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Why #Pencilchat May Be the Most Clever Edcuation Allegory Ever

Want some insight into teacher frustrations? Just follow #pencilchat on Twitter

A decidedly low tech device, the humble pencil, is providing some tongue-in-cheek insight into current education debates via Twitter. In the past 24 hours, educators have tweeted the hashtag #pencilchat thousands of times. The tweets are undeniably witty, but they also reflect the frustration teachers feel over everything from schools' technophobia to budget cuts, which may make #pencilchat the best—and most clever—education allegory ever.

Phoenix middle school teacher John Spencer used to write a blog called Adventures in Pencil Integration, and a couple of years ago, he turned it into a book called Pencil Me In. The book substitutes a modern-day teacher trying to use technology like laptops, iPads, and smartphones for an early 1900s teacher trying to figure out how to meaningfully use pencils in a classroom. Someone recently tweeted Spencer about reading the book, he dashed off a few tweets with the hashtag in response and "it took off."

Insert "computer" or "internet" for "pencil" in Spencer's tweets—"I'm okay with letting you use pencils, but we're going to limit the sites where you can go with them," and "Jesus was a good teacher and he didn't use a pencil, so I don't have to use one, either"—and you'll get a good sense of all-too-common attitudes about technology in public education.

Andy Losik, the 2009 Michigan tech educator of the year, got in on the #pencilchat action, tweeting an allegory for what so many teachers say about students and computer use: "If students become so heavily dependent upon pencils, they will never learn to boil berries to create their own medium." Canadian teacher Erin Ochoa alluded to fears over kids misusing technology, tweeting, "I refuse to use pencils in my classroom until manufacturers figure out a way to limit what students can write with them." And Steve Wheeler, an associate professor of learning technology at Plymouth University in England, cleverly referenced the debate over whether online instruction and flipped classrooms can replace teachers by tweeting, "Any teacher who can be replaced by a pencil... should be. - Arthur C. Chalk".

But, thousands of tweets later, it's evident that #pencilchat is about more than technology. Swedish educator Brian Kotts referenced the push for data-based education reforms when he quipped "There is no evidence that the pencil makes learning faster, easier or better." Christy Spencer skewered the tendency to treat school as a pipeline for the job market, tweeting, "I'm going to work hard to make sure my children are prepared to use pencils in the workforce."

And teachers' frustration over budget cuts is all over #pencilchat. Losik referenced the trend of advertisements on everything from school buses to report cards, tweeting, "Not sure why we haven't explored ad supported pencils. It works online. Could save schools piles of money," and the clever @kelownagurl wrote "Some say we can get used pencils from businesses with the Pencils for Schools program."

Spencer wrote on his blog that he thinks #pencilchat spread in part because of its a fun topic and partially because "everyone uses pencils" and "everyone uses computers". But the meme made clear the real frustrations about the challenges teachers face in schools, whether they involve technology or not. As Spencer says, "Who knew pencils could be such a hot topic on Twitter?"

Photo via (cc) Flickr user topgold

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