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The Right Technology May Be a Pencil

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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As a tech integration specialist and a computer lab teacher, one can imagine that I have a special place in my heart for bringing current technologies into the classroom. At the same time, I find that sometimes pencil and paper do just as good of a job.

It's important to remember that sometimes just because we have access to new technologies does not mean that older technologies won't suffice. Too often we get so excited by the fancy gadgets that we have access to that we forget that sometimes a pencil and paper will suffice.

For example, my friend Karen McMillan teaches blogging with her middle schoolers by having them write using pencil and paper first. Karen has her students write paper blog posts and then has them leave comments in analog format in preparation for their "real" blogging experiences using Google Sites. As Karen told me on Twitter, "It helps them visualize blogging in a medium that they are more comfortable with. Plus... it's fun!"

In my lab, students receive a folder for each project with a project overview, rubric and templates. Technically I could host all of that online, but when managing a project, having the paper there really is just more functional and effective. Perhaps if I was in a 1:1 setting things might be different, but with 45 minutes twice a week, paper is just the easiest way to share an make information easily accessible. In addition, I often have students plan their ideas out on paper before they attempt it on the computer. Often, when transferring skills, this makes it easier for students to successfully complete a complex project.

Paper and pencil also lends itself to exit slips, as Jen Roberts suggested to me on Twitter. While I sometimes have the exit ticket completed online, I also use checklists as a form of exit ticket. Other teachers in my building use exit tickets to quickly assess who feels comfortable with the material from the class period or from a particular lesson. Sometimes, too, having students fill out a paper and pencil Venn Diagram to compare and contrast and then discuss a topic is powerful and requires only the technologies of pencil and paper.

This is important to remember: At one time, pencils and paper were a kind of technology. My friend John Spencer's brilliantly funny and poignant book, Pencil Me In, follows that trajectory. His main character is a "pencil integrator" and is working hard to give his students access to this new technology, often to the chagrin of his colleagues. Through this metaphor, Spencer describes the journey that Tom takes and how he discovers that as much as he loves the bright and shiny new pencils, sometimes chalk slates do the trick just fine.

It is not so much about the tool and what it can do, but more about the purpose for using the tool. Obviously, if students want to share pictures of a project they are working on, a digital camera and a blog make a lot more sense than a flipbook. Still, don't count out older technologies just because you are trying to be a "21st Century Educator." Sometimes a dry erase marker and a wipe-off slate will do the job just fine.

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Candice C.'s picture
Candice C.
Guahan Educator

I greatly enjoyed your insight. I agree that sometimes good old paper and pencil leads to great learning. I still utilize this method before I write or post my papers (I'm currently working towards my Masters in Education). I still use the web method to try and organize my thoughts. I make notes in the margins of my readings in pencil. In an effort to reduce the use of paper I tried to read an article online and highlight or make my usual notes using the technology on the PDF just wasn't the same. I still need to see a tangilbe copy to help me organize my thoughts for my papers.

A good sharpened pencil and blank sheet of paper is how I start off every assignment or paper. It's always there when I need it.

Jed's picture

This is my very first time commenting on Edutopia, but this subject compels me to chime in. As I sit in my classroom early in the morning (while I should be doing something more productive), I look around and see my projector, Elmo, speakers, 2:1 laptop availability and universal wifi access. Yet I also see globes, paper maps, books, whiteboards, and my 7th grade's old-school poster project on the short and long term effects of the Black Plague under construction. Parents often feel the need to push technological know-how on their children and in the classroom, but what they fail to realize is that by the time their kids enter the workforce, it will all be changed - just look at the exploding popularity of iPads in the past YEAR. Who knows what will be next? Rather than focus on the technology itself, we need to give students the mental skill set and confidence to figure out how to use and take advantage of what's around the corner - whatever that may be. Such skills - call them "21st Century" if you like - can be taught and learned with no "technology" whatsoever. In fact, I would argue that in terms of communication, collaboration, and critical thinking on projects, going "old school" with pencils, paper, construction paper, books, maps, old National Geographics or whatever is just as effective as anything computer-based. When the two are combined, great things happen - but let's keep the focus on the task and objectives at hand, versus the "gee whiz" factor of technology. Kids get enough screen time as it as home; do they really need THAT much more at school?

