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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

Cindy Wolfgang's picture

[quote]Hey Folks:It was my wife that noticed that I should have used a calculator to do the math. For a school of 100 teachers it would be 2.5 million pieces of paper per year. Astounding!Ben JohnsonSan Antonio, Texas[/quote]

Does that change the cost of paper and printing per year for that school also or was that calculation based on the ream count of 5,000?

Drew's picture

The numbers we have published are averages of what we found during our research - https://www.ebackpack.com/savewithebackpack#

Average daily handout count per student - 10
Average price per black & white print/copy in cents - 3.3
Average price per color print/copy in cents - 9.2
% of copies that are black & white 85

Does that help?

[quote][quote]Hey Folks:It was my wife that noticed that I should have used a calculator to do the math. For a school of 100 teachers it would be 2.5 million pieces of paper per year. Astounding!Ben JohnsonSan Antonio, Texas[/quote]

Does that change the cost of paper and printing per year for that school also or was that calculation based on the ream count of 5,000?[/quote]

Cindy Wolfgang's picture

Thank you. Based on this information, it would appear that the copy and paper cost from the scenario listed in the article of 2.5 million pieces of paper could exceed $100,000 or much more a year per school...an even larger amount that can be invested elsewhere.

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

...but sometimes the best technology to help a student learn something is paper and pencil.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Thomas:

I am sure that in 1560 when pencils were invented in England, it was a pretty spiffy technology. In my attempt to be satirical, I think you missed the message. It isn't about the paper and pencil, it is about teaching and learning- not filling time, keeping students busy or going through the motions of teaching. Seymore Papert stated that computers needed to be like pencils- "tools to think with."

Thanks for the post.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]...but sometimes the best technology to help a student learn something is paper and pencil.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Ms. Catana:

You and me both. I am at a school that is drowning in paper and paperwork. There is no reason that it could not be paperless, other than tradition.

That is why it is difficult to convince schools to go paperless: Tradition!

We just have to keep the pressure on.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Ben, thank you for posting this. I have never thought about how much paper schools use in a year. Even when I was student-teaching, paper use was second nature to me. Every morning I would try to get to school early to beat out the other teachers and typically print handouts for over 100 students--usually more! That's a lot of paper for just three months, let alone a year. If I had had access to laptops or iPads in my classroom daily, I would have tried to use that more than my early morning run to the copy machine. Being paperless surely saves money if done right and the saved money can definitely go to other programs, like buying students classroom laptops.

We have come a long way in technology from when I was in school (which was only 5 years ago). Students today as young as five know how to type and use computers. Teachers now have the capacity to conduct classes on Facebook, have students create blogs reflecting on their learning, and communicate with classrooms across the country and globe! The need to teach students how to use the computer is decreasing, leaving room for teachers to use more innovated technology to facilitate learning.

I think the biggest problem is convincing districts to go paperless. It is a hard thing to fathom for schools who like myself never think too much of it. Also there are students who enjoy the feel of writing and drawing and creating using a blank sheet of paper. How as teachers do we promote technology, while still meeting all the needs of our students? Don't get me wrong, I am all for paperless, but I believe it will be a tough battle at first.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Learn Me Project Teacher:

I thought about this as technology gets introduced into schools and colleges. What excuses do we prefer? A dog ate my homework, or My dog ate the power cord.?

Laptops in every students hands would bring about some interesting excuses...hmmm...

I aint got no juice. I wore the keyboard out. I spilled my coke on the laptop. My little brother drop my laptop. My laptop fell in the pool. My hard drive is full. The cat ate my mouse. The blue screen of death appeared. My computer got worms.

There are probably a lot more

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]"What would replace the crisis of the copy machine jam?"

A virus ate my homework! http://learnmeproject.com/2011/02/16/not-too-optimistic-3/[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Drew:

Thanks for the information. Given your data, this is what I found--

Percent Black and white 0.85
Teachers 100
Per student Daily 10
Students 30
Cost per copy 0.033
Days 180
Total $151,470.00

That is some serious money.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX
[quote]The numbers we have published are averages of what we found during our research - https://www.ebackpack.com/savewithebackpack#Average daily handout count per student - 10

Average price per black & white print/copy in cents - 3.3

Average price per color print/copy in cents - 9.2

% of copies that are black & white 85

Does that help?

[quote][quote]Hey Folks:It was my wife that noticed that I should have used a calculator to do the math. For a school of 100 teachers it would be 2.5 million pieces of paper per year. Astounding!Ben JohnsonSan Antonio, Texas[/quote]

Does that change the cost of paper and printing per year for that school also or was that calculation based on the ream count of 5,000?[/quote][/quote]

nancy's picture

How great that Gideon enjoyed his day out and was enthusiastic about his learning! But how will the teacher document and assess the results of the day? How will s/he justify to the back-to-basics people that the time and expense was worth it? What is there on the state assessment that speaks to this experience?

The question is not paper vs paperless; it is the method of learning.

Unless there is a complete change of mind-set we will be doing the same old thing in new media. We need children working in groups or individually to learn new tasks and create new ideas based on the old. They still need to know how to use a pencil as well as a computer. They need to know how to find the main idea, to recognize persuasive text, to add, subtract, multiply and divide. They need to enjoy reading and to know how to find information in books as well as online. But more than that, they need to know how to evaluate that information and how to synthesize based upon what they have learned.

I teach gifted children from kindergarten through sixth grade in four buildings. Whereas classroom teachers have the use of computers on carts and in computer labs, I am far down on the list for computer access. However, that isn't a problem as the only thing that computers have done so far, in my observation, is provide drill and practice, a research source, and an alternative to writing on paper.

Far too much of that paper and too much of that technology time are devoted to testing.

The education system is a self-replicating unit. Those who were comfortable and successful in school are the ones who return to the classroom as teachers and will continue to teach in the way they were taught. Those who were not good students will find life work far away from the classroom setting. If only they would return to teach us how to do things differently and to reach them as well!

We cannot ignore developmental practices. Children today still need concrete before abstract, but I suspect that the new brain wiring is changing that to some degree. What does concrete mean to a child who has had technology from the first moments? Do we need to teach them differently than the child who has not seen a computer before entering school? We still have economic and social differences and the haves and the have-nots will still come to the classroom in varying states of readiness.

I learned to tell time on an analog clock and when I see a digital clock I translate that to the way I learned. 9:40 is twenty to ten. Today's children tell time digitally. They understand the passage of time differently. Do they need to know analog? Is it a second language to them? How many of the other things that we have traditionally accepted as required knowledge are expendable, yet we spend valuable classroom time teaching and testing those very concepts, ad nauseum?

Most of the paper I use is to document and report, although it is also frequently necessary for student planning and creation. We can't keep schematics on individual whiteboards. I have recently started documenting process and result in video and digital photos to share with parents and to cover my back when necessary. There are always those who think you aren't doing anything if you don't have paperwork to show!

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