Smartphone ban in Nova Scotia classrooms can’t come soon enough

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Appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, February 12, 2024
Smartphone ban in Nova Scotia classrooms can’t come soon enough

The evidence is mounting that smartphones have no place in Nova Scotia classrooms.

Nova Scotia students are already behind many of their Canadian peers on this issue. The British Columbia government last month banned smartphones in government public school classrooms. Ontario restricted the use of phones in classrooms in 2019 and may soon strengthen that policy as it appears it doesn’t go far enough. And late last year Quebec banned phones in government public school classrooms.

A majority of Canadians polled believe that removing smartphones from classrooms is the right move. Halifax-based Narrative Research found that eight in 10 Canadians believe government should ban phones from public school classrooms “to reduce distractions in the learning environment.” On this issue, common sense—that smartphones are clearly distracting—aligns with empirical evidence that smartphone distraction significantly impacts student math scores.

For example, the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, identified a clear connection between smartphone distraction and student achievement.

The PISA survey of 15-year-old students found that eight in 10 Canadian students feel distracted by the use of their own digital devices (e.g. smartphones) in math class. That’s higher than the 38-country OECD average of 65 per cent. More broadly, in all 38 OECD countries, 45 per cent of students said they feel anxious if their phones aren’t near them and 59 per cent said they’re distracted by the smartphone use of other students in math classes.

Of course, PISA also conducts standardized tests of 15-year-olds worldwide. According to test results, students who were not distracted by smartphones in math class scored 15 points higher than students who were distracted. PISA characterizes a 20-point drop in student test scores as one year of lost learning. In other words, students who are distracted by smartphones in math class are three-quarters of one year behind their distraction-free peers in math.

Here at home, from 2003 to 2022, the latest year of PISA data, Nova Scotia’s math scores plummeted by 45 points. That’s more than two years of lost learning, according to the PISA standard, which means Nova Scotia 15-year-olds are two years behind where they were just two decades earlier in math proficiency. Nova Scotia 15-year-olds are also 27 points below the Canadian average—that’s nearly one-and-a-half years behind.

Clearly, if we want young Nova Scotians to be competitive and successful in today’s world, where jobs in math and engineering are becoming increasingly important, math scores must improve.

Banning smartphones in elementary and high school classrooms might solicit groans from students, but polling shows parents and other Nova Scotians support it. It’s common sense, it’s supported by evidence, and the academic boost for Nova Scotia students can’t come soon enough.