What Tools Do Learners Really Need?

by Hap Aziz

Mark Helprin’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Skip the Paris Cafés And Get a Good Pen,” made me stop and think a little bit about the emphasis we place on technology tools for learners. What is truly necessary and helpful may be something completely different than what learners want–or what we (educators) insist on providing for our learners. I found this passage to be very enlightening:

“This brings up Levenger, which sells “tools for writers.” The fewer tools the better, and they need not be costly or complicated. Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

“In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel.”

How does this sentiment align with our expectations of digital literacy, technology competencies, and instant and ubiquitous connection and communication with anyone anywhere on the face of the earth? Does the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, for instance, set up barriers against our ability to think and feel? And how important is this type of thinking and feeling to the cognitive schemas we are constantly building and rebuilding in our minds?

In conversations with higher education faculty across the country, I often like to comment that our current educational process involves spending years to teach students how to code and decode information (read and write) before we even begin to teach about the actual content of a particular area of study. Ultimately, this will need to change if we hope to reach students and inspire them with the true love of life-long learning.

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1 Comment

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One response to “What Tools Do Learners Really Need?

  1. Randall Wunder-Smith

    From experience I agree that using a pen (or pencil, when you find one you love — here’s my decades-old standby: http://www.pentel.com/store/sharp-kerry-mechanical-pencil) creates room for a different valence of contemplation than does a keyboard. The speed of putting thought to paper, the tactile elements of the process, the sound of the pen or pencil — there’s a variety and pacing that allows me to think about what I’m saying and refine it on the fly. On the other hand, my handwritten thoughts sometimes end far afield of where they began.

    I wonder to what extent this depends on the sort of thinker I am. That is, I think primarily in associations. On a keyboard, the sheer speed of composition gives me room to follow far more threads of association in a single sentence than I can when using a pen. This is one reason that I have a hard time being concise in an electronic medium (and the chief reason why tweeting is valuable to me — enforced brevity!). There’s more content, but less analysis, at least in the first draft of things.

    But more to the point: we’ve all experienced the discomfort of adjusting to a new electronic device or piece of software, particularly when it is the only option available to accomplish a goal (e.g. “this is our new team collaboration tool”, or “this is my portable note-taking gizmo”). I think one reason for that is that unlike choosing from among many available pens or pencils, our choices for electronic or digital expression are (currently )far more limited. We can go with what feels good in handwriting, from picking the most comfortable rollerball with the right line thickness and color to choosing what kind of paper (thickness, color, lines, binding) to use. There’s accordingly a stronger sense of identification with the instruments of expression, and perhaps a deeper intimacy.

    That said, I’m not giving up my Ipad and wireless keyboard, mister.

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