Mobile phones in the classroom: are they more distracting when they’re switched on or switched off?

I attended the TESOL France Professional Development Day in June this year where the plenary speaker, Ken Wilson, asked a large audience how many were in favour of prohibiting mobile phones in their classrooms. About 95% of the room raised their hands. He then asked how many didn’t mind if their students had access to their mobile phones during the lesson and a few of us raised our hands, but there were very few of us. I was slightly surprised to be in such a small minority.

My purpose in writing this is not to launch into any sort of moralistic argument on classroom management nor is it to outline and defend the rich possibilities that mobile learning offers for language students. I am writing this from a motivation perspective, mainly driven by my own experience as a language student. I believe that one of the most important discoveries in Zoltan Dörnyei’s huge body of motivation research is that teachers are the number one demotivating factor for learners (2001:152). The teacher’s attitude has a vital role in the motivational construct and the act of forbidding something is a battle that should be carefully constructed and a battle that should be worth its while. One of the first things we learn when we train in the field of ELT is to make our classes communicative. ELT classrooms today are two-way processes and motivation has such an important place at the heart of this process.

The reason I allow mobiles has very little to do with the principles of classroom discipline. Of course I think the commitment to an hour or two of language training should include the trainee’s undivided attention in order to receive the full benefit of the lesson. When I was a full-time student my mobile phone stayed in my bag and was switched off. I sincerely believe this and yet, I allow, and am at times interrupted by, mobile phones. There are firm limits to these interruptions and the occasions where I have found them to be inappropriate are rare.

Why do I do this? I think it is my experience of being a student and teacher at the same time that has brought me here. I have been learning Arabic for the past year. I have private lessons for an hour a week. During this hour someone else cares for my children, who are both very young. I wouldn’t dream of switching off my mobile phone. I leave it on, in silent mode. The only calls I respond to are those from the babysitter, if any. Have I had an emergency drop-everything-and-leave phone call this past year? No. Do I feel silly for still leaving my phone on during my lesson? No.

If I had to switch off my phone in the lesson, I know I wouldn’t be all there. I would engage in the classroom spectacle, probably quite actively, but I would remain slightly worried (what if the babysitter were trying to reach me) and this emotion would shape my classroom behaviour and if we were to follow the train of thought that emotions underlie cognition, my learning would be affected by this. And yes, I have my phone on silent mode when I teach although I have never answered it in class and couldn’t imagine anything more inappropriate.

Now, perhaps you think I am a completely paranoid mother. We all have different things that we carry with us throughout our days, which complete our sense of self. Texts, updates, tweets shape a lot of our daily communication and for many, these things have huge professional relevance and importance. Being a phone call away for my children is part of my sense of security and what keeps me together. It’s also handy that my clients don’t get the impression that when they try to reach me in the middle of the day they get the satisfaction of hearing a few rings and then leaving a message as opposed to getting the impression that my phone is just switched off without any reassurance as to when it will be switched on again. Does this mean that I am a distracted person? Does it just mean I multi-task? Whatever it is, my need to be connected is part of the parcel.

While I’m aware that my babysitter example would not bear the same weight for the next person, I do feel we all have our reasons for having our mobile phones in the classroom with us. Managing its use, I feel, is part of classroom discipline and the presence of a mobile phone and a disciplined class aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t think arguments along the lines of “ten years ago….” are particularly valid because our lessons take place in a current context and just like we can use You Tube as our richest source of authentic native accents, mobile phones have an even bigger place in people’s lives than they did before.

People for whom phones are important find peace of mind in being allowed to leave them on, which in turn might allow them to engage in classroom activity with greater involvement. I don’t think that my university students’ who are waiting to hear back from a job interview are any more or less affected than I am by the access allowed to or forbidden from our mobile phones in class. The reasons they have their phones on weigh on their psyche just as much as my reasons do on mine. I believe we need to attempt to understand the needs of each learner and gauge the importance of the mobile phone for him/her and accordingly make a decision on the management of this gadget within the lesson. I also believe that sometimes forbidding what we deem a distraction maybe a distraction in itself.

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