STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The single most important piece of technology in the classroom is also one of the cheapest

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Over the past six weeks, I have been spending almost all of my time at a single elementary school, inside a single classroom. I've been observing, and recording, the classroom for a documentary we hope to air in January. 

For six long weeks now, I haven't talked to a single "expert." I haven't read any hot new studies about how kids learn. I haven't watched a single TED video. I've just been leaning against a wall in Renee Howard's third grade class at Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids, watching kids learn. 

So, for today's installment of our new Technology & Opportunity feature, I wanted to talk about an important and exciting piece of technology that none of the experts seem to care about, even though it plays a vital role in the classroom. 

When employed by a skilled teacher, this technology allows kids to tinker, try, fail and try again. It builds fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, critical thinking and creativity. 

Best of all, in a time of shrinking school funds, this technology is incredibly affordable. 

It's a pencil.

Stick with me for a second. 

When is the last time you used a pencil? Were you working on a crossword puzzle? Had you lost your pen? Did you need the pencil for some sort of carpentry? 

I never quite realized before I went to Congress Elementary just how much adults don't use pencils. On the first day I visited the school, I saw students lining up to sharpen their pencils and I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd had to do that. Pencils are just not a big part of the adult world. I wondered why in the heck these kids would be writing everything in pencil if they were never going to use pencils as grown ups. Then I kept watching. 

And, first off, I learned that in third grade, legible writing is not a given. Imagine if these kids were just handed iPads and asked to tap and swipe their math problems on a screen. Maybe that'll work out fine in a paperless future, but for now, kids still need to know how to actually write on a piece of paper. 

Pencils also play an important social role in the classroom. One thing pencils do is break a lot. So kids are constantly up at the pencil sharpener. Many times, they break their pencils on purpose, just so they can go to the pencil sharpener to socialize. Taken from one perspective, this is a major disruption to the learning process.  Howard does all she can to minimize pencil sharpener socializing. She knows the pencil sharpener will not help any kids' test scores, or help them get to college. But social learning is important, and much of the social learning in third grade happens at the pencil sharpener. 

Another feature of pencils that annoys teachers and helps kids is that you can easily doodle with a pencil. Doodling, it turns out, helps keep people on task and engaged. Even though the doodles themselves are often seen as off-task behavior. 

The most important feature of a pencil, though, is the eraser. You can erase your mistakes on a computer or a tablet. But with a pencil, you've really got to dig in and put some muscle into making that mistake go away. It gives you more time to think, to visualize the number or the punctuation mark you should have put in that space. 

Adults rarely use erasers, just like we rarely use pencils. But we're not learning math for the first time. If we come across a multiplication problem we can't calculate in our head, we calculate it on our phone. If we don't know how to spell a word, we type it into the computer seven different ways until the squiggly red spell check line goes away. And that's fine for adults. We have the basic tools to understand where we went wrong. We could do the work with a pencil. That just takes too long for us. And, anyway, we've forgotten where we put all our pencils. 

... kids are still learning the basic tools. And for that, it helps to use a tool that's pretty basic.

In Renee Howard's third grade class, there are plenty of modern technologies to help kids. They have a Smart Board, computers, even a microphone to help the quieter kids be heard when reading aloud. 

I asked Howard the other day if she thought tablets would be worth it for her kids? Whether she felt like nine-year-olds could handle the technology?

"I can only imagine that it would go really well," she said. "Because enough of them play with their own smartphone or their parents' smartphone."

She told me many of her students have iPads at home. She doesn't even own an iPad. Getting 28 iPads for her classroom wouldn't be cheap. 

As Howard points out: "They don't just magically appear."

I have no doubt that expensive technologies can help get kids engaged, and help them learn in new ways. I've certainly seen how excited kids are when they get to use the smart board in Howard's class. 

But kids learn in lots of ways. And if you're looking for the technology that delivers the most bang for the buck, you can't beat a pencil. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.