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In preparing to write about the topic of the role of the smartphone in schools, I’ve read around the topic and have read some wide ranging advice. Some of it is good, some of it outright awful (‘make your lessons engaging’…as if teachers plan lessons that are either unengaging or boring!).

In this post, I want to move past the basics and look at how we help our students. You might not agree with everything but our pupils more than ever need to learn when not to use technology, as much as they need to learn how to use technology. The difference is subtle, nuanced and crucially important.

My eldest daughter is 14 and like most teenagers her age, has a smartphone. As a parent (and Digital Technology teacher) I am uniquely positioned to see the benefits to technology, but also the drawbacks. Actually, let’s speak with stronger language than that – there are some big negatives in technology and as adults (teacher or not) we need to help our pupils develop the skills to navigate their way in the world. Phone usage is another aspect of this.

With my children, my wife (also a teacher) and I actively limit screentime. Phones/tablets get locked/withdrawn at a certain time in the evening. This gives our childrent time to withdraw from technology and allow their brains (and bodies) the ability to wind down for the evening. Health Matters details some of the effects screen time can have on young children – something my wife has observed as a special needs teacher (focusing on language and communication development) in mainstream schools. Through observation she has mentioned a number of times to me in conversation how she is working with children who are behind their peer group in terms of language development and the role that tablets have had in creating this language deficit. So we do what any intelligent parents do – we structure our childrens’ lives in a way that teaches them that there is more than technology. Of course, our children are like any others – if we leave them to their own devices, they’ll probably choose a tablet/phone, but happily, we are seeing in these instances they also make other choices. They are old enough to see tablet use as another activity, not the main activity.

But the issue of mobile devices goes much further than that. I see pupils in my school using their phones right up to the morning bell and immediately after the final bell in the afternoon. I can only observe and conclude that this presents as a form of addiction – it goes beyond the irrational fear of simply ‘missing out’. I personally believe it to be much bigger issue than what we might first think. From this, there will also be a bigger issue to resolve if our pupils are not helped and trained to manage their screentime.

Device-addiction. Social media addiction. Cyberbullying. Mean/nasty text messages. Inappropriate images. Mental health issues. Body issues. Anxiety. Depression. Suicide (in more serious cases). The list mounts up pretty quickly. And all of it happening in the hands of a teenager. The world is already a confusing, scary, and illogical place – and that’s for us as adults! Put yourself in the position of a teenager, adding in the nuances of navigating the internet and all its’ filth, debris and messages of how people should act/look/treat other people and we have an apocalyptic mess. Even if most teenage phone users don’t reach the point where they have thoughts of suicide as a result of somehting happening on their phone, many will have phone addiction issues; receive mean/nasty/bullying messages, receive requests for inappropriate images or receive inappropriate images; and mental health issues including anxiety and depression. All from the little mobile device in our hands/pocket.

I appreciate I’ve painted a fairly one-sided picture so far. I’ve done so purposefully because I want to be able to present a potential solution to these. So let’s get to the positive part where we look at some strategies to help improve the plight of the smartphone:

1. Work With Students to Create Phone Boundaries

smartphone booundaries

Teaching students to create boundaries in their smartphone use can be a valuable lesson in promoting healthy habits and responsible technology use. The benefits of this are not just so that you can deliver your lesson – but real lifeskills that will enable our pupils to succeed in the workplace. Here are some strategies that can help:

  1. Educate pupils about the risks of excessive smartphone use: Start by explaining the potential negative effects of too much phone use, such as poor sleep quality, decreased social interaction, and decreased productivity. This will help pupils understand why it’s important to set boundaries.
  2. Model good behaviour: As a teacher, model good behaviour by demonstrating healthy smartphone habits, such as not using it during class or meetings.
  3. Set clear rules and expectations: Establish clear rules and expectations for smartphone use during class or study time, and make sure that students understand the consequences of breaking those rules.
  4. Encourage breaks: Encourage students to take breaks from their smartphone by scheduling periodic breaks during class or study time where phones are put away.
  5. Teach time-management skills: Teach students time-management skills, such as prioritisation and scheduling, to help them use their smartphone time more efficiently and effectively.
  6. Promote alternative activities: Encourage students to engage in alternative activities, such as exercise or socialising, that don’t involve phone use.
  7. Provide resources: Provide resources for students and their families, such as apps that limit phone use or tips for healthy smartphone habits, to support them in creating boundaries around their phone use.

By following these strategies, you can help students develop healthy smartphone habits and set boundaries that promote responsible technology use.

2. Set the Example...Don't Use Your Phone in Class

leading from the front

“Do as I say not as I do!” Most people hate this saying because it will usually highlight the hypocrisy of a situation. But setting an example, and leading by example is important – particularly when you have to enforce a set of rules. Children will always notice what you do and when you don’t live up to the ideals you’re espousing. Small children copy the example of their parents – this is how they learn. The same applies to the pupils in our class.  As an extension of this, we could talk about the ‘focus’ section on an iPhone – sorry, I don’t know if Android phone have this function – by setting the phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’, ‘Work’ or ‘Sleep’, and this will effectively mute any notifications but keep them until you are ready for them. I frequently use this in school and it means I don’t get interrupted by messages, or call centres. It sets the tone for my class, if the teacher doesn’t use their phone, neither should the pupil.

I will mention here also that there are exceptions. I’m not talking about “I’m building a houes and need to take this call from my builder” or any other such types of phone use. I’m thinking about the specific examples where phone use is needed as part of medical provision. For example, Type 1 Diabetics may use a system like the Freestyle Libre to monitor their blood-glucose levels and use an app on their phone as part of the management of their condition. These exceptions to the rule are completely acceptable, but everyday things like checking Twitter or the news can wait until after the end of the school day in my opinion.

