Continuing the Conversations on Cell Phones

This semester, I have three grade 9 classes, and even though they are exciting to teach, they can be very distracted, very scattered, and very much in need of classroom and teacher supports to keep them focused on the learning.

I’ve been following the debate around cell phone use closely. I saw a report on CBC news about a Social Studies teacher in Toronto who had ordered the pouches for his class; the report included a brief interview with students who reported being able “to focus more”, so I sought the approval of my principal and we decided to run an experiment out of my class.

I ordered 30 Yondr pouches (seen in the image) for experimentation and spent time planning how I might use them, when I might use them, and I began drafting a letter Informing parents.

Donna Fry wrote recently about cell phones here:  She seems to question the banning of cell phones, and asked some very valuable questions.

When have we scaffolded the development of self-regulation with mobile devices? 

When have we empowered students by showing them how to connect with experts from around the world? 

These questions or similar concerns were expressed by other Department Heads at my school. Before I could take action, I felt that I needed to understand the debate more clearly and I wanted to engage my students in the experiment.
A Classroom Experiment:
One day during a station activity where students were trying to use literary devices in creative ways (write a menu or advertisement for Hyperbole cafe), I noticed that they were particularly rambunctious and nearly every student had a cell phone out and in use. I observed many Snapchat users and overheard discussions about a social situation that was drawing their attention. 
The next day I spontaneously decided to take action. I brought the pouches into the class and had students lock their phones before doing 6 vocabulary stations. The students knew about the pouches and understood that I was supporting them in creating a sense of focus; at least, that was my intention. I had students complete a Google Form about the experience and the next day I ran the stations again, with different words, and this time with their phones. I was fortunate to be in the middle of a collaborative inquiry cycle and had 7 teachers observe my students during the vocabulary stations so I got lots of interesting observational data.
What Happened?

On the first day using the Yondr pouches, I asked my students how they felt about working at the vocabulary stations without their phones and these are their unedited responses:

Before the activity, your phone was locked in a Yondr pouch. How did this affect the way you tried to work through the tasks at the station?
Did not effect me at all because I don’t use my phone in English.
It made it easier to concentrate
We needed to search some songs up and it was hard to do when the phone or the Chromebook was locked away so it was hard.
It didn’t change it much, I still did the work the same as I usually would have.
Doesn’t matter I didn’t have a phone
It made it a bit harder because i couldn’t look anything up
It didn’t really affect me to much, only when I may of forgot what a word was but I couldn’t search it up.
I found that it was much less of a distraction for me and my group members because i was able to focus more on my work and the entire group was able to focus and contribute to each station.We also were able to complete most of the stations in a reasonable time because we did not have a phone to distract us from our work, i think everyone can talk to a neighbor or group member and still complete work without access to our devices.
I found it made it easier to not have my phone because I wasn’t constantly checking it, or wanting to go on it. I wasn’t even worried about it and I got more work done, probably because I was more Focused on my work than my phone.
I’m fine without my phone. It didn’t effect me very much.
Couldn’t look up the words which made it tricky
On the next day, when they could use their phones, teachers observed students struggling with vocabulary and making decisions to skip words rather than use their phones to look up definitions.
Donna Fry wrote about the power of cell phones as sources of information. However, I discovered something unexpected with my students. 
What I Learned and Next Steps:
I should preface these next statements by the fact that I am a seriously dedicated social media fanatic and I have an obsession with Media Studies. 
Lesson #1: My observations in this early stage of my experiment, have led me to feel that often grade 9 students don’t see their cell phones as “powerful computers”.The distraction is the powerful pull of social media and the chance to interact virtually with their peers. In my school and in my classes, this is mainly Snapchat with some limited use of Instagram. As someone who once held the philosophical belief that  if the lesson is “engaging enough” students will use their cell phones wisely. I’ve realized that I’ll never be as engaging as their peer group or some Youtube videos. I can and have spent hours designing for engagement, but if the teenaged mind is consumed by emotions generated by the amygdala and they are immersed in some peer group drama, they will not be able to focus with or without a cell phone.
Lesson #2: But the experiment taught me even more. It’s not all about focus. It’s actually about working memory. My students relied on their phones so much, and the ways that they consume music is so different from previous generations, that they did not have working memory of songs or vocabulary words that we were using in class. 

Lesson #3: It can’t be all or nothing. Students need help understanding how and when to use their cell phones. They need help managing the use of the phone in and outside of the classroom.

This isn’t going to be an easy fix. We aren’t going to solve this with traditional measures or absolute controls. We need to continue the discussion, to involve students in understanding the potential and the dangers of cell phone use.

I’m continuing by listening to the debate on CBC Radio’s Ontario today.

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