Griffin on Tech: The school cellphone ban is a bad idea
Having gone to school in the era immediately preceding the arrival of cellphones, I can relate to the desire to want to keep them out of the classroom.
I was in charge of looking after the computers at Whenuapai Primary School in the early 1990s, so had privileged access to the school’s fleet of Apple Mac 2e machines. Many lunchtimes were spent playing Where in the World is Carmen San Diego in the gloomy computer lab while most of my fellow students played ball rush or handball outside.
But it was a largely analog teaching environment back then, which certainly had some advantages. There was little to distract us in class, other than teasing each other and playing pranks on Mrs Murray, who from time to time would produce from her desk drawer the leather strap she’d used earlier in her career to keep her students in line - just to remind us who was boss.
The ultimate learning tool
There were no smartphones, no lure of social media or Candy Crush. But a smartphone would have been an indispensable learning tool. It acts as a calculator, compass, GPS, and encyclopedia. It can measure things with a 3D augmented reality app, and with the addition of a small add-on lens, can be turned into a microscope.
I don’t have any photos, let alone home movies of my time in school from those years, because there were no cameras. Kids growing up now can document their school years in detail, and they don’t need to be summoned to the office to be told that mum can’t pick them up from school and they have to get the bus home. Now, mum just sends them a text message.
The National Party’s proposed cellphone ban in schools harkens back to that simpler time that Christopher Luxon clearly experienced at school too. But we live in a different world, one shaped by technology. We need to encourage kids to make appropriate use of technology - bans rarely achieve that.
I think of my early socialisation with alcohol. Growing up in an Irish Catholic family, having a sip of wine at dinner or a beer watered down with lemonade was just the norm - even as a ten-year-old. A lot of my teenage friends were effectively banned from drinking alcohol - but when they turned 18 they went large, with all the messy, drunken consequences of that. The taboo around alcohol seemed to fuel a desire to have as much of it as they could when the parental controls were no longer in place.
While there is evidence, mainly anecdotal, pointing to the distraction and behavioural problems cellphones cause, and cyberbullying is clearly a toxic trend, the problem is too nuanced for a blanket ban during the school day. The current settings allow schools to implement what works for them. Some ban phone use during school hours, while others allow them, but instruct kids to keep them in their desks during lessons. A ban on phones through the school day should be a last resort.
Leave it to the schools
We should continue to give school principals and boards the option to set their own policies around cellphone use. We are, after all, trying to build a generation of STEM superstars, who will go on to work in the knowledge economy, build start-ups, and create the technology of the future. We should encourage them to augment their education with technology.
Part of it is also leading by example, showing kids how to have a healthy relationship with technology. In that respect, many adults have some work to do before they can credibly dictate how and when kids should use their phones.
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