Academic journal article Education Next

The Problem with Pencils: Using Computers-And Creativity-To Customize Instruction

Academic journal article Education Next

The Problem with Pencils: Using Computers-And Creativity-To Customize Instruction

Article excerpt

IT WAS AT THE FOURTH MEETING about my son's issues with pencils that I felt something snap in my soul. I was sitting with no fewer than six well-paid professionals in a windowless room at his school, along with my boy's father and his special-education case manager. Adding up the wages we would all be paid in an hour, how many thousands of dollars had we spent discussing something that maybe cost a dime?

Corey has Asperger's syndrome. Pencils challenge him for two reasons: He can't tolerate the scratching noise they make on the paper. And his brain has a wrinkle called a processing speed lag; oversimplified, that means he thinks too fast for his hands to keep up. By the time the pencil's in motion, he's on to another thought.

Once, in 3rd grade, he flung his pencil across the classroom. The school social worker demanded I come get him--and have him evaluated for a behavioral disorder.

Math was the subject that set off the marathon of meetings with school specialists in 7th grade. Corey is very good at math, but it had become a tug of war. I pushed for him to be able to do his work using a keyboard, but his math teacher was holding out, insisting he use worksheets and show his work, in pencil.

The discussions were mind-numbing. We couldn't get him an iPad, because that would be a shiny object no one else had. A Chromebook wouldn't inspire envy, but where would it be kept? Should the school label it with his name, or would that imply it was his to keep?

As the questions persisted, my annoyance gave way to a much more fundamental concern. In Minneapolis, where I live, one in five students has a special education plan. Almost one-fourth of the students are learning English for the first time. Teachers struggle to reach every child, both those who enter their classrooms years behind and high achievers who need continual challenges. It's a tall order.

This particular well-regarded middle school had rooms full of Apple computers that students mostly used to check their online grade trackers. And because math teachers are in perennially short supply, the school offered just one section of higher-level math. Kids had to earn their way into that class, and Corey, needing a different way to show his aptitude, would never manage it. …

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