Paper, Technology, and the Little Humans We are Teaching…

Pencil, paper, backpack … tablet? Today’s classroom necessities are a far cry from the good old slate and chalk. In many ways, technology has opened up learning far wider than we could have imagined; sister classrooms across the world, parents who can check on assignment schedules online, special education innovations that bring a new level of access to so many. There’s no doubt technology has brought many benefits to school.

Yet what is being lost in the transition?

Financial considerations aside for a moment – there are many schools and families that simply can’t afford the cost of all this technology – students still need paper to maximize their learning potential.

“Advances in laptops and technology are pushing screens into schools like never before,” writes Steve Drummond on “So what does this drive toward digital classrooms mean for that oldest and simplest of touch screens: a plain old sheet of paper?”

As Drummond began researching this question, he uncovered many of the benefits of paper in the classroom, especially the value of taking notes by hand. He cites a report by the Paper and Packaging Board that shows a significant preference for print when it comes to learning. Among the facts Drummond cites from the report:

  • 96% of parents think that paper is “an essential part of children being able to achieve their educational goals.”
  • Among junior high and high school students, 70% prepare for tests by taking handwritten class notes, and 60 percent make and use flashcards.
  • 50% of seventh- and eighth-graders agree they “learn information best if they write it down by hand.”
  • College students like paper, too: 81%, for example, say they always or often use paper tools to prepare for exams.

Image source: “Paper and Productive Learning: The Third Annual Back-to-School Report,” by the Paper and Packaging Board, 2017 edition.

It’s important to note here that the parents and kids surveyed for this report are thoroughly modern – the parents are largely of the Millennial generation, while the kids were born digitally native. They use technology throughout their day with ease, and there is no romanticizing “the good old days” for them. They are omnichannel learners in the truest sense, so these preferences seem especially significant – even though studies show that technology can actually hamper student performance.

And many teachers agree, including Rebecca Mieliwocki, 2012’s National Teach of the Year who had this to say about the issue:

“Take notes. On paper.”

“Students who attempt to copy everything have a difficult time after the fact putting that information in order,” she explains. “Even worse, studies show students who copy lectures verbatim have worse test scores on the same content as students who craft less wordy but more contextually organized notes. The act of manipulating what you hear into bits of information that make sense to you is the key to deeper learning and true understanding.”

Previous research supports the value of print in the classroom, as digital consumption has been shown to diminish recall and drain mental resources. And some college professors are lobbying for students to leave the laptop in the bag and engage more deeply in the immediate learning experience.

As Drummond notes, technology has done some marvelous things.

“Of course, technology and screens have great potential to improve learning in areas like math or special education. And pioneers like Sal Khan have demonstrated how computers can reach millions of students in ways print never could,” he writes.

“Smartphones, text messages and other technologies are changing schools and learning in profound ways: in areas like student engagement and financial aid and parental involvement,” Drummond continues.

I can’t imagine banning technology in the classroom; that would be counterproductive, and it would put our kids at a serious competitive disadvantage. It is important, however, to understand that paper still matters for learning.

“We are concerned by our finding that children who only read on-screen are significantly less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to be strong readers,” wrote Jonathan Douglas, the National Literacy Trust Director in 2013. “Good reading skills and reading for pleasure are closely linked to children’s success at school and beyond. We need to encourage children to become avid readers, whatever format they choose.”

Advocate for your kids; keep lots of (real) books around the house. Let them draw and doodle and dream in paper and ink. Paper doesn’t just improve our ability to learn; it can actually help make us more human. And at the end of the day, that’s the best kind of education we can offer.