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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Paper and Pencil Curriculum: How Much Do You Rely on It?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Paper is the lifeblood of schools. Rivers of paper pass through the copy machines and flow through hallways to the classrooms. Students and teachers swim in a sea of paper: paper bound in books, loose-leaf paper, college rule paper, graph paper and consumable paper glued in workbooks. Information is retrieved from paper, stored on paper and shared on paper.

Students color paper, cut paper, glue paper, fold paper hot dog and hamburger style, read paper, write on paper, bubble in paper. Isn't it amazing what teachers can do with just paper and pencils? Frankly, I'm sick of paper. Is paper the best we can come up with to help our students learn?

Isn't it time we quit trying to fit learning on a page and quantifying knowledge on a piece paper? Mike Schmoker talked about the dependency on the "crayola curriculum." Is there no other way?

What would schools do if all of the sudden there wasn't any more paper? Can a teacher teach without handing out a single piece of paper? Can students learn without scribbling on paper? How would they learn? Abe Lincoln learned his lessons with a piece of coal and a shovel. For years, students had personal blackboards upon which to do their assignments. These things would be, at best, a replacement for paper. And even a laptop for every student would be no better than a shovel and coal if all that it was used for were things that could have been done with the shovel and a piece of coal.

The Numbers

With a little research, I discovered that some teachers are given paper allotments for the entire year at their school sites. Let's say that in a school of 100 teachers, each teacher gets a 50-ream allotment. Each ream holds 500 sheets, so per teacher, that would be 25,000 pieces of paper. In a class of 30 students that is 833 pieces of paper per student per year. This would mean at a school of 100 teachers, that school would use 250,000 piece of paper annually. With that, a school like this would spend approximately $7,500 per year on printing on this paper and paper itself costs $25,000, not to mention costs of copy toner and service agreements. So, I'm thinking that every school could use an extra $30,000 to $50,000. Perhaps this would be enough to invest in technology that inscribes indelible information in the brain instead of on paper.

Paperless Learning

Today, my son, Gideon got an education that did not involve him manipulating one sheet of paper. He spent the day at an engineering consultant firm and learned firsthand the process of building bridges, roads, and interchanges. They showed him the plans for their projects and then went out around San Antonio to show them the finished products. Frankly, I ask him everyday how his day went and today was the first day in a long time that he was enthused and willing to talk to me about it. I think the last time that happened, Gideon was six years old.

He was definitely more excited to learn about engineering in this way than he would have been if he just read about it. Maybe Robert Marzano got it right when he stated that students need to have experiences rather than just read about them.

Imagine how different schools would have to be if paper did not exist:

  • What changes would that make on how teachers teach?
  • How would students learn differently?
  • What changes would that make in the economy of school (aside from the correction fluid, pencil, and eraser companies that would go out of business)?
  • What would replace the crisis of the copy machine jam?

Most importantly of all, what would replace paper as the lifeblood of schools? I'm interested in reading your answers to these questions.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (37)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Thomas C. Thompson's picture
Thomas C. Thompson
Middle School World History Teacher from Edmond, Oklahoma

Actually, although I wasn't very expansive about it Ben, that was exactly my point. The technology used is one consideration, but far from the most important. If you want a student to LEARN something they have to experience it. Research tells us that it is a different skill-set involved in interacting with knowledge through electronic means than that used in writing something down. In the same way that Twitter forces a user to boil down a message to the most important part and discard the extraneous bits; a pencil and a short amount of time can help a student focus in a way that wikipedia does not. It's also easy to forget that sometimes it is merely the physical experience of putting pencil to paper that is the learning, in art classes, for example.

Nevbar1's picture
Nevbar1
Career teacher with experience teaching P-12, currently teaching at uni

Hi all - prompted by Ben's original post I have written about a related issue (the use of photocopies for busy work, non-alignment with stated objectives with reasonable estimates of photocopy consumption per student) on my blog. Feel free to visit.
http://nbnotewell@blogspot.com/

Jason Umblance's picture

I have not had the opportunity to read all the information in its entirety, but I feel I am drowning in a sea of paperwork. I try to utilize technology to the best of my ability to compensate. I will make further comments at a later date.

Lauren's picture
Lauren
Elementary Teacher in Ecuador

I am trying to get as much technology as possible into my classroom and into my school for that matter. There is such a necessity for technology and so many new creative ideas that can be utilized. However, there has got to be a balance. Do both. Have the paper and the screen.

There are some other concerns that I have, though, when thinking about the future with technology.

I was speaking with my mother who is a postal carrier, and we were talking about the decrease in mail over the past couple of years. The post office has lost billions of dollars due to the Internet. People are using the mail only for packages. No bills. No friendly letter. My mother firmly believes that one day there will be no post office only companies like FedEx that send packages.