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

I'm honored, Jed, that my piece inspired your first comment here at Edutopia! I agree that we need to move away from teaching tools and toward teaching how to think about tools. Our students should have the problem solving and critical thinking skills to approach any tool, device, whatever with the ability to figure it out and apply it in meaningful ways. I use Open Office and Libre Office in my lab, but I don't doubt that my students (once they figure out the new, convoluted MS Word toolbar) can easily navigate any Word Processing program because they understand the application of Word Processing. This also applies to blogs, wikis, or any place they see a WYSIWYG editor.

As for paper, books, pencils and 'old school' technology, as long as they serve your needs as a learner, there's definitely no need to get 'fancy' by adding a piece of technology.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

L Wilson's picture
L Wilson
First grade teacher in Tennessee

I enjoyed reading the comments. This subject particularly interests me as I have begun my Master's degree and am taking a class in technology. I am from the "old school" and have limited technology training. However, I do feel that we need a variety of methods in our instruction which includes modern technology. After all, we are in a digital age at the present time in history. I do agree that sometimes the pencil and paper method is best. With my first graders I like using individual whiteboards rather than paper and pencil for some activities. Other times using specific-to-the-subject software really enhances a lesson. Students need to be exposed to many different methods that cater to their different learning styles. This may include "older school" types of technology or more modern technology experiences.

Patti Swanson's picture
Patti Swanson
First grade teacher, International School, Seoul, Korea

It was a wonderful to read your article. I found myself shaking my head, 'yes, yes, yes!' in agreement.

I am a first grade teacher, currently getting an IT certificate, and have struggled with the amount of technology I should incorporate into my classroom. Six and seven year olds need to be hands-on, and a pencil or a marker are sometimes the best ways for them to develop the fine motor skills they will require later on.

Your point about the pencil being a modern technology at one time brings to mind what a friend said to me in a discussion over hand-held books and Kindle books. I had said although I love my Kindle and use it far more than I do paperbacks, I miss the sound of turning pages, the smell of books, as well as the ability to just throw one down or stuff it into a beach bag. Kindle's take a bit more care and gentleness. Her reply to me: "I'm sure the stone cutters felt the same way when papyrus became popular." Cute.

Anyway, I think your point about using the correct tool rather than just technology for technology sake is well taken. There are many things that are high-tech to my first-graders that they would pass up in a heartbeat for a little white board with erasable pens.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

I love the papyrus analogy! I would consider white boards and try erase markers some pretty new technology, we just assume that all 'technology' has to be digital. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Andrew's picture

While technology can be a very useful tool to advance 21st century learning. educators should ensure that important skills like writing are enforced. back in the days we used to have a subject called penmanship in primary (elementary) school. during this time we were taught how to write legibly in cursive, how to form both lower and upper case letters, how to write in a straight line and keeping our handwriting uniformed. A lesson may involve forming upper and upper case letters only or writing certain words or maybe we have to reproduce an almost perfect well-written paragraph skillfully written on the board by the teacher. over time many of us develop beautiful cursive handwriting. I really do not see the use of the pencil going anywhere, it will always be with us therefore we should not sacrifice this skill for technology. Educators should continue to create lessons to include even minimal use of the pencil or pen as a way of continuing this very important and relevant practice.

tia .h's picture

I'm more a student than a teacher at the moment but this topic interests me because while more and more advanced tools can be integrated into the classroom these days, there is still a matter of availability in many countries. The advantages of having those tools facilitating our teaching and learning are indeed numerous, but when such things are not available, we just have to make the most of what resources we do have. And what I wanted is for the students to appreciate what they have around them and use the technology they come in contact with wisely. As for the teachers, the responsibility as an educator is not lessening a bit despite the absence of such technology. We're now dealing with what described as digital native generation, in the era of digital itself but I personally believe that "the old ways" still hold countless value which cannot be replaced by any kind of technology advancement.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Mary-Beth,
Thank you for sharing this. I just wanted to add one thought. I'm a teacher in a 1:1 environment, but I still find the pencil an indispensable tool - mostly for things like mind mapping and brainstorming. I know there are lots of tools out there for this but I - and more importantly - my students seem to keep coming back to the quick-drawn sketches. That might change over time, but for the moment, the humble pencil still has a place in our technological tools.

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