In the summer of 2007, the same year that Steve Jobs wowed the world with his iPhone, I was hired as a teacher. At the time I was indifferent towards upgrading to a smart phone since I had already made the giant leap into texting which I had refused to do for years. When I started my first year in teaching I marveled at the speed of the kids texting with one another and wondered why they didn’t prefer to just speak with one another. It was quickly becoming the preferred method of communication and naturally it was the best way to connect with their peers on the sly during class. Kids hilariously referred to me as “flip” because of my refusal to get an iPhone. “When are you going to upgrade?” was the question heard repeatedly. I was in no hurry. But, eventually, some years down the road, I did finally get rid of my “flip” and bought my first iPhone. With a collective nod, the kids gave their unanimous approval to their history teacher as if I had stepped out of the Neolithic period and into their modern world.
Those were the days. Gone are the days of sneaking a quick text in — the phones are out and stay out. Now I politely ask students to stop watching Netflix during class. They politely comply for the moment and put them away and attempt to reengage in the lesson. Then the alert flashes and notification buzzes send a dopamine spurt to the teenage brain like an addict looking for their next fix. The phone is back out. Faces aglow and they’re off to another place far away from the intellectual place I’ve attempted to take them to.
The iGeneration currently in high school has been using smart phones for pretty much their whole lives. They use it in more creative and numerous ways than I can count. Naturally I have attempted to integrate technology into lessons regularly, allowing students to look up information, ask and answer interesting factoids on the fly, develop creative ways to demonstrate their learning and utilize it in a scholarly manner. But on the whole, I am convinced that smart phones have slowly degraded my classroom over the years. The benefits just have not outweighed the costs.
Earbuds are in when you are working on an independent readings assignment? Fine, I guess. They keep telling me it helps them focus, and lord knows they could use a hand to get engaged in a complex historical text. Other students are keeping up on their Snapchat, some of the snaps are being captured in classrooms just a few doors down the hall. Fortnight and myriad other games populate their screens. I try to imagine my teenage self with the same technology: would I be able to regulate my own behavior? Absolutely not. Especially when we already know that tech companies are using behavioral psychology to keep users “engaged” with their technology.
After 12 years, constantly requesting teenagers to put phones away has worn me down. Sometimes I just stop asking, in agonizing defeat. Confiscation is not an option because of liability issues. If it gets broken or stolen on my watch, I am liable for it. Administrators won’t confiscate phones, perhaps in part because it would be overwhelming to enforce, but mostly because they aren’t supported by their superiors either.
That basically leaves every teacher on their own having to fight their own battles in their own way. My first strategy is to model appropriate phone use while in class. My colleagues and I will try some positive behavior strategies in the coming year. I have designed structured conversations with kids about how technology can radically transform society in both positive and negative, intended and unintended ways. Their insights about smart phones negative impacts and unintended consequences can be amazingly insightful. I can then suggest that they download the app “Checky” to monitor their own phone habits. Some have found it enlightening but most politely decline, as if to submit to a tragic inevitability of their relationship to their technology.
Last year was when the frustration came to a peak. I had the most quiet and introverted class of my career. The majority simply preferred to not engage in discussion or work collaboratively. Naturally, they loved to be on their phones. This led me to another observation that my stronger students, on average, had better self-control when it came to phone use. Most could do a quick check in on their phone, and reengage rather seamlessly within a lesson. Most of my Advanced Placement students and high-achieving students did not struggle with this. This gets us into the really significant issue in education about closing achievement gaps. At this point, my experience tells me, as well as some well-cited studies, that our most at-risk students are the ones who are most hurt by our weak policies towards phones in school.
This year, in the 2018-2019 school year, all Baltimore County students will have a laptop provided to them by the county as an instructional tool. Even though this controversial policy ought to eliminate the need for phones in instruction, there still has been no policy shift. Teachers across the district are anxious about rolling out the laptops with success and wonder if we will be fighting a two-screen war. Indeed, when visiting a neighboring high school last year which was piloting the one-to-one tech program, many kids had laptops on the desk and phones still in hand. My colleagues in middle schools have also not been very reassuring about their experiences thus far.
I’m no luddite. Born at the front end of the Millennial Generation (or the Oregon Trail Generation, I prefer) I recognize the obvious raw awesomeness of the power of a hand-held device and their seeming potential to transform learning and teaching.
It would be impossible to say what degree of bullying, harassment, and fights are instigated through various social media platforms but all teachers see conflicts percolating through them. Time after time after intervening in school fights, the backstory invariably goes back to so and so’s group chat, or IG, or Snap, etc. While in school, the phones simply allow kids to continue to stoke conflict and expand involvement into their teenage dramas. It also allows the instant ability for kids to recruit back up and/or set a time and place to settle conflict. Often time the chosen venue for score settling is school where they have access and audience.
This week, teachers are doing their final preparation for a new school year. The excitement and giddy anxiousness of a new school year is one of my favorite feelings as an educator. A week away from kids arriving in our school, this year feels just a little different for me. I can’t shake the feeling that we are going to be letting down our students in a very real way this year. This is not the case everywhere, of course. The French parliament is currently considering a bill for a nation-wide ban. Most schools in the UK have been banning phones in schools for years. I’ve heard individual schools in Maryland have opted to go it aloneOur policymakers have tried so hard for years to be champions of “21st century learning” that it may have blinded them to the mounting evidence against cell phones in schools. Experience tells me that our weak policies and failure to do the right thing as a school system is going to dilute the potency of this years’ academic experience for kids. It will also continue to undermine teachers hard-work as they plan meaningful experiences for kids. Despite our best efforts, Snapchat is just more interesting than our lessons. 10 out of 10 times. We need to do better for our students. I am optimistic that one day I will work in a district that shows the courage to lead on this issue.