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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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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

The key is to get the students to go beyond the "documentation" using computer OR pencil / paper (or shovel / coal). My experience is at the college level but that is not important here I don't think. First I used the threaded discussion option on Blackboard WebCT to encourage 24/7 considerations of project topics and team composition. The end result with 80+ students was almost entirely individual idea documentation. About 5-10 students commented on other postings; another 5-10 NEVER even read the postings let alone posting themselves! OK so this didn't go well; so they were assigned to submit electronically a proposal for project type, brief justification on reasoning, and proposed team composition. This they did reluctantly with a few still not included. After topics and teams were finalized, individual team Blackboard WebCT accounts were set up for each team - with me having access as well. With them clearly informed that (a) I would be monitoring use and (b) I expected them to use these sites to develop their projects and edit reports and the like, about one-third of the teams never used the site; of the remainder only maybe two or three teams even remotely used the site's potential.

SOOOOOOOO ..., I'd say the computer with its Internet link can be used with positive impact on learning IF they are helped to understand that potential through preceding guided exercises helping them discover that value. 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. But then again, I've read recently that students are interested only in social network usage. I know Twitter has group or list options but how that is linked to report development is beyond my knowledge at this point; possibly some of these internet cooperation applications might be used.

BOTTOM LINE: The 24/7 interaction possible with Internet access these days makes the use of technology to enhance the overall learning is possible IF the students buy into uses that go beyond paper and pencil documentation.

Joel Heinrichs's picture

It's clear from Gideon's engineering day that paperless learning engages the student at a different level--developing a better learning environment. Alternatives to paper and pencil learning, like Web 2.0 tools, will not only increase student engagement but more engage the teacher as well. It's a big change but well worth it!

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

Good, thought-provoking article. What would you do if you didn't have paper? How can you make your classes more experiential?

The problem with the example, a great example by the way, is that classes cannot do this every day. It just takes too much time. You certainly should provide as many such experiences as time and budget allow without impinging too much on other learning opportunities in other areas.

Here's where technology comes to the rescue. You might be able to take four science field trips a year, but you can have many more virtual field trips to supplement them. You may be able to have students do one science experiment a week, but you can provide them with many prerecorded real experiments to do as well along with highly interactive software that allows for point-by-point data collection using their own care and judgment. That way, they get the same authentic science investigation experience spread over enough experiments to make some real serious conclusions and, hopefully, discoveries on their own.

Do as much real-world experiential (and true-learning) activities as you can. Supplement them with the virtual world but not, at least in science, with simulations. Simulations are fake science as typically used in K-12 labs.

Simulations are good for training pilots, for visualizing the unseeable, and for using as models to compare with real data. They should not be used as a source of "unknown" data for experimental purposes. Only data from the material world will suffice for that, and students should take it themselves, not have it given to them.

Thanks, Ben. Keep us all thinking about ways to keep our students thinking.

Kayla Anglin's picture

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.

Lacey's picture

I strongly believe learning is much better and interesting with interactions. Without paper we could save a lot of tree's and money. You wouldn't have to worry about losing your paper or saying "My dog ate my home work" line. You would have it all stored on your computer. There is so many great new technology and i don't see anything wrong with using it for education. Also being able to work with the experiment instead of wasting time on paper and not having any physical interest. You don't grow up to write on paper with pencil's , you interact with your job. Not sit at a desk and write with a pencil. I think students should be able to learn from experience, the brain has much better memory by actually doing than seeing. (or most do)
Why spend 13 years of school learning to do something useless when you could be actually learning how to do you whatever you're interest may be. Why teach something that isn't going to be used when you're older and capable of a job. Instead of teaching them to write on paper , why not let them actually experience the lesson. A lot more students could take more interest.
But, i think this is a good point!

Carol Krawczyk's picture
Carol Krawczyk
Parent of a middle school student with autism in Pennsylvania

A lovely reference that supports the use of computers/video games as inspiration for teaching kids today is What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee. The author shows us how the games engage children of all ages and abilities, and provokes us into looking at ways to better engage our students.

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