the human cost

A Note Ahead of Time:
I almost didn't post this, because I was afraid it would seem like an attack on Teach Paperless.  It's not.  I think Shelly Blake-Plock is someone who really gets it.  He understands that going paperless is more than simply using less paper.  It's about a different paradigm of education.

I'm sitting with Mr. Brown and mention, "I hate this march toward industry.  For all my pencil advocacy, I want to conserve paper.  I want a more sustainable way of life. I wonder if the answer is found in the telegraph.  Perhaps information can go paperless."

"We have that already.  It's called vocal chords."

"Seriously Brown, I'd like to believe that in a paper-free world, where all things are electrical, we would reach the point of technological progress that we can evade ecological disaster. I'd like to think that the pencil is just a step toward something better."

"I'd like to believe in leprechauns, but I'm skeptical of them as well," he responds.

"What do you mean?"

"Leprechauns.  Green-clad vertically challenged folk who chase rainbows in Ireland and hoard the world's gold reserves in an a plot to manipulate the currency markets."

"I know about leprechauns.  I'm not seeing your skepticism."

"It's the myth of efficiency.  Factories are more efficient and farms are more effecient and so we would think that this would lead to conservation.  But it doesn't.  We're at the dawn of an environmental disaster.  Replace the methane pollution of horses with horseless carriages. But we've just created a new problem. Yes, the automobile will be more efficient if we keep our same short-distance habits.  But we won't. So, we go paper-free, right.  Sounds good.  But then we switch from a renewable source of trees to coal and oil, which is essentially what's running our city.  People die each year so that you can brew your coffee electronically."

"So, what does that mean for students?"

"It means that we can't propel a myth that the medium we choose is a free one.  There's always a cost.  A cost on our ecology and a cost on our relationships.  It's never neutral.  So, we traded in slates for paper.  Someday we'll trade it in for an electric alternative. The cost isn't always measured in dollars. It's often measured in lives."

"That's pretty fatalistic."

"I know it sounds that way.  But what if we encourage students toward a paradigm of sustainability?  So, you use paper in your class, right?  Figure out a way to teach them the connection between that sheet of paper and the oxygen they breath.  Make them think about how they use resources. So, you get a telegraph.  Remind them that wireless doesn't equal free, either."

"So, how do we do it?"

"For starters, we could try teaching science.  Real science. Teach them the art of observation. And we could quit confusing science with engineering and technology."


  1. I like "Mr. Brown's" comment on not confusing science with engineering, but I'm not sure I see the relevance to your point. Science is about learning how the universe works, engineering is about getting things to do what you want or need. The problems of conservation and waste of resources are more engineering problems than scientific ones.

    (see for my views on Engineering vs. Science)

  2. I am neither a scientist nor an engineer. I do think, however, that learning to observe and learning the connection between our actions and our ecosystem are primarily scientific. Perhaps the solution involves engineering, but seeing the problem involves science.

  3. Mr. Spencer,
    My name is Allison Kirby and I am majoring in elementary education at South Alabama. This summer I am taking Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. Over the course we are learning ways to integrate technology in the classroom. Here is a link to My Blog. I enjoyed your post and I found it very interesting. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  4. You raise many interesting points. There will be unanticipated costs associated with digital and paperless work flows-I think it is important to acknowledge this. It could prove to be a Faustian bargain of sorts-we just don't know what the impact of such a medium shift might be. For example, I was just reading an article about a theory that suggests wireless device communication signals are damaging honey bee production and populations (sorry I can't leave a link-I'm on my phone right now).

  5. @ Allison - I hope you enjoy the blog. I'll check yours out for sure!

    @ Matt - I get the sense that you are a techie and also keenly aware of the ecosystem we all share. I think that's part of why I enjoy your perspective so much.

  6. I find the argument between the environmental cost of paper vs. electronics interesting. Here is a post that argues for using technology over paper in response to a news article criticizing the environmental consequences of technology

    I use very little paper in my technology class, except for copy machine mistakes for building projects. But in the math class I taught this year I found it very difficult to not use paper to show work and solve problems.

  7. My response:

    It's kinda wordy.

    - Shelly

  8. Interesting post, John. Think it is worth remembering that all education costs lives: putting 24 students in one class room means that every hour is a full day of human life used.

    Following the same logic, every two months, a year goes by.

    Kindergarten to High school implies 65 years, retirement age, or an entire human working life (with no holidays taken and no time spent sleeping).

    Any thing that we can to do to leverage up the learning abilities and reduce time waste is immediately multiplied by the number of kids we teach. As both the positive and negative are multiplied, there is a huge importance on our becoming conscious of what we do, and being better than who we were yesterday.