The Ontario government, under the leadership of its premier Doug Ford (a badly cloned Donald Trump), has announced it will ban cellphone use during ‘instructional time’ in its schools from September. The aim is to help students to focus when studying. This announcement was received with a big cheers from most people over 60, including the Globe and Mail’s editorial board. I also have to admit to sadness when I go to a restaurant and see couples on a date ignoring each other while scrolling through their mobile phones while waiting for their food (last week 10 out of 12 couples were doing this in my local restaurant.)

Well, if it’s good enough for schools and people on dates, why not for universities and colleges? Don’t students have to focus there as well? Indeed, I am sure many instructors already discourage if not actually ban the use of mobile devices in their classes. 

But I’m one old guy who thinks that this is entirely the wrong approach. 

First it reminds me of compulsory school uniform when I was a lad. My teachers spent more time enforcing the school’s dress code than they did teaching me mathematics (and I spent more time trying not to wear my school cap than doing my homework). If kids are anything like me when I was their age, they will do everything in their power to get round the ban. (However, I did support my wife who as a teacher banned all Walt Disney paraphernalia and wearing baseball caps in class).

More seriously, a ban on mobile phones is an attempt to deny the reality of living in 2019. We should be educating our students in the appropriate use of everyday technology for learning and social purposes, not trying to deny the existence of the technology. I can’t better the reasoning of another Globe and Mail contributor, Jamie Mitchell, who argues that banning cell phones is not the answer to getting students to ‘focus’

He’s not the controller of knowledge any more but a facilitator of learning. This means encouraging students to use their technological devices to find, analyse, evaluate and apply their knowledge. This means giving them engaging tasks in class time that require the use of their phones. Sure they will use it to text other students but then that can be also used for group work and social learning. In particular, mobile phones can be used to support the learning of higher level skills, such as problem solving and critical thinking.

But this means providing criteria and procedures for students that enable their learning.- and also learning when they need to put their phones down and switch off. These are skills and knowledge that are essential for life in today’s society and it is irresponsible for the education system to ignore such needs, any more than banning sex education will stop unwanted pregnancies – quite the contrary.

If schools are not enabling students to manage and use technology appropriately for learning purposes, the pressure on colleges and universities to do this, especially in Ontario, will become even greater, if we are to develop the core knowledge and skills that  young adults will need in today’s society.

So, everyone, open up your mobile and find the explanation for e=mc². Then tell me in what circumstances it would be useful to know this equation. (No, Sophie, not to get you admitted into USC).



  1. “If implemented effectively – and that can be done if schools, with the help of parents, are strict enough about it – a generation of children will discover that smartphones have their time and place in a healthy life, but that they also have downsides and should be used sparingly.”

    Proclaiming the initiative as a ban on cellphones in the classroom would seem to be the antithesis of a policy to help children discover that cellphones have a place in a healthy life.

    And referring to the reports of the approach of Steve Jobs is cherry-picking resplendent. Mr. Jobs had his amazing qualities; he also had his awful qualities and lapses in judgment, like selecting quackery to treat his cancer over scientific medicine.

    As it turns out, the ban is far from ironclad: it permits educators to allow the use of cellphones for educational purposes. So I too hope that great use in this vein will show the Globe and Mail that its views were in fact neo-Luddite after all.

  2. I loved your article and I agree with you on many points.

    A mobile phone can be many things. It can be the best library in the world but it can also distract the kids if they are just using it for chatting in the class (a modern version of the small papers we used to pass).

    A study on the Ipad in school done here in Quebec by Thiery Kersenti revealed that it was sometimes unsettling for teachers to see a whole class burst into laughter with no apparent reason. A joke was posted on facebook.

    I think that the main culprit in the case of the ban are the messaging apps. I do not think any teacher would have complained about their students spending too much time on Wikipedia.

    I agree with you that there is room for improvement to create more engaging digital learning activities so that students are less on their messaging apps. At the same time, the choice of a technology, the content development and the implementation falls often on the sole teacher’s shoulders. All of this on top of their regular job.

    I feel like the school system is approaching a turning point. The way the question of the cell phone ban is addressed tells us a lot on the lack of vision of our leaders.

    If a quarter of the predictions we hear on how artificial intelligence are true, it will impact why and what we teach. There is a great redesign ahead.

  3. This has been a problem in my ESP lessons in a large company in the Middle East. The guys I teach are constantly on their phones. It’s really difficult to get their attention. I have to really be patient repeating instructions and regaining attention. I recently put up some signs saying that they had to try and limit their mobile phone use as there is no way I could ban them entirely (I wouldn’t want to go that far). The guys say that they need their phones for work calls which is partly true but most of the time they are on social media.

    I guess it’s a sign of the times and we need to make more effort to teach media literacy.

  4. I wonder why nobody addresses the topic of cellphone addiction in teens. Cognitive neuroscience shows that the excessive use of social media is causing addiction by the release of dopamine hormones in the developing brains of kids and teens. Can you tell an alcoholic to drink responsibly?

  5. The whole article makes sense but screams ‘ I have never taught high school ‘ . As a longtime secondary teacher I can attest to the fact that 95 % of digital use at their age focuses on what Kim Kardashian is wearing this week – good luck in getting them concentrating on the math equations being taught. A successful high school class needs an army-style discipline – sure we will use technology – appropriately and at the right time. Experience counts.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here