Pencils or Sharpies in Math Class?

pen-cilFor years, I was a victim of the way I was taught. Each year, the school supply list required black and blue pens, a red pen for trading-and-grading, and pencils for math. As I did my math homework, I remember my aunt fussing at me if I wasn’t using a pencil. So when I set up my own classroom, I allowed that expectation to linger. I never required pencils, but I certainly encouraged them. I was held hostage by the quirks of the wall-mounted sharpener (or the performer turning its handle). I listened to tips from my colleagues who aggressively guarded their electric sharpeners. (“Students hand me their pencils, then I sharpen them on the ‘electric.'”) Students lamented broken tips or running out of mechanical lead.

After about 10 years of this, I realized, “This isn’t MY rule!” I don’t have a preference for pencils on my students’ papers. Too often (especially in the early years when I didn’t know how to ask the right questions), pencil-users would complete several lines of work, ‘box’ their answer, then erase all the labor. Struggling students would erase anything they were unsure about, making it difficult to help them identify where they went off-track. Or my poor kiddos would erase a batch of correct work and have to go through it again.

Students’ with a fixed mindset are bothered by mistakes. If I am defined by grades, if I am a victim of the math gene, then mistakes are little indictments. I want to flee from them. I believe this attitude is reinforced by pencils and the predilection to furiously erase mistakes, pretending they never happened.

In a growth mindset culture, students see value and opportunity in mistakes. I can learn from that previous work and make it better. The process – including all its missteps – is the valuable learning opportunity. I believe that pens fit into this world. We can draw a line through some of our prior attempts (a strategy endorsed by the College Board on AP exams), but there is no harm is keeping documentation of failed strategies.

We want to encourage our students to explain their thinking and document their processes. A student with a pencil is too tempted to delete the evidence of their process. Boooooo.

Encourage math pens. In fact, where are the math colored markers!? Illustrate and preserve our thinking. Discuss mistakes, don’t flee from them. Liberate yourselves from the troublesome monster on the wall (and the performer turning its handle).

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