Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is the director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax, the founding chair of researchED Canada and a regular commentator on K-12 education.
Banning cellphones from Ontario’s classrooms has sparked a divided response from students, parents and educators. Critics of the Ontario government’s plan were quick to jump on the challenges experienced, to date, in implementing restrictive policies in schools and to extol the benefits teachers see in utilizing mobile devices in their classrooms. Some dismiss the initiative as merely a political stunt by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.
Such claims need to be held up to closer scrutiny.
A cellphone ban during instructional time will decisively address one of the most stubborn issues confronting teachers in today’s classrooms. Dismissing it only serves to ignore the evidence-based research: that students’ fascination and, at times, their obsession with mobile devices is adversely affecting their performance, cognitive capacities, concentration and well-being. And while implementing a school-level ban has been tricky to accomplish, that’s not a good reason for turning a blind eye to the problem.
Cellphone proliferation has affected student behaviour and compounded the very real challenges of class management. Tom Bennett, the author of a 2017 independent report on student behaviour for the British government, identified cellphones as the source of constant “low-level disruption.” Mr. Bennett, the founder of the global researchED movement of teachers demanding evidence-based teaching practice, recently likened the devices to “kryptonite in the classroom,” sapping the time and energy of classroom teachers.
The spread of mobile phones is intimately connected with cyberbullying in and around schools, as well. A pioneering 2012 Nova Scotia study of bullying produced by Dalhousie University’s Wayne MacKay, one of Canada’s leading law professors, highlighted that link and recommended a classroom ban on a trial basis long before such an idea became a hot-button issue.
Ontario is not the first educational jurisdiction to ban cellphones from class and to require students to keep them in their lockers. The 21st-century phenomenon of “phone-addicted children” is what prompted French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer to ban cellphones from schools entirely for children as old as 15 in 2018. School authorities in France saw banning cellphones as a “detox measure” to combat widespread classroom distractions, sharing of pornographic images, and cyberbullying. Similarly restrictive state and district policies have been implemented in the United Kingdom and some American school districts in response to research evidence as well as classroom teacher concerns. But Ontario will not be the last to adopt this.
Removing or reducing classroom distractions associated with widespread, lightly regulated cellphone use can significantly improve student performance. A 2015 U.K. study by London School of Economics researchers Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy found that banning mobile phones produced an improvement in student performance of 6.41 per cent of a standard deviation, with that number rising to 14.23 per cent when looking just at “the most disadvantaged and underachieving pupils.” The net effect, according to the researchers, added up to the equivalent of recouping an extra week of school each academic year.
Cognitive science research also supports taking a stricter approach and limiting students’ exposure to mobile phone technology. A 2017 University of Chicago study found widespread use adversely affected cognitive capacities. Uncontrolled and regular use of mobile devices was linked with “brain drain", and even “the mere presence of these devices” was enough to have an impact. Students taking written notes, on the other hand, recalled more and scored better on assessments.
Changeable and inconsistent Ontario school policies have only compounded the problem. Since the arrival of the Apple iPhone in January, 2007, mobile phones have proliferated among children and teens, necessitating changes in school policies. The Toronto District School Board, the largest in Canada, reacted by introducing a system-wide ban in April, 2007 – only to reverse it four years later. The rise of such usage was aided and abetted by the adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, which formally recognized cellphones as tools for learning. Adopted for reasons of cost-efficiency, BYOD proved to aggravate the “digital divide” of inequities and schools themselves proved unable to curtail the technological tide or properly regulate the use of such devices. And when the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario passed a 2013 resolution proposing that cellphones be “turned-off and stored during school hours” unless authorized for use by a teacher, no actual policy was implemented.
Our most effective teachers, though, have adopted coping strategies and already utilize some form of check-in and check-out system for devices. The Ontario government’s initiative is more about helping to re-establish purposeful, productive classrooms for the majority of teachers as well as those students struggling in our schools.
A provincial policy will provide a clear framework and allow for teachers to plan for the gradual reintroduction of devices for explicit instructional purposes. Provisions also need to be made for special needs students who benefit from assistive technology.
Maintaining a clear focus on learning and good student behaviour deserve to be a higher priority. That’s why Ontario parents overwhelmingly favour restrictions on mobile devices, according to the government’s consultations. Classrooms will simply be better places for learning without the constant and distracting presence of the devices.