Jamie Mitchell is a public high-school teacher for the Halton District School Board in Ontario and a recipient of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, Certificate of Achievement.
Tackling distractions in the classroom is not an easy task in this digital age. Smartphones are as common as book bags and binders in schools, and students are more connected than ever. On Tuesday, the Ontario government – in the hopes of “helping students to focus” – announced it would ban cellphone use during instructional time starting next September.
As a teacher for more than a decade, I want the classroom to be distraction-free and a place of learning and engagement, but banning cellphones is not the solution.
In 2008, I was newish to teaching, and starting a job as a math teacher at a local high school. I was told by other, more experienced teachers that if devices were being used in the classroom, I should confiscate them.
Every day, I carried multiple devices down to the office. In a school of 1,000 students, I couldn’t imagine how many hours were devoted to tracking whose phone belonged to whom and how many times each student had their phones taken from them. Students who had their phones confiscated three times had to bring a parent into the school to claim the device. Days might go by before a parent arrived to retrieve it.
And yet, phone use didn't decrease.
Near the end of my third year of teaching, I felt like I was spending all my time policing students instead of building positive relationships. I was chasing the behaviour and that was getting in the way of the actual learning.
I decided to try something different. I told my classes I wouldn’t take their phones as long as they were kept on top of their desks. No more texting in their lap or hiding what games they were playing.
Did students still text? Absolutely. Did they play games? Sometimes. But I was able to talk with them openly about what they were doing.
"Do you think this is the right time to text your friend?"
"What game is that? What math is going on in it?"
I was able to leverage these moments into conversations about individual learning skills. At the same time, I started to notice that sometimes their “off task” device use was really on task.
“You mentioned the Richter scale, so I wanted to google what the largest earthquake ever was,” one student told me.
“I’m asking my mom if she remembers the quadratic formula,” another said.
I was enjoying these moments and my students seemed happier.
Students have more computing power in their pocket than I ever had in school and they are experts at using those devices. I believe we should take advantage of that. No need for a computer lab when students are bringing their own devices. Students can collaborate on shared google docs. Others use their phones to make and edit videos.
I leveraged collaboration when students didn’t have a device, trying to partner students up as often as possible. I ditched many of my traditional tests and instead looked for projects that allowed students to show their understanding in different ways. I could do way more with my classes.
My expectation for students to use devices in productive and interesting ways radically decreased how often they were off task and zoned out. Cellphones were not something to hide; they became a tool that knocked down the four walls of my classroom.
When I do need everyone’s attention, I simply tell the class to turn their phones screen-side down and close their laptops. That’s the extent of my classroom device management.
So no, I won’t go back to confiscating cellphones in my classroom; I’d be losing too much. Too much conversation and community building. Too many interesting opportunities for students to expand their learning. Too many chances to talk about individual learning skills.
I’m not the controller of knowledge any more. I am a facilitator of learning, a mentor to young adults and a partner in their individual education needs.
The Ontario government should be focusing on more pressing issues facing our students, such as advocating for proper funding and support for kids with autism, preserving a full-day kindergarten program and small class sizes and providing a modern and updated health curriculum.
Banning smartphones in the classroom won’t solve digital distraction. We need to listen to our students and meet them where they are, not where we were 20 years ago.