The biggest risk to student learning is in their pocket. Why you need to BAN smartphones from your classroom.

Key Talking Points

  • Research indicates that in the absence of smartphones, students learn more. The last 90 days of school showed me that’s true.
  • Banning smartphones is not a silver bullet, but its a good start.
  • The power of writing is unparalleled for success in learning. 

In January, I announced that I was banning smartphones from my technology education classroom. For people that knew me, it was a surprising statement. For those of you that don’t, let me start by saying, “I love technology!”

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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Smartphones interfere with learning lowering scores by as much as 20 percent.

From the day the ban went into effect, fellow educators asked me about the results. They were promising. In fact with the submission of the first major assignment, I was blown away at how much better the quality of work was. It was immediately obvious that most students had spent considerably more time (in class at least) on the assignment. The trend continued for the rest of the rest semester.

Well, until the last week of school that is. However, anyone in the profession knows all bets are off in those final days before summer vacation.

The results were so promising I’ll continue the practice into the foreseeable future. 

Unfortunately, banning smartphones from your classroom is not a silver bullet. It can wound the beast, but not kill it. Nevertheless, it’s a good start…a very good start. Kind of like a 1,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean.

Furthermore, the ban does not suddenly turn everyone into an A student. In fact, I still had three who flirted with failing (I will get into why later). I only have the power to prevent phone use inside my classroom. That’s a mere 80 minutes of a 1,360 minute day or less than six percent.

Ultimately, it did prevent any course failures. I still had a few Cs and Ds though but that’s better than a big fat F on your transcript.

Pieces of Advice

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If you are serious about banning smartphones from your classroom—and I would strongly encourage you to do so—here’s what you need to know.

Remind Them Daily

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Telling students on the first day of class that they can’t use their phones is not a once and done activity. They need to be reminded. Every. Single. Day. I know that sounds ridiculous but bear with me.

It’s like reminding your own child to brush his teeth or make her bed. If you are a parent then you deeply understand that statement. You have to remind your child every day, and when you don’t your child blames you for not reminding them. If you’re not a parent I realize that’s probably the most insane thing you’ve read today. But trust me, it’s a true. Ask any parent you know.

That’s probably the most insane thing you’ve read today.

For this reason, every day at the start of class I remind my students that they need to put their phones away, unclamp the Beats headphones from their temples and remove the single AirPod they have in the ear facing away from me. (Damn you, Apple, and your wireless technology!). I remind them that these devices are distracting and makes you dumber…20 percent dumber. 

Also don’t fall for the “I focus better listening to my music” nonsense many of your students will attempt to employ.  Here are four strong reasons not to do it.

  1. Since the music player is bundled with the phone, it’s actually a ruse to use their mobile device and all the learning distractions it brings. I can’t tell you know many times I’ve heard a student tell me, “I’m just changing the song.” These same students would lead you to believe that the song changing controls are some how inside the messaging app. Personally, that strikes me as poor UX. 😜
  2. Being alone with your thoughts is actually a good thing. That’s where best comprehension and creativity occurs.
  3. It’s anti-social. Period.
  4. You look stupid wearing a giant pair of over the ear headphones in public and a bit like Princess Leia which isn’t a good look for most men.

Okay, maybe only three strong reasons. Your mileage on the fourth one may vary.

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Is it just me or do wearing over the ear headphones remind you of Princess Leia?

Basically, telling your students on the first day of class about the policy and expecting them to be following it unprompted on the 30th day is a pipe dream. You will need to remind them daily. It’s the only way it will work.

Practice What You Preach

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In conjunction with reminding your students daily about the policy I make a point every period at the start of class of pulling my phone from my pocket and saying I’m going to put it away so I can be fully focused and 20 percent smarter.

I then shove the phone into my backpack and put the whole thing in the drawer of my desk. It sets the tone daily and shows them that I’m serious about the ideology.

I realize that teachers have different rules than students. That’s life. But if you are constantly on your phone during class you are going to look like a giant hypocrite to your students. No one likes a hypocrite.

Hold the Line

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Some students will immediately test you. Not to be jerks (okay a couple might) but because they are kids. Maybe not on the first day but likely on the second or third. Their phone will be on their desk or sticking out of their pocket. They will have an sole earbud in or Beats headphones around their neck. They know the rule but want to know if you are willing to enforce it? Are you?

This isn’t ancient Rome so you don’t need to crucify anyone to make a public example out of them. At least not yet. Usually a gentle reminder to put it away so they aren’t 20 percent dumber will do it.

This is Not a Silver Bullet

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Some students will still do poorly. If you are a veteran educator I do not have to list all the reasons why. There is one; however, you might find surprising. Some students have spent so much time face glued to a screen—recently the Pew Research Center found that teenagers are “constantly” online—that they are no longer capable of sustained focus. Tom Kersting details this in his book, Disconnected. It’s a fascinating read that confirmed many of my personal theories concerning mobile devices. I would highly recommend it.

