A recent report from Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos at the University of Texas at Austin has me questioning my professional decision last year to allow students to bring their cell phones to my classroom.
In Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity (summary, full report), Ward, Duke, Gneezy and Bos argue something that I’ll bet all of us have experienced: When your phone is present, your brain is not because you are constantly wondering what is happening in/on your device. The urge to check your phone — to look for new likes or favorites in social media spaces, to answer the latest email and/or text message that has landed in your inbox, to check your news feeds for the latest celebrity blunder or political disaster or blockbuster trade — can be impossible to resist even when you are determined to attend to the world around you.
Specifically, Ward and her colleagues found that the presence of smartphones — whether they are turned on or turned off — had a negative impact on the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in their study.
Working memory is the ability of an individual to select, maintain, and process information relevant to current tasks and/or goals. Fluid intelligence is the ability of an individual to understand and solve novel problems.
Another finding was that the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in Ward’s study increased consistently as their phones were put in locations that were less visible and accessible. Participants who were asked to put their phones in their pockets or their purses did better on tasks requiring high levels of working memory and fluid intelligence than participants who could see their phones. Participants who were asked to leave their phones in another room, however, did the best on those same tasks.
What’s interesting is that participants could not detect the impact that the presence of their smartphone was having on both their working memory or their fluid intelligence.
When asked, participants in each of the three control groups reported that (1). they weren’t thinking about their phones and that (2). the presence of their phones had no impact on their performance. Evidence from each experiment, though, tells a completely different story. “This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance,” writes Ward and her colleagues, “suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.”
What’s also interesting is that working memory and fluid intelligence were impacted the MOST in participants who reported high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their smartphones.
Stated more simply, the participants who did the worst on the tasks designed to test working memory and fluid intelligence were the ones who reported the highest level of agreements with statements like “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone” and ““Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.”
Ward and her team make a few recommendations and draw a few conclusions at the end of their study. Perhaps most importantly, they note that the only strategy that worked to mitigate the impact that smartphones have on working memory and fluid intelligence was separation from the device. Their testing showed that participants still struggled with working memory and fluid intelligence even when utilizing common mitigation practices like turning devices off, leaving them screen-down on tabletops, or leaving them in pockets or purses.
They also suggest that their research is specific to smartphones only — primarily because of our persistent and complex relationships with our phones. “The role of dependence in determining mere presence effects suggests that similar cognitive costs would not be incurred by the presence of just any product, device, or even phone,” they write. “We submit that few, if any, stimuli are both so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones.”
So what does all of this mean for classroom teachers? Draw your own conclusions, but I’m thinking that the BEST BYOD policy might just be to ban smartphones from our classrooms in most circumstances.
I know. That feels like blasphemy, doesn’t it? Schools have raced to embrace technology at every turn. We know full well that digital tools can make incredible things possible in our classrooms. Students can ask and answer their own questions using digital tools. They can connect to new information and individuals, find partners to think with and learn from, and direct and document their own learning using devices. They are excited about their phones — and we figure we can leverage that excitement to do great things.
Just as importantly, we bear at least SOME responsibility for teaching kids to use their own devices productively, don’t we? If our kids don’t recognize the power sitting in their pockets, backpacks and purses, we are failing them — and we can’t just assume that kids will automatically figure out ways to leverage their phones for learning on their own. That’s the kind of expertise that WE can bring to the table and pass on to our students.
But here’s the thing: We are also failing our students if we don’t help them to recognize how to mitigate the negative impacts that those exact same devices have on our lives.
As educators, we tend to give technology the benefit of the doubt, assuming that more technology is always a good thing. Ward’s study proves that’s not always true — and we owe it to our kids to help them see that sometimes — particularly in spaces where working memory and fluid intelligence are important factors for being successful (read: classrooms), the best plan for maximizing your ability to concentrate and to develop strategies and to find novel solutions is to leave your smartphone in your locker unless it is absolutely necessary for whatever task you are trying to complete.
In the end, that may just be the MOST important lesson that we can teach our kids about their personal devices.
Need some specific recommendations? Try these:
- Revise your BYOD policy. Make sure that it explains that smartphones will be allowed in classrooms only on an as-needed basis.
- Start a conversation about Ward’s research with everyone (parents, students, teachers) in your school community. Emphasize the importance of working memory and fluid intelligence to classroom success. Detail the positive impact that separation from smartphones has on working memory and fluid intelligence — particularly for people who report high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their phones (read: students of darn near any age.)
- Begin recommending to parents interested in providing their children with devices that they invest in Chromebooks and/or tablets instead of smartphones.
- Remind everyone in your school community that technology isn’t ALWAYS additive and encourage everyone to think more deliberately about the costs of the technology used in your classrooms.