Image courtesy of David Romani

For my last two years of high school, I attended a boarding school in central Canada, about 7 hours drive from my parents. This school had some pretty strict rules, especially when it came to the dormitory. We weren’t allowed to have any televisions in our rooms; we had to be in the dorm on weekday evenings by 8pm and in our room with lights out by 10pm. We could only come out to use the washroom, otherwise we were in there until 6 at the earliest the next morning.

For the most part, we followed the rules, but there were times we needed to get some homework done or we just wanted to let loose for a while. That would be when we would pull out the black garbage bags for the windows or we would sneak out the windows dressed from head to toe in black and then drive out of the parking lot with the headlights off until we got to the highway. It was all pretty benign stuff: going to movies (which was also against the rules), heading out for a late-night pizza, or just a drive in the city. We never broke any laws and, at least to me, we kept it clean and fun.

I understand the reason why the school had those rules, even if I still disagree them, but the problem was in how they were implemented. They were responsible for our well being as minors and this was a way they could make sure they kept us out of trouble with a limited staff. They didn’t want us watching shows or movies that the parents wouldn’t approve of, so they cut out the option of watching any at all. They wanted to make sure we would do our homework, so they made us stay in our rooms from 8-9:30 each night. There were reasons for their rules, but the rules themselves didn’t actually work that well.

Instead of keeping us from those distractions, we became fixated on them, or more accurately, how to get around them. When they figured out how we were circumventing the rules, they made new ones, which led us to find new, more inventive ways to break them. We didn’t want to follow them, because we weren’t part of the solution; we had no reason to follow them other than “we were told to.”

I just finished reading an article about banning laptops in the university classroom. I’m still shaking my head. I can’t stop shaking my head. The logic is baffling. Here is how I understand her reasoning:

  1. Students are on Facebook, Twitter, etc. instead of listening to the instructor.
  2. Students take better notes on paper than on the computer.
  3. The instructor had rules about not using the laptop to go on social media, etc., but it didn’t work.
  4. The teacher wanted to go back “to the good ‘ol days” before PowerPoint (my words, but basically what was implied).

Here is my problem with that. All through grade school, we are trying desperately to get students to think for themselves and to take control of their learning. Don’t believe me? Ask any K-12 teacher and they will tell you this is one of the primary goals of their classroom. Now, once they have the first real opportunity as young adults to apply that skill, they have it taken away from them because the teacher felt slighted. If a student doesn’t want to listen, they can choose not to. I feel that any teacher who takes it so personally when students are not paying attention, needs to realize the classroom is not all about them.

The teacher in this situation said that students didn’t know how to take proper notes on a laptop, so she took them away and taught them shorthand. Wouldn’t it have been better to teach them how to take notes . . . period? I don’t believe that it is the laptop that is the problem, it is that students don’t know how to pull out the proper pieces of information. I bet that if she had taught them how to do shorthand ON THE LAPTOP, it would have ended up with the same results. Also, the things they could remember more were simply factual pieces of information, which brings me back to the test. Is it just a knowledge based test or is it testing them on application? I wager once again that the application of that same information wouldn’t change whether you wrote your notes on velum or an iPad.

I didn’t mean for this post to be an attack on that particular instructor, but on the idea of banning. Forcing someone to do something when they have no stake in the process is futile and unhelpful. Students need to be part of the process; they need to gain an understanding of the reasoning behind the action. If students are disrupting one another in class (this could be anything from something tech related or simply talking while others are trying to listen), that is an opportunity to talk about respect and boundaries, allowing those who are affected by their actions to have a stake in what happens next.

It is controlling, dismissive, and lazy to simply ban something because of the results. Think paper is safer than a laptop? I wrote notes to friends in class ON PAPER. I threw balls OF PAPER in class. Paper, in that situation, could have been banned under the logic that others are using their mobile devices for “non-academic” reasons. It isn’t the paper, or the laptop, or the phone; it is the person. The individual needs guidance and help to understand how their actions are affecting others.

Don’t throw away these chances to help your students grow through the use of controlled, guided instruction on how to best use the tools they are given. It isn’t about what you are seeing, it is about what lies beneath, the reasons for the actions.

10 thoughts on “Banning

  1. Today two of my students used their mechanical pencils to poke holes in the wall of the classroom. They thought it was hilarious. I (barely) kept my lid on, but it never occurred to me that I could ban mechanical pencils for everyone. I think they would have laughed outright. I’ve no idea how I could have enforced it without them buying into it.

    Two of my friends took an MA course last winter intensively (2 weeks of 8 hour days). One of their professors banned tech in the classroom. She didn’t try to enforce it, but marked down students who used their laptops or phones in class. These weren’t young adults, but fellow teachers: responsible men and women with families, but even that might not matter. The point of this little vignette is that her ban didn’t include her – she felt comfortable using her laptop and phone all day long, and not just for running the class. The students might have felt more comfortable if she had followed her own rules.

    I guess I’m trying to agree that buy-in is pretty important and also add that consistency is important as well.

    1. Great example, Anne, although I am sure those moments can be quite frustrating. I am not sure how you manage to hold it together.

      I love your comment about consistency. I’m not sure why some teachers (I think this is a fairly small minority) think they are exempt from these same rules. I believe most teacher model what they want students to become, but there are the few who take advantage of their position and simply do what is best for themselves.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Nathan,
    Thanks so much for this post. As always, you have such a wonderful way of framing the issue. I agree that the mis/use of technology is class is a teachable moment that invites a discussion on how these tools can be used to further their learning. For example, I often hear complaints about how students take photos of notes on the board (instead of writing them down). This use of technology can lead to a discussion about what the students can do with this photo to deepen their learning. What do they do with this photo later? Do they look at it, study it, make notes, copy it etc.? Like you said, this “problem” is an opportunity to help “students grow through the use of controlled, guided instruction on how to best use the tools they are given”.

    Thanks again for this reflection.

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. I totally agree that there are many teachable moments we could use to further the conversation with students about the proper use of technology.

      Thank you for your comment!

  3. It seems to me that this is the unfortunate but rather expected consequence for students caught in between tech generations. Non techie teachers want to ban technology and get angry when students don’t know how to use it correctly but they aren’t willing to teach them how to use it properly. I advocate that students require tech education from a young age so that when they get to higher grades, they know what to do.

    1. I’m really glad to hear that. I am in higher ed, and I am happy to see that there are some changes happening in the K-12 system. I can only hope there are more changes in the post-secondary world as well.

      1. Change is coming. The system is designed to prevent change so it won’t happen fast but it is happening. I’m working on it myself.

  4. Hi Nathan,
    In the school I teach (an elementary school in Jerusalem) there is a ban on cellphones. The pupils can bring them to school but have to turn them off before the start of first period and keep them off until the end of the day. Parents who need to contact children can do so through the secretary’s office and vice versa. This is to encourage children to play outside during recesses, move around more and not be in the screen every free minute they have during the day. I believe implementing this rule in junior high, high school or a university setting can be very difficult but in elementary it seems there are only plus sides to this. As teachers and parents we are noticing that this young generation has been born and is growing into a society that is constantly face down in some screen or other and social skills are at an all time low. Giving elementary aged pupils some social tools that are not digital is going to help them in the long run. When they reach adolescence it will be a different story…
    Thanks for your post,

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