The ban, which went into effect on Monday, added students can only use cellphones for educational purposes under an educator’s instructions, for health or medical purposes or for special needs.
“Our government heard clearly from parents and educators about the growing challenge related to distracted students in the classroom. When in class, students should be focused on their studies and not on social media,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement.
Cellphone bans in schools are becoming more common, likely due to the ubiquity of cellphone ownership among school-aged children. According to a recent Canadian survey by the Vanier Institute, 24 per cent of Grade 4 students, 52 per cent of Grade 7 students and 85 per cent of Grade 11 students report owning a phone.
There’s also plenty of data to suggest cellphones can be a distraction during school.
A 2018 study found exam performance was “significantly worse” for students who had a cellphone compared to “no-device” students, and another 2015 paper found “student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases” with a ban on mobile phones.
The case for banning cellphones
As both a parent and a professor, David Chorney has seen the the power of a cellphone firsthand. He works as an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta.
“There’s no doubt it’s a distraction,” he said. “When it’s in a school environment, it’s a negative. It’s not a positive.”
Chorney is currently conducting a survey about cellphone use with Grade 5 students at a local elementary school. He hopes the data will show how cellphone ownership can harm a child’s school experience.
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“I want to get the data from real kids … to share with educational stakeholders, principals, parents and everybody,” he said.
“I have 100 per cent support for all those teachers and school boards who are saying ‘take the phones away from from the kids during the day’ unless [it’s for] pedagogical [reasons],” he said.
For him, the onus is on the parents to make smart decisions about when to give their child a phone and what to teach them about appropriate use.
“Monitor your kids. Put a restriction on time [spent on the phone] during the day. Don’t let [kids] have [cellphones] the in the bedroom,” he said.
Parenting expert Judy Arnall agrees — the classroom and cellphones don’t mix.
“Phones are a distraction. It’s a problem for everyone,” she said. “What we know from brains is that the ability to focus is part of the executive function development of the prefrontal cortex.
Specifically, Arnall worries about the kids with trouble focusing as it is, even without a cellphone on-hand.
“An outright ban helps those kids without stigmatizing them, because everyone is on the same page regarding cellphones,” she said.
She also believes cellphone bans are an efficient way to teach kids “good digital habits.”
“There are times when it’s not appropriate for cellphones, like a funeral or a job interview,” she said. “Kids need to know and be able to handle that fact.”
However, whether the technology should be banned outright is up for debate.
‘Missing the point’
Nancy Walton agrees that cellphones can be distracting, but she’s not sure an outright ban is the right move.
Previously the director of e-learning at Ryerson University in Toronto, Walton is now the director of the school of nursing. She believes banning cellphones could be missing the point.
Referring to the Ontario government’s concerns about student distraction and lack of focus, Walton said “an outright ban doesn’t actually address those problems… In fact, it creates a different set of problems.”
That students struggle to pay attention in school could have more to do with a teaching style that needs updating, in Walton’s view.
“In high schools [and in] lots of places, teachers stand at the front of the room and talk, and that’s been going on for many, many years,” said Walton. “Maybe we need to look … [for] different and innovative ways to engage.”
Walton recommends field trips and group work as effective ways to keep students engaged for long periods of time.
“There’s lots of other learning strategies you can use,” she said. “You’re never going to solve the problem that some students are not going to be engaged. […] Hopefully, you’re capturing everybody at some point for a little bit.”
Walton says cellphones present an opportunity to teach students how to use technology in a “thoughtful, responsible, accountable” way.
“We know that students will do better when you’re engaging them in ‘real life’ kinds of things,” she said. “They’re using their phone in everyday life to solve problems, to see information. One of the things [educators] can do is to teach students how to sort good information from bad, how to be critical.”