Put Your Phone Away!​​

If you work in an office, do people ever come over to your desk and tell you to put your phone away? What about in meetings? How about when you are with friends in a cafe? With most people carrying phones in the early 21st Century, technology has become part of our lives and its place in schools continues to be a hotly-debated issue.

I work at an international language school for adults. There are three rules:

  1. English to be the only language spoken in the classroom
  2. No food in the classroom
  3. Phones to be put away in bags or pockets unless the teacher gives permission to use them. This also applies to electronic dictionaries, laptops and tablets.

I have issues with all of these rules, but in this post, I would like to focus on the pros and cons of rule number three: no phones or other devices.

Here’s a quick list of pros and cons of phones being out that spring to mind (in no particular order of importance):

 Disadvantages of Devices Being Present

  • Phone noises are distracting.
  • Social media can distract students away from the lesson.
  • An over-reliance on translation can inhibit student interaction and knowledge sharing.
  • An addiction to social media can inhibit real-world social interaction.
  • Cameras can have an impact on other students’ privacy (and the teacher’s).

Advantages of Devices Being Present

  • Students can quickly translate unknown words and get on with the task they are trying to do.
  • Students can use rich media to illustrate things they want to tell each other.
  • Devices are present in the real world.
  • Students can use their camera to record important moments or information.

What happens when the no phones rule is enforced strictly?

When I have enforced the no phones rule strictly in class, the number one problem has been the number of times I have had to hassle students. The rule has a massive impact on the flow of the lesson and also the relationship between teacher and students. Some teachers go around with a box and get the students to put their devices in there until the end of the lesson. Banning devices means pretty much every lesson starts with “Please put your phones away.”  It could be argued that a teacher with excellent classroom management skills might train their students to do this automatically in time, but I believe many factors get in the way of this. Stragglers who come after the lesson has started have to be reminded. Students who get up and go to the toilet usually come back holding their phones and have to be reminded. Students who don’t care about the rule have to be retold. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the teacher might have to make twenty or more comments about phones in one lesson. It’s exhausting, it’s petty, it takes time away from helping the students to improve their English, and it erodes the teacher-student relationship.

What happens when we don’t enforce the rule?

I tried an experiment this month. I wanted to see what would happen if I made minimal comments about technology. I decided there would be a few situations where I would need to keep the rule:

  • For good etiquette when students are delivering a presentation to the class
  • When they are taking a test

The test rule is for the same reason that I wouldn’t let them use their book either. However, I do feel that some open-book tests could be useful and would be interested in exploring that idea in another post. The presentation rule is for courtesy to the other students.

I found that the number of times I had to modify students’ phone behaviour in the month could be counted on one hand: once or twice when students were sneaking a look during presentations, once when a student came into the classroom speaking on their phone (I politely indicated that they should finish their call outside) and once when I saw someone messaging some emojis. I made a joke of it, and we moved on. For the most part, phones have been on desks in plain sight and generally left alone unless students wanted to check some vocab. I still helped students understand new words and they still asked each other. We learned a lot about differences and similarities in our different languages when comparing translated words and structures. We illustrated examples with photos. I didn’t have to nag my students. It felt like we had a respectful and productive classroom environment.

The results of a study by Lancaster (2018), suggested that students’ learning was not necessarily negatively affected by the presence of phones and that phones have perhaps become less disruptive over time as technology and social media have become less of a novelty. In short, perhaps technology might only be distracting if we keep drawing attention to it. Personally, I would rather encourage good technology and media habits than ban technology.

Concluding Thoughts

We have to decide whether we want our classrooms to mirror the real world. Is it reasonable to expect adults to approach eight hundred minutes of lessons per week like a formal meeting? Isn’t it better to learn how to integrate technology less obtrusively into our daily lives? Should everyone be punished because a few people have poor etiquette? What’s the big deal about students firing off a message if it’s not an ongoing thing? My boss does it all the time. There are many reasons I would step in and ask a student to modify their behaviour. Students can certainly find many ways to irritate each other! I would never let one student negatively affect the learning of another, and I will continue to help students reconnect when they go off task. That’s my duty as a teacher, and I’m happy to do it. I do believe that rapport significantly increased during this experiment through a reduction in nagging and I’m keen for our rule to be modified (if not removed completely). How about something like this?

3. Use technology with consideration.

Let’s embrace the positives of technology and call each other out when our etiquette is a bit off. Let’s treat the young adults in classrooms as we would colleagues in the workplace and show them how to work together respectfully.

Now about those other two rules…


Lancaster, A. (2018). Student learning with permissive and restrictive cell phone policies: A classroom experiment. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(1). doi:10.20429/ijsotl.2018.120105

Photo Credit

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