Pencil Sharpeners

It was eight years ago now that I heard Richard Culatta speak at EduCon. At the time, he was the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the US Department of Education. Now, he’s the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education.

In his little talk in the cafeteria of the Science Leadership Academy all those years ago, Culatta talked about pencils. We’re all familiar with pencils. I love a freshly sharpened Ticonderoga. Pencils are precise. They’re great for detail work. But after a few minutes of writing, pencils get fuzzy. The sharp point rounds over, and the writing just isn’t as clear. So it’s off to the pencil sharpener. A few seconds later, we have a new, sharp point, and we’re back in business.

Photo credit: Cygnus921 on Flickr.

But the pencil sharpener is annoying. So we look for ways to improve that process. We switch from the standard pencil sharpener — a blade attached to a small chunk of plastic — to a mechanical one with a hand crank. And then, we upgrade from that to an electric one. We stop buying pencils at the dollar store. We use harder leads to try to make the point last longer. We refine the sharpener design to get the crispest lines possible without tearing the paper.

And we can keep going. We can try mechanical pencils. We can use more resilient materials for the lead that have better performance and longer point life. We can make laser-focused pencil sharpeners. We could spend years refining the process and building the perfect solution.

But no matter how much effort we put in, it’s never going to be a pen.

Pens are great too. They’re smoother to write with. They’re easier to read. They don’t have to be sharpened. The tips don’t break off when you put them in your pocket. I use pens a lot more than I use pencils.

What I don’t try to do is make pens and pencils work like each other. Erasable pens suck. If you want to be able to erase, use a pencil. Mechanical pencils are annoying. If you want a retractable writing point, and you don’t want to sharpen it, just use a pen. When to try to adapt the tool to do things it’s not supposed to do, you get frustrated.

And the same is true for digital tools. If you hand a device to a student that has all of the abundance of the information age baked in, you can’t use it to test what the student remembers. It’s the wrong tool for that. Or, if you give students tools that foster communication and collaboration, and then disable all of the functionality to keep them from communicating and collaborating, what have you gained?

We’re starting to see some fatigue when it comes to educational technology. We’re starting to back away from the idea that there’s a technical solution to every challenge. Maybe every student doesn’t need ubiquitous access to technology. Maybe there isn’t an app for everything. Maybe there’s some value in disconnecting.

I’ve always thought that the primary value of technology in education was to drive instructional change. But maybe we don’t want instructional change. Maybe we just need a reliable pencil sharpener.