3. Phones in lockers

smartphones in lockers

This is part of the policy my school follows – officially. I say that because only some pupils will follow it. What happens in reality is the pupils keep their phones on silent in their pockets, but you inevitably get one or two who forget the silent part and then the phone goes of in class. The phone is confiscated and returned at the end of the day from the school office. I’m not a fan of this because I don’t want the responsibility of having a pupils’ phone in my possession at all.

I think that I could have the opinion that whether a pupil has their phone in their pocket or their locker is a choice I’m prepared to leave up to them. With one qualification: if I see the phone or it goes off in class, then they will be introduced the word: ‘consequence’. And that is probably why I will go rogue as far as the school policy goes. I want to use this as a teachable moment for my pupils. We can’t always access our phone when we want to (or do anything else that we want to at any moment), so my pupils need to learn to discipline themselves in this area. I see this as much my responsibility as a teacher to instruct them in as much as I am responsible for teaching my classes how to design websites or code with python.

2. Create a phone policy

smartphone policy

By adopting a school-wide approach that all teachers can follow, we aim to create an environment in which our pupils can see postitive attisudes being modelled towards mobile phone use.

Schools should have mobile phone policies for several reasons:

  1. Minimise distractions: Smartphones can be a major source of distraction in the classroom, taking students’ attention away from learning and contributing to a decline in academic performance. By implementing a mobile phone policy, schools can minimise distractions and create a more focused learning environment.
  2. Promote responsible phone use: Smartphone policies can help promote responsible phone use by setting clear expectations for how and when phones should be used in school. This can help students develop healthy phone habits and prevent phone-related problems, such as cyberbullying and addiction.
  3. Ensure student safety: Smartphone policies can help ensure student safety by prohibiting the use of phones during certain activities, such as lab work or physical education, where distractions could lead to accidents or injuries.
  4. Maintain school culture: Smartphone policies can help maintain school culture by promoting face-to-face interactions and reducing the reliance on digital communication. This can help foster a sense of community and promote positive relationships between students and teachers.
  5. Address equity issues: Smartphone policies can help address equity issues by preventing the use of phones to cheat on tests or access information that other students may not have. This can help level the playing field and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed.

Overall, smartphone policies can help schools create a more focused, safe, and equitable learning environment that promotes responsible phone use and positive relationships between students and teachers.

3. Ensure That Your Core Instruction Is Engaging

smartphone and engaging content

Let’s be honest for a moment, we all take out our smartphones and start scrolling when we’re bored. (Don’t say you have never pulled out your phone during a PD or staff meeting and scrolled.) We’re no different than our students. Having classrooms where students are active in the instruction is key. Yes, direct instruction has a place in the classroom—but not during the whole period.

I know I railed against this advice at the beginning, but I didn’t provide the full context – it was saying to have engaging lessons in a way that was patronising and dismissive of the actual issue. I’ve recieved this advice myself as a trainee teacher many yers ago, albeit unconnected to the topic of smartphones, it was more focused on the idea of entertaining the children (because of the impact TV shows have – regardless of me not having the financial strength most TV shows have).

When I talk about engaging lessons, I’m thinking about the type of lessons that capture pupils’ imagination and get them to grapple with the lesson content. I unerstand that this can’t be done all the time. No matter how I dress it up, databases aren’t sexy or exciting to Year 10 pupil and much of the time it’s like trudging through mud – you just need to keep going.

School & work is different though. We know as adults what content we need to know and hot to pay attention in meetings. Our pupils will not though. Explicit training may need to be given and repeated reminders. Luckily there are acttive strategies that teachers can make use of to keep pupils minds away from the technological terrors in their blazer pockets.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Use active learning: Active learning involves engaging students in the learning process through activities that require them to participate, such as discussions, debates, and hands-on projects. This can help students stay engaged and motivated.
  2. Incorporate technology: Technology can be a powerful tool for making lessons more engaging, such as using interactive whiteboards, multimedia presentations, and educational apps. This can help students stay engaged and interested in the material.
  3. Use real-world examples: By using real-world examples, teachers can help students see the relevance and practical applications of what they are learning. This can help make lessons more engaging and meaningful for students.
  4. Use humor: Humor can be an effective way to capture students’ attention and make lessons more enjoyable. However, it’s important to use humor appropriately and in a way that is respectful to all students.
  5. Vary instructional strategies: By using a variety of instructional strategies, such as lectures, group work, and individual assignments, teachers can help keep students engaged and cater to different learning styles.
  6. Incorporate student interests: By incorporating topics and activities that are of interest to students, teachers can help make lessons more engaging and relevant. This can help students see the value in what they are learning and stay motivated.
  7. Provide feedback: Providing feedback on student work and participation can help students stay engaged and motivated by showing them that their efforts are valued and appreciated.

Overall, by using a combination of these strategies and being responsive to their students’ needs and interests, teachers can help ensure their lessons are engaging, meaningful, and effective.

Final Thoughts

Despite being an ICT teacher who wants to teach his pupils how to design apps and how to be content creators, the smartphone is going to continue to be a tolerated presence in the school corridors. Despite all the strategies, policies and consequences, pupils will continue to keep their phone on their person. And from a financil perspective I get it – phones cost a lot of money and cannot be replaced easily or cheaply, so even if I don’t look at it, knowing the phone is in my pocket means I know where it is.

With phone usage, I treat this in much the same way as any other distraction (of which snow could be included when you think about it), I’m in the classroom to teach, and the pupils are in the room to learn. These are my starting points and non-negotiable

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