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The class experiment

If you walked past room E08 at Currituck County High School a few weeks ago, you would think you were walking by a casino. The pings, rings, and bings on phones were constant. They were loud and disruptive. There were 383 disruptions to be accurate.

No, I do not allow cell phones to be out in my classroom. They have to be put out of sight at all times. At the end of class with a few minutes left, if students have been working hard, I allow them to check their messages, Snapchats, or whatever else it is that teenagers seem to be so obsessed with on their phones these days.

This is one of the first things I tell my students after I introduce myself.  As a parent and teacher, sometimes when students or kids ask us, “Why?” and we simply say, “Because I said so.” Students often ask me, “Why can’t I listen to music while I do my work?” They ask if they can use it as their calculator during an assignment in my chemistry class, to which I respond with a resounding “No.”

When I’m asked why, I simply state, “You cannot use your phone during a test, and I want you to be used to using the calculators that are acceptable by the state on your exam.” Most students understand this, and get up to go get a calculator that is provided for them. I will say that I allow them for educational purposes, like using the timer in labs, or using it to take pictures of labs to put into their formal lab reports.

Students know how I feel about the use of other applications on their phones while in an instructional setting, and for the most part, even when using the devices for educational purposes, do not stray from my instructions. We are a 1:1 school where every student has a chromebook, so there is no reason, in my opinion, to have a cell phone out. Our school doesn’t have a broad cell phone policy, so it is up to the teachers discretion.

Last week, I decided to let my students fully understand the “why” behind my decision as a teacher to not allow cell phones out in class. I saw a post on Facebook of a teacher who asked their students to mark on the board how many, and what type of notifications, they received during the course of their class period.  I thought, “Why not show my students the why behind my decision?”

A few weeks ago, I told my 2nd bell chemistry students to get their phones out and put them on their desks. The students were in shock and asking me if I felt OK — which got me giggling. I told them I wanted to do an experiment and to see how many times they received a notification during my class. I told them to turn up the volume on their phone notifications, and every time they received one, go to the board and put a mark under the appropriate category. I also stipulated that they could not reply to these notifications — that was not part of the experiment — and that I would continue to teach regardless of what happened.

During this class, I was going over the parts of the periodic table.  I did demonstrations, like putting potassium in water to show the reactivity of alkali metals. It sparked and lit up, zooming around the beaker of water. I lit magnesium on fire to show the use of the metal in fireworks. All the while, students were getting up and heading to the board to place their marks.

I noticed while I was teaching that students got tired of heading to the board, and would ask another student, already up, to mark their notification on the board.  I also noticed that several times during the casino-like atmosphere of phones binging and sounding off, that some students just didn’t want to get up, so they didn’t mark their notification at all.

At the end of class, I decided to give the students a formative assessment to see their understanding of the days lecture. I placed questions on it that came from the lesson the day before and on that particular day. The results were not shocking to me, however, to the students it was. All of the students correctly answered the questions on the material that was presented without disruptions. Only a few could correctly answer the questions from that day’s lecture.

Now, I realize that students do not have the volume on their phones turned up. I also realize that phones can have a place in the educational realm. Those are not my points. I sat down and tallied up the marks on the board.

Here are the results:

  • 38 Instagram
  • 192 Snapchat
  • 140 text
  • 5 Facebook
  • 5 email
  • 1 Live 360
  • 1 Twitter
  • 1 Powerschool

These disruptions came from 20 students during an 85 minute class period. It should be noted that one student did not receive any notifications and one did not have their phone in class at all.

In total, there were 383 disruptions. When I sat down and explained to my students that this data just shows my reasoning for not allowing mobile devices, they totally understood. I explained that while the ringers aren’t usually turned up, every time they received a notification, they took their eyes and attention away from me and learning, and went to their phone. Every time someone got a notification next to them, they took their eyes and attention to their neighbor.

Just because the volume is not turned up, students take their focus and turn it to something that has nothing to do with their success in class. I am not sure who the notifications were from — it could be parents, it could be other students in the school. That is not the point either. The point I was driving home to my students is the “why” behind my decision. The next day, I didn’t see a single phone in class!

Kimberly Mawhiney

Kimberly Mawhiney teaches science at Currituck County High School. She is a Kenan Fellow alumni and a NC Hope Street Group Fellow for 2017-19.