Cell Phones

Just this morning I listened as a colleague of mine said that “cellphones will be the downfall of western civilization.” This came after listening to a speech for student body government positions that ran along the lines of “I’ll hurry up and finish this speech so we can get back to the important things… Instagram and Snapchat.”

I think these two comments nicely display a growing* issue in classrooms around the United States, if not the whole world: what is the role of technology (especially social media) in the classroom.

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There are probably a lot of teachers and parents who agree with my colleague about this. It seems an easy position to take: people (usually younger-type people, under the age of 25 or 30) certainly are more oriented to their electronics these days, often (it seems) to the exclusion of other activities. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just switched the phones off, shut the computers down, and just lived in the “real world” for awhile? Is that so much to ask? Maybe things like conversation between two people, face to face in the same room could once again be the most common form of communication.

I think there is something to these complaints. My own experience tells me how easy it is to let my phone, with all its interesting apps, interfere with my relationships: even those relationships I hold most dear. I see my students constantly distracted by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and various gaming apps. I see them missing out on good education due to their refusal to let these things wait until after class.

But I also know how useful these devices can be. In my classes we often use Kahoots as a formative review activity: one that students seem to both enjoy and find useful. I love the idea of using a blogging platform like WordPress, Blogger, or Weebly as a class journal. The ability to connect people from all around the world is not something to ignore about the internet, and has incredible implications for classroom use.

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The question is how to balance the two sides. In the world we live in now, it is unrealistic to expect students to never have their phones out during the school day. Not only would this be impossible to properly enforce, it simply doesn’t match up with the “real life”  for which school is supposedly preparing students. The answer needs to be somewhere in the middle.

I wonder if phone use was de-criminalised in schools what effect that might have. That way, instead of a teacher speaking from a position of power to students, saying “put that phone away this instant,” a teacher can ask the question “Is that distracting you from what we are learning right now?” This is the kind of conversation that seems more useful to me: rather than a ruler, the teacher becomes more of a mentor. Students who have finished classroom tasks for the day do not have to enter the morally dubious ground of checking their phone against school rules, and teachers do not have to enter the morally dubious ground of letting them do so.

Having said that, a system like the one I have suggested could create a classroom management nightmare for teachers. Students might claim they are “done” before finishing assignments properly. Those on their phones could cause distractions for those still working. Classrooms could become little more than an extension of social media with the barest attempt at instruction. I tend to think a teacher with good relationships in their classroom could make my idea work well, but I can easily imagine things getting out of hand.

Suffice it to say I am not sure how to effectively utilize technology in the classroom; I only know that it will be one of the more important questions I must face in my career as a teacher. As they grow, learn, and graduate, my students will face a constant barrage of new programs, electronics, and other kinds technology. I need to help them learn how to effectively use these in both their work and personal lives.

*Who am I kidding. It has been an issue for over a decade.

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