Mobile phones – or cell phones as the Americans like to call them – are often cited as a nuisance, a disturbance and a pest by teachers across the world.
Not only in English Language Teaching but in every subject, educators battle on a daily basis against the disruptive presence of the mobile phone.Some schools have gone as far as to ban mobiles all together – tackling the problem by removing the cause from the classroom.Other schools have taken a subtle approach, encouraging learners to reserve their phone usage for break time and lunch time.
But what about in ELT? What is the situation of the mobile phone and the classroom?
When teaching Young Learners, English Language Teachers often subscribe to practices most traditionally found in mainstream classrooms. One of these practices is a zero tolerance approach to mobile phones.
Some teachers will put together class contracts with their learners; others will impose rules top-down; some schools will have clear signs in every classroom. Whatever approach is taken, the mobile phone is clearly frowned upon in the YL classroom.
The situation with adult learners is a little trickier. While the classroom and how it is managed still falls to the teacher at large, the learners are adults and probably won’t appreciate being told what to do. This means the teacher either has to try and impose a rule or come to some sort of an agreement with the learners.
For sure, regardless of the rules, the learners will take their phones out at one point or another.
The Place for Mobile Phones
Smartphones are here to stay. Period. No matter what we might expect or want, they are not going anywhere. They might evolve in the future into a hybrid between tablets, laptops and phones, but either way they will be hanging around for some time yet.
Learners – both adults and YL’s – turn to their mobiles in the classroom because it is one of the most natural reflexes in the age of the digital native. Think about when you are out with friends, having a coffee, riding the train to work – you will most likely reach for your mobile to check your messages or e-mails, read up on the news or play with an app.
In the ELT classroom, the teacher often thinks that when the learner turns to their mobile phone, they are some how moving their focus away from learning and the lesson.
However, what they are most likely doing is nothing in particular: they are most likely doing mind-numbingly mundane things, such as checking the news or reading statuses on Facebook. These actions are so repetitive and so second-nature that the learner will probably not even think while doing them – they are just reflexes.
So, if the learner has finished their task, is on their smartphone but isn’t doing anything in particular, what does that tell you as a the teacher?
Before you dive into lengthy responses about building interest and stimulating thought, let me tell you what it really tells you:
The learner has finished
Very often in the classroom we ask our learners to give us a signal when they have finished an activity. This is so we, as teachers, know when it is time to move on to the next stage.
Sometimes learners give us a signal, sometimes they forget, and sometimes we forget to ask them. However, learners will never hesitate to touch their phones.This means we, as teachers, have an almost fool-proof way of knowing when our learners have completed an activity. We can use this to inform ourselves when to move on to the next stage.
And best of all, we don’t even have to move from our seats: we can just observe from a distance when they reach for their smartphones.
If you have any doubt that the learner isn’t doing something mundane when checking their phones, or if you feel by doing so they are losing their ‘focus’ and need to remain focused on the lesson from start to end, I encourage you to observe the behaviour of you and your colleagues at your next meeting. You might be surprised to see how many of you reach for your phones at every given opportunity – even while someone is speaking!