Why banning cellphones at school is a bad idea

The first text message may have been sent in 1992, but my friends and I were texting each other way back in 1984. We were not genius child prodigies who invented some futuristic texting device, on the contrary, we used plain old pen and paper to send hand-written text messages, complete with emojis, to each other.

We did this to pass the time during Geography lessons. Our teacher, who was famous for his monotonous monologues, was unbearably boring and we desperately needed to find some way to endure his lessons.

We needed a distraction, and so we started texting each other. Looking back, I know we should have paid attention in class, but kids are kids.

Fast forward nearly four decades and little has changed. Kids need to be constantly engaged and entertained, or they will be easily distracted, or “zone out”.

On the other hand, find something that really draws them in, then it is extremely difficult to pull them away from it. Ask any parent whose kids play video games.

For me, this is what lies at the heart of the debate around whether or not cell phones should be banned at schools. Arguably, the biggest motivator in the case against cellphones is that they are a distraction in the classroom, leading to poor test results. Learners are unable to concentrate in class, and teachers are unable to do their work over the buzzing and chirping of devices all over the place. Learners tend to focus more on texting and posting to social media than on their teachers. Obviously, this is a cause for concern among teachers, many of whom have called for a total ban on mobile phones.

This is a polarising topic, with heated debates taking place on a number of levels: education departments, school authorities and parents all weigh in on the topic. A growing number of schools are succumbing to the pressures and implementing complete or partial bans. France has implemented a national ban on cellphones at schools.

What added fuel to this debate, was a 2015 research paper, by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy, titled Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance, which showed that schools that banned cellphones saw an average of a 6.4% increase in standardised test results for kids aged 16.

The study, which was conducted in four cities in England, found that lower-performing learners benefited most from the ban, as they showed a much higher improvement in test results than their high-performing classmates. This led to the overall conclusion by the researchers that banning cell phones at schools “could be a low-cost way for schools to reduce educational inequality.”

The anti-cellphone lobbyists naturally jumped on this research, citing it as evidence that cellphones should be banned, but in doing so they totally ignored an important point that the researchers made in the conclusion to the paper: “However, these findings do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured.” In other words, cellphones are not the problem, but the way we use them is.

This view is echoed by Dr Craig Blewett, a senior lecturer at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, and founder of Activated Academy, a start-up dedicated to teaching teachers how to effectively use technology in the classroom.

“It’s not the phones that are the problem or the solution,” according to Dr Blewett, “but how we teach with the technology. Applying a correct approach can radically transform our students’ learning experience.

“Students, whether at university or school, consume content, create content and communicate with their phones. Ignoring this, or worse banning it, does not help our cause. Rather, the cellphone opens up exciting opportunities for engaging our students in meaningful learning.“

Dr Blewett has experienced this repeatedly in his line of work. Recently, a fellow university lecturer, who was experiencing high absentee rates in her lectures, took his advice to use cell phones as a teaching aid. The outcome was totally unexpected.

“It was incredibly insane. They all showed up. There were people sitting on the floor. In front. I couldn’t believe it.”

This episode proves, more than anything, that students are eager to learn, but are looking for a fresh new approach to education, one that takes into consideration their learning needs and preferences. I find it very strange that, in the midst of the heated discussions, no-one has actually bothered to ask students what they felt. If we fail to focus on them and cater to their needs, then we might just be missing a golden opportunity to educate them on things that really matter, in ways that they can actually relate to.

Kids will always be kids. Take away their cellphones, and they will find other ways to distract themselves, even if it means resorting to plain-old pen-and-paper texting. We should, instead, solve the real problems by asking ourselves why they are so distracted in class.

Next week I will discuss some amazing examples of individuals who are making a huge impact by incorporating cellphones and other technology in education.

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