I do not like this idea. I still enjoy holding a book, a newspaper, or magazine in my hands when I read. I love going to the local book store with a coffee and digging for books or doing research. When I am brainstorming, it is so much easier to scratch out something or add a small detail in between the lines. When I want to send a Thank You Card, for me, it is much more personal when you send a letter through the mail. To add to this, constantly reading on the computer, kills my eyes. Does this mean that the next generation is going to have major eye problems?

I am pro technology. Technology opens students to the world. Nonetheless, I would not like to see paper go.

Hoch's picture
Hoch
Title Teacher from Ohio

I believe as more technology is integrated into a classroom, the less paper and pencil activity their will be. Basic question and answer formatted assessments can be created with interactive whiteboards and individual clicker technology. Many illustrated stories can be read online. Presentations to show what a student has learned can be created with PowerPoint, digital photographs, and Publisher.

I think paper is necessary for documentation and some projects, but I believe the reliance upon paper should change. We are preparing kids for jobs that will be surrounded with technology, some of these jobs are not even created yet. We need to be structuring our schools in that way.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

Paper is going the way of the celluloid collar and the dickie. Better screens will remove eyestrain. Imagine a color-capable Kindle with the resolution of an iPhone4 (retinal display). Our young people do not read paper stuff any more. Go into any popular restaurant and count how many young people have their smart phones out.

Pencils are fast becoming hard to find. I almost never use one.

Yes, you can teach well with paper and pencil or with blackboard and chalk.

Technology in the future will drop the teacher and raise the mentor/coach/helper who stands alongside the technology-based learning software that really helps learning, not memorizing. All that's required is a low-cost gadget (some tablet or other at below $100 or even below $50 for real market penetration) and some inexpensive, web-based learning software that really helps students learn how to learn, learn how to think in many diverse ways, and focus on what's important in the world and their lives.

The mentors arrange for projects, field trips, etc. as well as help guide students through the maze of what to learn, when to learn, and how to learn.

Eric Rouse's picture
Eric Rouse
High school US History teacher in Norfolk, Virginia

Technology has opened many doors in education and the world, creating new jobs and opportunities to learn that others throughout history have not had (your Lincoln reference for example). I appreciate the experience your son had, field trips and hands on experiences are of course infinitely more helpful to a student than an hour spent in the classroom reading from a book or even completing the most differentiated assignment that hits all of the different modalities and levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. That type of experience will not be possible in classes that require a final standard of learning test at the end of the school year. While I agree that going to Yorktown National Battlefield and Victory Center would be a good experience for the kids, and may help them remember some things about the battle, the travel costs would far outweigh the potential savings from cutting out paper and time lost in other classes would be too detrimental to the students. For learning to be that way, classes would need to be rearranged so that you only have one class per day, so as not to infringe on other teachers time. That would address the time in class issue, but not the costs of transporting students around to see different things, the costs of meals, and the insurance necessary to maintain the ability to take those trips. While I am new to your blog, I would hazard a guess that your son is in a Vocational School setting or a college setting, and that this type of trip is not an everyday occurrence.

I agree that there are issues with paper in schools. The costs are prohibitive, the effectiveness of worksheets is certainly questionable, and the sheer number of pieces of paper can be soul crushing. However, there needs to be a viable alternative before we abandon paper. The chalkboard example is key. A one for one trade is not the answer. Some new technology in writing will simply replace paper, not change learning in some fundamental way. Another responder to this blog suggested that we use tablets or handheld pcs, as the students are constantly on smartphones and modern technologies. The concern is, who pays for and provides these materials. I teach in a poor area, and the students will not provide them for themselves. I have experienced the following scenario: A student is loaned a textbook. The student then takes the book to a used bookstore and sells it for $50 to buy drugs. The school is now out the $135 they payed for the book, and the student will have 0 consequences. If the schools put tablet technology in the hands of students, I can see this scenario happening on a huge scale.

I am certain there will be a suitable replacement found at some point in the future, but I am afraid the paper is here to stay.

Helen fernandez's picture

I have always thought about how much paper a school uses, but I never stopped to think about a school with out it. I can't imagine it, even though I'd like to. As a student many years ago i remember being given worksheet after worksheet to complete. Even now as a teacher worksheets are a big part of my teaching, but do they have to be? With all the technology out there plus the students' tech saviness I probably can save my district (and taxpayers) money. Thanks for the wake up call!

hubblitweets's picture
hubblitweets
Helping school and parents communicate

How much time do educators, or school admin spend managing paper? Printing, sending, collecting, sorting? It's gotta be at least a handful of hours a week. How much does that cost the school? Paper, Ink, photocopier repairs, hours of staff time... How many thousands of dollars could be saved if schools had an easy and secure way to go paperless? at least for the mundane things like forms and documents?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

That's an interesting point! I know that I've gained a lot of time and money by moving to a paperless system in my own work at AUNE. We're uber-concious of our carbon footprint so the choice to move away from paper was driven by environmental concerns rather than economic ones. (Not that anyone is complaining about the cost savings!)

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