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A conditioned response: Pen and paper

Posted on: July 18, 2015

Last week I volunteered for a school’s career guidance event for students. The students chose who they wanted to interview in half-hour intervals and we shared our hearts out.

A teacher inserted himself into my group’s discussion. As we meandered from one topic to another, that teacher declared this about his students: “They prefer pen and paper.”

No, they do not. Students have been conditioned to accepting them. The Principal of Change articulated this in a recent blog entry:

many of our students are so used to “school” that something outside the lines of what they know terrifies them just as much as any adult. If school has become a “checklist” for our students (through doing rubrics, graduation requirements, etc.), learning that focuses on creation and powerful connections to learning, not only take more effort, but more time, which sometimes frustrates many students.


The problem with... by horrigans, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License   by  horrigans 

There is an immediacy to paper which needs to be examined in more ways than one. If you have a notebook or scrap ready, there is quickness of use and illustration that is hard to beat. Some might also value the feel of paper as a form of immediate recognition.

But paper is also immediate in that what happens there immediately stops there. There is no hyperlinking or ease of editing, copying, and sharing. The affordances of paper, as wonderful as they are, also have limited pedagogy: Go where I say, stay where you are, write neatly, do not copy, do not share, etc.

Paper is comforting because it does not push pedagogy to new ground, so schools use a lot of it. Other than the newspaper industry, I do not know any other organization that relies on so much paper. OK, maybe the toilet paper industry.

Ultimately, schools justify the pen and paper mode of instruction because of the pen and paper exams. This is despite the increasingly non-pen and paper life and work that awaits learners when they move on.

Video source

Saying kids prefer pen and paper is like saying they would rather use encyclopedias instead of Google or Wikipedia. (BTW, they know the limitations of those tools better than teachers might expect).

Just ask enough of our kids the same questions the teens were asked in the video above. Their responses might not be as colourful as the ones in the video, but you are likely to get similar responses.

Like the video, you will get a few responses about paper-form books based on nostalgia and tactility. But these come from a place of honesty and passion, not from conditioning by a schooling system that refuses to change. These come from students who learn how to think by themselves instead of providing conditioned responses.

Do we assume nostalgia to be important enough not to change? Do teachers have a right to recreate their own world instead of preparing kids for theirs? I borrow another quote from The Principal of Change in the same blog entry:

if we do not challenge our students in the learning they do in school, what are we preparing them for? What mindset will we actually create in our students? It is important, if not crucial, to really listen and act upon student voice…

How much longer are we going to maintain conditions for “pen and paper” conditioned responses?

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