Disconnecting from The Matrix: 6 Methods for Reducing Student Cellphone Use

Disconnecting from The Matrix
6 Methods for Reducing Student Cellphone Use

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 4,585 views |

I had an unsettling experience this week.

In an old teaching file, I found a photo from 2006 of one of my multi-national classes, busily working on something in groups. Something caught my eye, and I compared it to a similar picture from a very recent class, also multi-national, also working together on a task. I was stunned by a very significant difference between the two.

In the first, there was a dictionary on every desk.

In the second, there was a cellphone on every desk, and not a dictionary in sight.

Cellphones have become so ubiquitous, so intimately connected to our lives, and so indispensable that a skeptic might view them as an external module to which various brain functions are being outsourced.

Cellphones have become so ubiquitous, so intimately connected to our lives, and so indispensable that a skeptic might view them as an external module to which various brain functions are being outsourced. Take the example of the student who snaps a photo of the whiteboard, rather than writing down the contents. I challenged a 19-year old Korean student about this, and was told that the photo was more efficient than writing. This ignores the fact that the writing is, in fact, a critical part of the learning process, and is a huge aid to retention. Without it, no language had flowed through his mind to his hand; the ‘learning’ had been outsourced to his camera, and worse, there was the risk that he might never actually view the image, having considered the learning complete once the button was pressed.

I’m not accusing anyone of laziness. I am worried that the distraction brought by cellphones is exacerbating a culturally-created attention deficit. I’m worried that ‘outsourcing’ to a device will whittle away the volume of language being genuinely processed and produced. I worry about my students bringing to class an object with so many roles in their lives outside of school; the uninterrupted availability of messaging, email, Facebook and the Internet is, for me, a potentially very damaging interference in the learning process.

Rather than simply banning phones, I operate a system of strong and continuous discouragement of their illicit use. A straight-up ban would mean that none of my students would have access to a dictionary; they seem allergic to buying them, and my school echoes their aversion. Here, then, are some methods for knocking out unhelpful cellphone use, hopefully without creating unnecessary conflict, and purely in order to return the students’ focus to their work.

Try These 6 Methods for Reducing Student Cellphone Use

  1. 1

    A Learning Philosophy Refresher

    I generally teach advanced students, so I’m able to articulate to them my core belief about learning: It’s all about SKILLS and UNDERSTANDING, both of which only develop through PRACTICE. They’re probably sick of the sound of those three words, so often do they hear them. Cellphones often detract from the gaining of these critical skills, and are therefore in opposition to our main aims.

  2. 2


    I have a reward system for students who bring a dictionary and/or thesaurus to class. The highest marks go to those who have both an English-English and an English-L1-English dictionary. I’m also thinking about rewarding students who voluntarily put their cellphone on my desk as the class is beginning, encouraging the training of impulse control and self-discipline. Let’s face it, there are some students who not only use their phones a lot, they actually have a problem. Any encouragement we can give will have positive results beyond the classroom.

  3. 3

    Asking for Permission

    In the first weeks of a new class, students must ask permission before searching on the Internet. Unauthorized Internet use gets a quizzical, then critical, then straight-up unimpressed facial expression from their instructor. Once the pattern is established, the requirement for permission can gradually be discarded.

  4. 4


    My students are reminded, when needed, that their classes are the equivalent of having a job – a daily responsibility, organized into a routine, during which there are certain reasonable expectations. The idea is to inculcate the realization that they should no more goof around with their phone in my classroom than they would do so in a board meeting or during a presentation by their boss. Again, this trains focus and discipline – not the knuckle-rapping, cane-swinging, sergeant major discipline of the 1950s, but a considered, voluntary, rational self-control with genuinely positive aims.

  5. 5

    Be Careful of Online Dictionaries

    Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a fan of traditional dictionaries, and have grown rather wary of electronic solutions. They tend to give a single-word translation when more nuance is needed. Many internet-based translation services are dreadful, but nevertheless, some elementary students learn to depend on them. Many online dictionaries provide no synonyms, antonyms or pronunciation help, leaving the word in unhelpfully mysterious isolation. Of course, the best online and app dictionaries are terrific, but the worst are a true obstacle to learning.

  6. 6

    Keeping An Eye Out

    Not every class buys into my way of thinking, and I find myself having to police the classroom. Here are some tell-tale signs that distraction has set in, and that the students have re-connected to the Matrix:

    • Downward glances to a phone held in the lap or under the desk
    • Seemingly random giggling; often, students show each other funny messages or clips during class
    • Poor progress in the day’s work. If a cellphone is to blame, that’s one thing, but if there is a comprehension problem, it should be addressed; with the cellphone as an obstacle, the teacher can’t know the cause of the issue.
    • Lengthy bathroom breaks. I ask my students to leave their cellphones behind, which has been extremely unpopular, but Facebooking in the bathroom is as much a barrier to learning as Facebooking in the classroom.
    • Sanctions. I’m not an ogre – despite my attitude to cellphones, I’m actually a rather cuddly character – but every teacher needs some method of informing a student when they have broken the rules to their own detriment, and that of their classmates. I favor these methods:
      • Requiring that the student sing a song before the class can continue.
      • Requiring that the student dances along to the radio, in the same way.
      • Taking the phone away. It could be returned at the end of the class.
      • Requiring that the student speak, without pause or help, for one minute on a subject of my choosing, in front of the class. This terrifies a lot of people.
      • Often, the instructor’s obvious disappointment is sufficient of a penalty. I exaggerate just how misguided I find illicit cellphone use, and that gets the point across.
      • When all else fails, I have taken to painting the tip of the students’ nose green with a whiteboard marker. It’s not appropriate everywhere, but it gets results. If they wipe it off, I simply reapply it.

Cellphones are here to stay, and they are a terrific learning tool when applied appropriately.

In creating and maintaining a learning environment, it might be important to curtail their use; training self-discipline when it comes to personal electronics has to start somewhere, and the ESL classroom is a good a place to start as any.

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