, I think we will be amazed what we can accomplish.

Sorry for the long rant.  I love my phone and my computer….and my tv…..and on an on.  That’s probably exactly why I’m so sensitive to this topic.  I think I’ve zone out of entire classes just because my laptop was more open than my mind, and, based on what you see daily in our classes, I’m not the only one.  There is an argument that, if we, as college students, want to miss lecture by being on our phone, that’s our choice as adults, but, I don’t think that applies to K-12 where people are still learning how to be responsible with media.  I think the analogy of giving kids unlimited candy while they are trying to learn to eat a well-balanced diet was a good one.  Kids are learning and one of the things to learn is how to be responsible with media.  Even in college though, I think our phone/computer use doesn’t just affect us.  It’s distracting to everyone around you and I know, from observation and personal experience, that it makes things harder for the teacher.  It’s much harder to guide a meaningful class discussion when a sizeable part of the class is tuned out, often visibly so.  At least when you zone out without a phone, it isn’t quite so distracting to everyone else.  As a society, we need to recognize the benefits of disconnecting from media and connecting to each other, and I think that is definitely true in education.

3 Replies to “Distracted enough without adding more”

  1. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of this response — especially in light of your experience with high school students and phones. I think expectations and strategies vary depending on the level of the class and the kind of students you are working with. Phones can definitely be a distraction, but as you note, they can also give students the chance to interact with the material and the class (by looking something up, for example). Thanks for this!

  2. You bring up some good points Tyler and you’ve pointed out some of the cons of the use of technology in classrooms. I will refer you to one of my comments on Selva’s blog for my experience with technology and high school students (http://selvamarroquin.com/gedi-s18/not-another-bruno-grammy/#comments) . Additionally, I will also say that sometimes technology has saved me quite a bit as a student, especially as an introvert (I know, you won’t believe it) when I don’t understand something in the class and am too shy to ask, I can look something up during break or a lot of times see how things are done on Youtube and that helps me learn. I do believe that it appears disrespectful and I think role modeling better ways for the younger generations is our responsibility as well, don’t you? I won’t get started on learning theory and how different people learn differently…we can discuss that some other day 🙂

  3. Really interesting read on the google glass. I’m curious if there’s simpler methods than banning phones outright, given the potential phones can play for safety and socialization. As most carriers still do not offer affordable unlimited data plans, perhaps session control on school wifi could apply sufficient pressure to disincentivize cellphone use without disabling their more important functions.

    For one positive outcome, nobody abuses collect calls anymore:
    “Hello, you have a call from ‘PLZ PICK ME UP NOW MOM KTHNXBAI,’ do you accept?”

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