Smartphones in schools: a distraction or an enhancement?

Smartphones in schools: a distraction or an enhancement?

Parents and educators face a new challenge in today’s schools: the pervasiveness of smartphones, tablets and other digital devices. Are they disruptive to student learning or an enhancement? Do they increase student safety or provide a new weapon for bullies?

The debate is heating up because a growing number of children have access to digital devices and take them to school. According to a 2014 study of Canadian students, more than 25 percent of Grade 4 students have their own cell phones. That number increases to almost 90 percent when the students reach high school.

Schools have responded with policies that range from outright bans on digital devices on school property to unrestricted access in classrooms. And parents have taken conflicting stands on all sides of the issue.

The Saanich School District started an ongoing controversy recently when it announced that starting in September cellphones and iPods would not be allowed on district school property. Schools across Canada and the U.S. have introduced similar bans and touched off community debates.

On the flip side, other educators have encouraged the use of digital devices as learning tools, unfettered in some cases, and that has also railed parents. When Huband Park Elementary School in School District 71 allowed unsupervised technology time during rainy days, some parents protested.

Many educators have embraced the potential of digital devices to complement the learning experience, just as they once accepted calculators, computers and other technological advancements.

But one thing is clear: digital devices are here to stay and how educators deal with their presence can either enhance or detract from the learning experience.

The policies in place at Comox Valley schools mirror the variety of responses across North America.

Some schools require that phones stay in lockers and can only be used before and after school and during lunch breaks. Other schools take a directly opposite approach, allowing phones in classrooms but banning them before and after school hours and during lunch breaks.

It’s no wonder some parents are confused and rumors light up social media.

School District 71 requires that all students and staff who take personal digital devices to school must sign a Responsible Use Agreement, and renew it annually. The document is similar to policies at most large businesses that provide computer equipment and access to the Internet. You can read it here.

But the district does not dictate to individual schools or teachers how or when students can use phones and other digital devices.

SD 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist says this question is “Ultimately … left up to the schools/teachers to decide how best to integrate personal devices into their teaching.” He responded via email to a question about district technology policies.

The district has a stringent vetting process for apps and access to web sites, blocking access to specific sites and certain general types of web sites.

“Beyond the Responsible Use Agreement, school building administrators and classroom teachers regulate if and when a device can be used in the school or classroom,” Lindquist said in his email response.

A quick check of the handbooks of several district schools shows that educators are handling the issue quite differently.

High school policies

Students at G.P. Vanier must leave their digital devices turned off and in their lockers during school hours, unless they have teacher permission to do otherwise. Their handbook includes this section:

“I have the right to a learning environment free from distractions such as, iPods, mp3 players, cameras, cell phones, game boys or other personal electronic devices.

“I have the responsibility to keep my personal electronic devices at home or, if I bring them to school, off and secured in my locker during school hours. The only exception to this is when I have teacher permission during the class period.


“Electronic devices can be distracting to student learning. Therefore I will ensure that my electronic device is turned off and out of sight during class time unless I have been given permission to use it for educational purposes. I may use them during non-class time (before school, recess, lunch, after school, etc.) unless directed otherwise by a staff member.”

At Mark R. Isfeld and Highland secondary schools, the policy is slightly different. From their handbooks (the wording is exactly the same):

“You are permitted personal phones, but they must be turned off during class time. If you receive calls or messages during class time you could lose the privilege of carrying your phone during the school day. Other electronic devices such as IPods are permitted, but may not be used during class time without permission from the subject teacher. Non-compliance could lead to the requirement that the device remain at home”

Other Comox Valley schools

Cumberland Community School takes a more lenient approach. From their handbook:

“During class time, it is up to the teacher’s discretion if/when personal electronics are being used for educational purposes. We encourage teachers to have students’ access personal electronics to supplement their learning. However, students are not to text, call, message or email for non-educational purposes during class time. When a student is in breach of this they will have their phone sent to the office. For a first offence it will be returned at the end of the school day after meeting with a principal and reviewing the policy. For a second offence it will be returned to a parent when they come to pick it up and the policy will be reviewed with the parent. For a third offense it will be returned to the parent when they come to pick it up and the student will no longer be permitted personal electronics at school.”

And Huband Park Elementary School goes a step further in encouraging the use of digital devices. From their handbook:

“The school recognizes and encourages students to bring their own devices to school.

