Proponents of a freshly approved policy to allow cellphone use in Toronto classrooms say it will support “21st century learning,” an argument critics say ignores the unnecessary distractions the devices may cause.
The Toronto District School Board voted this week to rescind a four-year-old rule banning cellphone use, which was put in place to prevent everything from inappropriate photographs to electronic cheating.
Such stipulations are not uncommon in Canada; cellphones are allowed in Edmonton schools, but only for use during breaks, and in Halifax most schools have policies in place to keep personal electronic devices out of the classroom. Even across the border in New York City, students are barred from bringing cellphones to school, unless they have a valid medical reason.
But in Toronto, student trustee Jenny Williams said the board recognized a need to get on board with the modern realities facing students.
“We’re trying to prepare them for 21st century learning, and how can we do that when there’s a ban?” said Ms. Williams, who helped bring forward the cellphone motion, which takes effect in September.
The policy, which recognizes “the evolving nature of such technology,” allows smartphones, cellphones and similar electronic devices to be used as classroom tools “to enhance student learning and support curriculum delivery,” with Ms. Williams pointing to the possibilities of researching a topic online or Googling a piece of information the teacher may not be able to provide. Tools such as iPads and iPods have already made their way into Toronto classrooms, she added.
“Students learn in many different ways. We need to, as an education system, be able to provide for those students,” Ms. Williams said.
Board policies will be amended to allow individual teachers to determine whether, and how, the devices can be used in class. In hallways and other areas of the school, the policy dictates cellphones can be used in a manner that does not disrupt other students.
Ms. Williams said the board will draw up a number of guidelines to ensure the devices are not used inappropriately, such as to text friends instead of paying attention in class.
This week’s vote was an about-face from the board’s decision in 2007, when former trustee Josh Matlow successfully brought forward the policy to ban cellphone use in schools. Mr. Matlow, who is now the city councillor for St. Paul’s, was baffled Thursday as to why the board reversed its position.
His policy allowed students to bring cellphones to school, so they could telephone a friend or parent at the end of the day, but during school hours the devices would have to be stowed away. Principals were allowed to use their discretion in the event of a health emergency or if they recognized a learning opportunity, Mr. Matlow said.
The new policy will likely lead students to believe they can use their cellphones whenever and however they want during school hours, he added.
“It sends completely the wrong message to our students,” Mr. Matlow said. “Using electronic devices in school should be an exception to the rule, rather than considered the norm.”
Representatives for the provincial elementary and secondary school teachers’ federations did not respond to requests for comment.
Annie Kidder, executive director of the parent-led organization People for Education, said parents feel “equally strong” on both sides of the debate, with some favouring cellphones in classrooms and others vehemently opposed to the prospect.
Teachers could curb inappropriate cellphone use with or without a policy giving the devices more prominence, she said.
“This is just a common sense issue… Talking on the phone, texting your friends, disrupting the class are already [things] that no teacher would allow,” Ms. Kidder said.
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