Patti Bacchus: Ban school phone bans

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      How would you feel about a cellphone ban at your workplace? Maybe there is one. Do you agree with it? I’d be pretty choked if I worked for someone who said I couldn’t bring my phone to work, or use it on my breaks, or to assist with my work, or to check the date or time.

      I’d be frustrated and distracted without the most useful tool I own, and likely a bit anxious. I use my phone for everything, from checking headlines, weather forecasts, as an alarm, a calendar, flashlight, calculator, map, and for looking up words I don’t know or checking facts, and more.

      It’s easy to ban things for groups that have less power than you have, and for as long as I can remember, adults have clamoured to inflict various bans on school kids, because, well... Because they can.

      Which is why I wasn’t surprised at the disappointingly high percentage of people polled by Research Co., a Vancouver polling firm, who supported a provincial ban on cell phones in B.C.’s K-12 classrooms.


      The poll was conducted in early November and asked 800 adults whether they think a ban like the one the Ford government in Ontario recently brought in should be implemented here. Ontario’s ban says students can only use personal mobile devices during instructional time if it's for educational purposes, for health or medical purposes, or for special needs.

      In fact, it’s not really a ban at all; rather, it's pretty much business as usual, with some bureaucratic requirements for schools to upgrade their policies and conduct codes to make sure the wording is similar to government’s. It doesn’t do much at all to change what actually goes on in schools.

      In a media release about its poll, Research Co. says: “In the online survey of a representative provincial sample, 88% of British Columbians think the province should implement a ban on the use of mobile phones during instructional time in K-12 classrooms.”

      Bans are blunt instruments

      Blanket bans have a populist appeal, but that doesn’t mean they’re a good idea. Sure, there are some valid reasons for keeping phones out of classrooms. They can be distracting and can be used to invade other people’s privacy via taking photos and videos. Phone use at school has been linked to anxiety by some, and others are concerned that students use phones to hide behind instead of learning to socialize in unstructured situations.

      I have no doubt students’ phones can be a major pain for teachers to manage, and enforcing existing classroom-use policies is tough enough. An outright ban could be even more difficult to enforce.


      In the olden days, bored kids had to pass notes or dip someone’s ponytail in an inkwell to pass the time. No one thought to ban paper or inkwells, although I recall a lot of other things being banned at schools, including marbles (gambling), Pokemon cards (theft, or something), spaghetti straps (indecency), gum (gross when stuck on the bottom of desks). Anxious or shy kids suffered through unstructured break times, some by hiding their faces in books.

      I got kicked out of Biology 12 because the kid in front of me used to turn around and talk to me when he was bored. Thanks, Tim (he was also kicked out). The teacher ended up inviting me back to class, but I was too annoyed at the injustice to go back and ended up dropping the course, although I found biology interesting. Maybe if Tim had been busy updating his Instagram instead of talking to me, I would have ended up being a surgeon. I jest, sort of.

      Phones are a ubiquitous part of modern life, for better or worse. We love to hate them, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have one. When I travel, I worry more about losing my phone than losing my wallet. I’d be lost without my phone. Literally. Losing my wallet would be a problem, but at least I’d still know what time it was, when my flight was, and how to get back to my hotel.

      In defense of kids taking phones to school

      I’ve been in a lot of classrooms during the past decade, which I doubt is true for the majority of adults. Perhaps even for 88 percent of them. Classrooms aren’t a chaotic scene of kids playing games on phones and uploading embarrassing videos of teachers to Snapchat. In fact, teachers generally have clear rules and expectations regarding phone use in class, and students follow those, to varying degrees, much like any other school rules or expectations.

      Some teachers recognize students are using their phones more constructively than they may have once assumed. “For those against students being on their phones, today I saw one of my students on his phone when he was supposed to be working in a problem. I went to talk to him about being on the phone when he was supposed to be working,” a teacher posted in a series of tweets recently. 


      “When I went up, I noticed that he wasn’t on social media, but rather he was looking at a picture that he took of the whiteboard with the problems on it. Turns out he had a hard time seeing the board. He took pictures of it so that he could zoom in to see the notes. He also kept all his pictures in a folder, like a digital notebook. Our students are more innovative than we are.”

      Yup, phones are useful tools and students use them in ways that might surprise us sometimes. Blanket bans tell students they’re not smart enough to know how to use their phones intelligently, which is a really bad message.

      Bans that only allow students with various designated disabilities to use their phones in class, for however they help support them, risk stigmatizing those students, and miss the fact that many students without recognized disabilities still use their phones for accessibility purposes.

      Skip the 1960s solution to the 2020 problem

      Bans are a simple, blunt solution to a complex, contemporary challenge. Instead, we need is a thoughtful response that ensures students are learning phone use and how to harness technology’s power to their advantage. They will be living their adult lives in tech-rich environments, and trying to shield them from it in school isn’t doing them any favours.

      Teachers are—for the most part—capable of setting boundaries and expectations for phone use in class. Schools may, and probably should, create thoughtful policies around phone use during recess and lunch, particularly at the elementary level.

      If you want to come up with policies that work, include students in the development of school and classroom policies. They’re the experts and the adults might learn something from them.

      The reality is Ontario’s phone ban is really nothing of the sort. It’s a lot of political huffery and puffery that will require boards to comply with some bureaucratic requirements to make sure policies they already have align with the new decree. It’s a waste of time, frankly, in the interest of scoring some dubious political points with the base.

      To heck with what 88 percent of those polled say, let’s not go down that silly road in B.C. Instead, let’s ensure that students and their teachers have the resources needed to learn how to use phones and other technology for their benefits and to minimize and manage their less-desirable effects.

      I’ll hang up now.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.