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Helping Students Learn Self-Regulation in Their Use of Technology

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Taming the Screen Beast” by Sarah McKibben in Education Update, February 2016 (Vol. 58, #2, p. 1, 4-5),; McKibben is at
Secondary-school students’ cellphone obsession keeps them from paying attention in school, says Sarah McKibben in this article in Education Update. Students find it almost impossible to keep from checking phones every few minutes – and studies have shown that multitasking is incompatible with serious cognitive work. The more screen time teens have (up to 6.5 hours a day), the worse they perform academically. Even if students aren’t on their own devices, there’s the “nearby peers” effect documented by Canadian researchers: noticing another student multitasking electronically harms the learning of the viewer.
So should schools ban cellphones? That’s one option, but students’ long-term development may be better served by moving them toward self-regulation. Larry Rosen of California State University/Dominguez Hills suggests a protocol that trains students’ brains to stay calm for longer:
- Give students a minute at the beginning of class to check phones.
- Then have them silence their devices, put them face down on desks, and pay attention.
- Every 15 minutes, allow students to check their phones for a minute.
- Gradually increase the interval to 20, then 25, then 30 minutes.
- If students violate the protocol, they forfeit the next phone break.
- Naturally there are times when phones can be used legitimately as part of a learning experience.
Teachers who have used this approach say their students are happier, more focused, and more productive. They’ve also learned that it’s unproductive to confiscate students’ phones; this can cause great anxiety and needless conflict. Better to calmly enforce the consequences built into the system.
Savvy teachers have also found that different desk arrangements are helpful. When students are working independently on iPads, desks might be in a circle facing out, so the teacher can be in the middle monitoring screens. When the lesson is on a whiteboard up front, desks could be in a semicircle facing in, with the teacher standing outside the desks operating the whiteboard remotely.
All this also helps students understand another person’s perspective. Joshua Suber, an Oklahoma high-school teacher, asks his students, “How would you feel if I was on my phone texting instead of answering your questions? How would you feel if I didn’t make eye contact when I was teaching?”
Consultant/author Matt Renwick, like many adults, has his own struggles with technology. He takes a Sunday tech break, and when he makes classroom visits, he takes notes with pen and paper. “I feel more present and pick up on things I wouldn’t have noticed if I was crouched over a laptop or writing on an iPad,” he says. “I put technology on the back burner to have conversations with kids and staff about learning.”

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