Teaching Opinion

Pen or Pencil for Math?

By David Ginsburg — February 17, 2014 1 min read
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I recently challenged the longstanding requirement among math teachers for students to “show your work.” Now it’s time to go after another common math teacher mandate: always use pencil.

The reason I stopped requiring students to use pencils is the same reason I stopped requiring them to do a lot of things: giving students choices is a key to empowering them as self-directed learners. I’m reminded of a student who spent ten minutes setting up a graph using pen, and had to redo it after realizing her scale was way off. When the teacher asked what she learned from this experience, the girl said she needed to plan more carefully. The teacher then asked if she learned anything else. “Yeah, next time I’m going to use pencil,” the girl replied.

It’s far better for students to learn from their mistakes like this girl did than for us to prevent their mistakes by telling them what to do and how to do it (and what to do it with). But students who use pencils often erase their mistakes before learning from their mistakes. If anything, then, we should require students to not use pencils, as 5th grade teacher Jennifer Bearden @JenBearden) tweeted:

Just had an aha. Have kids use ink in math so they CAN'T erase. I can see all their thinking. Bkwrds from wht I've alwys thought.

The advantages of ink (including no need for pencil sharpening breaks!) notwithstanding, my point here is about student empowerment. Requiring students to use pens is therefore no more appropriate than requiring them to use pencils. Let’s give students opportunities to make thoughtful decisions that serve their needs as learners, informed by their experiences rather than our biases. And let’s help them by focusing on what’s in their heads, not what’s in their hands.

Image by Cheryl Casey, provided by Dreamstime license

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