EDITORIAL NOTE: This article was first published on May 11, 2011. While some of the contents may be dated, the over-all context of the piece remains valid. In advance of the beginning of another school year, the decision was made to run it again.
Earlier today, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) – the largest school board in Canada decided to rescind a 4 year old ban that prohibited cell phones and other personal electronic devices from classrooms and hallways at all of its schools. The ban will be removed as of September and will instead, place the responsibility of deciding what is considered approrpriate and what is inappropriate use of these devices to individual teachers.
Let me tell you why I think this decision to rescind the ban is wrong.
Without question, the world that we live in today is substantially different than that of even one generation earlier. My children always glaze over and look at me with disbelief when I tell them about how computers were very basic and just entering our schools when I was a kid. They are stunned to hear that the internet wasn’t even created until I had earned my Bachelor’s Degree and that e-mail, cell phones, laptops and many other personal electronic creature comforts simply didn’t exist when I was in school. I learned to type on something called a typewriter, which apparently is now only viewable to kids while on display at museums. I get and fully understand that personal technology has made tremendous advances and the way we conduct our lives is fundamentally different because of it.
What I also understand is these same technological advancements carry with them a double edged sword. The pros and cons of technology is a subject we could write volumes about, but for the purpose of this post I’m simply going to focus on the pros and cons of technology and schools. When I went to high school in the 1980′s we had Walkman’s and other personal cassette players. We played music and listened to them with headphones. They were a form of entertainment for the most part for all we could do with them was play music. Nowadays kids play music on little I-Pods and MP3 players that store hundreds of songs on them. They can also store music on personal smart phones and cell phones which every teenager now seems to carry around. With the advent of text messaging these phones have become so much more than phones. They are modes of communication which can be utilized at any given moment and Canadians for example have gone nuts about texting.
Yesterday I saw a news story that showed how in 2010 Canadians sent 56.4 Billion text messages. Its equivalent to 154.5 million texts per day and its a number that is up an incredible 60% when compared to 2009. A big surge in this number comes from our youth. Teens for example seem to have adopted texting as the de facto way to communicate with their peers. Given that one doesn’t have to speak or be heard to send a text message, the ability to send these messages regardless of where they are is certainly one of its big draws to youth. 4 years ago the TDSB implemented a ban on cellphones and other personal electronic devices because they saw an increase in the amount of texting taking place during class time. It was meant to minimize distractions and to keep the students attentions focused on the teacher and the lessons being learned.
Those who have argued against the ban and in favour of its removal claim that we live in a different world where cell phones serve many purposes and to prohibit them from even being in the halls and classrooms is unfair. I was advised by someone that this also included things like laptops and tablets which could be used during study periods but were lumped in with cell phones and banned as well. I responded to him that while I can see how the banning of laptops and tablets may not be right, the ban on cell phones should still be in place. The right thing for the Board to have done would have been to amend the ban instead of removing it completely to allow for laptops and tablets but still restrict cell phones.
A classroom is a place of learning. Learning happens best when attention is focused on the lesson at hand and not when partially on the lesson and partially on reading what everyone is doing after class. To make the rules now subjective and at the discretion of the teachers now creates a situation where anyone who wants to keep the ban in place will eventually succumb to the tide initiated by those who are either not willing to or not prepared to tell their students to keep phones off.
Some parents argue that they need to be able to communicate with their children at all times in case of an emergency. Well, when I went to school if my Mom needed to reach me, she called the school office and the office called my teacher. The funny thing is that this still works today and is just as effective as it was back then. In fact I would argue that a parent who feels compelled to text their child while the child is in class, is doing their child a dis-service unless there is absolutely something of critical importance to share for it causes them to not pay attention to the lesson and to pay attention instead to them.
If a school is a place designed to prepare our kids for adult and professional life, then allowing cellphones to be on in class contracdicts many professional business practices currently in place. I have attended many business networking events or seminars and the rules of courtesy always state that cellphones should be turned off. In fact many organizations have begun instituting penalties, such as $10 – paid directly to charity for anyone caught using their phones or taking a call during an event. Focusing on the presenter or the event and not on your texts, e-mails or BBM’s is a matter of courtesy and very few people wind up being fined because they understand that there is a time and a place for everything.
In our society we tend to easily get confused between what is a right and what is a privilege. Access to food and clean water is a right. Access to cell phones is a privilege and there must be a clear distinction between the two. Cell phones DO NOT belong in classrooms and I hope that other school boards across the country WILL NOT follow the lead established by the myopic and misguided decision of the Toronto District School Board.