Cellphones: Alice’s Looking Glass in the 21st century

alice looking glass

I’ve been haunted by the images in the videos taken in the classroom at Spring Valley High  while a police officer, called to the classroom because a student refused to give up a cellphone, is seen violently throwing the student around.  That the student had been recently placed in foster care made the event that more tragic. In one of the videos, one can see the back of the teacher who had supposedly called on the principal when the student refused to put her cellphone away. When the principal could not convince the student to give up her phone, the police officer was called.

The incident made international news on Monday, 26th October, a day after Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence released a study that revealed that 75% of students in Grades 9 – 12 felt either tired, stressed or bored at school.

Did the student who refused to give up her phone feel bored or stressed or was she just feeling lonely?

I had long been aware that students would use their cellphones when they felt bored but it had never occurred to me that they may also do so because they felt lonely. But loneliness was one of the reasons my students gave for why they use cellphones in the classroom when I asked them to respond to a totally unscientific survey I conducted after a classroom discussion about the Spring Valley incident.

Although there are many discussions within education about whether teachers should or should not allow students to use cellphones in the classroom, and despite there being a growing awareness of the connection between emotions and learning, what may be missing is a conversation about connections between students’ emotional experiences in the classroom and what could be called students’ addiction to their phones.

While some students told me that they use their phones to “look up” something or to check spelling or for calculations, many students told me that they use their phones as an escape out of the classroom when they’re feeling bored or lonely. As this student says:

I use my cell because even though it might not be allowed in my class, I get the urge to check it because I always think there might be a message from a friend. But sometimes I guess I’m so used to it, I just automatically assume that I need to use it. Sometimes when there’s nothing to do in class because I’ve done my work or my test, I’ll use it for entertainment or to seem like I’m not just sitting there with nothing to do.

Like when I go to French 10, I don’t really talk to a lot of the grade 10s and so I go on my phone to distract myself or to make it seem like others think I actually have a life. … I can’t live without a social life. I need people to converse with so I can have a better time in class or school itself.

So it appears that, apart from all the features normally advertised, a smartphone can also act like Alice’s Looking glass and transport students out of the classroom into another world, one where they have a social life and are not bored or lonely.

But why can’t classrooms be places from which students do not want to escape? Why can’t they be places of excitement and engagement, the way they look to a 5-year-old on the first day of kindergarten?

What is being revealed about what is happening in  high school classrooms when a police officer is called to discipline a student? Not because she had a gun, not because she was being violent, but simply because she refused to give up her cellphone, her escape route from boredom and loneliness.  

What will it take to create classrooms that students want to run to, not escape from, classrooms that are the entry into a world on the other side of the Looking Glass?