Some students have spent so much time face glued to a screen that they are no longer capable of sustained focus.

What that means, as I discovered first hand this past semester, is that despite being given 30, 45, or even 60 minutes of time in class even without the distraction of a phone there are students that still cannot get their work done. They simply cannot stay focused for any serious amount of time. The sad truth is countless hours in front of a screen—gaming, messaging, clicking, swiping, watching, consuming—have completely destroyed or underdeveloped the neural pathways that allow for sustained focus.

In other words, mobile devices have turned some students into goldfish unable to focus on anything for more than a few seconds.

The real tragedy is there’s nothing I can do to change this. At least nothing I can do inside the four walls of my classroom with the 80 minutes five days a week I have.

The Power of Writing

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Here’s something you can do that will help—make your students write things by hand.

If you aren’t having your students write things down by hand, then you aren’t harnessing the full potential of their learning. Handwriting improves memory, creativity, and maximizes learning in general.

The Power of Writing is unparalleled. It’s better than listening and definitely better than typing your notes. It is the Infinity Gauntlet of Learning. But instead of snapping your fingers and wiping out half of existence, you’re snapping your fingers to dramatically increase learning.

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Handwriting: The Infinity Gauntlet of Learning. Instead of wiping out half of existence, you dramatically increase student learning. SNAP!

But simply telling your students to write things down is akin to handing them a hammer and nails saying, “Go build a house.”

Yes, they have the tools but they have no idea how to use them. You need to tell students what to write down. Even in high school you need to tell them. I teach freshmen. They either write every word on the PowerPoint slide or none of them. I’m not sure what’s more annoying.

For this reason alone, it should motivate you to have brief PowerPoints (or slide decks as all the cool people in technology are calling them now). No more than 30 words per slide. Guy Kawasaki talks about the perfect PowerPoint in detail here. I’ve adopted the philosophy for education.

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Here’s some teacher kung fu for the next time a student tells you why he shouldn’t take notes.

Student: “But, Mr. Zurn, taking notes is a waste of time! I never look at them.”

Me: “You didn’t need to look at them because you wrote them down.”

The simple act of writing something down might be enough to cement it in your brain. So, yes, you probably didn’t need to look at your notes. Let’s see you do that with an app.

Embracing Action Items

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In conjunction with writing things down I end every lecture with the following statement, “These are your action items for today.” I then proceed to list three or four “must dos” students need to complete typically in order of importance.

Again many won’t need to refer to it again because simply writing it down is enough to remember it. Plus you have something to direct your off-task goldfish students to when they proclaim to have nothing to work on or aren’t sure what to do next. Here’s an example from my class.

  1. Find nine facts to share in your History of Technology Comic.
  2. Write 200 word blog with click-bait headline.
  3. Practice typing.

Free Download

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Daily Tasks handout with room for a drawing, handwritten notes, and action items.

I’m so serious about the power of handwritten note taking and action items that I’ve posted my Daily Task handout as a free download for anyone to utilize. A spiral bound notebook works just as well, but I got tired of my students not having anything to write on (or with for that matter).

BeePresent App

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I also have an amazing app that my business partner and I developed this year to combat the very problem of smartphone distractedness. It is designed to discourage smartphone use in a group setting to regain the attention of students, employees, or even an audience.

It works like this. You create an event. It could be a one time event (like an assembly) or a daily repeating event (like one of your classes). The app then generates a join code. Next, share the join code with your students. Five minutes before the event starts, everyone involved gets a notification. Launch the app and lock the phone. Users (i.e., your students) earn coins for not using their phone during the event.

Challenge your students to earn more coins than their peers for prizes of your choosing or bragging rights.

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Here’s a report from a recent event contest I ran that where the person who used their phone the least won $100 iTunes or Google Play gift card. Even with $100 up for grabs some people still couldn’t stay off their phone.

After the event ends, you receive an email that details the number of coins earned, as well as the number of minutes that the phone was locked and unlocked. I think the BeePresent app could be a game changer for many educators.  You can read more about the app as well as download it here.

Will You Join Me?

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Consider joining me by banning mobile devices from your classroom this fall. Your students will thank you. Not now, of course, but probably 20 years from now. If you do, here’s a copy of my slide deck that I use when I break the no mobiles devices in class bad news. You are welcome to use it.

The opinions expressed here are solely my own. They do not, in any way, represent those of my employer, my co-workers, or my dog. If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in reading Why a technology teacher banned tech from his classroom and Seven uncomfortable truths we ignore about our phones.

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One comment

  1. […] my employer, my co-workers, or my dog. If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in reading The biggest risk to student learning is in their pocket. Why you need to BAN smartphones from your c…, Why a technology teacher banned tech from his classroom, and Seven uncomfortable truths we […]

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