To Ban or Not to Ban … them

Awesomeness Credits:  Bill Ferriter  @plugusin

It seems that every time a School Board decides to ban cell phones, the eyes of the media turn to Surrey. I am honoured by that fact. Often, I am asked to speak on the subject and for the record, I philosophically don’t think banning devices is a long-term answer to the very serious concern about students being distracted in class.  This sometimes results in a bit of backlash from teachers frustrated when devices interfere with teaching and learning. I also think that when I share my views, there is a gentle rolling of the eyes with the thought, “What does this guy know?  … He’s not even in the classroom!”  And you know, these sentiments are correct. I am not an expert. I haven’t been a classroom teacher for some time. But make no mistake, I have had my share of distracted and/or bored students and honestly, I used to resent that. Students should pay attention. Students should be interested in the lesson I worked hard on and so passionately planned. I’d like to think that most of the time, they were. But not always.

I am now in a place where I realize that while ideally, students would attend to and engage in the learning opportunities designed for them, the fact is they don’t. Often, it’s cell b phones, but many other times it’s other issues such as bullying, family or personal issues, a lack of sleep or food, working the late shift the night before, or the burden of having to parent siblings. Other times it might be that there hasn’t been enough invested in developing strong, teacher-student relationships. The point is, as long as fingers are pointed at what STUDENTS should do, it distracts us from the more important question, “What should WE do?”

The whole issue of cell phone use is complicated. When the decision is made to ban something, we are literally saying, “This is bad and we must stop it.” I wouldn’t argue that some individuals find it hard to set personal boundaries and self-regulate. I would lump some adults in as well. I would also add that there are age and screen-time considerations here too.  But I wonder what happens when the ban takes effect. I genuinely wonder…

  • What about the teacher (there are many) who finds an appropriate balance and understanding of when it’s time for technology and when it’s not. You might say I am disconnected, but in my role, I have had the chance to visit hundreds of classrooms. I’ve seen cell phones sitting on desktops while powerful teaching and learning are taking place. I am honoured to work in a district where I can say that, but I know Surrey is not alone. There are great teachers inspiring students everywhere!
  • I wonder about that student who struggles with reading and writing and uses their device as a lifeline to their learning experience and accessibility tools.
  • I wonder what’s going on in the mind of distracted students once a ban takes effect. If nothing else in the school or class changes, are they suddenly engaged?  Are they no longer distracted? What are thinking about now?

I wonder about many things, but mostly I go back to research. What does research tell us? For this, I often lean on John Hattie and his research on “influencers”. He looks at what schools do and what effect size each of these practices has on learning. I am intrigued by the finding that the most powerful influencer is collective teacher efficacy (which again I am not an expert on) but which refers to a group of teacher’s Screen Shot 2019-03-13 at 2.49.50 PM.pngcollective belief that what they do, the teachers themselves, is the single most positive influencer of student learning. This almost seems too obvious. Of course, teachers believe they have an impact on student learning, but then we lean on ‘stories of students’, we influence what we believe and therefore how we act. At a recent Ignite session, colleague and friend Jen Barker shared the research about studies using rats and how subjects were asked to train “smart” rats or “dumb” rats to go through a maze. Of course, we know, that rats are rats. Incredibly, the “smart” rats did better in the maze.  How could this be?

Innocently, we do this every day.  Jen talked about the practice of streaming students into “low”, “middle” and “high” math groups and the thinking that might creep into the teacher teaching the “low” group. What expectations might that teacher have of this group? Or when we throw up our hands and make comments like:

  • Well, if only _________ would attend more regularly!

  • __________ parents need to do more work with her at home!

  • If only this class was less distracted and gave more attention to the lesson, they’d actually learn something!

  • We’re inner-city.

  • She’s at-risk … He’s ELL.

  • Well, they’re (school name here) students.

  • Well, you know the _________ family … what do you expect?

With the exception of the final two comments, I actually think the commonly heard phrases above have some merit. Attendance matters, kids benefit from parental support, paying attention helps, students come with gaps in their abilities, experience, and resilience. But each time a comment like these is made, the research says that it influences our beliefs, which in turn negatively influences our actions, and lowers our expectations of students. Mostly, it erodes the collective belief that what WE do in schools and classrooms has the biggest positive effect on learning.

So, I simply challenge folks contemplating a cell phone ban to consider what will we as professionals will do differently?

Awesomeness credits…again!!!  Bill Ferriter  @plugusin

If 60% of kids with cell phones in hand are already disengaged in school, what effect will the banning of cell phones have?

If school is already irrelevant to some students, what impact will ditching devices have?

I’m not an expert, but I know what I believe and what I’ve seen. The decision to ban cell phones in schools is not an easy one or one arrived at without a great deal of thought, consultation and discussion, but I think the more pressing question for schools everywhere and one we should all focus on whether we are banning devices in classrooms or not,  is how to remain relevant and win back our students.


  1. Thank you for the food for thought. When I watched the CBC news report and saw the initial headline, I thought well of course they need to ban because the students are using it to text, game or cheat. But after watching your interview on the newscast and reading your blog, you have given a thoughtful perspective to the topic and opened up the conversation for positive discussion. Teaching styles that evolve to creatively engage students living in today’s world will guide them into the world of tomorrow prepared with the mental tools they will need to survive and thrive. There will always be challenges in the classroom, overcoming them in thoughtful and positive ways makes a teacher a mentor of life and positive role model.

    • Love this Sarah. I agree that the initial reaction is always to just eliminate what appears to be the problem. And that would probably make things slightly better initially. It’s a heavier lift to look at why students are so distracted. We in schools have control over only so much, but one powerful thing is the type of learning experiences we provide and the types of relationships we foster. Maybe the challenge should be, can we distract students from their devices with awesome learning??? Hope you are well and always great to hear from you!!!

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