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Geoff Johnson: Who decides if smartphones support learning?

UNESCO is pushing for schools to ban smartphone use in classrooms, calling them a distraction, but says there should be an exception if they support learning
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Incoming notifications or the mere proximity of a mobile device can be a distraction, resulting in students losing their attention from the task at hand, says a recent UNESCO report, adding that one study showed it can take students up to 20 minutes to refocus on learning once their attention is drawn away. MAX FISCHER VIA PEXELS

“When you don’t know what to do, you do what you know” is a piece of bumper-sticker wisdom that has been around for years and applies to most situations hobbled by both lack of imagination and indecision.

That comes to mind when we see UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization pushing for schools around the world to ban smartphone use in classrooms, arguing that the devices distract from learning, are bad for students’ mental health and come with a host of privacy concerns for young people’s data.

The recommendations come from a 2023 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report published recently, which analyzed global policies on technology use in classrooms.

“Only technology that has a clear role in ­supporting learning should be allowed in school,” the agency stated.

That begs the question as to whether it is the ­tech-smart teacher or the technology alone or a ­combination of both that “supports learning.”

But there’s more.

“Incoming notifications or the mere proximity of a mobile device can be a distraction, resulting in students losing their attention from the task at hand,” the report says, adding that one study showed it can take students up to 20 minutes to refocus on learning once their ­attention is drawn away.

So far so good, but as one who gleefully follows the introduction of new buzzwords into the ­education-related lexicon, I was delighted to find, in the National Library of Medicine, a research article entitled “The hidden cost of a smartphone: The effects of smartphone notifications on cognitive control from a behavioural and electrophysiological perspective.”

It was the term “electrophysiological perspective” that got me.

The term apparently refers to the belief that, ­according to the UNESCO report, the mere proximity of a mobile device can be a distraction.

That strikes me as kind of “woo woo” stuff, but ­nonetheless Quebec will ban cellphones in all public school classrooms “as soon as possible,” Education ­Minister Bernard Drainville said in an Aug. 23 CBC report.

“Cellphones are taking more and more space in our kids’ lives,” he said. “We know that, and what we want is for them to concentrate on what their teachers are saying, rather than the texts they get.”

Exceptions will be made if the devices are used for educational purposes, said Drainville.

Again, no clarity about what those exceptions will be, nor is there a firm date for the ban or information on how or by whom the ban will be enforced. I think I can guess whose responsibility that will be.

Quebec teachers support the ban though, citing the need to reduce distraction and to allay teacher ­concerns about being filmed without their consent. That’s an interesting objection, but let’s not look too closely at that objection, either.

True, there is the potential, according to some reports, for students to be spending up to 20% of their in-class time texting, emailing and checking social media.

It’s no wonder that questions about cellphones in the classroom are alive and well.

There is no easy answer to these questions because there are both pros and cons to students having ­cellphones in school.

The devices can be used as a learning tool in the classroom, but only when students have been taught to use them effectively for in-class research and are restricted to that.

Cellphones, some studies show, give students access to tools and apps that can help them complete and stay on top of their class work. These tools can also teach students to develop better study habits, like time ­management and organization skills.

But there is yet another issue and that’s the ­socioeconomic divisions that inevitably exist between those students who have cellphones and those who do not.

According to statistics portal Statista, regarded as a leader in the provision of reliable business data, as of April 2022, 39 per cent of children aged between two and six in Canada were reported to be able to use a mobile phone.

Half those aged seven to 11 were reported to actually have a mobile device such as a smartphone. That figure rises to 87 per cent for those aged 12 to 17 years.

So in 2023, the cellphone horse is well and truly out of the barn. The time for indecision about what to do is long past.

Now is the time for educators to catch that frisky technological pony, calm it down, saddle it up and get aboard.

gfjohnson4@shaw.ca

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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