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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

Helen Kurtz's picture

For John i.e. "Possibly today's K-12 students are more tech savvy and this use for chats and threaded discussions and online report development and the like will go more positively and smoothly." I would hope so, as I teach students (9-12) with discussion boards and I do have to instruct them in the process as well as "creating" and responding to others. Furthermore, you can be assured they are also gaining more knowledege about the academic value of computing (not just the social as they are so prone to). To the students who commented (Lacey and Kayla), you are right about the saving $$$ on paper, wrong about the number of excuses students can devise (i.e. the dog ate it), but all in all glad you can see some benifits that I also see. There are many advantages to going paperless and bookless but we adults need to be more knowledgable about how to use all of the technological tools available and how to share this knowledge with our students.

Alex Pappas's picture
Alex Pappas
Seventh grade English teacher- Illinois

I completely agree that teachers, speaking from my district, rely heavily on paper/pencil. Our district doesn't have the technology for students to work on computers and when they go home, I know some of my students do not have computers to write a paper on. I really like the idea getting away from the constant tradition of paper/pencil, but it is very hard to do when I actually look at my school day. I do many alternative assignments that go alongside the paper/pencil notion of the school day. For example, I have students get into groups and create tableau scenes and act out scenes. If this is the activity for the day, they have to still write a detailed explaination as to why they scene is important to the overall theme of the novel. I have branched off before and allowed a verbal explaination, but some of my students really need the written practice. I would love to branch into a technology based classroom if my district moves in that direction!

Alex Pappas's picture
Alex Pappas
Seventh grade English teacher- Illinois

Thanks for bringing this book up! I am interested to read it!

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

I agree that 833 pieces of paper per student per year is far too many!

Still, I think the real distinction to be made is not between paper/pencil and electronic/experiential work, but between meaningful work and busywork. Paper and pencil can be fine tools for taking notes or jotting down questions or ideas; the note-taking process can make reading and studying more active, allowing the student (as I learned in college) to retain more of the content of what is read. The WSJ ran an article a while back on some research showing that writing things out by hand imprints them on the brain in a way that highlighting or typing does not.

But a page of multiplication problems given to a student who has already mastered multiplication, just to keep him busy, is a waste of time.

One paperless teaching practice I love is reading aloud to children. I'm convinced it tunes the ear to written language and builds vocabulary, allowing kids to better make the transition from simple readers to more challenging books. Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook makes a good case for taking time to read aloud during the school day, as well as at home.

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

Kayla:

From what I understand, Google has many tools that would be absolute fits for education. Can you imagine students collaborating on a document and then the teacher grading that document for final revision, all on line...? There is still the digital divide, but even still, computers are readily available.

Thanks for the comment.

[quote]Love the article, I think the schools are consuming to much paper. It's better to get out there and experience it first hand. Even if you can't do that, using things like googledocs saves HUGE amounts of paper.[/quote]

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

Gloria:

I know why so much paper is used and I agree-- it is way too much. I also agree that my sataristic poke at teachers who do not believe they are teaching or better stated do not believe students are learning unless paper is involved in some way, really isn't about paper at all.

You correctly got to the sore spot, and paper is just a symptom of a much greater illness. Teachers have so many teaching options that it is cause for malpractice if all they can come up with is paper and pencil learning activities.

The other misused and over-used culprit of student boredom is talking--i.e. the teacher talking, and talking and talking... ad nauseam.

This site a perfect place to find solutions for the above ills prevalent in schools today.

Reading out loud to the students is an awesome activity, if you do it the right way--it has to be dramatic and the teacher has to really ham it up. That is what has to be modeled to the students. Then watch the student ham it up!

Thanks for the post!

[quote]I agree that 833 pieces of paper per student per year is far too many!

Still, I think the real distinction to be made is not between paper/pencil and electronic/experiential work, but between meaningful work and busywork. Paper and pencil can be fine tools for taking notes or jotting down questions or ideas; the note-taking process can make reading and studying more active, allowing the student (as I learned in college) to retain more of the content of what is read. The WSJ ran an article a while back on some research showing that writing things out by hand imprints them on the brain in a way that highlighting or typing does not.

But a page of multiplication problems given to a student who has already mastered multiplication, just to keep him busy, is a waste of time.

One paperless teaching practice I love is reading aloud to children. I'm convinced it tunes the ear to written language and builds vocabulary, allowing kids to better make the transition from simple readers to more challenging books. Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook makes a good case for taking time to read aloud during the school day, as well as at home.[/quote]

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

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 Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ms. Catania's picture
Ms. Catania
Ed Tech Masters Student

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.

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

There are times when the use of paper makes perfect sense. However, my concern with paper is that it is often just a small step away from "busy work"; that is photocopies of "work" with little if any relation to the stated aims of the lesson.
The experiences in Mike Schmoker's article were, unfortunately, very similar to my own. We need to align our practice to our stated goals. If that requires paper and paper is also the best way to do it - fine. If not we use other methods. I suspect that this would not necessarily involve technology - careful planning using "backwards design", group work and engaging learning experiences will lead to positive results.

Rhoonda Howard's picture
Rhoonda Howard
6th Grade Language Arts/Social Studies; 8th Grade Language Arts

We waste paper in school. Too many copies! Schmoker stresses reading, discussing, and then writing. Without computers (only one in my classroom - mine!) students use paper. Each student brings a spiral notebook, comp book, or steno pad. We respond in writing to almost everything we read, and that one notebook seems to be enough. We retrieve paper from recycling boxes and use it for exit passes, brainstorming and drafting paper, note-taking, vocab terms... whatever we can. At the same time I sign up for our computer lab WHENEVER it is available. I teach in a middle school of 900 students with one lab of 36 computers. Until my district catches up with technological needs, my students and I will continue to rely on paper. Love the idea of paperless, but my students have to write. Thank goodness for paper!

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