Using Smartphones in the Classroom: A Guide for Teachers

As soon as school gets out, teachers can find their students hunched over their phones. They are catching up on texts and other notifications of the day while sharing memes and the latest videos with each other.

While smartphones are often viewed as a distraction to the learning process, there are times when they can enhance your lesson plans. Depending on your school policies, you can incorporate smartphones into your classroom or ask students to use them to help with their homework assignments.

It’s time to rethink the relationship between education and the smartphone.

Smartphones Aren’t Your Enemy

The first step to using smartphones in your classroom is to rethink how you approach smartphones in a learning environment. Rather than fighting against smartphones for the attention of your students (a fight which you will lose) consider embracing the smartphone as a learning tool.

“When students first began carrying cell phones, educators saw them primarily as a distraction in the classroom,” says Grace Chen at Public School Review. “The knee-jerk reaction by many schools was to simply ban cell phones altogether, creating policies that would allow for the confiscation of phones that were seen in halls or classrooms during school hours.”

Keeping students away from their smartphones is unrealistic — especially if school is supposed to prepare students to be functioning adults. For example, Ashleigh van Vliet at Sword Word Creative says the argument that students shouldn’t look up vocabulary words on their phones because they won’t always have a digital device on them, simply doesn’t hold up.

“Let’s be honest: yes, they will always have their phones with them,” van Vliet writes. Fighting the use of smartphones is going against what adulthood will be like and denying students resources at their disposal. Wouldn’t you rather teach kids how to stop and look up words instead of glossing over something they don’t understand? It’s better to use smartphones in a way that helps students remember the material rather than enforcing antiquated learning styles of rote memorization.

Another concern that educators have with the use of smartphones is access to these devices. How can teachers make assignments based on smartphone use when some students might not have access to them?

“Most of us have two or three old phones around the house,” writes ELA teacher Ashley Bible at Building Book Love. “Our friends and family could add at least 10 more. Once the pictures and messages have been deleted, they can serve as spare smartphones in your classroom.” This creates an equitable experience for students who don’t have smartphones.

You can build smartphone use into your lesson plans in a manner that is useful and healthy. These activities can better engage students while allowing them to use the practical tools at their disposal.

Smiling teenage friends looking at smartphone while sitting in classroom;

Embrace the TikTok Generation

Once you are ready to accept the use of smartphone technology in education, you can look into trends that engage and excite students. Yes, even TikTok can be used in education to help students learn.

“The mistake adults make is they say TikTok is terrible—they only see that negative side—but it’s not a binary thing,” says Shauna Pomerantz, associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. “TikTok can speak to them in a way that other kinds of lessons haven’t spoken to them. I don’t think all education needs to be in a TikTok… but I think there’s a pretty profound place for that kind of media.”

During the remote learning periods of the past two years, educators created TikTok videos to connect with their students. Some teachers even have a large following outside of their schools because the content is interesting and useful. You can create content as an educator or you can ask students to develop materials on their own.

“TikTok lesson plans are popular now as a way to help students engage in and beyond the classroom,” says Luke Edwards at Tech and Learning. “For a history class, as an example, students can create 15-second video clips that succinctly summarize key points learned on a topic.”

Students can refer to these clips when preparing for a test. They are more likely to remember the concept or event because they associate it with a fun activity. Other students can also watch and share these videos, creating a research bank of fun virtual content related to the subject.

Griffin Jaeger at Spaces highlights the duet feature in TikTok as an option for teachers to engage students on the platform. The duet feature allows students to respond to a video you create with content of their own. For example, they can use duet to answer discussion questions or to have a conversation with you in a foreign language. You can use this to create engaging homework assignments that are easy to grade.

Sideview of teenage boy wearing headset, smartphone in the classroom concept

Tap into Podcast Listening and Creation

Podcasting is another popular content format that is favored across the globe. Teens and adults alike listen to audio stories and discussions about specific subjects. Consider building podcast episodes into your homework assignments to introduce students to ideas and concepts.

“It’s tricky to encourage students to spend 30 minutes reading an article or watching a recorded lecture,” says Colin Gray, The Podcast Host. “That’s because text and video require the student’s full attention – they need to sit patiently, doing just one thing. Podcasting, on the other hand, can be done in otherwise wasted time, or alongside a routine activity.”

Students can listen to a podcast while doing dishes or riding the bus. In these cases, the podcasts become more interesting than the task at hand. If you’ve ever listened to a podcast while cleaning the house, you understand this experience.

