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Two Nelson teachers welcome B.C.’s plan to restrict phones in classrooms

Premier David Eby says changes come into effect in September
For the past several years, students in the classrooms of L.V. Rogers teachers Kari Kroker (left) and Angie McTague have been required to put their phones in this “cell hotel” for the duration of their class. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Kari Kroker and Angie McTague are convinced the mere presence of a phone at a student’s desk interferes with learning.

The veteran teachers at L.V. Rogers Secondary in Nelson are happy to see the province wants to restrict phones in classrooms, but they are also worried about it.

Will the enforcement of the new guideline fall to teachers, who are already too busy to take on the time-consuming job of policing phones? They want to see a school-wide restriction that is initiated and enforced by the administration and the school board.

McTague and Kroker, who teach Grade 11 and 12 Science and English respectively, have been banning phones from their classrooms for years. On entering the classroom students are required to put their phones in the “cell hotel,” a small cabinet at the front of the classroom, until the end of the period.

Their students are used to it, after some initial growing pains, and parent satisfaction with this system is very high, they say.

“It’s just a routine now (for the students),” says McTague. “It’s not a big deal.”

The provincial government plans to restrict the use of phones in B.C. classrooms starting in September. However, the announcement does not define what “restrict” means, other than to say they will require school boards to set policy on this.

“It (phone use) is hard on the classroom environment,” Premier David Eby said at a news conference on Jan. 26. “In addition to the unregulated content that kids can have access to at school, it disrupts the flow of the classroom. It interrupts the kids while they are learning.”

Kroker agrees the presence of phones hijack not only the attention of individual students, but that of the class as a whole, including the teacher.

“How many hours do teachers waste telling kids to put their phones away? It’s ridiculous.”

She says in academic classes, students need time to think and problem-solve.

“It’s a slow, concentrated process. If your phone is even buzzing or vibrating, or even if it’s just there, your mind goes to it. And you need to be released from that.”

Asked by the Nelson Star what guidelines the province will give school boards, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education and Child Care said in an email, “The province will be engaging with school districts and K-12 education partners throughout B.C. to learn what additional implementation considerations and supports may be needed by schools to address student cell phone use at school.”

The Nelson Star reached out to two local principals and was referred to School District 8 administration for comment.

Superintendent Trish Smillie responded in an email, “SD8 looks forward to aligning ourselves with the provincial direction and we await further information from the Ministry of Education and Child Care. Right now, it is too early to know what these measures may look like in each school.”

Carla Wilson, the president of the Nelson and District Teachers’ Association, says there is no question that phones in classrooms are disruptive, and many students are addicted to them.

“When they should be focusing on lessons and learning,” she says, “they’re scrolling, or they’re trying to listen to their music, or other things. When I taught high school, I talked to kids about it, and they were actually really honest. A lot of them said they realize they spend too much time on their phone and they knew it was better when when they weren’t on their phones.”

A worldwide trend

Eby’s announcement comes as more and more school systems worldwide restrict phones in classrooms.

A 500-page report on educational technology across the world, published by last year by UNESCO, the United Nations’ education, science and culture agency, calls for a global ban on phones in classrooms.

“Only technology that has a clear role in supporting learning should be allowed in school,” the report states, citing evidence that classroom phone use reduces academic performance and negatively affects children’s mental health.

The report says that one in four countries worldwide has instituted partial or full phone bans in classrooms.

A spokesperson for B.C.’s education ministry told the Nelson Star that prior to the announcement the province also relied on evidence from the American Psychological Association and the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy.

Since 2019 Ontario has banned phones from classrooms unless allowed by individual teachers. Quebec only recently banned phones from classrooms as of Jan. 1.

Kroker and McTague say there is no research to show that phones enhance learning in a classroom. They say there are some theories that phones can bolster learning because of their potential as a research tool, but for that purpose kids need computers, not a device that constantly diverts attention.

In the early days of smartphones, school administrators and boards thought allowing phones in classrooms would embrace technology in an innovative way.

“The language of the day was all about how this was going revolutionize education,” McTague says. “Bringing their own device will give them access to all the tools.”

When Kroker and McTague questioned this and began banning phones in their classrooms, they were considered to be old-fashioned and anti-technology.

“Our school district did not support us, and our (then-) principal didn’t,” Kroker says. “But we did it anyway because we knew it was the right thing.”

They are pleased that this new provincial initiative might improve the learning environment for students, but hope the responsibility for carrying out the policy will not be downloaded to teachers. They argue there should be school-wide expectations, led by the administration.

Wilson agrees the school board and administrations need to provide support for teachers, and not expect them to carry the load.

“If you leave it up to teachers, what ends up happening is you always have a fight with the students,” Wilson says, “because they always say, well, so-and-so (another teacher) doesn’t mind if I listen to my music.”

Wilson says she hopes the government’s initiative “is more than just lip service.”

There will need to be detailed conversations, she says, between Nelson and area teachers, parents, and the school district well before September when the initiative will be implemented.

Restricting phone use in classrooms is only one of three goals of the new initiative announced by Eby.

He also announced the province will sue social media companies because of what he called “addictive and toxic algorithms,” and that B.C. will begin an initiative to remove explicit images and to pursue online predators. The province has still to release details on those plans.


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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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