Want students to be more engaged? Don’t ban cellphones!

"We are interpreting the wrong messages from our students being on cellphones," says Jason McKenna, author of "What STEM Can Do For Your Classroom" and an edtech executive who is also a featured FETC speaker.

Banning cellphones to boost student engagement is about as effective as trying to make a nuclear power plant safer by repairing the shed where workers park their bicycles.

OK, that probably wasn’t the way you expected that sentence to end. But consider it a lesson in the “law of triviality” that should convince us we’re missing the bigger picture when we blame technology and screen time for diverting students’ attention away from instruction, says Jason McKenna, author of What STEM Can Do For Your Classroom and an edtech executive who is also a featured speaker at the 2024 Future of Education Technology Conference, Jan. 23-26.

“We are interpreting the wrong messages from our students being on cellphones,” says McKenna, who is the vice president of global education strategy for VEX Robotics. “The reason why students are on cellphones during the school day is the same reason that when I was in middle school, that I would write and pass notes, which is because I was bored. Now, we’re just using a different means to express that boredom.”

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McKenna acknowledges that there are times when smartphones should be removed from classrooms and schools—such as when the devices are being used to bully other students or teachers. However, research shows there are more serious culprits behind student distraction, depression and irritability.

“We start schools ridiculously early—walk into any classroom in the U.S. during periods 1 and 2 and what do you see? You see a bunch of students sleepwalking,” he points out. “This a much, much larger issue than screen time, but why are we talking about banning screen time? Because it’s much easier to do than it is to change the start times of our schools and to change bus schedules.

“If we were serious about improving our students’ mental health, let’s talk about things that are much more validated by research—for example, sleep, and try to do something about that.”

Better ideas than banning cell phones

Giving students more autonomy is a far more powerful way to increase engagement than banning cellphones. First, teachers should give students more “voice and choice” over what they are studying. “Let’s address that boredom head-on,” McKenna asserts. “Let’s make students a partner in the assessment process as opposed to just dictating assessment to our students. Let’s broaden that real-world problem-solving process so students have time to engage creatively and iterate on their ideas.”

All new technology—from the internet to artificial intelligence—has at one point been a source of consternation for K12 leaders. Educators should therefore be guiding students in becoming creators rather than just consumers. This journey starts with teachers, particularly in the earlier grades, overcoming their reluctance to adopt and embrace new digital tools.

“Unfortunately, when you walk into classrooms today, you hear a lot of teachers talking about the fact that technology is something they are never going to be good at,” he explains. “They’re never going to be good at computers, they’re never going to be those creators of technology, and that attitude seeps into our students.

“Having a paradigm shift around how we view technology is important,” he adds. “By doing that, we’ll have students become better acclimated to the use of their phones and better consumers of their phones.”

Educators and other adults should help students see that they can be good at math, science and reading. “It’s very important at the beginning, when students are very young, that we imbue our students with that particular mindset—[they are] someone who can write an algorithm, who can build a robot,” he contends. “The most important thing with our very young students is to imbue them with this idea that this is something they can do and that there are people just like them doing it.”

Integrating all aspects of STEM into coursework that has real-world applications is an excellent way to captivate learners, he contends. Though not quite a K12 project (yet), McKenna cited the example of researchers and veterinarians who are tracking the health of killer whales with drones that hover above the ocean and collect what the massive mammals eject through their blowholes.

Another critical step for district leaders is to therefore ensure teachers have the resources to develop multi-disciplinary projects around topics such as whale health or global warming. “Everything that our students see around us is an integrated STEM example but oftentimes when they’re presented with this information via curricula in their schools, it is segmented, it’s broken out,” McKenna explains. “That’s when you get the question that no teacher likes to answer, which is ‘When am I ever going to use this in the real world?'”

McKenna explores the relationship between cellphones and classroom engagement further in his recent blog, Navigating the Digital Tide: Balancing Technology and Engagement in Modern Education. He concludes, however, that parts of the school day should be “technology-free” to give students a chance to reflect on their learning.

“Oftentimes, we try to strive for efficiency, which I think is the wrong approach,” he says. “Education often resembles the flight of a butterfly and, unfortunately in edtech, we often try to attract a rocket to that butterfly. When you attach a rocket to a butterfly, you don’t always get good results from that.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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