Redirecting Attention From Phones…Or Not

I asked a giant Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers how they redirect attention away from phones in a way that doesn’t address rule-breaking. Despite that last part, common comments included restating the phone policy, stopping class to talk about phone use (often directed at whole class instead of individuals), confiscating the contraband, or a point system that rewards not breaking the rule. More than one comment involved a direct negative impact to a student’s course grade (maybe check this out?). Some of those practices do redirect a student in the sense of changing the course of their attention, but in a way that directly addresses the rule. I’m more interested in ways to manage behavior during class without much fanfare or acknowledgment…”sneaky”…if you will. I’m interested in masterful redirections so seamless that students don’t know they’re happening. In this post, I list all the comments that were about redirecting student attention. But first…

Why is this an issue?

That’s a good question. Some schools have such a problem with phones that companies like this exist to literally lock them away for the day in an effort to curb the addiction. Some teachers have some middle ground with phone pockets on doors, some of those an honor system thing, while others use deskless classrooms in hopes to prevent phone use (but…pockets?…Bluetooth?). I call these “avoidance practices” because they aim to control the learning space in a way that’s out of everyone’s hands (literally), but those practices fall short on their own. That is, having policies and rules only get us up to the point until they’re not followed or broken. Then what?! I’m interested in the “then what?”

Given the different ways phones are handled in school, there’s a clear message that they’re being used by students in ways that bother educators. I can’t exactly say the same about parents who message their kids during school hours, but I’m also not a parent, so I won’t go there. At this point, parents are probably just as addicted to their phones and didn’t learn how to create boundaries between home, work, and school. Granted, there are certainly teachers who have no problem at all with phones—regardless of school policy—and choose not to address students using them, referring to phone use as a battle they’re not gonna fight. In terms of choosing battles, I totally get that. We have a dress code at my school, but I can tell you that the last thing I’m thinking about is what a kid is wearing. Aside from other, more serious racist undertones of such a policy, clothing has nothing to do with teaching and learning. Phones, though? Not sure we can say the same.

Phones + Learning/Processing
There was one particularly interesting comment on potential benefits of phone use (strictly in terms of listening to music, and perhaps specifically music without lyrics, which isn’t exactly among the hottest genres these days). I’ll admit straight up that I highly doubt the effectiveness of listening to one language in a song while processing another in-person. I haven’t read any research on the topic, though, so I’ll leave that door slightly ajar, just with an extremely high level of skepticism. Why? I’ve tried to do this before….process music (lyrics or none) and reading or listening at the same time…and I can’t do it. One of two things ends up being tuned out no matter how hard I try to focus. When reading, my eyes can still follow text, but once I switch to attending the music I couldn’t tell you what was on the page. When listening, my ears will pick up a keyword and I switch to what’s being spoken, but the music is just kind of there in the background making a bunch of noise. I couldn’t really tell you what song is playing unless I switch back. Surely I’m not alone. Applying this to the classroom, then, either the student stops listening to the music, or stops listening to the target language. This probably means that a good number of students listening to music, especially with lyrics, are choosing at any given time to tune out me (or their classmates), or their music. That sounds like a processing issue, for sure.

Then again, maybe this kind of attention switching isn’t a problem, and instead is just some weird teenage thing I can’t understand. The very idea of having a constant soundtrack to one’s life seems real bad. I can’t imagine that kind of overstimulation is a good thing. Then again, it’s not unlike being around people who leave their TV on all day but aren’t even in the room. I find that maddening, but OK., there are more than a few people who do that kind of thing. How this differs, though, is that the home environment is not the same as a learning space in school. Even this kind of habit can’t be chalked up to preference. In fact, “habit” seems to be the appropriate word here.

Could phone use be another impact of remote learning?!

It’s hard to tell. The listening-to-music-during-class phenomenon has also coincided with the emergence of ear pods. Years ago, it was way more obvious with headphones around necks, or bunched up cords. Surprisingly, I can report that even today, I observed just as many corded audio devices hanging down from one ear as I did Air Pods! My hunch, then, is that the habits of the home space during remote learning have made their way into school, and students aren’t accustomed to the lack of stimulation we as humans cannot compete with. That part makes me think any potential benefit of listening to music is outweighed by harmful effects.

I really don’t know, but it also doesn’t matter. That is, these details don’t matter when it’s already clear that a student’s attention is elsewhere. That requires management and redirection. So, here are strategies for redirecting attention away from phones. Some are paraphrased suggestions from the original Facebook thread, while others are simple, effective attention-getting strategies:

  • Questions
    Engage the student with a comprehension check or personalized question, perhaps immediately asking other students, then coming back.
  • Class Job
    Introduce a “really important” or “needed” job for that day.
    • The Researcher
      Ask student to use their device and look up something related to the discussion/content.
  • Dynamics
    Vary intonation, volume, location you’re speaking from, movement even (closer to student who’s probably unaware they’ve even zoned out!).
  • Quick Dictation
    Just one sentence to pacify class with a simple, concrete task.
  • Annotation Task
    “Now, write down the word that means…”
  • Brain Break
    Students checking phones? That might be a sign brains are mush. Clear them with a simple break.
  • Lean In
    Ask the student what they’re watching, playing, or listening to, with intent to understand more about them, then move on (perhaps in combination with something above).
  • Class Content
    Create a class story about a Student X texting Y. Don’t embarrass the student! Use it as a “time for a story” cue. This can backfire BIGTIME, especially if you try to pry into a student’s personal life. Keep the story outrageous and not in the realm of possibility.

3 thoughts on “Redirecting Attention From Phones…Or Not

  1. When I notice a student using his/her phone during class I will state lowdly, “X is looking it up on his/her phone right now!” This calls out the behavior, but without necessarily disrupting the entire class. This makes the teen feel awkward because all eyes immediately turn on to the individual. Fortunately, I do not have a huge phone problem, so this technique works for me.

    • Why on Earth would you want to make a teen feel awkward? I can’t support that. You say it works for you. How’s it working for the student(s)? Aside from that part, what you describe is similar to many comments I got that specifically draws attention to rule-breaking. No need for a list of those here, thanks.

  2. I am struggling with this. I didn’t chime in on FB since I have no solutions. I don’t ever frame the phones from a rule standpoint. I always frame it from SLA standpoint. This year, nothing works.

    The majority of students are not on their phones, so I no longer make public announcements. I don’t use any type of shaming. Typically I would have a private convo with each student to find out what is underlying the phone use, but the students for whom this is an issue are students I have still not connected with, so they will not (yet) be open to sharing privately. My next plan is to include a question in Desmos…along the lines of “what do you think is your biggest obstacle to getting / understanding input?” That way, I can include phone, along with other barriers, and they are more apt to share on Desmos than in person.

    Strange times for sure. Pre-covid, I had a much better handle on this (haha and lots of things…).

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