Daniel Lemire's blog

, 8 min read

Should our kids use pencils or keyboards?

In Montreal, most kids have to write on paper using a pencil. They have paper dictionaries. My kids have spent an enormous amount of time learning to write in cursive using pencils, and no time at all (in school) learning to touch type with a keyboard.

I do have pens, that I use to take notes on post-its. But that is about all. All my notes are in electronic form, they are searchable, and I have an integrated spell-check everywhere. I expect that anyone who writes all day solely using pencil and paper is either an artist or someone close to retirement.

On this note, my kids swear that most of their teachers can’t touch type (type on a keyboard without looking at it) while they have been able to touch type before they could write in cursive.

When I was a kid, I owned a typewriter, and later a computer (a TRS-80). Whenever I could, I would do my assignments on a typewriter or computer. The result was invariably nicer looking and more reusable. Typing used to be a skill limited to a few secretaries, but it is now ubiquitous in all walks of life. I never imagined that 30 years later, my kids would still have to write long texts using pencil and paper. I should qualify this statement: students with diagnosed learning disabilities, and that’s a sizeable fraction of all students these days, can use a computer and a keyboard in class. My kids are envious. Why can’t they use a computer? Why indeed!

They are now learning to do algebra, by hand, as if you couldn’t trivially solve algebraic equations on a computer. I am a computer scientist and I was trained as a mathematician, but I never solve quadratic equations on paper. The risk of mistake is too high. I rely on a computer. Literally, anyone can go to WolframAlpha, enter an equation, and get instantly the correct answer back. The challenge in modern-day mathematics is elsewhere. The dirty error-prone algebra is better done by computers. No engineer or accountant could remain employed and forbid the use of computers, the last engineers and accountants that worked without computers have long ago retired.

There may come a time when our computers stop working but if you think it is likely, you should learn to fight and hunt, not to do mathematics the way people did in 1920.

I could comment at length on what they are learning. Computing the height of a cone given its total area and apothem was a recent problem one of my kids had to solve. And the teachers are eager to set the total area to a nice value like 405.112. Just so that it will look more boring and intimidating. I swear that the problems are so artificial that you’d think these instructors live in another dimension. Who has ever had to compute the height of a cone given that its total area is 405.112. Who?

Before algebra, they had to learn to do long divisions. I had an argument with a teacher about it, when I pointed out that no adult ever does a long division. She pointed out that, sure, they will use calculators, but they need to know how the calculator does it. I objected that computers and calculators do divisions using circuits, that these circuits could be taught… but that it had little to do with doing long divisions by hand.

In any case, I am not alone in thinking that schools are out of touch. Many people are asking schools to become more modern.

In Montreal, a famous education professor, the kind of professors who consult with the government to decide what kids will do, wrote an essay to oppose such reforms. He cites some of my close colleagues who are building up the resistance.

I answered back on Twitter, with some of my usual objections. If educators want to claim that they are in sync with the rest of society, let us at least move beyond the pencil and the paper.

I was offered back a famous study reading texts on paper helps comprehension (as opposed to reading text on computers). I guess that the plan is to raise the new generation of kids of print out all they facebook feeds before reading them? Because let us face it: if you cannot read and understand electronic text you are handicapped, anywhere but in a school.

The fact is that you have to understand text on a screen. There is no choice. I find it scary that the people in charge of our kids would reject screens as a medium for text.

The typical belief of reactionary anti-science educators is that technology is bad for your brain. You will hear stories about mobile phone, the Internet or video games making kids stupid. We can only be saved with paper books and dictionaries. Before that, television was going to destroy us. Long ago, some philosophers thought that books were disastrous: only their voice could carry their wisdom. Successive layers of technology are fought back. That’s fine. What is not fine is the fabrication out of thin air of “facts” to support this gut-driven rejection.

What do more recent studies show? They show that eager students who are given time to become familiar with screens, there is no benefit to paper over screens. Other studies question the superiority of paper: Subrahmanyam et al. found reading the texts on paper did not make a significant difference, compared with computer conditions. Some researchers found that Boys and reluctant readers prefer screens. Porion et al. find that provided we meet all the paper versus computer presentation conditions (text structure and length, screen size, several types of questions measuring comprehension and memory), on-screen reading performances can be improved, and even become comparable to paper-based reading performances. Fesel et al. find that reading hypertext may foster deeper understanding in children.

I could have kept going but as you can see, it is far from an objective truth that people learn better on paper than on a screen. What is certain, however, is that many teachers are unfamiliar with computer technology and prefer to use paper.

How much of the ongoing focus on pencil and paper is a reflection on the preferences and biases of teachers and parents?

What about typing?

Cochran-Smith (1991) showed that when students have to type their documents, they produce fewer spelling errors and produce longer text. This was reaffirmed in more recent meta-analyses by Goldberg et al. (2003) and Graham et al. (2012). A key determinant of success is that students must be good trained to type: don’t compare students who have 12 years of training with pen and paper with students who hardly ever touched a keyboard. Christensen (2004) also found that typing produced better narratives.

Ouellette and Tims (2014) found no difference on a word‐recognition and spelling test between the typing and handwriting conditions. Masterson and Apel (2006) found no difference in quality of spelling between the handwriting and typing conditions.

What about paper dictionary versus electronic dictionary? Chen found that there are no significant differences between electronic dictionaries and paper dictionaries use in comprehension, production and retention of vocabulary although the speed of the former is significantly faster than the latter.

I did about one hour of research for this blog post. The scientific evidence seems clear to me. If you account for various factors, including skills and familiarity, there is no inherent superiority of the pencil over the keyboard, of the paper over the screen. The fact that schools in Montreal provide keyboards and screens to the many students with learning disabilities also supports the non-superiority view.

And yet I am told by teachers all around, by education researchers and professors that, obviously, we use pencil and paper because it is better for the students. It seems to me to be merely a reflection of their own preferences.

They invoke some mysterious knowledge, some untold studies. They dismiss my own survey made entirely of peer-reviewed scientific papers. They argue from authority. We are the educators, we know what is best. They evoke neuroscience, biology, psychology, but without ever sticking to precise falsifiable (scientific) claims.

Yes, we urgently need to reconnect schooling with reality. People use computers to do mathematics or they get fired. People use computers to type and publish documents or they never find work. We spell-check using computers, not with a paper dictionary. We no longer write letters with pen and paper.

Reactionary education experts are not fooling young boys like mines. They know you are disconnected. They know you can’t touch type. They know you can’t find answers outside of books and conferences.

Yes we also need to teach kids about entrepreneurship because they are not going to have factory jobs where they have to write reports on paper. Many of them are going to be self-employed.

Yes, we need to teach them about critical thinking because the hierarchical world of experts is gone and fakenews is everywhere.

But that’s a bit scary, isn’t it? What if the kids start asking for the scientific evidence against using screens to read? What if they actually go through it all? What if they question the conclusions that the reactionary educators have?

No, you don’t need to teach all of them about trigonometry and the volume of a cone. Is that the best you have? It is not good enough. You are failing our kids.

Enforcing the use of paper dictionaries in schools for pedagogical reasons in 2019 is as scientific as rejecting vaccination for fear of autism.