They're Still Pencil Natives

As my school shifts toward one-to-one pencil to student ratio, a group of teachers come to me with their concerns about a lack of decent pencil skills. I hadn't predicted this. Students are snapping pencils and saying they just don't know how to use them.  Others have turned papers into projectiles.  Still others have turned to playing violent games such as Hang Man.

"I had two students forget to save their documents," a teacher mentions.

"Could that be an issue of their age rather than a pencil skill? I mean, a hundred years from now we'll probably still have students who forget to put their names on their papers." I ask.

"Another one couldn't figure out how to put his documents in a folder. I have others who just leave every document on the desk top. Aren't they supposed to be Pencil Natives?"

"I heard that's just a myth," another teacher adds.  "Turns out the 'Pencil Native' generation isn't all that technologically savvy at all.  It's just hype created by pencil pushers hell bent on ruining slate-based learning." I know the study she's referring to and it seems to prove little more than what I already experience: students still have gaps in their ability to use pencils in meaningful ways.

The gripe fest continues until I ask the teacher, "What is their native language?"

"English," a teacher adds.  "Some of them Italian and German, but mostly English."

"And do you still have to teach them grammar and spelling?"


"You don't say?  You mean they don't pop out of the womb diagramming sentences?"

"No, but . . ."

"And what is their native country?"

"Most of them are from here."

"Do we still teach civics?  I mean, if they are American, they should know all about democracy and the bicameral legislature and the writ of habeas corpus."

"Oh no, we still have to teach them that."

"Could it be that one's status as a native has more to do with comfort, culture and values and less to do with skills?  When I look at my students, they are comfortable with pencils.  They identity with the modernist, sketchy-gray worldview.  They understand conceptually the notion of portable information via the telegraph and telephone.  It doesn't mean they are information engineers with perfect penmanship, however."

Natives still need to learn the language.  They need to learn to think critically and become better citizens.  Pointing out their lack of skills doesn't take away their social context or generational identity. Instead, it suggests what we already know: that we need to teach students to think deeply about the tools they use and like any good citizen, I want them to think about how tools are shaping their reality, their relationships and their beliefs about love and truth.  I want them to criticize their pencil nation and determine when it is the right time to abandon the values of their techno world and recover what is buried in the earth under the industrial carpet of their factory school.


  1. Thanks for your insight! In my recent technology class, many other teachers were saying "oh, just throw the software at them, they'll pick it up!" I had to disagree, over and over and over.

    Technology culture is related in some ways to "real" culture. My kids fit your description of being more comfortable with digital communication, but most of their parents don't use computers at home.

    Computers are marketed to this demographic as "entertainment centers." They can download music and movies with the best, but concepts like pressing "enter" to go to the next line in a word-processing document are outside their realm of experience.

    I get a lot of grief for suggesting that we teach basic software and typing skills (of course, I also get scorned for teaching handwriting in middle school), but I believe in providing students more ways to express their thoughts and opinions. Of course, I could always use that time to squeeze in more standardized test practice. That would make people happy.

  2. Hi Tom - you might like these 2 posts from my blog that are on a similar subject:

    So as parents and educators we monitor and teach ethical, appropriate , safe use

    Paper, Pencils and Books May Not Boost Students Achievement