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.
“The cellphone restrictions coming into force on Monday is another step forward in providing a focused and academically-enriched learning environment for our students.”
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.
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.
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.
“Kids are all over the map in their ability to focus … they have varying degrees of focus.”
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.
“One of the challenges I have as an educator is to be more interesting than [Instagram] or … whatever it is.”
Walton recommends field trips and group work as effective ways to keep students engaged for long periods of time.
Walton says cellphones present an opportunity to teach students how to use technology in a “thoughtful, responsible, accountable” way.
“If you’re not integrating the technology into what you’re [teaching], it’s unrealistic.”
— With files from Travis Dhanraj