Withitness and mobile phones in my classroom

I am in a classroom. It would be pointless to say everything is fine, because it isn’t. It’s noisy, which I like. A buzz of conversation, dialogue and exchange is interrupted by the hushed vibrations of mobile phones. Messages and e-mails are opened and read, images shared with desk neighbours and replies crafted in the subterranean space under the desks. I’m with a group of adult students. New to their degree course. New to the classroom and organisational space, the language and landscape of higher education. As new to me as I am to them.  I don’t like to use the word ‘control’ as it conveys a sense of rigidity and power, but I need to get a grip on the frequent and indiscriminate use of mobile phones. But hang on, is it that I need to understand my reactions and behavioural responses to their need to use mobile phones in class?

David Fontana sees students as being at the centre of a ‘matrix of interrelated forces, each of which acts as a potential stimulus to his or her own capacity to respond.’ As an influencer on their classroom behaviour I realise that much of this is down to my own behaviour and responses. I’ll be honest with you, I’m feeling a little frustrated with myself. My responses so far have been shoddy, inadequate. I ask them to put their phones away, to respect each others contributions in class by listening. I ask that they just use their phones when it’s about the topic. I ask them to try and respond to the messages, texts and calls later. But, I feel as if I’m giving them unclear messages at a time when they are already having to deal with a significant life and identity transition. After all, I want them to use their phones and any other resources they have to help their learning and, I am OK with the use of phones in my class for that purpose. But, paradoxically, I’m now asking them to put their phones away. I’ve misunderstood some student’s use of their mobile, and, as teaching is relational I’m concerned as to how those individuals will know that I do care about them. I know that people act on feelings and, that some mobile use may be due to them needing to feel safe, accepted, respected and successful within the group. However, I’ve done a complete flip-flop, and I know that in this matrix I also need to look at myself.

As my classroom is often activity focussed I find that Jacob Kounin’s concept of ‘movement management’ resonates well. He introduces four identifiable skills:

  • initiating an activity,
  • directing students through it,
  • successfully sustaining their attention, and then
  • successfully terminating it.

He particularly focusses on 2 aspects of movement: momentum and smoothness. My responses to students cause slowdowns, interrupting the pace and liveliness of the lesson. And this affects the whole class. It’s right, at times I feel as though I’m almost ‘nagging,‘ behaviour he calls ‘overdwelling.‘ The lesson momentum has gone. Whilst I’m focussing on individual students others lose interest and focus. Breaks in the flow of dialogue, focus, discussion and thinking lead to shuffling and my words feel as though they’re dangling loose in the air. Kounin calls this ‘jerkiness.’

In Jacob Kounin’s words I’m ‘overdwelling,’ and this leads to both  dangling and fragmentation.  OK, I understand this. I can also see what Kounin calls ‘withitness.‘ I definitely need to practice as I don’t see half of what Rob Segers does.

How has this changed my behaviour and responses to students using their mobile phones? I’m going to encourage students to use them to access resources and seek ways to integrate their uses within classroom activities. However, I’m mindful of the potential for distraction as Kuznekoff, Munz and Titsworth conclude in their research;

“The findings from our study reinforce, and extend, those of other studies, and provide clear evidence that frequent messaging unrelated to class content interferes with student learning while in class; however, relevant messaging does not appear to negatively impact student learning. Although faculty will continue to face the challenge of students using their mobile devices while in class, it does appear that appropriately integrating the use of these devices into class may help student learning.”

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