Are We Simply Sharpening Pencils?

This post was written by Britt Neuhaus, who oversees the iZone’s Blended Learning Institute.

EduCon keynote speaker Richard Culatta had a great metaphor for current efforts to change education, what he calls “pencil sharpening innovation.” Often we treat change in schools like a pencil that has become dull. We keep sharpening it over and over so that it writes well again but no amount of sharpening a pencil is going to turn it into a pen… or a word processor… or Siri. The idea behind the metaphor is one we’ve all wrestled with: when do you stop trying to tinker with an existing tool, process, or procedure that isn’t quite meeting your needs and start thinking about building something new?

The pencil sharpening dilemma makes me think about how technology is being employed in the classroom today. Technology has improved communication between teachers and students and has made content more accessible to students. To ensure students are prepared for college and careers, every school should adopt basic technology used in every other modern workplace today. But to truly make technology a game-changer for student learning, we have to figure out how it can be leveraged to achieve the holy grail of personalization: making pace, place, and content individualized to each student based on their personal needs.

Schools have made great strides with each of these targets separately, especially with pace (asynchronous learning) and place (experiential learning and internship opportunities), but when I think of how technology has impacted other parts of our lives, I think we are only skimming the surface of its potential. Shouldn’t every student have an Amazon-like experience when they login to their online content, with recommendations based on their previous choices?

There are great schools out there that are using technology to increase student engagement and make interaction between teachers and students more frequent. The question on my mind, though, is how can we step away from just “sharpening the existing pencil” in order to use technology to create an entirely new schooling experience.


Pencils”  by Rupert Ganzer is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.