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#Pencilchat: the Ultimate Technology Metaphor

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The idea of using the pencil as an analogy to talk about technology in the classroom is hardly a new one. But the analogy has resurfaced and spread in recent weeks, sparked in part by a reading of John T. Spencer's book Pencil Me In, which uses the pencil allegory to talk about technology integration, and by the virality of the Twitter hashtag #pencilchat.

Comparing the tools -- pencils and computers -- is something that Seymour Papert, "the father of educational computing," has done for decades now. Back in 1984, Papert wrote:

Imagine (if you can) that we lived in a world without writing--and, of course, without pencils, pens and books. Then one day, somebody invents writing and the pencil, and people say, “Wow, this would be great for education. Let’s give these things to all the children and teach them to write.” So then somebody else says, “Hey, wait a minute. You can’t just do that. You can’t just give every child a pencil. You’d better start by doing some rigorous experiments on a small scale. So, we’ll put one pencil in a classroom and we’ll see what happens. If great things happen, we’ll put two pencils in a classroom, and if greater things happen, then we’ll put in more…” -- “New Theories for New Learnings.” School Psychology Review

The pencil metaphor works so well for ed-tech because it highlights the arguments and obstacles surrounding schools' adoption of computers, contrasting them with a very old piece of technology: the pencil.

Take the debates surrounding "acceptable use policies" and substitute the word "pencils" for the phrase "social networks." Weigh the concerns over whether or not there is actual research proving that technology (pencils) improve student achievement. Think about the fears over whether or not technology (pencils) will replace teachers. Consider the role of corporate influence on education, with the vast business behind the technology (pencil) market. Or think about the challenges of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and again, substitute cellphones or laptops that kids bring from home with pencils that, indeed, their parents are supplying them. Think about the divide between those with wooden pencils versus those with mechanical pencils.

The comparisons between pencils and computing devices can go on (and indeed thousands of comparisons were made with the #pencilchat hashtag on Twitter).


The first few tweets about the challenges of "pencil integration" were quickly picked up by others, thanks in part to that hashtag. #Pencilchat invokes a whole other set of references too, pointing to the large number of education-related "chats" held on Twitter. For many tech-savvy educators, Twitter has become the go-to site to turn to others for tips and advice on bringing technology into the classroom, and as such, it's no surprise that the #pencilchat elicited such a strong response from those who are on the front lines of ed-tech adoption.

No doubt as computing devices become a more integral part of our worlds -- at home and at work and at school -- there are controversies and concerns about technology. The cost. The impact. The dangers. The benefits. By shifting the discussion from computers to pencils, the #pencilchat hashtag helps highlight the frustrations that many educators face with bringing new tools into the classroom.

You can view a collection of some of the #pencilchat tweets on Storify.

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