I Want Students to Play on Their Phones During My Class

I had a teacher in college. He would tell the class on the first day that, “if they were late to class, then they would need to sit in the hall until the break”, which was in the middle of this 2.5 hour class. He also regularly removed people from class who were playing on their cell phone or distracting the class. Oddly enough, he always used to play with his belly button through his shirt…but I digress.


As I reflect, I think he was the strictest teacher I have ever had at the college level.

As a side note, I agree with only one of these disciplinary measures. That if someone is distracting others, then you need to get involved…but more on that later.

What about the other things?

Being late and sitting in the hall for the first hour?

Playing on phone and being removed?

My Experience

First, a story that I see repeated every semester:

About once per-class-per-semester I will have a student who apologizes for looking at their phone during class. This is usually because I call on students at random and sometimes they are on their phones, and hence they say, “I am so so sorry…what did you ask?”

I don’t view this apology by the student in the typical way. Rather, I view it as a learning opportunity for the entire class. What happens next is one of the best lessons I teach (at least I think it is).

You see, I first make clear to them that they don’t need to apologize. I let them know that they can in fact look at Instagram/Snapchat/Texts/Facebook/Twitter for the entire class period if they so desire.

I am characteristically sarcastic, “By all means surf the web, connect on facebook, check email, read an article about cats, basically whatever you want!”

The reason I do this is to make sure that they know that I have a policy that encourages them to discover everything about their friends lives and Trumps latest strange comment while trying to learn philosophy…haha:)

Not really, but I do explain the following to the class when I am given the opportunity.

Radical Responsibility

I believe that radical responsibility works every time. Across education, jobs, parenting, pretty much every domain of existence.

Currently, we (out in society) encourage people to be responsible for their family, jobs, health, spirituality, and pretty much everything related to adult life.

However, when it comes to the educational system…we punt it. There is no part of us that wants to see students fail. To be fair, this is one of the virtuous things about most teachers:


This is an admirable goal and one which I share. I do not want to see my students fail. I want to see them major in great things, graduate, have a good career, change the world, etc.

The problem is that this can’t be forced. I finally accepted one day that I cannot force anyone to learn.

Learning has to be on the students agenda…not mine. I am there to teach and if I teach to an empty room or a full room, then I am doing the same thing theoretically. The students are there to learn, and so I view the problem as almost entirely on the student. This does not mean that I don’t use relevant examples, or just go monotone, but I truly believe that learning is a self-initiated thing. It is something that the individual is responsible for and not an external person.

If the point of the education system is for teachers to teach, then it will fail. It has to be centered around students learning, and then we can make some headway.  Some progress. This leads us to the point that:

Students who go through an educational system that coddles them need to be told that “THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR EDUCATION”.


They need to be told this now. I am not sure how else to communicate this fundamental truth, other than to let them know that I can’t force them to learn. Sure, I can take away computers, phones, pagers…lol, etc. But, at the end of the day they can still daydream or draw on a piece of paper, pass notes, or any other number of things that happened before cell phones. I cannot force them to learn and that needs to be understood.


The sooner we teach them this responsibility, the better. It is difficult though in a climate where we (as teachers) constantly think that we can help them learn and absolve them of responsibility. We think that just the right powerpoint will help. That just the right illustration, antidote, group project…and the list goes on.

College is Not a Continuation of High School

This is the point that needs to be made. It seems like we keep delaying this responsibility. We kick the can down the road after high school and are slowly tuning more and more into a continuation of high school. A place to play around for the next 2-4 years. To be fair, it is not education that introduces this lack of responsibility, it is most likely at the parental level that this happens. Nevertheless, we are tending towards continuing this delayed responsibility and sometimes guiding them down this path in education. We need a generation of college and university educators that decide to be the ebb of this tide.


This article seems to be the standard conversation that we are having, but it really needs to change all together. I applaud the author of the article when she makes the point that something like a laptop can distract from the learning environment and a fix can be, “…accomplished by asking students with devices to sit in a particular part of the room, and those who don’t want to be possibly distracted by others to sit elsewhere. I sometimes hear people saying that, given the physical makeup of laptops, they ask students with devices to sit in the back of the room.” I think that the author is saying great things, but at the end of the day we are coddling them too much if we try to have these wildly nuanced policies. they will not get the message of responsibility with nuanced rules.

They have phones now…laptops may be irrelevant. I also might be a bit myopic because I teach at Community Colleges and therefore suffer from having only my own perspective. There is the chance that students at 4 years schools are being radically responsible for their leaning above and beyond the students where I teach. I highly doubt this, but it could be true.

So, my policy will remain that students can do whatever they want to waste classroom time as long as they do not infringe on a peers learning environment. If that happens, then it is the educators job to protect the learning environment.

Other than that…play away and realize that you are wasting your time and not mine.

I truly believe these types of conversation will lead to a sense of radical responsibility among our students.

Any thoughts?

How could we better make students realize that they are responsible for their education?




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: