Banned! France vows to make school kids pay attention

The cool French kids: ditching their phones at school?

1,000 words

In January, I mentioned a bold move promised by French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer: a ban on phones in the lower grades. I took exception to two planned exceptions noted by the minister:

“You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system.

I also pointed out France had had a similar law on the books since 2011. Fast forward to last month, with the new rules in place (an official announcement is posted on the ministry website).

The new law is aimed at school kids in “écoles” (grades 1-5) and “collèges” (grades 6-9). It’s remarkable the authorities have passed legislation to confront this crisis of inattention, which covers all networked devices. Even more so that they’ve gone way back to 1st grade, recognizing that bad habits begin early.

Blanquer doesn’t mince words on the bad habits. The announcement opens with this lament (freely rendered): The use of mobile phones greatly reduces the likelihood that students will summon enough attention and concentration to benefit from what they’re being taught.

School principals can make their own refinements to the rules in their institutions. The law takes this discretionary role one step further for high schools (grades 10,11,12). Unlike the lower grades, high schools can decide whether to institute a ban of their own. My guess is the ministry foresaw bigger battles with entitled 16-to-18 year-old students, so they punted.

Exceptions apply. Phones may be used by students with a disability and in the event of emergencies, as well as for certain teaching purposes. The worrisome possibility is that some schools might take an overly expansive view of teaching purposes. To their credit, the policymakers thought of that. The law provides that such uses must be explicitly authorized under the school’s own rules, and be consistent with the ministry’s guidelines for educational activities involving the use of personal communications devices.

Less trust, more confiscation

But the law stops short on the most crucial element of the whole cat-and-mouse classroom game: where the phones go when the kids are at school. For whatever reason, the French law doesn’t require students to surrender their phones — as long as they’re “turned off” and “put away.” Schools may choose to set up a day depository for stashing devices, which the minister’s statement calls “une piste intéressante” or worthwhile idea, not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Is that a recipe for disaster? Experience in North America says yes. I’m sitting next to a teacher who was telling me about another struggle he had today with his grade 11 class. His school leaves the phone problem to the discretion of individual teachers, a system everyone hates. When he asks his students to “put away” their phones, their coy move is to put them screen-down atop their desks. Which leads to more semantic battles over how “away” is enough. (My experience: it’s never enough.)

I consulted another source about these issues: my daughter, who happens to be doing her semester abroad at the Paris Institute of Political Studies aka Sciences Po. I asked her if phones are a problem in her classes. Nope, they rarely make an appearance, even though there are no explicit rules about devices.

Not that Sciences Po lacks rules. If, for example, you miss three classes in a given course, babam! — you’ve failed. (Try that in our universities, where we treat undergrads as customers, and there’d be blood in the streets.) Maybe the mostly visiting students want to be on their best behavior, out of respect for those who have wallked the hallowed halls in an age when sharing was less compulsive — like, oh say, Marcel Proust, who probably would have hated smartphones.

Whatever the explanation, the concept of respectful student behavior doesn’t seem to have trickled down to the youngsters now living with the French ban. In its report on the new law, the New York Times explains that 93% of French children 12-17 have mobile phones, almost exactly the same number as US teens 13-17 according to Pew Research.

Reactions to the French law from kids interviewed for the Times article sound familiar. They’re annoyed but have already shown they know how to get around the ban to shoot the usual selfies and videos, clandestinely. Cuz that’s what kids do, no surprise there. What is very surprising is the defeatist attitude of some of the adults, including teachers who doubt the ban is enforceable.

Sure, if you think having kids put their phones “away” is the solution, then I guarantee the ban won’t work. Leave phones on their person or within their reach, and you leave the kids with an irresistible choice — while leaving teachers with an impossible task. So why not just confiscate the damn things? One Times interviewee, echoing others, had a very unsettling response: “If I confiscated them, my students would not come anymore to class…”

I suspect this teacher doesn’t mean her assertion literally. But like educators at all levels, she probably dreads having to deal with all the nagging and policing, and the sullen student reactions to being deprived of their entitlement.

So there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is the classroom crisis is going to get much worse before it gets better. And if school admins can’t face dealing with it now, they might want to find another line of work. The good news is confiscation works, at least for my 20-something undergrads over the last five years. It’s also crucial teachers have something to offer in return, including a promise their charges will find schoolwork more fun — and their grades better.

And if not, well, too bad. France, not to mention every other jurisdiction, needs a few progressive teachers to show their colleagues that once you rip off the band-aid, everyone adjusts. It’s long past time for us to step up and save the kids from themselves.