Teacher Jeff Yasinchuk says he’s seen a decline in students’ ability to concentrate, and increases in their anxiety level, since they started bringing smartphones to school around 2012. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Mr. Yaz’s change of heart

Nelson teacher says smartphones in class impede learning

Jeff Yasinchuk was a leading booster of technology in the classroom, beginning when he started his career as a teacher at L.V. Rogers Secondary in 2006. He was an early advocate of having Wi-Fi in the schools, a radical idea that sparked a lot of opposition at the time.

“I thought we needed digital robustness, I was gung-ho about access to online information,” says Mr. Yaz, as he is known to students. “I thought our kids are getting shafted if we don’t have this access for them all the time. I was proud, I wanted to be one of those leaders in the province around that.”

But now he’s not so sure about smartphones.

Yasinchuk now works at Trafalgar Middle School, where he is the teacher-librarian, and he has a teenage son. He has noticed how vulnerable young teens are to their phones.

“I have seen the distraction that it causes children and their learning. It affects their social integration, how they interact. A student sitting in the corner on a device is not getting much out of school, because there is a huge social component to middle school, more than in other parts of their schooling.”

He says phones affect students’ concentration.

“Focus, time on task, you are lucky to get two or three minutes out of kids now, to keep their focus on something, because there is not that hit of dopamine that you get from a new digital post or message. I really do think it is changing the brain.”

And their ability to read is declining, he says.

“As a librarian I am an advocate for reading. I am seeing a change in depth of reading. They are reading online, and they are skimming, and even their ability to skim is mediocre at best. Their ability to understand and use information – there is something about reading a book that is being lost, and our students are suffering from that.”

The international press has recently featured several high-profile articles about sharp increases in depression and anxiety among teens, and some researchers have said this increase correlates with the mass introduction of phones into teens’ lives in about 2012. Yasinchuk says that’s the year he saw the changes begin.

“I definitely see kids more anxious and less resilient than they were 10 years ago. One of the School District 8 goals is to build kids’ resilience. Here’s a way to build resilience: take away their phones and say let us show you different ways you can engage. You will always have your technology, that is never going to go away, but let’s help you build skills around managing tech use, let’s help build resilience around that.”

What does this anxiety look like in the classroom?

“There is a fidgetiness, there is a look you get when you give instructions to do something. It’s a fear: oh my god this is too much work, I can’t do this, you are asking too much of me.”

The government of France recently announced its intention to ban phones from all schools starting next September. Yasinchuk noticed this on Twitter.

“I tweeted bravo,” says Yasinchuk. “I thought, this took a lot of guts, you guys are swimming upstream on this. But I took a lot of flack for that from peers in this district, and from educational technologists that I revered. My caveat is I am OK with devices but we need to help students manage them.”

But he doesn’t think society is helping kids do that. Even though many schools, including Trafalgar, have systems in place to restrict phones from many classrooms, he thinks that’s a drop in the bucket because kids are good at breaking those rules, teachers are busy, and phones are allowed in all common areas and during lunch and on breaks.

“In the library I will look at any given lunch and there are 20 kids on devices, gathering around, watching a video together. The depth of conversation is pretty low, maybe watching someone play a game. I argue that is not a way of connecting. I wish they would go outside.”

One of the common arguments for phones in class is that students can use them to do research. Yasinchuk says there are enough devices for that in the schools already — desktop computers, laptops, iPads — and teachers know this.

He wonders what schools could be doing to help kids learn to manage their phones, and if teachers have the time to do that.

“An 11-year-old boy who loses his toque every day, we are giving him a $600 device and saying here you go, no conversation about app use, no modeling, his mom texting him at 11:30 in the morning. I think that’s a problem.”

So he offers a series of six workshops for Grade Six students on digital footprint, digital citizenship, how people see you online, personal information and settings, privacy. Sometimes other teachers attend.

“It has been a rich conversation, the kids have amazing questions and insights.”

Yasinchuk wrestles with these issues. He is not sure he’s right. Maybe the problems will sort themselves out. He doesn’t expect school districts in Canada to go the way of France.

“But what if we had no smartphones in the school?” he muses. “Wouldn’t that be something? That would be leading edge.”

This is the first in a series of three stories about phones in local classrooms.

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School librarian Jeff Yasinchuk’s smartphone distracts him from his book. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

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