“You’ll never be told to put your phone away next year,” the principal of the new Burlington, Ontario high school I would be attending in the fall of 2013 told a group of students at an information session.
Did she really mean it? I wondered, holding my phone in my hands as she spoke.
Like most high school students, I was used to teachers telling me to put my phone away.
But my new principal was right. After I switched schools to attend the newly-built one, I wasn’t told to put my phone away. I was told the opposite: to find ways to use my phone to enhance what I was learning. My second high school was completely paperless. We didn’t have printed textbooks or worksheets, except for certain tests and exams. Everything was done through Google Classroom, social media, and other online platforms.
In other words, my high school was all about 21st century learning—a phrase you might’ve heard bouncing around lately after the Ontario government announced its plan to ban cellphones in high school classrooms.
As others have pointed out, banning cellphones in classrooms isn’t the biggest change the Doug Ford government is making to education. The government is also increasing class sizes from grades 4 to 12 and requiring secondary school students to take four out of their 30 credits online. This all comes after repealing the current sex-ed curriculum last summer.
In a press release, the government said it is “modernizing classrooms” by banning cellphones in classes “except for educational purposes.”
This raises the question: what is an educational purpose?
At my high school, everything was.
In math class, I used my phone to film a parabola of my classmate throwing a basketball—with an arch that took several tries to perfect—and put it on a graph.
In English class, I used my phone to monitor the statistics of my blog—which I created for a class project—learning web design and social media skills in the process.
In law class, I used my phone to research current news stories and build a presentation on Google Slides, sharing it with my group members to collaborate.
And yes, I also used my phone to text friends or check social media. But that also ended up being educational, because I came to learn that when I was glued to my phone, I lost track of what was happening in my classroom.
The reality is that in university, and more importantly, the workplace, your professors and bosses don’t tell you to put your phone away. They just expect you to meet your deadlines—and if you’re distracted by dog videos on your phone, that’s your problem.
Instead of banning cellphones, why don’t we work to create an engaging classroom environment where students don’t feel the need to text their friends during class?
Technology is only one aspect of 21st century learning. At my high school, we didn’t sit in silence staring at our screens all day. We developed creative skills through finding new ways to use technology. We developed collaborative skills through working in groups within our school and our community. We developed critical thinking skills by examining and debating current news stories.
It upsets me that today’s high school students might not have the same opportunities I had to learn and grow—but my 21st century high school experience taught me that students and teachers have a tremendous capacity to adapt to changing methods of education. If an entire school can adapt to students having cell phones and laptops on their desks instead of textbooks and pens, I think Ontario students and teachers can rally against these changes.
Learning in an tech-based environment that was just like the “real world” prepared me with the skills necessary to feel confident in post-secondary and in the workplace. And isn’t that kind of the point of high school?
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