Ontario wants to ban phones in the classroom. Critics wonder how that will be enforced

There are concerns that Ontario's intention to ban the use of cellphones in classrooms will be ineffective and nearly impossible to enforce. The province announced Tuesday that it would direct schools to ban phones to help students "focus on their learning."

Ontario says the ban will help students 'focus on their learning'

Hands hold a mobile phone.
The effects of phones in classrooms have yet to be properly studied, said one longtime education academic and policymaker who opposes the government's plan. (The Associated Press)

Some education experts have expressed concerns that Ontario's plan to ban the use of cellphones in classrooms will be ineffective and nearly impossible to enforce.

The province, according to information released Tuesday by Education Minister Lisa Thompson, will ban the use of phones during instructional time across Ontario by the start of the coming school year.

Thompson said use of the devices "distracts from learning" and that a ban was supported by 97 per cent of respondents in a recent consultation conducted by the province.

However, some education experts and parents say the Progressive Conservative government is moving too quickly on the file, arguing that not enough evidence exists to support such a sweeping ban.

"Telling post-millennials to get rid of their cellphones is almost like telling them not to breathe," said Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

"It's not going to work," he told CBC News.

Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said the province has more pressing educational priorities than a cellphone ban. (OISE)

Unah Grieve, a former parent association president at Toronto's Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute, said enforcing the ban will be challenging.

She imagines that school staff could be consumed with "patrolling phones" under the proposed rules, instead of doing work.

"It's just going to be incredibly hard to enforce," she said. "I just kind of see a lot of chaos."

While some schools and school boards around Canada have introduced phone bans in recent years, it appears that Ontario would become the first province to do so if the legislation moves ahead this fall.

Is more research needed?

The PC government has said enforcing the ban will be up to individual schools and boards and phones will still be permitted for genuine educational purposes.

"By banning cellphone use that distracts from learning, we are helping students to focus on acquiring the foundational skills they need like reading, writing and math," Thompson said Tuesday.

That claim appears to be supported by some academic studies, including a 2015 paper by the London School of Economics and Political Science that found student performance "significantly increases" when phones are banned.

'Ontario’s students need to be able to focus on their learning – not their cellphones,' said provincial Education Minister Lisa Thompson. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Pascal said findings like those simply confirm what he calls the "working assumption" that phones are distracting, but that a true, rigorous study of the topic has yet to be conducted.

"It's an intuitive, popular notion that cellphones are a distraction to learning. I just don't know if that's absolutely true," said Pascal, who is also a former deputy education minister in Ontario, who served under Liberal and NDP governments.

Post-millenials — the cohort born from the mid-1990s onward — are increasingly capable of remaining present even while engaging in typically distracting activities such as browsing social media, he argued.

How to enforce it?

Critics are also raising concerns about the logistics of enforcing the ban.

Would schools somehow confiscate the devices before class or merely ask students to switch them off?

CBC technology columnist Ramona Pringle raised the possibility of more sophisticated methods, including jamming phone signals or having parents install apps that block internet access during certain times of the day, though she doubts those strategies would actually work.

"What we know is that young people are really creative," she said. "There's been examples where students have just built their own server when needing a workaround."

Pringle, who also teaches at Ryerson University, said phones can be distracting and she supports efforts to limit their use in classrooms. She also stressed that phasing them out will require a simultaneous effort to educate students about technology, including topics like cyberbullying and sexting.

Ramona Pringle said limiting phone use is a good idea, but it must be accompanied by more education about how to responsibly use technology. (CBC)

Schools reverse phone bans

If Ontario succeeds with the ban, it would buck a recent trend of schools reversing their policies on phone use in the classroom.

In 2011, the Toronto District School Board lifted its ban on phones, which was introduced in 2007.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board didn't see the full potential of cellphones when the ban was first introduced. The reversal brought a shift in policy to "teach students how to use technology responsibly."

In 2015, New York City's Department of Education also lifted its previous ban on phones.

Pascal said Ontario isn't likely to succeed where other jurisdictions failed.

He likened the announcement to "buck-a-beer symbol," in reference to Ontario Premier Doug Ford's campaign pledge to reduce beer costs, calling the cellphone ban plan a low-cost but superficially appealing policy designed to generate public support.

"It's not the highest priority regarding improving learning in Ontario," he said.


Nick Boisvert is a multimedia journalist at the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He previously covered municipal politics for CBC News in Toronto. You can reach him at