“Students are allowed to bring cell phones and electronics to school if they are used appropriately and when teachers have directed students to use them. Personal devices brought from home will not have areas blocked. These areas are not to be used by the students on school property, areas such: as Face Book, texting, video camera or camera, games that have shooting, gruesome or graphic images. There will be times when students will be asked to use the camera and video camera for certain projects but this needs to be supervised by the teacher.

“Students wanting to use their devices to communicate with friends and family during the school day must be approved by a staff member. Students will be asked to store personal devices brought from home safely on their person or in their backpacks and coats. The School will not be responsible for lost, stolen or damaged

“We encourage physical activity and social skills at break times: before school, recess and at lunch time. Therefore, students will be asked to put these devices away at these times.

“Teachers will have the authority to take these devices away from the students if they do not follow these rules. The device will be returned at a later date.”

Some parents and educators argue that phones in schools provide another level of safety for students. In the event of a crisis, such as a shooting or an earthquake, students can contact parents, ambulance services or law enforcement.

There will always be some students who break the rules and, with access to phones during classroom instruction, they can create distractions for other students. But phones can also provide access to learning opportunities that didn’t exist in the pre-digital environment.

Is it better than a student takes a smartphone picture of something a teacher has put on the blackboard, or to go through the process of writing it down?

There are no easy answers to this debate, but there’s no denying that smartphone and tablet technology has changed the dynamic in classrooms.


Recess returns to CV schools

Recess returns to CV schools

Recess has returned to the playgrounds of School District 71’s elementary schools as of February. That’s good news for children and teachers.

But why the school district eliminated recess at the start of this school year and the reasons for reinstating it now aren’t such good news: it’s political and, most egregiously, has nothing to do with children and the benefits they reap from the power of play.

The blame starts with B.C. Liberal Party leader Christy Clark who has seriously underfunded British Columbia public schools for more than a decade and robbed our children of world-class educational opportunities.

But the blame doesn’t end there.

To close a $3 million funding gap for the 2016-17 school year, local Comox Valley school trustees rejected a proposal by some parents to close underused and low-enrollment schools.

They chose instead to institute a 4.6-day school week, which ends at 12:01 p.m. every Friday for all Comox Valley schools. That saved the district about $1.8 million, and resulted in the firing of more than 15 teaching support staff because teacher preparation time was rolled into Friday afternoons. Spring break was cut in half.

But the shortened school week created a number of new problems.

Some students stopped going to school on Friday mornings because in many cases no substantial instruction occurs during the shortened versions of a full day’s classes. This squeeze on time led one district secondary teacher to apologize to his students before they took a province-wide exam for being unable to teach the full curriculum.

The district also eliminated recess, which they called a “gift” for elementary students and teachers to which they weren’t legally entitled. They reclassified recess as instructional time.

The loss of recess may seem inconsequential, but its importance for energetic young children goes beyond the need to stretch and move after hours of sitting still. Kids learn many of life’s important lessons on the playground.

There is a sophistication to the world of play that may be lost on many of us. Play gives educators, and parents, a chance to peek into the sometimes hidden world of children. When you want to see what children are really interested in, watch what they do when they have nothing to do.

For children, play is always purposeful. It is up to us as adults to unearth the special significance of the playful act. It may be a role that the child is trying on for the future.

There’s a possibility that taking away the joy that children get from recess will demotivate them and cause them to do less well in other areas. The amount of material children have to accomplish these days is overwhelming, so teachers have to move fast. With that kind of intensity in the classroom, kids and teachers need a break.

Recess should be considered an important part of the elementary curriculum, just as math and science. When children play, they’re thinking, solving problems, investigating and learning language skills. It’s the only part of the day when they can do whatever they want, so they learn how to cooperate, socialize and work out conflicts.

Fortunately, the Comox District Teachers’ Association had a tool to push back and they used it. The elimination of recess violated the contract language for elementary school teachers. In order to live up to its collective agreement with teachers, the school district reinstated recess, but continues to classify it as instructional time.

This sets the stage for a possible new contract issue, because the B.C. School Act clearly specifies that recess (and the time for lunch and between classes) cannot be considered instructional time.

School trustees and teachers both want to do the right thing. But this is the type of confusion and tension caused by the chronic underfunding of public schools.

So recess was reinstated. But not because it’s good for children or indirectly improves learning back in the classroom. Young Comox Valley school children can only rediscover the power of play thanks to a contractual technicality.

We should worry about the future of a society where kids are not encouraged to run and play. Where the power of play is devalued. Where there is no unstructured time to fuel imagination, encourage creativity and strength social development.

When you take away recess, you take away a complex learning environment that contributes to healthy childhood development.