Why a technology teacher banned tech from his classroom

Key Takeaways

  • If a student’s phone is visible, he is not learning as much as he could be if it was out of sight. The mere presence of a mobile device, even one that is turned off, is mentally distracting. The further away from his body the device is, the more he can focus and learn.
  • If a student is passively using her phone such as listening to music or watching YouTube, she is learning even less than the student who’s phone was off but still visible.
  • If a student is actively using their phone during class to play a game, respond to messages, interact with social media, he is learning almost nothing.
  • The more chronic and habitual the mobile device use, the harder it is for that student to focus on her learning when not using the device.

When the spring semester starts on January 22, I will be turning my back on the very technology that I once championed. For the benefit of my students’ learning, I am banning smartphone use in my classroom.

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This was not an overnight, knee-jerk reaction type of decision. Rather it came about after months of research. The deeper I delved into the topic the more this decision felt like a moral obligation. Any hesitation that remained vanished after reading the book, Screen Schooled. It was as if the authors had placed a video camera in my classroom transcribing everything they saw. What I read was terrifying. I knew I needed to make immediate changes.

Today’s youth spends more time in front of a screen than they do asleep. They don’t need more time using these devices in our classes. [1]

You are probably wondering how these mobile devices even found their way into my classroom.

The simple answer is, like the Trojans, I invited them. I thought these third-of-an-inch thick aluminum and glass clad pocket-sized supercomputers would be educational saviors delivering us from ignorance. I had no idea they would become our robotic overlords.

The longer, more complicated answer is BYOD.

What is BYOD?

BYOD stands for Bring Your Own Device. It was a way to supplement the District’s technology by allowing students to use their own mobile devices (i.e., laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc…). The original intention was that students would bring their laptops to use at school. Instead of needing a cart or lab with 28 computers, you would need far fewer.

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Unfortunately that never happened in any meaningful way. I rarely had more than one student per class bring a laptop. Instead, most students elected to use their smartphones as their mobile devices. I thought this was a great idea believing there were few things you couldn’t do on a smartphone that you could do on a laptop.

The fallacy in my thinking was that while I approached smartphone use as a digital immigrant, my students approached its use as digital natives. For digital immigrants, smartphones are a tool. For digital natives, it is a way of life.

“Technology is not longer just an important part of young people’s lives. Technology has become their lives. It consumes them in every conceivable way.”  — Joe Clement & Matt Miles [2]

If you are a high school teacher you probably need little convincing that banning mobile devices from your classroom is a good idea. For those not in the field of education, I will explain how detrimental to learning smartphones really are.

Tool or Toy?

I have always believed these pocket-sized supercomputers offered unlimited creative and learning potential. What I didn’t realize until recently was these same mobile devices are unlimited time wasters that for far too many of our students actual extinguish their natural curiosity and thirst for substantive knowledge.

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The heart breaking part is that the two are forever intertwined. The learning tool can not be separated from time-wasting toy. As a result, every time our students unlock their smartphones they have to choose between using it as a tool or toy. Unfortunately toy almost always gets picked. Even when students have the intention of using it as a tool, they quickly fall down the rabbit hole of time wasting as the constant stream of dopamine releasing notifications flood in.

Every time students unlock their smartphones they have to choose between using it as a tool or toy.

Multitasking

Today’s youth are sure they can successfully use their mobile devices while completing school working as they fully believe in the myth of multitasking. But in reality it should be called “multi-ignoring.” Multitasking is not doing two things at once. It’s just rapidly toggling between two things. This start-stop-start again process is mentally exhausting.

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While we might feel like we are doing two or even three things at the same time, that multitasked work takes longer than if we had done each task individually. The quality of the work is poor and riddled with errors. Anything meaningful is almost immediately lost as the brain tries to do everything but retains nothing.

Homework

There is this common belief that the amount of homework given out today by schools has dramatically increased. For this reason many students are often up late at night completing what appears to be mountains of homework.

There’s probably much less than you think. The truth is many students are just taking longer to complete it.

Every day approximately 80 percent of the student body in my school gets a 51 minute study hall. You can get a lot of work done in 51 minutes…if you aren’t multitasking. But unfortunately there’s a lot of smartphone multitasking happening during that time.

Things only amplify once students get home doing their homework in the comfort of their own bedroom without a teacher or parent present to redirect their focus. How efficient would you be with Netflix or YouTube playing, an earbud in one ear listening to music as your phone lights up from a stream of texts, Instagram likes, and snaps? I wouldn’t.

Sounds of Silence

Thinking is hard work and quiet makes for the best thinking. There’s a reason we don’t play music during high-stake testing or that home team fans are silent during basketball game free throws.

Students use noise to drown out their own thoughts because thinking is hard work. Most students choose to avoid doing anything difficult. It’s human nature. Our mobile devices make avoiding hard work very easy. There is already so much digital noise in the lives of today’s youth that time without an earbud dangling from an ear would be beneficial.

I know what you are thinking. What about listening to music? My students focus better when they listen to music on their phones.

