“We Never Use Pen & Paper”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard the phrase that is the title of this post used as a badge of honor.  I’ve also heard it said this way: “There’s nothing we do with paper and pencil.”  Folks have sworn that they never use, would never use, or would never have students use, pen and paper to further their learning, as if pen and paper were cancer-causing or habit forming.1 What’s creepy is watching other people nod their heads and smile when a speaker says that.  Those folks should challenge the speaker.  Sometimes, we’re just entirely too polite.

The last time I heard this phrase and saw the head nod/smile response was during the Champions for Change event.  My notes are below.  My, ahem, paper notes.  I hope the video of the conversation is posted soon.  

Evernote Snapshot 20131202 162247

Too many proponents of digital tools get stuck in the false either/or dichotomy that suggests that we must abandon paper to embrace the digital.  That’s silly.  Paper is good for lots of things.  Scribbling on a tablet isn’t yet the best way to get thoughts down in a hurry.  Paper is easily sharable and postable in ways that notes on a tablet or laptop aren’t.  

And anyway, the important piece of tool selection is picking the right tool for the right job.  That it’s digital or analog really doesn’t matter all that much.  What matters is that you are making something.2

I never leave my house without a notebook, or, more and more, a tablet computer.  But if I’m only taking one, I’m taking the notebook. It’s where I scribble and wonder and draft and note-take.  When I’m using a pen to do so.  

I wouldn’t even mention this troubling phrase except that I’ve met many teachers turned off by digital things precisely because the people touting them say things like “I never use a pen and paper.”   That phrase rubs lots of people, pen and paper-loving people, the wrong way.  There’s an implied sense that they have to give up what works in order to embrace digital tools.  That’s just wrong.

To those teachers, I’d say don’t drop anything that’s working for you, and don’t be too quick to pick up anything new unless you see that it might have some value.  Us geeks get into our technologies sometimes, but that doesn’t make us right.  

To the rest of us – let’s use better language, particularly if we’re trying to encourage better habits in others and ourselves.  As my school district is beginning our work with our iPad 1:1, I’ve been encouraging people to think about going “paperless.”  My team realized quickly that “paperless” isn’t what we’re after.  We’re after folks choosing the best tool in a bigger toolbox for the job they’re trying to get done.  So instead of “paperless,” we’re starting to say “digital friendly.”  It’s not yet the right phrase, but it is an attempt to break our use of language that characterizes paper as a bad thing.  

How, I wonder, does the language you use get in the way of the thing you’re trying to accomplish?  Let me know in the comments.  

  1. Actually, pen and paper ARE habit forming, but writing is a fine habit that we should all encourage more of. []
  2. Other than just the decision about what tool to use, that is. []

23 thoughts on ““We Never Use Pen & Paper”

  1. Hello, Bud,

    RE: “the right tool for the right job”

    I find myself adding “for the person doing the work” at the end of the sentence. Tool selection is often a personal preference, and the more we can empower choice, the better we’re doing.

    RE “digital friendly” – how about “effective”? I don’t think it’s necessarily great, but I often see rollouts measured by how often hardware is used, instead of how well. The more we can help people see that tech use involves making informed choices from an array of options, the closer we are to having people drive and control their usage patterns.

  2. Hey Bud,

    I enjoyed your ideas in this post—I agree that the either/or dichotomy of analog or digital seems to miss the point, and I have learned to be skeptical anytime I hear teachers bragging “We never _________” (fill in the blank with whatever half-truth you’d like).

    I like to think of eReaders or iPads or whatever as another (admittedly very powerful) tool, instead of one that becomes a holy grail acquired with the misguided mission of replacing everything else that came before.

    Using less paper is a wonderful thing, especially in schools where so much paper is wasted. But personally it is hard to imagine me doing a good job in my English classroom without having my students use pens and paper from time to time and, on certain days, having pens and paper be the focus of how we record or create our ideas. I feel the same way about books printed on real paper, and the disconnect one feels when these texts are presented to us as backlit digitized images preserved behind plates of glass.

    I’m also in the camp of those who believe that there is something psychologically important of being able to formulate characters with your hands, paper and graphite or ink, not unlike what happens in visual art classrooms. Or are they planning on going paperless too?

    Admittedly I have become old-school faster than I predicted. Will pens, paper and books be our generation’s Latin (and proficiency in languages in general) as artifacts once embraced as a necessary and valuable part of a formal and complete education, and then quickly abandoned? I hope not.

    As is usually the case, Vonnegut provides us with the best perspective on issues concerning technology and its analog counterparts. He writes, “By accident, not by cunning calculation, books, because of their weight and texture, and because of their sweetly token resistance to manipulation, involve our hands and eyes, and then our minds and souls, in a spiritual adventure I would be very sorry for my grandchildren not to know about.”
    Brian´s last blog post ..DIY Upcycled Student Notebooks

  3. Students do not write on paper in their daily lives anymore in this digital world. They use phones, tablets, texting, skype, twitter to stay connected to what is important to them. We make them stop in school. I am not sure why. That disconnects school from the world they inhabit and thrive in. Why cannot we understand that…………
    Norman Constantine´s last blog post ..To the “barricades”

  4. We’ve had similar discussion in our district (of course). We’ve not landed on the perfect phrase either, but we do talk about printing (and using paper) with purpose. All too often, folks turn to paper because that’s what we’ve always done — not (as you’ve said) because it’s the right tool for the task.

    I don’t think going paperless is on our immediate horizon, but reducing where it makes sense (and putting those dollars toward the right tool) hopefully is.

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