More Canadian schools to say no to smartphones –

Whether a distraction or an addiction, devices will continue to be banned from classrooms

(Illustration by Anna Minzhulina)

Sachin Maharaj is an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy and program evaluation at the University of Ottawa.

I began teaching law, history, business and politics at a Toronto high school in 2007, just after the Toronto District School Board instituted its first ban on cell phones in classrooms. Back then, law enforcement amounted to telling one or two students to put away their devices. As the years went by and smartphones became ubiquitous, half the class had their phones off at any given time. My colleagues and I spent most of class time in emotionally draining negotiations with students. Parents, who wanted to be in contact with their children throughout the day, were another important source of resistance.

In 2011, the TDSB had revoked its ban, partly because of backlash and partly because of a shift toward 21st century learning, an educational philosophy that incorporates technologies like laptops and iPhones into the classroom rather than fighting against them. Around that time, I took a leave of absence to pursue my master’s degree and PhD. in educational leadership and policy. I began writing opinion essays for media outlets about the detrimental effects of phones on concentration, the first of which explained why the repeal of the TDSB was a mistake.

My position in favor of prohibition has not changed and the evidence supporting it has only increased. Half of Canadian children aged seven to 11 now have their own mobile device, a statistic that rises to 87 per cent for children aged 12 to 17. Research broadly shows that when phones are allowed in class, children learn less and perform worse. . We can clearly see the impact of smartphones on socialization: students now spend their breaks looking at their phones instead of at others. Violent incidents in schools are posted and broadcast online for all to see. Right now, many provinces are also experiencing teacher shortages caused by difficult working conditions, which disputes over smartphones are only exacerbating.

As long as phones are out of sight during lessons, I don’t know how it’s achieved. There are few studies on the effects of different types of mobile phone restrictions, but they should always be adapted to the social and political contexts of each school. Many boards allow phones on school property, but they must be kept in lockers. In other cases, such as Corner Brook Middle School and O’Donel High School in Newfoundland, schools have experimented with using bags in class, where students leave their phones and pick them up at the end of the lesson. The advantage of unevenly executed constraints is that we will be able to monitor which ones seem to work best.

I believe we will see more such bans in 2024. Last year, after a major UNESCO report revealed a lack of evidence that smartphones have improved student learning, the province of Quebec announced its intention to ban cell phones in all public school classrooms “as soon as possible.” (The approximate deadline was the end of 2023.) Francophone schools in Manitoba have banned children from kindergarten to grade eight from bringing phones to school, and high school students now have to put their devices away during school hours, with the exception of lunch. I’ve spoken to educators in the Maritimes who are waiting to see how the bans are implemented in larger jurisdictions before enacting their own, but the interest is there.

In theory, the Ontario government has banned phones in classrooms since 2019, unless permitted by the teacher or used for pedagogical purposes. In practice, children still use their phones all the time. This is what happens when law enforcement is left in the hands of individual instructors. Before implementing restrictions, provinces should consult with parents, teachers and other educators to determine the best course of action in each school district. (Involving parents early in the conversation also increases the likelihood of later acceptance.) Stakeholders outside the world of education also have a role to play. For example, a newly formed Canadian grant-making foundation called Waltons Trust is convening policy experts and educational leaders who advocate for getting children away from screens and toward nature.

The prevailing attitude in education used to be that anyone who criticized technology in the classroom was a dinosaur and that we should simply teach students to use phones responsibly. The problem, as we now know, is that phones are not designed for that. Last October, dozens of US states sued Meta, alleging that apps like Instagram are harming children’s mental health. After spending so many months forcing students to learn through a screen during the pandemic, more teachers seem to be excited about experiential learning (learning by doing), which, to me, is a very good thing.

Despite all my work, I often think about cell phone restrictions from a parent’s perspective. My oldest daughter is now in sixth grade and, unlike many of her classmates, she does not have a smartphone. She’s definitely a source of tension between us, but she encourages her to spend time with friends (and her three brothers). I hope the school bans make other parents reconsider smartphones at home, too.

This article is part of Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything coming up next year. You can buy the printed version. right here.

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