it's not the pencils that make it interesting

Gertrude the Cognitive Achievement New Data-driven Year-round Learning Acquisition Nuanced Development Specialist (or CANDY LAND Specialist for short)  calls us in for an emergency meeting.  "Emergency" is a misnomer.  No carnage.  No dangling limbs.  Just a meeting to go over motivational strategies on our high-stakes testing week.

"The issue isn't with the test.  Kids are checked-out.  They're bored.  We haven't given them any incentive to learn.  I read a magazine article by a guy who has never actually taught in a classroom about how schools are paying kids to do school work," a teacher suggests.

"I like that idea," another teacher adds.

"Let it mirror the factory," Gertrude points out.

I step in, "We could be motivating all the time.  I mean, we could make class meaningful.  We don't need to bribe them or threaten them through extortion.  We could start with autonomy and meaning and make sure things are challenging. "

Mrs. Jackson adds, "Tom has a point.  His kids seem to be really into their learning."

"They have pencils," Gertrude says.  "Every kid would be excited if they had a shiny new pencil and some fancy iParchment.  Let's just get a set of notebooks for everyone.  We won't even need desktops for everyone, right?  Well, we don't have the money.  So, we need some cheap solutions."

And that's the issue.  Cheap solutions.  Chincy answers. Flimsy bandages on open wounds.

I answer, "It's not about pencils.  It's about why we learn.  A student rewarded to do work will learn two things: that learning is about work completion and that learning demands a reward.  To me, that's a really dangerous lesson. We need to rethink motivation."

"Loving learning is great, but it won't mean higher scores, Tom."

"Maybe it will.  If they love learning, the test will seem easy.  They'll pass it regardless."

"Look, I'm a curriculum specialist.  It's what I specialize in.  I know about curriculum and I know about motivation. Where is your data to back it up?"

"I'm a teacher.  I'm not a specialist.  I don't specialize in anything.  I don't know everything about data and assessment.  But I know kids and I have a hunch that they aren't learning because they are bored."

"I'm glad you have hunches, but our jobs are on the line with Caravan to the Top.  Hunches and puppies and dandelions are all cute, but we have a test to pass. So, can we move on to motivational strategies?" she asks the group.

*     *     *

Here's the deal: My students enjoy my class, but I'm often surprised by this.  I don't go into it asking myself, "How can I make this fun?"  We don't use pencils for Hang Man (the uber-conservative Temperance Movement folks would complain of supporting violence) or Tic Tac Toe.  We use them for writing and communicating and solving problems.

I do, however, ask myself, "What matters?  What is important?  Why are students learning this?"  and on a good day, I bring them into that dialog.  Pencils are a part of it, but they are a small part of it.  Ultimately, it is the deeper drive for meaning that makes "pencil integration" such a strong motivating force.


  1. Excellent. Very clever dissection. Thanks "Tom".

    Even though I have been skeptical about the introduction of these devices, I can see that you are using pencils merely as a tool to enhance active learning and pupil engagement and empowerment.

    I do worry, however, that pupils will lose the ability to commit to memory the learning of the past. We may now be at a turning point in human history.

    Question: How do children keep their devices sharpened? What do you do when they forget to bring their knives to school? What are the punishments and consequences?

  2. Hi!
    Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed reading this post. Everything you argued for is something that is very important to me! If children cannot ENJOY learning then why should they keep doing it. Oh yes I know out of fear of the punishment they will receive or better yet the fear of not being rewarded. It has gotten ridiculous at how much time and effort is put into coming up with "rewards" for children to learn when all that really needs to happen is a LOVE OF LEARNING!

  3. I really enjoyed this post and your blog. I liked your point that it is the deeper drive for meaning that makes "pencil integration" a strong motivating force. Students usually aren't going to improve or comprehend information if there isn't meaning behind what they're learning. Here's a link to my class blog: