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Teaching the Smartphone Generation

8th June 2021

By Alan Dunleavy

Who remembers the Nokia 3310? I got my first phone when I was 12 and it had the Snake game on it, which at the time seemed very cool. Today’s children get their first phone much younger of course, and have the entire internet and app stores at their fingertips, as well as the world of social media. Sadly, for every individual utilising free educational apps, tracking their daily footsteps or jogging route, or looking up vocabulary on translator apps, there are many more watching YouTube and TikTok videos, engaged in mind-numbing and attention-span-crippling activity which is not conductive to their education, health or maturity in any way at all.

As a teacher one must deal with the smartphones in some way, ignoring them isn’t an option. It’s disturbing to me seeing how attached to the phones people are, even adults. I have seen an adult student check Google Translator repeatedly during a spoken activity, instead of thinking of a synonymous term or reformulating the intended sentence with more simple vocabulary, as one should do in such a situation. Google Translate should not be used as a substitute for using your brain!

I read “Empires of the Word” by Nicholas Ostler recently and he describes how the classic verses of the ancient language of Sanskrit were passed on from generation to generation in India by recital and memorisation, in a time before written records and texts were widely used. People were trained to memorise lengthy passages which today can consume entire books. This is the forgotten power of human memory. Written records, and in today’s society, the ability to simply Google search whatever you want, has brought about a great decline in people’s memory, which like a neglected muscle is far below potential in most people today.  We have the same potential memory as people in ancient times, but we seem to be making far less use of it. There are not only intellectual deficiencies associated with the internet and smartphones, but social deficiencies too.

When I started teaching, I would often walk into a class and find the students engaged in chit-chat amongst themselves, in their native language of course. This year, for the first time ever, I got accustomed to walking into a room of silent students, all of them staring down at their phones, engaged in instant messaging with people not actually present in the room. What is that about? This is the type of thing that makes me think that technology may be leading us towards enslavement and not liberation! We are presumably soon to be “terminated”, as soon as the machines realise their creators may not be as smart as they are!

Seriously though, it is disturbing how addicted to the phone today’s average teenager is. The device has pretty much become an extension of one’s body, and I’ll say it again, adults ought to look in the mirror on this issue as well. I’m very old-school and like to turn off my WiFi for periods of time when trying to study, prepare lessons or correct exams at home. I prefer not being distracted by updates, news, or instant messages. Those who keep their phones online at all times are definitely not achieving anything close to their potential level of productivity or quality of work.

Not only are phones a constant distraction and breaker of one’s focus, but they also serve to shorten the attention-span. I am convinced that my teenage groups today have lower attention spans than the  teenagers I had even five years ago.

The French have taken an admirable approach to this problem. President Macron recently implemented the “smartphone ban” and as a result schools in France now often have a “no phones” policy, with students obliged to leave their phones at the door and pick them up after finishing their lessons, rather than having them on their person during the day. The French are ironically now leading a counter-revolution of sorts, pushing back proactively against the tide of technology. Perhaps ESL classrooms should consider pursuing a similar policy? I think every school dedicated to ESL should seriously consider this idea, however there is an alternative.

The French law allows some discretion for the schools, and some have taken an independent and innovative approach, one which I think ESL teachers should take note of as well. The alternative to the “smartphone ban” is to actually incorporate the phone into your lessons, hence allowing students to keep their beloved phones in-hand, while ensuring they are used productively and not frivolously. This makes a lot of sense, because even if you adopt a “smartphone ban” as in French schools, you are still dealing with students who most likely have a shorter attention span than they ought to and who respond habitually to moving images and clicking buttons. I am open-minded to both ideas and each has merit. Those who prefer to keep things conventional will naturally find the French approach appealing, whereas those who like technology and enjoy experimenting with it in their classrooms may like the alternative approach.

There are lots of online resources for ESL teachers nowadays, and perhaps the most well-known is Kahoot, a game which utilises smartphone technology and allows students to answer multiple choice questions with their phone, and compete in real-time with their fellow students to get a place on the winner’s podium at the end. It’s a lot of fun and public schools across Europe are using it to liven up lessons. Teachers can create a profile and prepare their own Kahoots, which allows you to tailor the Kahoot quiz to the content of your lessons, making the game relevant to your curriculum rather than merely being a fun distraction. Kahoot can be a great way to review material covered in preceeding lessons.

Another thing you can do is create a Kahoot about yourself or where you come from to use as a first lesson activity, helping to “break the ice” with new students, although a more traditional PowerPoint presentation could serve this function as well. PowerPoint has really come into it’s own this year, as more of the lessons have been online, and when students are at home with the phone in their hand and the computer screen in front of them, it is essential to give them something to look at in order to hold their attention.

If teachers search for and experiment with online resources they may find numerous new ways to supplement a lesson, review material already-covered, or even teach in an entirely new way. ISL Collective is also something of a phenomenon, as it allows teachers from all over the world to contribute resources of their own creation, which are then made available for free download to other  teachers. Used selectively, ISL resources can be fantastic additions to a lesson, and can save you time on your lesson preparation. Why make a brand-new PowerPoint when there may be one on ISL available already covering the exact same material? I personally like to make PowerPoints and think it would be bad form to just lift all my resources from the internet, but this is something that can be done on occasion, and again, it’s about being selective. If the quality is good enough, then it can be justified. You can also chop and change at your own discretion, preserving the structure while making amendments here and there, or simply use ISL to get ideas, and then create your own imitations in a more original and personalised way.

Whether it’s a PowerPoint presentation, a game of Kahoot, or something else entirely, using the internet and visual or interactive software is worth considering as a component of your lessons. It appeals to the students who are today all computer-literate, and like to see things moving on a screen. It may be outside of a teacher’s comfort zone, or it may feel like an unnecessary expense of lesson preparation time, but the fact is that students respond to these resources very positively. It allows you to teach them as they like to be taught. It is a strategy of “go with the flow” rather than “counter-revolution.”

ESL academies ought to embrace technology as a means of making lessons more fun, engaging and appealing to today’s Young Learners and teenagers. It’s a matter of using what works. Whether public schools allow phones in the classroom or not is a separate issue. Bear in mind that the number of students in a public school classroom tends to be much higher than that of an ESL classroom. I’ve taught public school classes which had almost 40 pupils in attendance! Under such circumstances, one can appreciate the value of a smartphone ban, as it is not humanly possible to monitor such a large number of students and ensure nobody is sending a text message or using their phone under the table. I think Macron’s policy therefore makes a lot of sense in the context of the public school, however in the context of a private ESL academy, where class-sizes are much smaller, the same idea may not apply. If you have less than ten people in the class then it is easy to monitor them all, although the higher the number of students, the more challenging this becomes.

A final point I’d like to make about teaching young students is the cultural and generational gap which exists between teachers and students. There are two options here. One is to share your culture with the class. This can allow them to learn more about you and get a better sense of your identity and cultural background, which students often appreciate. Especially in September, when you are teaching new students, this is a great way to build a connection and win over your new class. I come from Ireland, and I like to show students the Johnny Logan Eurovision-winning songs on YouTube for example. This is great because everyone knows about the Eurovision and song contests are very popular on TV nowadays. I always inform my students that Ireland holds the record for the most Eurovision victories, but also that I unfortunately can not sing to save my life!

Another strategy is to find out what your students like and then incorporate this into future lessons. I asked a group of teenagers this year what sports they play and was shocked to find out that not a single one of them played football! That made my “Manchester United Treble-winning season of 1999”  PowerPoint presentation seem totally redundant so I never showed it to that class. I found out however that a couple of the pupils in that class were into MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and hence  designed a new lesson with some interview footage included of a well-known MMA fighter who comes from Ireland (no prizes for guessing who!) and the students enjoyed it. This touches on a key point that teachers should be aware of, that of teaching for your students and not for yourself. Sharing things you find interesting tends to be hit-and-miss. I once tried sharing the lyrics of The Pogues iconic single “Fairytale of New York” with a class but sadly, it was completely lost on them. The most sure-fire way to win is to find out what they like and use it again and again. If that means using content related to the video game “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” or the music of Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, then go for it. It doesn’t matter if you like this stuff or not, if you can find a way to teach the class English while using the culture they are interested in, you’ll succeed.

To sum up, I think that 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. Kids and teenagers today are not the same as they were as few as five years ago, let alone ten or fifteen. An effective teacher must be flexible and willing to adapt, in order to connect with the students and win them over. I have a relatively conservative personality and it took me a long time to realise this, as I love reading texts and I am also a total grammar-geek. But sadly that stuff just doesn’t appeal to most students, and hence it doesn’t do the job. To do your job well, you have to be able to create engaging and fun lessons, and although that might not sit right with a relatively strict and old-fashioned teacher, it is what works and what not only makes you more popular, but also what produces results, as it is ensures that the students pay more attention, stay engaged, and want to work with you. Embracing technology is thus the only way forward, and to reject technology in the ESL classroom is unfortunately an act of swimming against the tide.

I hope this helps fellow teachers, especially those who feel a disconnection with modern culture and younger students. I would also like to encourage comments and criticism, as I am always open to advice and feedback. In particular, what would be great would be recommendations of websites or apps to try out in the ESL classroom!

Alan Dunleavy

Alan is from Dublin, Ireland and has been teaching English since 2016 in Poland, Spain and The Czech Republic.

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