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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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