While I was facilitating a course for experienced teachers once, the group was vociferously condemning the hold mobile phones have on today's youth. Midway through this communal tirade, a phone rang. The conversation duly stopped while one of the teachers had a polite conversation with her daughter about boiling potatoes. Oblivious to the irony of it all, the vilification of telephones in the classroom continued once the phone had been put away.
Were these teachers right that teachers should not tolerate phones? Or was I right to have tolerated the interruption? Do the rules work differently for adults than for children? Should I have invoked the retribution on the group that they were threatening to give their students? Or are telephones the future which we should embrace, warts and all?
Position 1: The traditionalist
Telephones have become an integral part of modern life, to the extent that they are an intrusion and compromise the long-term goals for our classrooms. I present the following arguments to support my position:
1. Our classrooms are meant to engender literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. An atmosphere conducive to concentrated thought is needed. The constant flow of twitter notifications and chat messages from irreverent friends doesn't contribute to this.
2. The telephone with its connection to the internet creates a state of dependency. Why learn anything when you can just google it. Why learn maths when you can just ask Siri for the answer? Why do anything when it's already been done! This modern technology isn't making learning easy, it's making plagiarism easy!
3. Modern gadgetry is contributing to reduced attention spans. This has been the focus of quite a lot of recent research. We read, but only if it's in short chunks. We are easily led astray by hyperlinks. We'd rather watch a video than read. The fact that you are reading this blog may make you a member of a diminishing elite. As teachers, surely we should be discouraging this trend and promoting erudition.
4. The classroom provides an environment in which learners of similar age, level or goals are put together. In this face-to-face setting, delineated by clearly shared goals, the benefit of telephones in connecting people separated by time or space has no place. Our classroom provides a wealth of resources simply through the connection between teacher with students - the telephone is an intrusion into the sanctity of this interactional opportunity.
5. Buzzing, flashing lights and vibrations are a distraction. Students may argue that they are the only ones distracted if their phone is on silent. But a message or call distracts the whole class. We already have research indicating a negative correlation between phone usage and test scores. The more phones going off in the class, the worse our class is going to perform.
Bring back the learning!
Position 2: The innovator
Telephones have become an integral part of modern life, and their integration into the classroom offers the modern teacher remarkable opportunities. In fact, any teacher who disregards the power of the modern phone is not only inhibiting possible learning, but stands the chance of being hopelessly left behind by the skills and knowledge of the current generation. I present the following arguments in favor of this position:
1. With a phone, the modern learner (and the teacher) has access to many worlds of knowledge - both facts and opinions. The internet represents a democratization of information that is unprecedented. The teacher is no longer the source of knowledge, and our learners know that. Freed from the role of transmitting limited pieces of knowledge, teachers can now expand their role, and instead create activities that harness students' creativity and problem solving skills that more closely mirror those required in adulthood.
2. Technology is motivating. Phones can keep even very small children occupied for hours - and to think we used to tell people that children had short attention spans! Utilizing this motivational resource in the classroom takes a huge burden off the teacher. Classrooms no longer need to be boring or tedious.
3. The growth of open-source applications is a testament to people's eagerness to share. What teachers have forgotten in the past is that learners have things they want to learn, which may not be the same as what some abstract curriculum has dictated. Offering learners the opportunity to decide, create and share taps into this natural urge. The process empowers students, and leads to the growth of learner autonomy.
4. In addition to being able to connect with people in other places, the modern telephone has a swathe of peripheral functions that simply can't be ignored. Sound recorders, video players, dictionaries! In the past, teachers complained about the difficulties involved with utilizing technology in the classroom - it's now bundled with the students, and ready to go! Any creative language teacher in the past would have loved the opportunity for students to record themselves and have immediate play-back facilities.
5. With the future closely tied into the technology revolution, incorporating telephones in the classroom creates learning opportunities for students that run beyond the boundaries of the traditional curriculum. Incorporating lessons about telephone etiquette, utilization of dictionary apps, and introducing students to new sources of ready knowledge prepare students for realistic utilization of knowledge relevant to their own lives.
Bring on the learning!
A middle ground
Teaching is complex, and every teacher is different. Perhaps both these positions are untenable. We can't ignore phones, but they really can be quite irritating! Somehow or another we all have to find an uncomfortable path between these two extremes, ponder our options in a changing world, and somehow find a time and place for telephones. Here are 3 little suggestions for creating a telephone-friendly classroom:
1. Create specific goals for telephone activities - this will give the use of telephones a specific focus and drive an activity towards meaningful outcomes. For example, in a reading activity, you may allow students to search for word meanings in their dictionaries. In pronunciation lessons, you may ask students to record themselves saying sentences with the target sound, and then have them listen to themselves to see how they have done.
2. Create rules for when telephones may or may not be used. Open tasks may be telephone friendly, while teacher-based episodes when students need to be concentrating on the new material may be classified as no-telephone times. You could have two signs - one with a phone, and another with a phone crossed out so your position on telephone use is clear to the studnets for each activity.
3. Raise learners' autonomy by having them decide how they think telephone usage may be best for their own learning. Include here a discussion on etiquette, and decide together when phones can be used, and what apps are 'classroom friendly'. You may be surprised that students have developed their own ideas of when phones should be disallowed. In one of my classes with teens, they implemented their own 'phone-fine' system, with offenders contributing to a pizza party!
There is quite a lot of academic interest in phones and the classroom. If you're interested, here's an example which summarizes some of the recent findings.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.