In the recent Ontario provincial election, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative made a number of promises involving education reform. Getting rid of “discovery math” and removing “liberal ideology” from sex education have received substantial attention, but until Education Minister Lisa Thompson’s recent announcement, many forgot about the PC’s promise to ban cell phones in the classroom.

Starting next fall, if all goes as planned, cell phones will be banned in classrooms across Ontario. Minister Thompson made clear that exceptions will be made for educational purposes, health, and medical purposes, and to support special needs.

In her announcement, Thompson argued that “students need to be able to focus on their learning, and not their cell phones.” She further revealed that the results of what she called the “largest-ever consultation on education in the history of Ontario” found that 97 percent of respondents favoured some form of ban on cell phones.

This sentiment is echoed by Mr. Burns, a math teacher in Tsawwassen BC. In his classroom, cell phones are already banned. Mr. Burns follows a straightforward logic: “If their phone is in sight, it becomes the priority for the majority of the kids. They’re not paying attention. That’s why I don’t allow them.”

Those in favour of the ban often point to a study conducted by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Published in 2015, this study found that academic performance improved under cell phone bans, with exam scores improving by 6 percent overall and 14 percent among the most underachieving students.

The issue has also been framed within the narrative of an increasingly spoiled youth coupled with timid authority figures. In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason argues that “teachers and school administrators should develop some spine,” and asks “when did we decide to let kids and their parents run the classroom?”

Other professionals are of differing opinion. To many, it is more complicated than Mason makes it out to be, and they see a cell phone ban as too simple a solution for such a complex problem.

Jamie Mitchell, a high school teacher and the 2017 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, has concerns regarding the effectiveness of this policy and draws on her experience trying to police student cell phone use.

Mitchell insists in a recent opinion piece that “as a teacher for more than a decade, I want the classroom to be distraction-free and a place of learning and engagement, but banning cellphones is not the solution.” After spending years confiscating phones, Mitchell changed her approach, allowing students to keep their phones on their desks and use them in her sight rather than behind book or under their desks. Some students continued to use their phones, but she found that engaging with them as they did – asking them what they were doing and if it was appropriate during class – was advantageous and helped her build a positive relationship with her students.

Charles Pascal, Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, argues that post-millennials are too attached to their cell phones to have them removed completely, saying it is “almost like telling them not to breathe.” Consequently, he posits that this ban is not going to work.

Despite being considerably less controversial than Ford’s other education-related promises, questions have been raised about how the ban could be disproportionately enforced and further damage already marginalized communities.

Journalist and activist Desmond Cole raised this issue, tweeting “we know rich kids’ parents won’t let schools take their property, so this is another target on marginalized kids’ backs.”

Cole continued to argue that suspension and expulsion data shows that poorer kids face more discipline, in part because their parents are less able to advocate for them, and pointed out that this is supported by decades of data.

If this plan goes ahead, Ontario will become the first province in Canada to implement a ban at the provincial level. Some school boards and schools around Canada have introduced bans, but governments in Alberta and B.C. have already ruled out following the example of Ontario.

Not only are other provinces not following suit, but the current trend seems to show that school boards and other domains with similar policies have been abandoning them. The New York City Education Department lifted a similar ban in 2015, and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) removed its ban of cell phones in 2011 after only 4 years.

TDSB spokesperson, Ryan Bird, touched on the lack of information available at the time the school board enacted its ban and explained that the shift in policy reflected an effort to teach students how to responsibly use technology rather than ban it outright.

The timing of this announcement also deserves scrutiny. Ford’s PCs are currently in the hot seat regarding changes to autism funding, and this announcement could very well be a distraction from growing discontent with other policies. For instance, Ford may be trying to distract from demands for social services minister Lisa MacLeod to resign due to threatening comments she made to a group of behaviour analysts after they refused to publicly support the PC’s changes to the autism system.

Although it is largely unclear how it will be enforced, this cell phone ban is low-cost, easy to understand, and apparently widely supported according to the PC consultation; a perfect distraction from more controversial topics.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image via PixaBay