You are in high school sitting in a desk. Flimsy metal feet of the chair, which are connected to the desk, squeak on the floor. Your run your palms along a particleboard desktop. There are grooves and grit from its years of service in the classroom. You flip your hands over, palm face up and slip them under the desk. Yuck, you feel plasticky, globs of used gum! Small bumps and craters, a disgusting sign of the rule breakers and risk takers who gnawed it before hastily sticking it there, perhaps trying to escape the wrath or being caught chewing gum! Does gum distract and dirty, or are its benefits for attention and relaxation more important?
Fast forward to 2018. While gum chewing rules may still hang in the balance, we are having a similar discussion about phones in the classroom. In a large lecture classroom, a teacher IS teaching using clear visuals and rich descriptions. Several students have their phones out. You focus on one young man. He appears to be online shopping for shoes AND is wearing large, chunky headphones. There is no way this student is paying attention! But, you wonder. What should be done here? Should the teacher interrupt the class to address the student? You look around. Other students display a wide range of behaviors, some listen, some yawn, struggling to stay awake, and others seem distracted.
Research conducted in the college classroom has highlighted the learning consequences of allowing smart phones (1). A 30% reduction of lecture learning has been found in classroom when cell phones were allowed, and a measurable 89% of classroom participants report a feeling of distraction among students (2).
Many argue the obvious benefits of having access to all information via our phones. If I ask my students who psychologists like Piaget or Gardner are, they can Google the answer or use Wikipedia to “fact-check” my lecture content. This benefit may fall short though, because of a phenomenon called the Google Effect (3). This occurs when people think of computers and/or look things up on Google when they need information. They block the natural, sit and wait retrieval, process required to remember. Rather than thinking about who stared in a favorite childhood movie or the name of a family doctor, they find out using their phone.
Further problematic, students now in high school and college have zero experience with a no cell-phone zone! Research paints a sad picture of students who are asked to put away their phones (4). Anxiety rates increased when students were asked not to use their phones. Also, these researchers found that addictive behavior and high social anxiety predicted more frequent use of phones in class.
What is an educator to do when cell phones create a NO DISCUSSION, NO ATTENTION, NO MEMORY, NO INTERACTION ENVIRONMENT? One increasingly popular method is to LOCK IT UP. Enter Yondr (5), a company founded in 2014 that offers schools, concert venues, and courtrooms a no cell phone zone. For a fee, these places and spaces are given tiny pouches to lock phones in. A student enters school in the morning and is given a phone-sized case that when engaged, locks the phone inside. When school is over, that student simply taps the phone on a small electronic base the size of a cereal bowl and becomes “fully engaged” with their phone again.
We are at a crossroad. Does it take a strict, policy to keep phones out of the classroom? Can’t students and members of society decide when not to use their phones on their own? We can imagine the outcome when asked to say NO all the time to eating fried or sugary foods. Are we setting younger people up for failure by taking away the skill of deciding for themselves? (6) Taking cues from psychology, a solution may be to give students positive reward for smaller, incremental change that leads to a decision to use phones less (6). College students were given the chance to either turn off their phones and place them on a table in the front of the class or not. They earned 1 point of extra credit for each class they decided to put away their phone. What happened was that students choose to put down their phone more often than not. These students also described many positive benefits in learning and engagement in the class gained by personally CHOOSING a no cell phone zone!
The decision is yours, do you think we should incentivize behavior or demand cell-phone free zones? Like the gum under the desk – they are not going away!
- Froese, A. D., Carpenter, C. N., Inman, D., Schooley, J. R, Barnes, R.B., Brecht, P.W., & Chacon, J.D. (2012). Effects of classroom cell phone use on expected and actual learning. College Student Journal, 46(2), 323.
- Levine, L.E., Waite, B.M., & Bowman, L. L. (2007). Electronic media use, reading and academic distractibility in college youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(40), 560-6.
- Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 476-478.
- Lepp, A., Li, J. & Barkley, J.E. (2016). College students cell phone use and attachment to parents and peers. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 401-408.
- Katz, L. & Lambert, W. (2016). A happy and engaged class without cell phones? It’s easier than you think. Teaching of Psychology, 43(4), 340-345.