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Nova Scotia schools won’t ban cellphone use

Nova Scotia students won’t have to relax their cellphone grip any time soon.

“We are not considering an all-out ban and that is simply because there is learning technologies on our smart devices, various applications that are actually important and necessary, particularly for students with learning disabilities,” Education Minister Zach Churchill said at the legislature Wednesday.

“We don’t want teachers not to be able to use new technologies to enhance the learning experience but we need to make sure that our students are taught how to use this technology appropriately and responsibly.”

The province of Ontario will ban the use of phones during instructional time by the start of the next school year. Lisa Thompson, education minister there, said cellphones distract from learning and the ban is supported by 97 per cent of respondents in a recent consultation.

Tim Halman, the Progressive Conservative member for Dartmouth East and a former teacher at Prince Andrew High, joined Ontario critics of the ban in saying good luck in enforcing that policy.

“The former teacher in me tells me that whatever policy comes down it always comes down to enforcement,” Halman said. “I’m of the opinion that there is an appropriate place for them (cellphones) in the classroom. But I am also a firm believer if that an educator in front of our kids says ‘no, that’s not appropriate because we are doing this lesson,’ then they should have the backing of the education centre and the Department of Education.”

Halman started teaching in 2005 and watched cellphone use in the classroom grow by leaps and bounds.

“It became a chronic problem from the perspective of learning, from the perspective of classroom management, so much so that the school I was at for the 13 years I taught, Prince Andrew, we attempted to ban the cellphones.”

The ban didn’t take. Now mentoring a blended family of four children at home who are in grades 1 through 5, Halman has grown more ambivalent about the use of cellphone technology in the classroom. He said the management that had become a problem in high schools has now moved into the elementary grades but he still thinks the use of such technology in the classroom can be effective.

“What I have a problem with is when the province doesn’t empower our teachers to make the final decision as to whether or not a cellphone or Chromebook is used during that lesson,” he said. “The problem is that students will decide at their own whim when these devices should come out. We haven’t given the tools to our teachers to decide whether or not using that device is appropriate within the lesson. A big chunk of your day would be devoted to ‘put your cellphone away,’ telling students three or four times, a daily routine. That’s the case for thousands of educators throughout Nova Scotia.

“My perspective is that we need to work with our educators to find a Nova Scotia solution to this. Technology is part of our learning process now.”

Patricia Arab, the Liberal MLA for Fairview-Clayton Park, said technology used appropriately can be an essential teaching tool.

“It was my style, my practice to educate the kids in the classroom on how to use the technology appropriately and that includes their cellphones,” said Arab, whose teaching gigs included schools in Halifax and Chester before she traded her place at the front of a classroom for a desk in the legislature.

“As with any distraction in the classroom, I felt that the onus was on me to teach them how to judge when it would be an appropriate time to use their cellphones and when it would not be.”

She said cellphones can alleviate stress for students struggling to take notes.

Recognizing when students were using cellphones to learn as opposed to using Facebook or texting “goes to being aware of what’s happening in your classroom and disciplining appropriately,” she said.

“Don’t you know that teachers have like a spidey sense, we have eyes in the back of our heads. It’s amazing when you are in there (classroom).”

Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, recommended banning cellphones from classroom on a trial basis in 2012 as a response to bullying issues.

“That’s still where I tend to come down,” MacKay said, with the exceptions of when cellphones are needed as part of the lesson or because of a student disability.

“When I talk to teachers and others, it’s a pretty major source of distraction in the classroom. There are lots of other things you can do with cellphones. Before you called, I was texting and checking my email.”

MacKay said when he pursued the trial ban as part of the cyberbullying task force, school administrators and others said it would generate too much grief from parents and students.

“That’s not a very good reason not to do something if it is educationally sound. Teaching algebra probably gets a fair bit of grief from students and maybe parents but we still should do it.

“I should think Nova Scotia shouldn’t rule this out of order too quickly like they did when I made the recommendation in 2012.”

Paul Wozney, recently elected president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union after teaching teenage students at C.P. Allen High in Bedford, said there is no strong opinion among provincial teachers in support of an outright ban.

“Speaking from personal experience, cellphones are a complete and total distraction for some students and it derails their ability to focus and learn and for other students, they are essential tools without which they can’t succeed and learn.”

Wozney said cellphones and a Google translation app were essential for him to teach four Syrian newcomers who didn’t speak English. Cellphones and headphones are also required for students with autism to mitigate sensory distractions, he said.

“A blanket cellphone ban certainly puts some students at risk and disadvantages them.”

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