Acute Pencil Shortage Strikes State Lawmakers

By Bruce Kyle

The following piece was published by the Bangor Daily News on March 30, 2000.

In a recent speech at Bates College, Seymour Papert -- MIT scientist/educator, world renowned technology/artificial intelligence expert and Blue Hill resident -- asked his audience to imagine some ancient time before there was writing. There were schools, but all knowledge was word of mouth.

Then, one glorious, epochal day, writing was invented. And along with it, an implement. Say, the pencil.

The Sumarian School Board, seeing the potential of this marvelous device, decided to get one. If it worked out, next year they'd get two. Eventually, they foresaw having a whole pile of pencils and once a week, for perhaps an hour, the pupils would march down to the Pencil Lab for cuneiform class.

Professor Papert then observed that all kids today have a pencil, the lucky few perhaps several. They use them even before they know their ABC's -- they scribble, doodle, explore, express, create. The naughty ones even run with them.

He further observed that the leaders of the Soviet Union saw momentous, inevitable democratic change coming and did their level best to ignore it. The result is that today, while several former Soviet satellites are progressing nicely, Russia is in year 10 of trying to rebuild from economic and social rubble.

By this point, the perceptive audience (this was, after all, Bates College) figured out that Seymour Papert wasn't really talking about pencils or the Politbureau. In general, he was talking about how kids learn with computers and how the digital transformation of learning is a force as unstoppable as democracy. In particular, he was talking about Gov. King's laptop proposal.

The governor also gave a speech somewhat recently, his State of the State. In it, he told lawmakers he was developing a major technology/education initiative, with details coming soon. He also said the rising cost of health care was an urgent problem that only a Blue Ribbon Study Commission could solve.

Legislators greeted the former with curiosity. They, especially Democrats, greeted the latter with ridicule. What, they snorted, has been studied more thoroughly than health care? Health care doesn't need a blue ribbon, it needs action.

So the other day - after having frittered away the last month trashing the laptop proposal and fretting about the urgent need to address all the higher priorities they've shunned for years - lawmakers started lining up behind an alternate technology/education initiative developed by Democratic leadership. It calls for a Blue Ribbon Study Commission.

A study commission of any color ribbon would be fine if so much studying hadn't already been done. There are reams of studies, conducted by some of the nation's leading research institutions, quantifying and clarifying with good scientific method the very same stuff Maine seems to think is unexplored territory. The best part is that these studies aren't all that hard to find. They're on the governor's Web site. He put them there so lawmakers could find answers to the questions that have been troubling them so.

For example, there's the Rockman Three-Year Independent Study of the Microsoft/Toshiba Anytime, Anywhere Laptop Program. This study assessed the experiences of 53 elementary, middle and high schools, public and private, throughout the country. Here's a brief run-down of what the Rockman researchers found:

Reading and writing improved markedly and, students said, became more fun. Critical thinking and analysis skills soared. Research projects took on new depth and creativity as high-order thinking and problem-solving replaced dronish copying. Time spent on homework increased. Students and teachers became collaborators. Teachers quickly learned how to integrate the Internet into lesson plans. Teachers enthusiastically embraced computer-oriented curriculum. All of these improvements were significantly greater when students had access to a laptop full-time, instead of just in the school computer lab. It was actually found that students who had full-time laptops spent far less time playing computer games than students has only intermittent access to computers.

Three years ago, the Beaufort County (South Carolina) School District put laptops in the hands of 300 sixth-graders, full time. After two years, the University of North Carolina evaluated the results by interviewing teachers, pupils and parents.

The findings were much like those of Rockman; virtually every measurable academic skill improved substantially. Parents were especially pleased with the part about less game-playing and more studying. Teachers and parents who started as skeptics became converts. Pupils who worried that the computers would make their classmates withdrawn and solitary found just the opposite -- communication and interaction increased, kids found that the computers and the Internet led to new interests and new friends.

Not one study -- Rockman, UNC or the many others -- found evidence of any of the major objections that have been raised in Maine. Kids didn't drop their laptops, they didn't lose them, they didn't pawn them to buy drugs.

I heard the Papert speech in a rebroadcast the other afternoon on the radio. As I listened to this well-crafted presentation, this deft combination of off-the-cuff, casual delivery and compelling, logical structure (he is, after all, an MIT guy), I thought it was a shame legislators weren't hearing it, too.

Then I remembered -- legislators had heard it. Seymour Papert gave this presentation several times to lawmakers in groups large and small. Apparently they just weren't able to take notes. Somebody else was using the pencil.

Bruce Kyle is the assistant editorial page editor for the Bangor Daily News.