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Student cellphone use in class is definitely a problem.

However, I consider it more of an annoyance than one worthy of some of the kind of “nuclear options” some schools are taking by having students put them into pouches (see Ed Week’s recent article, Schools Say No to Cellphones in Class. But Is It a Smart Move?).

This year, one way I’ve tried to get ahead of the issue a little bit in my IB Theory of Knowledge classes is by having students read about a recent study showing the impact having a cellphone out or in your pocket can have on cognitive function, and then have them respond to this prompt:

What do the authors/researchers say about how our cellphones can impact us? Do you agree? Please support your position with your personal experiences, observations of others, and readings, including this article.

The prompt was combined with this article about the study, Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking (I deleted the last couple of paragraphs).

I shared the prompt with my colleagues, and suggested that younger grades read a shorter summary of the study, The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows.

Coincidentally, the same day I had students read and respond to the article, NPR had a report on the same study that might even be more accessible, The Distracting Draw Of Smartphones.

The point of the exercise was not that I expect it to be a magic bullet that stops students from using them during inappropriate times during class.

I did want to create some common knowledge and understanding so that students might think twice and, even more importantly for me, set the stage for me being able to say “Remember the article” instead of “Please put your cellphone away.”

Student responses were thoughtful, as was the classroom discussion that followed. It’s early, but I think it might achieve my goals.

Here are a few excerpts from student responses that I’m sharing with permission (students could write them alone or with a partner):

From personal experience I find it harder to finish my homework or chores when my phone is around because I have the urge of wanting to pull it out of my back pocket and use it. Compared to when I spend family time while my phone is in my room, I find it more enjoyable and in the moment than having my phone around to distract me.

I find myself unengaged and less focused with my phone when I have it in my pocket. The feeling of my phone buzzing in my pockets draws my attention to see what had popped up. But when it’s in my backpack or somewhere that I can’t feel it, I find myself engaging hugely with the class and and ask more questions.

In our experience, phones have become a great distraction to us. For example, as we’re writing this, we have watched two cooking videos, have stalked people on social media, and texted. If it weren’t for our phones we would have probably finished this assignment about a half hour ago.

When we get notifications from our phone, we reach for it. It’s almost like a reflex. It’s like feeling pain. For example, if you were to touch a hot pot, your brain immediately tells you to let go. Or, if you were to hit your hand or head you immediately reach for it because you want to make the pain stop. It’s similar with our phones – we hear a notification and we instantly grab it to see who or what it was. Checking or grabbing our pone has become a reflex that has made it difficult to break. For example, I could be doing my homework or cleaning and if I hear my phone ring or ding I immediately stop what I’m doing so I can check it. I’ve noticed it with my family and siblings we could be engaging in a conversation and if their phone were to ring or get a text they immediately lost interest in the conversation and are now focused on their phone.


What other strategies have you used with students to help deal with this challenge?  And, yes, I know an engaging lesson helps, but please don’t tell me that’s the answer.  I’m confident in saying my lessons are pretty darn engaging, but students still periodically use their phones.

I’m adding this post to The Best Posts On Student Cellphone Use In Class — Please Contribute More.

Addendum: Here’s another new article on cellphone use that could be useful: How To Stop Checking Your Phone: 4 Secrets From Research, from Barking Up The Wrong Tree.