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Sensible Smartphone Use in the Classroom

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

By Erik Uliasz


Are smartphones addictive? Most teachers and parents would agree that they are without even reading the current research that suggests giving a child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine. Over the last 10 years, every educator has experienced some sort of classroom disruption from phone use. Most schools and teachers have the initial impulse to ban phones, or their use, during school hours, but parents are pushing back because they want constant, unfettered access to their children.


Instead of a ban, educators need a sensible plan.  

Setting clear expectations, and establishing models for appropriate cell phone use in classrooms is a much better alternative to imposing a total ban. Besides, there are many advantages to using smartphones in the classroom. They can be used for online research, scanning QR codes, accessing online grades, participating in an engaging Kahoot review game or snapping a picture of the homework assignment written on the whiteboard.


It is possible to implement a sensible cell phone plan, keep reading to learn five ways to do that.


1. Serve as a model for proper cell phone use.

Refrain from using your own phone during class time. You will seem disingenuous when you preach about productive use of technology if you are peeking at your latest Facebook notification or text message while your students are staying on task. You may think you are being stealthy, but students pick up on these contradictions.


2. Discuss the research behind cell phone distraction.

Help your students understand the harmful effects of cell phone distraction. Have students read about current research on the negative effects of cell phones in the classroom, and the perils of  multitasking. Despite what students may believe about themselves, we are all very poor multitaskers. You might prove it to your students with a brief test of their (lack of) multitasking prowess. Consider using this short video or this powerful 5-minute demo to drive your point home.


3. Make daily, clear expectations for cellphone use with the B.A.D. Model. 

Backpack - On backpack days, cell phones should be silent in backpacks. Students have secretly confessed that such a policy helps their understanding because it forces them to unplug and engage in discussion.


Ask - On ask days, cell phones can be in pockets and may be used for school-related functions (like online research) with the teacher’s permission.


Desk - On desk days, cellphones will be used for class activities like Kahoot or Quizlet Live. Students place phones at the corner of their desks in silent mode until the teacher indicates they will be used.


Tip: Download and print the image on the right. Laminate it and use a dry-erase marker to circle B, A, or D to indicate what students should do with their phones.






4. Document how distractions hurt student learning and grades.

Successful students understand that if they are distracted in class, they will not properly learn the material. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to explicitly remind all students that if they are not paying attention because of cell phone distractions, their grades will suffer. When students use their phones inappropriately, document the time and date on a spreadsheet. Use this powerful data when a student (or parents) complain about a low grade or poor overall performance.

5. Use group-based rewards to reinforce cell phone expectations.

For every day the class goes without a phone infraction, the class earns a point towards a class incentive. Don’t subtract points for infractions (penalties ruin morale). Rely on positive consequences that appeal to the class to create social controls (dirty looks/rejection) as enforcement. Once the class earns a desired incentive, take pictures to inspire future appropriate behavior, or jealousy in another class period.

A school-wide ban on cell phones is impractical and even counterproductive, because it places the teacher in an adversarial position with students, and fosters ill-will among faculty as they unevenly enforce the ban. Instead, educators should model and teach their students how to use technology in moderation and in an effective manner. Instilling students’ sense of self-control has been documented as the number one factor in student success. Since it is impractical for adults to monitor and restrict smartphone use at all times, isn’t it much wiser to teach and model for students how to use such technology in a responsible manner?


#classroommanagement #noscreentime

Erik Uliasz has been teaching high school social studies and coaching cross-country and track in southeastern Pennsylvania for 25 years. When he isn’t “running” between teaching and practice, he enjoys spending time with his wife and their energetic, seven-year old daughter-- who seemingly never stops moving, giving Erik an extra cardio workout every day. He and his family enjoy traveling, being outdoors and spending time at the beach. He also embraces his inner nerd, spending too much time watching History Channel documentaries and visiting museums.

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