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 question of why students are 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 pay complete attention to teachers and engage fully in the carefully crafted lessons, they don’t. That’s a fact. Often, it’s cell phones, but many other times it’s bullying, family or personal issues, not getting enough sleep, working the late shift the night before, the burden of having to parent siblings, or not having food at home. Sometimes 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 with some individuals, setting personal boundaries and self-regulating is very difficult. 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 that teacher (and 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.
- I wonder what’s going on in the mind of students who might have been distracted by their device before. If nothing else in the school or class changes, are they suddenly engaged? Are they no longer distracted? I wonder what they are thinking about now?
— Antonio Vendramin (@Vendram1n) January 24, 2019
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 collective 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!
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 are true. 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 then detrimentally 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 banning cell phones to consider, if we get rid of cell phones, what will we as professionals do differently?
If 60% of kids with cell phones in hands 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 to how to win back our students.