By Nick McDaniels — For the last two decades, a major component of many models of classroom success has been the incorporation of technology. Teachers are encouraged, and many are expected ( for me, it’s a facet of my evaluation), to use technology as part of the delivery of instruction. What has gained even more support in terms of funding, is finding ways to have students using technology in the classroom interactively.
Fortunate to grow up in the age of technology, a product of the digital generation, though often times more of a Luddite than many in my generation, I have recently urged myself to reflect on the way technology has impacted my learning and the way it impacts the learning of my students.
When I was in elementary school, teachers were commended for their use of film-strips and audiobooks.
When I was in middle school and high school, teachers were commended for their use of the television, VCRs and DVD players, and their occasional lesson that brought a class of students into a computer lab.
Since I have become a teacher, we are commended for our use of LCD projectors, Smart Boards, document cameras (of which, I have none in my classroom), etc… All of this technology, with the support of at least one computer in every classroom, has undoubtedly transformed the way students receive and interact with class material for the better.
As of now, since I have briefly chronicled my experience with technology in the classroom and sung its praises, you are probably thinking one of two things: 1) This post should really have a different title, or 2) Get to the point.
My response to both thoughts: despite the fact that technology in the hands of students and teachers has allowed for the effective instruction of many incredibly diverse learners, one single technological innovation is single-handedly destroying the relationship between teachers, students, and the materials they share.
Enter the cellular phone. Despite the fact that schools and school systems everywhere have banned the use, and, in some cases, the possession of cell phones, most any teacher will tell you, these bans are ineffective for a number of reasons and the use of cell phones in the classroom has skyrocketed over recent years.
Students, or as they have become, teenage text machines, use any number of tricks to fool teachers into thinking they are not texting in class. The girls put their purses on their laps and text from inside of them. The boys turn their books vertically on the desk and pretend to be reading when they are really texting. The bold and defiant students hold their phones above the desk and text. The most bold will even answer or place a call during class. The excuses, many of them employing a justification instead of a denial defense, from students are endless: 1) “It’s my mother. What if it’s an emergency?,” 2) “It’s my friend, she needs her notebook from my backpack,” 3) “I was just checking the time,” or my personal favorite, 4) “I don’t even have a phone.”
Needless to say, as students send and receive text after text in class to and from other students, the 21st century version of passing notes in class, or as is now capable, between classes, has become more instantaneous, more discreet, and more distracting. Often, when teachers confront students about the offense of using a mobile device during class, teachers, or at least in my experience, are met with more opposition than any teacher would ever want. I have been cursed at more over cell phones than I have about anything else since I have been teaching, and I have been cursed at quite a number of times.
In my world, the single biggest inhibitor to learning is the use of cell phones by students. The solution to this is more complex than it seems. Banning cell phones seems like an appropriate answer. Students don’t need them in school. Even in emergencies (as is usually the justification provided by students and parents for students having cell phones in their possessions), loved ones can always contact the school to get messages to students. However, most areas where cell phones are major problems already have bans in place. These bans are largely unenforceable.
Equipping all schools with cell-phone scramblers seems like an even better answer, but when many staff members rely on cell phones to call for help during in school emergencies or to contact parents of students because phones that dial to the outside world are hard to come by, this solution could do just as much harm as good.
Since neither of the options is viable for me right now, I deal with cell phones on a case by case basis. Telling students that if I catch them with phones, I will confiscate them, and if they hand them over without a fight, they will get them back at the end of class. This compromise does not help keep cell phones out of schools, or help other teachers with the battle, but it does temporarily allow me to reduce one distraction from an educational world that is full of them.
If you want to increase test scores and increase the amount of time on task in a class, the clear answer is to reduce the amount of distractions to students. On my account, cell phones provide one of the largest distractions to students. In short, a logical step in the direction of re-engaging students in the process of learning, is to remove cell phones from the classroom. All options for accomplishing this task, including legislative action restricting cell phone use by users and service by providers, should be exhausted.
One thing is for sure, no matter how well a teacher can engage students with the use of technology in the classroom, until legislatures, parents, schools and teachers find an effective way to keep cell phones out of schools, one little piece of technology will out-compete the rest for the attention of students, and thus work to destroy education as we know it.