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There was a time when I would have agreed but that was before 2013 when smartphone ownership for teenagers hadn’t crossed 50 percent. It might have even been true in the days of the classic iPod but that was over 15 years ago before their music player became intertwined with their social media / messaging / YouTube / Netflix / gaming apps. Today, it’s impossible to use these devices as a music player without the addiction of distraction calling.

For this reason, listening to music today almost immediately degrades into time wasting. And that’s for students who are actually interested in learning. For those who aren’t, “Listening to my music” and “I’m just changing the song” is excellent cover for playing games and sending pointless snaps.

It’s boring without my music. That’s what your students will say, right?

“Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.” — Robert M. Pirsig [3]

Student boredom goes hand in hand with silence. It fosters creativity, reflection, and processing time. “I’m bored” should not be excuse for using a smartphone. It should be the prelude to greatness. Try more silence in your life and see what happens.

Down Time

Students need down time. But that shouldn’t mean mentally checking out to play on your phone. It means time to rest. Bodybuilders know that their muscles grow while resting not while working out in the gym. The same holds true for our brains. Constant smartphone stimulation doesn’t allow time for that growth to happen.

That rest comes from getting plenty of sleep as well as taking a break from mobile devices. In fact, chronic smartphone users are shown to get less sleep than those who aren’t. It’s a bit off topic but a major factor for depression is lack of sleep. Furthermore, rates of teenage depression and suicide have increased every year since 2013 in lock step with increased teenage smartphone ownership rates.

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Down time and growth also comes from time to reflect on the concepts presented in class. That can’t happen if the moment the presentation ends everyone busts out their phones.

Smartphones Makes You Dumb

With everything mentioned above, it will come as no surprise that smartphones makes us dumber. The mere presence of it, even when turned off, is enough to significantly reduce your ability to focus and perform tasks. How many of your students leave their phones on their desk during your presentation? Five? Ten?

That’s five or ten kids that aren’t paying as much attention as they could. Think about your life. Are you paying as much attention as you could in meetings or at dinner?

Paradoxically, the easier technology makes learning, the more kids struggle with it.

Researchers have found that the further away a mobile device is stored, the more that person can focus and learn. When students are allowed to access their smartphones during instructional times, researchers found that that they get 20 percent fewer questions correct.

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School districts regularly spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new educational programs with the hope improving student scores by just a few percentage points. Schools that have imposed strict bans on smartphones have seen improvements between six and 14 percent depending on social economic status. Imagine a 14 percent improvement on a zero dollar investment simply by banning mobile devices from our classrooms. That fact alone should be enough to convince you.

Imagine the improvements in learning you could have in your classroom just by banishing mobile devices from sight or even better from the room.

Anymore when a parent contacts me to understand why their son or daughter is performing poorly the response is almost always the same. S/he cant keep their phone put away.

Brutal Honesty

I think deep down many teachers know that smartphones are not a good fit for their classroom. Anecdotal experience has taught us that these devices are not improving learning despite promises to the contrary from the educational-industrial complex. Smartphones get in the way of students getting inspired. Yet we still permit them.

For starters, it’s a never ending battle with students on keeping them put away because for digital natives smartphones are a way of life.

“Kids today are being controlled by smartphones, and becoming enslaved by them.” — Ryuta Kawashima [4]

For all the wrong reasons they also make classroom management easier. That might be why we’re slow to ban them from our classroom. When students are engaged with their smartphones they are quiet and non-combative. They aren’t learning much either.

I feel that some educators have washed their hands of student smartphone use thinking if you don’t want to pay attention that’s on you. But by allowing students to use their phones in class, we send the message that we uninterested in their success. I know that’s not true. For many educators, preventing smartphone use in the classroom feels like an unwinnable battle an unfortunate sign of that’s just how things are today.

Join Me

Join me by prohibiting student use of mobile devices in your classroom. With the end of the semester approaching later this month for almost 50 percent of high schools in the United States this is the perfect moment to start the ban.

I can’t promise it will be easy especially at first. In fact, it will probably be miserable as you force your unwilling students onto a rapid detox regiment. Your students will push back testing how serious you really are. They will make excuses—similar to an addict because in truth they are addicts—for needing the device.

“My mom just texted me.” “I was looking something up.” “I needed a picture on my phone.” “My essay is saved on my phone.” “I forgot my book, and I need to follow along on my phone.”

What I can promise you is that it will be worth it. It has to be. Anything has to be better than our classrooms now. Scores will improve. I’m willing to bet by an entire letter grade for many of our lowest achieving students. Their attention will improve as you no longer have to compete for it. Work completion (at least what’s done in class) will dramatically increase.

So will you join me by banning mobile devices from your classroom? If you do, here’s a copy of my slide deck that I present to my students when I break the no mobiles devices in class bad news. You are welcome to use it.

The opinions expressed here are my own. They do not in any way represent those of my employer. I encourage everyone to read Screen Schooled. The book is available from Amazon. You can also visit the book’s website here. If you enjoyed this post, read Seven uncomfortable truths we ignore about our phones. 

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One comment

  1. […] As an early adopter of everything tech I was seduced by these devices’ power and educational potential. However over the course of the inaugural decade of the smartphone era ushered in by Apple’s iPhone, I became increasingly disillusioned. I found giving students smartphones were like giving them a no limit credit card. You can read about my experience here. […]

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