The Case for Making Classrooms Phone-Free

The debate about mobile phones in the classroom can get heated. Some teachers believe phones should be used as a teaching tool. Others push to ban cell phones from the classroom altogether.

Two years ago, English Language Arts teacher Tyler Rablin promoted cell phone use in the classroom, encouraging his students to bring their phones to class. He’s had a change of heart. Next year, he’ll be asking students to check their phones at the door.

Rablin recently took to Twitter to share his rationale in an 8-tweet thread. We asked him to share more thoughts.

Two years ago, I was a champion for phones in the classroom. I was part of the team that was like, “These are incredible! Let’s bring them in and use them for learning!” I’ve recently changed my stance. Next year in my classroom, students will be checking in their phones when they arrive and getting them back on their way out the door. Why? Because attention is a limited resource and kids are spending too much of it distracted by their phones. It’s a losing battle for kids and their brains.

When students pick up their phones, they are immediately bombarded with notifications and noise, and in my experience this doesn’t support learning. Are there creative tools and apps that are beneficial to learning? Yes, of course. But these tools and apps are not actively reaching out to them. Instead, it’s TikTok, Instagram and games that are causing distraction. Their phones are actively and intentionally working against the goals of learning.

When we allow students to pick up their phones, even when we’re using them for learning activities, it’s too much temptation. I learned that the hard way.

I’ve taught English Language Arts to high schoolers—mostly ninth graders—for nine years now. When I first started incorporating technology into instruction, my colleagues and I shared a computer lab, reserving devices as we needed them. At the time, though Chromebooks were becoming more accessible, we were asking students to bring their phones to class so they could record skits and videos, make fake character interviews through FlipGrid, and use them for research so we didn’t have to go to the lab. Honestly, it was working. Students were able to take out their phones for these discrete tasks and then put them away. There was a sense of balance and control.

Fast forward a few years, and the field of app design has changed just enough to disturb the balance. If a student has their phone out, there’s an endless stream of notifications flooding their home screen with reminders to check in—social apps telling them they’ve been tagged in photos or videos, game notifications letting them know they’ve been challenged by a friend. Some students are able to control their phone use, but as these devices have become more ingrained in everything we do, that number is dwindling.

My approach for the past few years was to treat the misuse of phones in the classroom as a conscious decision. I viewed each bout of TikTok scrolling, Snapchatting and YouTube watching as a conscious act. I gave warnings, asked students to put their phones away and had conversations about overusing tech. In those conversations, many students expressed an understanding that their phone was a distraction and that it was harmful to their learning.

Yet, too often, I’d find myself back to square one the next day. Most students with phones in their hands when they should have been doing something else.

This became a source of tension in my classroom. Over the years, I’ve implemented different strategies, contracts and consequences to help students make better decisions with their phones.

What I’ve realized though, is that phone use has become something other than a decision. It has become a habit—a nearly uncontrollable one for many students. And let’s be honest, students aren’t the only ones who have a problem limiting their phone use. We all struggle to put down our phones and be present.

There’s a body of research that digs into this habit. If you look at nearly any study that analyzes the relationship between phone use, notifications, social media and mental health, it’s virtually always a net negative.

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University discusses it in her book, “The Willpower Instinct.” What we are asking students to do when they are allowed to hold onto their phone during class is to demonstrate considerable willpower to reject their habits to check their notifications, respond to buzzes and communicate with friends not sitting near them. Asking them to do that time and time again all day long is a lost cause. McGonigal calls this willpower fatigue—in essence, our willpower fades the more we use it, so the more frequently we ask students to exert their willpower, the less energy they have to do it next time.

James Clear, who writes about habits and decision-making also discusses this. In his book, “Atomic Habits,” he writes about habits in four stages: cues, cravings, responses and rewards.

After reading Clear’s book, I set up a few experiments with my students and saw all four stages in action. For many students, boredom is a cue for them to pick up their phone. It is unconscious and often uncontrollable. Even when I asked students to turn off their phones when they weren’t being used for a learning activity, they’d pick them up, try to turn them on, put them back down and repeat not long after. They engaged in this response even when they knew that there wouldn’t be a reward because the phone was off. When I asked them how it felt, many mentioned that it was overwhelming. They were worried their friends had messaged them or that their parents were trying to get a hold of them.

The fourth stage Clear writes about—the reward—is where I think phones do the biggest disservice to students. Phone notifications develop dopamine responses that kids depend on, which pulls them away from the experiences of learning that can bring even deeper levels of satisfaction. If my student’s goal is to be happy, or experience that dopamine shot, and the options are to get it immediately with their phone or to spend time and effort learning something new and challenging, they’ll probably opt for their phone because it’s easier. This compounds the fact that many students who haven’t been successful in school don’t actually believe they can have a positive experience with learning.

As a teacher who spent the better portion of my life without a smartphone, I know firsthand that other experiences can be rewarding. I’ve experienced how liberating it is to be phone-free. I’ve had time to develop analogue hobbies that have brought me satisfaction and joy, but not all of my students have—especially after the last few years, when many of them spent extended periods of time at home because of the pandemic.

In “Willpower Instinct,” McGonigal discusses how willpower is not about saying no to the things you don’t want to do, but it’s about saying yes to the life you truly want to live. So, while my immediate goal is to support student learning by breaking a habit of phone overuse, I find myself also asking how I can help students develop an understanding of the things they truly want in life.

When a student picks up their phone to play a game, they are looking for a challenge, a sense of novelty, a feeling of success. When a student is scrolling through social media, they are looking for connection. When they are posting, they’re looking for validation of self-worth. These are feelings that all humans crave. I have to be mindful of that as I remove phones from my classroom and I need to challenge myself to create new learning opportunities and experiences that help my students tap into their needs and find these feelings.

It’s frustrating to me when people make comments like, “We just need to make the curriculum more engaging and then they won’t even want to be on their phones.”

To those people I say: my lesson can’t compete with the latest game that just came out. We work with students who increasingly crave immediate gratification.

Putting this sole responsibility on teachers is unfair. We only have students for a limited amount of minutes each day. What about their time at home? Does more need to be done to raise awareness for families about how phones and social media are impacting children? And should schools step up to back teachers on this issue? Sure, but that’s not our call to make. I can use my voice to raise awareness, but at the end of the day, what happens in my classroom is the only part I can control.

Kids will complain about phone restrictions. Some parents will probably complain too. But that doesn’t refute the fact that the rapid rise of social media and the technology that preys on students’ attention is detrimental to learning, student wellness and so many other things we claim to value as a society.

This is why, when my ninth graders enter the classroom next year, they will hand over their phones and spend sixty minutes in a phone-free environment. I’ve tried other approaches. I’ve championed other approaches.

I can’t anymore.

If I want my students to have a shot at being successful, I have to support them in breaking this habit and in pursuing more meaningful avenues to find connection, self-worth and success.