Distracted by Smart Phones and Schools Without Windows

Fewer schools are banning cell phones in classrooms. As smart phones become smarter and schools begin adopting BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), teachers are more open to tapping into these powerful learning tools. Yet for all the great opportunities they present, we still hear a call to ban them or find that teachers are fighting against them for the attention of the students. Recently, social media and digital guru Clay Shirky, posted about why he is asking students to put their laptops away. He talks about the cognitive pull these devices have on our attention and concludes his post with these words of wisdom:

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

Student focus is a collaborative process. The cards are stacked against us in the classroom: the Carnegie Unit (or student hour), a curriculum that believes every child wants to learn about Tunisia in grade three, standardized everything. However, that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel as Shirky suggests in his article. We need to work with students to show them how they can manage the digital tools they have in their pockets and harness their power for learning. A few simple steps could be:

  • Show students how to set turn off notifications and set their notification blocker (iOS, Android)
  • Increase rigor –  Have a variety of things to do during a lesson to keep the students attention. The attention span of children is one minute per year to a max of twenty minutes.
  • Use phrases that let students know when you absolutely need their attention and when they can be on their phones (eg. “Screens down” or “10 minutes of focus”). Help them control their Reticular Activation System in their brains.
  • Provide choice in assignments that allow them to use their phones. There are lots of ways to incorporate phones into lessons now: Video, audio, pictures, Google Drive (Docs, Slides, Sheets). Limiting tech to note-taking devices is a missed opportunity.

This list is not definitive, nor is the argument meant to be taken to the extreme. Yes, there are times when smartphones are not appropriate. Yes, some students have a harder time managing their attention than other students. Yes, the primary job of the teacher is to teach the curriculum and the curriculum (as well as the accompanying standardized exam) lends itself to particular teaching methods. That’s OK. Not everybody is ready for the change in teaching style and pedagogical philosophy that accompanies the inclusion of these tools. Rather than avoid these new learning tools because they require us to make a shift in how we teach, lets look at what we need to do to make the most of them.

It may be an urban myth, but the laughable prevailing understanding of why schools that were built in the 1960’s didn’t have windows was because they were too distracting to students. Will we ever look back and feel the same about personal devices?

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Cell Phones like Guns?

When the Toronto District School Board lifted their ban on cell phones, I found the following comment on the GlobalTV Facebook discussion criticizing the decision:

Likewise, kids bring guns to schools. No, the rationale should be different. Kids must learn a basic premise in tool handling: no tool is appropriate to all occasion. Just as guns shoud only be applied to their intended purposes (to kill) so mobile devices should be put aside while other type of activities take place, unless they’re regulated by the school as teaching/learning devices, which is not the case in real life.

The last sentence is a good qualifier to the arguement, and I need to acknowledge that I will now be misusing the logic presented in the comment. But this got me thinking about the argument that a cell phone is inappropriate in the same way that a gun is inappropriate and I came up with a different approach using a similar logic:

Just as the “pen is mightier than the sword,’ the cell phone is mightier than the gun (ie, the Revolutions in the Middle East). We teach kids to use a pen in class, ergo we should be teaching kids how to use a cell phone in class.

Alright, this is an obvious stretch. Cell phones were not the driving force at the core of the revolutions in the Middle East, but were a complimentary communication tool of pre-existing ideas. Nevertheless, one needs to remember that the cell phones of today are not like the cell phones from the end of the last century. The capabilities of a cell phone are astonishing and have a significant cultural and personal implications. If we are not teaching students how to use them properly, responsibly and effectively, who is?