Podcasting also plays a valuable role in developing listening comprehension. Students can grow their listening muscles to understand and remember what they hear.

“[Podcasts] can help with students’ learning overall, but it starts really with reading and the connection between listening comprehension and reading comprehension,” says Monica Brady-Myerov, author of “Listen Wise: Teach Students to be Better Listeners.” “There are many studies that show they are correlated so that a student’s listening comprehension far outpaces their reading comprehension until at least the eighth grade.”

Listening comprehension can be used to introduce new vocabulary words, pique the interest of students on certain topics, and prepare students for the material they are about to read. This is why many teachers read Shakespeare out loud with students following along in the text.

You can also challenge your students to create podcast episodes, similar to your TikTok video assignments. Podcast creation can be just as involved as writing an essay. Students have to research topics, create outlines, and draft concise sentences that engage listeners.

“Assigning short podcast creation in place of or alongside written essays has proved to be a highly effective means of increasing engagement, deepening critical and analytic skills, and letting students learn via experience how information is transformed into knowledge,” write Kimberly Adams, et al. at Inside Higher Ed. “Replacing the traditional essay and exam with podcast creation also builds community: solitary acts of all-nighter essay writing and exam cramming become team-based project development.”

Students can listen to the podcasts created by their peers or relisten to their own episodes as supplemental review material when studying for an exam.

High School Students Collaborating On Project On Campus; Smartphones in the Classroom concept

Use Smartphones in the Language Classroom

Our language is driven by smartphone use. Adults and teens learn different slang words through social media and consume a vast amount of content each day. They read blog articles, click on news links, and learn through Tweets and Facebook posts. All of this content can be used to introduce and reinforce information taught in the foreign language and English language learner (ELL) classrooms.

“Smartphones can be especially useful for foreign language students, since it is almost impossible to learn a language quickly without listening to native speakers frequently and accessing culture directly through newspapers and magazines,” says German teacher Kelsey Ehnle Bassett. This is another reason why your podcast homework assignments can be valuable.

“ESL academies ought to embrace technology as a means of making lessons more fun, engaging and appealing to today’s young learners and teenagers,” writes teacher Alan Dunleavy at TEFL. “It’s a matter of using what works. Teaching is a balancing act between staying true to your time-honoured techniques and principles on the one hand, and adapting to changing circumstances and technology on the other.”

Additionally, educators can tap into smartphones as a topic of discussion when communicating with students in a new language. Once you cover basic vocabulary related to smartphones, apps, and communication, you can apply the words to discussions that tap into grammatical lessons.

Olha Korinets, a materials writer at ESL Brains, shared a lesson plan for discussing advantages and disadvantages of different types of technology. In the lesson, teachers use smartphones to practice the past, present and future tenses alongside each other. Students can talk about what phones used to be like, how they are used now, and what they might be like in the future.

Play Music as a Study Aid

Even if the smartphone isn’t a key part of your lesson plan, you can still use it to promote the well-being of your students. For example, you can allow students to listen to music while they study as a way to relax during a stressful period while helping them to focus. There is real science behind why music helps people learn.

“Our brain’s attention system has two different parts, referred to separately as the ‘dorsal’ and ‘ventral’ attention systems—otherwise known, respectively, as our conscious and unconscious attention,” writes Christopher Nelson at Connections Academy. “Our conscious attention directs our focus to the primary task at hand…our ventral or unconscious attention is detecting peripheral sights, sounds, and other distractions.”

Nelson explains that music channels ventral attention toward something productive. This decreases the chance of breaking that attention because of other conversations or movements in the classroom.

By allowing students to listen to music while studying, you’re also giving them space to create memories connected to the material. “Music serves as a potent trigger for retrieving memories,” writes the team at Numerade. “You’ve probably noticed it before; you hear a song you haven’t even listened to in years, yet you can still repeat every lyric.”

You can also incorporate music into the classroom by creating study playlists for the classroom, suggests Matt Miller at Ditch That Textbook. The playlist can be based on your students’ requests. This helps you learn about your students while incorporating a fun element into learning. You can create playlists based on the material too, especially if you teach history, literature, and other subjects with ties to specific cultures or time periods.

Not every lesson has to incorporate a TikTok project or a podcast. Just by allowing students to listen to music or giving them smartphone breaks after a test can help them regroup mentally during a stressful school day.

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