By Medicine Hat News Opinon on September 13, 2018.
With students back in class, educators, parents and politicians are talking about cellphones. Again.
Along with sex education, “discovery” math and seemingly everything else going on in Ontario classrooms, Premier Doug Ford wants parents to weigh in on cellphone use in school. His Progressive Conservative party campaigned on a promise to bring in an outright ban to “maximize learning time.”
France is going in a similar direction. When millions of French elementary and middle-school students returned to class this week, they were forbidden from using their phones in the classroom or even during breaks.
Among the legitimate questions: how do we respond to claims that technology is rewiring children’s brains by disrupting their ability to focus? Or that mobile phones are increasingly being used as pacifiers for screaming toddlers and stand-ins for human connection? Or that reputable research shows high school exam results improve when cellphones are barred from the classroom?
There’s no question kids seem to be addicted to the ubiquitous devices that give them unlimited access to games, social media and texting, but also to cyberbullying and sexting. And we all know how distracting phones can be. But we also need to acknowledge that this technology has become an integral part of our lives and that classrooms are a good place for students to learn how to use them responsibly.
Schools are trying all sorts of innovative measures to manage cellphone use. In one Kitchener, Ont., high school classroom, students must put their phones in locked pouches before they can bring them to their desks, according to a recent report Globe and Mail report.
It turns out that the cases, which can be opened only by the teacher, have had a positive impact. During semesters when the pouches were used, class averages were 8 percentage points higher and students “got more done,” according to the teacher.
A 2015 London School of Economics study is compelling. It found academic performance improved significantly when high schools banned cell phone use in class, particularly for under-achievers. Overall exam scores improved by 6 per cent, but jumped by an impressive 14 per cent among the most disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the ban had no impact on the best-performing students.
Based on the British research, policy makers may see cellphone bans as a low-cost way to close the student education achievement gap. But even this powerful study acknowledges that smartphones can be a useful learning tool — if they’re used properly.
Until 2009, most Ontario school boards had bans on cellphones in class. Since then, boards have taken a variety of positions to keep pace with increased demand for technology-based learning. The Toronto District School Board, for example, dropped its blanket ban on phones in classrooms in 2011. Ford’s suggestion simply to ban them outright, as France has done, would be a pointless step backwards — not to mention almost impossible to enforce.
With WiFi in schools, cellphones give students instant access to the internet where they can search for information, collaborate through shared documents and communicate with each other and their teacher. Studies show students use smartphone cameras to take photos of teacher notes, rely on calendar apps to stay organized, and on alarms to keep them on time and mindful of homework assignments.
Indeed, without cellphones school boards would hard-pressed to supply the necessary technology for today’s modern learning environments. So let’s not take useful learning tools out of the hands of educators.
Ideally, schools, in partnership with parents, should set parameters for cellphone use in the classroom. There likely isn’t much support to use them in the primary grades, from kindergarten to Grades 5 or 6, where a majority of students still don’t have their own phones. But starting in middle school, when every kid seems to have one, reasonable rules need to be set.
Teachers, who know their students best, should have the last word. They should be permitted to use whatever strategies they feel are necessary to create the optimal learning environment for their class, including bans if the devices prove too distracting. And when students are sanctioned for cellphone misuse, parents need to back up the teachers.
Smartphones are powerful technology that we have put in the hands of our children. We have a responsibility to teach them how to use it wisely. Schools need to play their part.
— Toronto Star
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