When Nelann Taylor lets her high school students whip out their smartphones and dive into tools like Duolingo, Quizlet, Kahoot, and Flipgrid, she knows she may be in for a classroom management headache.
Some of her students “have really figured out how to self-correct and just say, ‘Well, I know that I can’t be on my own phone right now’ ” unless it is for classwork, she said. But others take advantage of the freedom to start scrolling through text messages, and Taylor has to tell them put the devices away.
Cellphones are both a powerful learning tool and huge distractions for kids. Figuring out how to make the most of them is “really tricky,” said Taylor, a fan of technology in the classroom who teaches high school Spanish and web design in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish Schools. “It’s always a work in progress.”
Educators like Taylor have struggled with whether to ban phones, let kids use them for classwork, or some combination of the two for more than a decade. But the need to figure out how to use cellphones for learning, rather than letting them become a distraction, has gotten more urgent since kids returned from pandemic-driven virtual learning, experts and educators say.
“I think the transition from trying to learn at home using devices and having perhaps multiple devices, being distracted by them, trying to focus attention on learning, and then transition back into the classroom has been really difficult,” said Christine Elgersma, the senior editor for social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that focuses on children, technology, and media.
There are some good practices, including having a schoolwide policy on devices that’s clearly communicated to students and parents at the beginning of the school year.
Being vehemently anti-cellphone may backfire, Elgersma warned. Allowing kids to use the devices for classwork is a way to acknowledge that, “these are really cool tools, and that some of what kids are doing on their phones is really impressive and creative and important to them,” she said. “We don’t want to discount how woven into the fabric of their lives these devices are.”
At Kansas’ Springhill Middle School, students are expected to put their phones in their lockers as soon as school begins, and not take them out until the end of the day, unless a teacher plans to use the devices in a lesson, said Trevor Goertzen, the school’s principal.
A National Association of Secondary School Principals digital principal of the year, Goertzen is a champion of tech in the classroom. But he thinks it’s too easy for kids to get distracted by entertainment or social media if they have access to their phones all day.
All his students have MacBooks, he said, which can be used for just about any classroom activity requiring a device. Teachers have permission to allow cellphones occasionally for specific purposes, but “most teachers realize it’s not worth opening the door for them to use their phones.”
‘Teach kids to manage their technology’
But Stevie Frank, a 5th grade humanities teacher at Zionsville West Middle School in Whitestown, Ind., views cellphones as a great student engagement tool.
Her students can keep their phones with them during class, as long as they have notifications turned off, so they’re not interrupted by a dinging noise. And she incorporates them into her class assignments.
For instance, Frank sets up stations around the room where kids read passages and tackle questions on, say, an author’s purpose. To check to see if their answers are right, students use their phones to scan a QR code, and up pops a video of Frank explaining the correct answer.
“It’s one of those things where I was like, ‘How can I be at 12 stations at once?’ ” Frank said. “And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I can!’ ”
Frank’s students also use their phones to record podcasts, since they tend to have better microphones than school-issued devices do. Recently, for instance, she had groups of students choose books about different identities and then create a podcast exploring themes that the text raised. One group picked a book about a person experiencing homelessness and interviewed a staffer at a local shelter for their podcast.
Naturally, there are times when students use their cellphones to go off task, Frank said. But that’s all part of the lesson. She said kids need to figure out how to voluntarily distance themselves from their devices.
“You’ve got to teach the kids how to manage their technology and if we’re not going to do it in school, where’s it going to be done?” Frank said. A certified yoga teacher, she’s talked to her students about mindfulness, the importance of being present in the moment, and how technology can distract from those things.
If a kid has a particularly tough time putting their phone away, or keeps getting distracted while using a school laptop, Frank will ask if they’d rather have a paper copy of the assignment, or if they’d like to put their phone on their desk.
Giving students the choice to disengage from their phones helps “get their buy-in,” Frank said. “They’re like, ‘yup, I need to do that.’ ”
Another advantage of using a phone for class assignments: Students are already familiar with how they operate, said Kristin Daley Conti, a science teacher at Tantasqua Regional Junior High School in central Massachusetts. Her attitude on cellphones in school is essentially, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” So if her students want to use their phones to, say, time how long it takes ice to melt, she’s fine with that.
Many of her students also used the cameras on their phones for a project last year on ecosystems. Students chose an outdoor area near the school and took pictures of the spot once a week, then looked at how the biodiversity in its ecosystem changed over time. Students snapped photos of flowers, squirrels, plants, insects, frogs, and more and then shared them in a digital journal that was also accessible to parents.
Daley Conti’s advice to teachers who are considering using cellphones in their classroom: Listen to kids’ ideas. Ask them questions like, “Do you think we’re using our phones too much?” or “Could we use our phones in class responsibly?”
“If you’re thinking about incorporating cellphone use, hear from the experts,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Cellphones in Schools: Huge Nuisance And Powerful Teaching