Since smartphones went mainstream, they’ve changed our lives in a big way. These “pocket computers” help us communicate, discover new communities, and access information and entertainment. When we don’t keep a close eye on our phone use, though, smartphones can also serve as distractions, sources of misinformation, and bad influences on our mental health.
Though no age group is immune to these effects, there’s no doubt that the generations growing up with this ubiquitous technology are more likely to be tech-savvy and spend more time online.
What does that mean for today’s K-12 students? Let’s explore:
- The benefits of smartphones in the classroom
- The drawbacks of smartphones in the classroom
- How educators can keep classrooms a conductive place to learn, with or without smartphone use
A world full of phones
Nowadays, it’s rare to meet a middle or high schooler without a cell phone (even if it’s a so-called “dumb phone”). Even some elementary school-aged children have smartphones to keep in touch with family and friends.
With phones all around us, it can sometimes feel hard to keep our students’ attention. Should you allow phones in your classroom, and to what extent?
In a classroom where smartphones are allowed, students can keep their phones in their backpacks, at their desks, or on their person. Based on the rules of the school or specific classroom, students can use their phones when directed, or may not have any restrictions on phone use at all.
In a smartphone-free classroom, students must put their phones away at the beginning of the school day or lesson. Sometimes, this means keeping the phones closed in their backpacks or desks. Other times, the teacher may collect students’ phones and keep them somewhere safe until the end of class.
The benefits of smartphones in the classroom
There are many ways that smartphones can serve as valuable tools for K-12 students and educators.
Promote safety: Having a cell phone on hand can help students stay in touch with parents and guardians for school pick-up and drop off, and in case of emergencies or unexpected events.
Conduct research: When connected to the Internet, smartphones allow access to the wealth of human knowledge at the tap of a button. Because students will likely use them outside of the classroom, it can make sense to allow them during class time that is used for researching projects, essays, and presentations. In under-resourced schools without access to a computer room, this can help students get a head start on their classwork.
Develop digital literacy: In a world of Wikipedia and TikTok, what do we consider a good source of information? If it’s difficult to keep smartphones out of the classroom, lean on them to help your students build real-world skills. This can mean anything from using educational apps that enhance and reinforce student learning to teaching students to tell the difference between original sources and doctored information. When done right, we can create more digitally responsible citizens. Take Finland’s misinformation curriculum, for example.
Stay organized: In the post pandemic age, many students still use their smartphones to keep track of their schedules, assignments, and deadlines using different apps.
Given these reasons, it’s also important to establish guidelines and rules for smartphone use in K-12 schools to make sure they are being used appropriately and not causing disruptions to the learning environment.
The drawbacks of smartphones in the classroom
While there are many potential benefits to allowing smartphone use in K-12 schools, there are also arguments for why cell phones should be banned in certain situations. Here are some reasons why we’ve heard people advocate for smartphone bans:
Bans improve student safety: The same way that smartphones can promote safety in an age where school violence is on the rise, they can also pose safety risks. For example, students may use their phones to take photos and videos without the subjects’ consent.
Bans can cut cyberbullying off at the root: Cyberbullying is another significant safety concern. The ubiquity of smartphones means it’s easier than ever for students of all ages to spread harmful and hurtful messages that endanger other students’ safety. While it can be difficult for schools to monitor this use, a cell phone ban can reduce cyberbullying in the school environment.
Bans can reduce classroom distractions: Constant notifications from our electronic companions can be distracting, especially in the age of social media. Smartphones can promote the pressure to always be “on” and “online,” which can lead to decreased focus, poor academic performance, and poor mental health outcomes. When students aren’t paying attention in class, they may miss critical information that helps them succeed — and distract from their peers’ learning, too.
Bans can reduce the risk of cheating: With all the information smartphones bring to our fingertips, students may use them to cheat during tests and quizzes, whether by looking up information or communicating with other students during their exams. Banning phones doesn’t guarantee cheating won’t happen, but it takes away one of the most common methods.
It's important to note that these concerns can vary depending on the school's policies, the age of the students, and the specific context of the classroom.
How to work with smartphones in the classroom
Ultimately, it's up to the school administration to determine what policies are best for your school body and the learning environment. Remember to keep parents aware, as some may prefer their children keep smartphones on them at all times.
When deciding on your phone policy, student age is a big consideration. It makes more sense to keep smartphones out of your lessons with young children, who may not be able to regulate their use as well as older children. Older students may be more resistant to a ban on smartphones.
It can be easier for teachers to enforce smartphone policies when they are sticking to the same rules as other teachers and backed by their administration.
Here are a few tips for educators experimenting with phones in the classroom:
Always set clear expectations at the beginning of the school year about when smartphones are allowed, what they can be used for, and the consequences of breaking the rules.
Harness the power of smartphones by using them to your advantage in your lessons. Viewing smartphones as an educational tool meets young students where they’re at in the digital era. Since many students have smartphones consistently at hand, incorporating them into your assignments and assessments can be an engaging way to encourage students to research a topic, document their learning, and use apps and games to practice their skills.
Stay on your toes to ensure cell phones aren’t disrupting the learning environment. Establishing ground rules can help students set boundaries and use their phones responsibly, and it’s important to let them build that trust. That said, have a game plan for inappropriate use.
Enforce the rules consistently to create a sense of accountability among students and reinforce the importance of responsible smartphone use.
When educators commit to being clear, consistent, and fair in our responses to smartphone use in our classrooms, we can help create a learning environment that supports student engagement and success.
To smartphone or not to smartphone? You tell us!
Smartphones are part of our daily lives and the lives of our students, and it’s unlikely they’re going away anytime soon. What do you think — do phones have a place in the modern classroom? Why or why not?
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