When Nelann Taylor lets her high school students whip out their smartphones and dive into tools like Duolingo, Quizlet, Kahoot, and Flipgrid, she knows she may be in for a classroom management headache.
Some of her students “have really figured out how to self-correct and just say, ‘Well, I know that I can’t be on my own phone right now ” unless it is for classwork, she said. But others take advantage of the freedom to start scrolling through text messages, and Taylor has to tell them to put the devices away.
Cellphones are both a powerful learning tool and huge distractions for kids. Figuring out how to make the most of them is “really tricky,” said Taylor, a fan of technology in the classroom who teaches high school Spanish and web design in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish Schools. “It’s always a work in progress.”
Educators like Taylor have struggled with whether to ban phones, let kids use them for classwork or some combination of the two for more than a decade. But the need to figure out how to use cell phones for learning, rather than letting them become a distraction, has gotten more urgent since kids returned from pandemic-driven virtual learning, experts and educators say.
“I think the transition from trying to learn at home using devices and having perhaps multiple devices, being distracted by them, trying to focus attention on learning, and then transition back into the classroom has been really difficult,” said Christine Elgersma, the senior editor for social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that focuses on children, technology, and media.
There are some good practices, including having a schoolwide policy on devices that are clearly communicated to students and parents at the beginning of the school year.
Being vehemently anti-cellphone may backfire, Elgersma warned. Allowing kids to use the devices for classwork is a way to acknowledge that, “these are really cool tools, and that some of what kids are doing on their phones is really impressive and creative and important to them,” she said. “We don’t want to discount how woven into the fabric of their lives these devices are.”
At Kansas’ Springhill Middle School, students are expected to put their phones in their lockers as soon as school begins, and not take them out until the end of the day, unless a teacher plans to use the devices in a lesson, said Trevor Goertzen, the school’s principal.
A National Association of Secondary School Principals digital principal of the year, Goertzen is a champion of tech in the classroom. But he thinks it’s too easy for kids to get distracted by entertainment or social media if they have access to their phones all day.
All his students have MacBooks, he said, which can be used for just about any classroom activity requiring a device. Teachers have permission to allow cell phones occasionally for specific purposes, but “most teachers realize it’s not worth opening the door for them to use their phones.”