7 minute read

Teaching Generation Z: is pen and paper essential?

Do pupils learn better through digital technology or working with traditional pen and paper? The answer is a mixture of both.

Share this article:

The main objective of pedagogy is to inspire, nurture and encourage young minds to question and absorb information, and to develop skills and intellect that provide the best stepping stones into their futures. There is lively debate, however, over which medium facilitates Generation Z student learning best — traditional pen and paper or modern digital technology.

On one hand, traditionalists believe that digital teaching methods are a distraction from the core information being taught, and that pupils are less focused or challenged when presented with exciting, modern technology. Digital evangelists, however, believe technology is essential to interactive, collaborative learning in the modern classroom. So, who is right? There is not, in fact, a simple answer.

Digital natives

Children and young adults born anywhere between 1995 and 2010 — known as Generation Z but also known as Centennials, iGeneration, Post-Millennials and Plurals — make up the bulk of school pupils today. This cohort are considered to be the first true digital natives, growing up with mobile devices, tablets and laptops in both hands. Arguably, digital technology is neither distracting nor exciting for Gen Z, it is normal life. According to Econsultancy, 96% of this generation owns a smartphone, and 63% owns a tablet.

Gen Z pupils are described as individualistic, they value easy access to information and expect immediate feedback, indicating the value of cloud-based tools like ClassFlow which provide pupils with 24/7 access to their materials. They learn most effectively when they are left to solve problems and find solutions. Most importantly, they adapt to new technologies faster than any other generation, according to a paper by Ivanova and Smrikarov. Gen Z clearly has different learning preferences, goals and values to previous generations. As such, some pedagogy experts identify that teaching methods should be adapted to the preferences of this group.

But, despite growing up with the advantage of being surrounded by and relying on technology, shouldn’t Gen Z still learn and absorb information through the same traditional methods that older generations always did? Or are there genuine reasons why modern teaching methods should be adapted to for the younger generation? Science says yes.

Advanced brain development

It has been reported that the physical brain makeup of Gen Z students is different to that of a student from 20 years ago. Crucially, the part of the brain that dictates visual ability is significantly more developed than that of older generations, even their millennial peers.

As a result, these pupils respond best to visual learning. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z will learn most effectively through interactive mediums, collaborative projects and challenges rather than long auditory, explanatory lessons.

Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder (AADD)

Despite a more developed visual ability, Generation Z is so accustomed to switching between short bursts of information as displayed on social media, they have acquired an inability to focus on or analyse lengthy pieces of information. In the classroom today, the attention span of a pupil is only seven to ten minutes, according to Darla Rothman. Harvard Medical School explains these brain changes as a condition called Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder (AADD).

The result is a set of pupils with genuinely different needs in the classroom, not simply different preferences.

“They are kinesthetic, experiential, hands on learners who prefer to learn by doing rather than being told what to do or by reading text. Learning is not a spectator sport.” Darla Rothman, Ph.D, Curriculum Developer & Program Coordinator at Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions.

There is more to a holistic education than how a pupil responds to pedagogical methods, however. Learning to mentally store and access key information is an essential skill for examination environments.

Knowledge retention

Dr Jane Vincent, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science conducted a survey to assess the merits of digital note taking over pen and paper. Students across ten European and Asian countries confirmed that digital technology was fundamentally important to them for studying and for researching data, and presenting their finished work.

The same students, however, consistently reported that their ability to retain knowledge was far higher when using pen and paper. Creating handwritten notes provided more internal ability to access information at a later stage.

“We surveyed a mix of undergraduate and graduate students in Italy, the UK, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, China, Portugal, Finland and Germany. Overall, while computers are seen as fast and effective communication tools, pen and paper does have some advantages.”

“One of the reasons some students favour handwriting is the role it plays in learning and retaining knowledge. Many of the students in our study found making handwritten notes leads to greater retention of data than if it is typed.”
Dr Jane Vincent, an academic researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

The reduced speed at which a pupil can transcribe by hand is key to how their information is absorbed. The listener must be more selective of which information they write, adding their own remarks or notes for future reference. Digital notes, by contrast, tend to be repeated transcripts of the information, with little input or consideration of the content.

This theory is corroborated by psychologists Pam A. Muller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA, who published a study in Psychological Science journal, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. They analysed the output from 327 participants listening to the same lecture, some taking handwritten notes, others making digital notes. When it came to analysing the factual detail, conceptual comprehension, and the capabilities of retrieving the information over time, those making handwritten notes did better.

What’s more, medical science has validated this psychological theory. Scans to indicate cognitive behaviour show that the physical function of writing information by hand, rather than typing, more actively engages the brain and triggers the learning centre.

The 20 year old ‘desirable difficulty’ concept by Robert A. Bjork points to exactly that. His theory identifies that something that challenges and frustrates us helps us to learn more effectively. Digital technology can make learning and note writing faster and easier, but at the same time it removes the creative and intellectual challenge.

Technology is a tool, not the tool

Our youngest generation is immersed in technology, and it has been proven they learn most effectively from interactive tools and digital practices. However, as we’ve seen, there is certainly a strong argument to retaining traditional pen and paper in the classroom. We aren’t likely to see paperless teaching just yet. The answer, then, is a hybrid of both.

Certain subjects and lessons require contrasting practices to engage pupils. In a maths class, for example, digital applications can be extremely helpful when dragging and dropping verticals, visualising relationships between data and discovering tangible mathematical concepts.

However, when students need to practice algebra lines or write complex assignments, the flexibility of paper and pens is still invaluable to student learning and discovery.

Importantly, Generation Z are less impressed by the technology itself, the subject knowledge and practices behind these digital tools is the key to inspiration. If technology in the classroom isn’t underpinned by sound educational techniques, it will fall short.

Generation Z’s learning needs reflect an evolving world, particularly in view of new technology and digital communication. Much like other industries and modern business environments digital tools are an enhancement to traditional working methods, not a replacement.

As a first year student at the University of Hawai’i commented,

“All I wish for in a classroom setting is an effective teacher who plans their classes ahead of time and who wants students to succeed. I like teachers who actually know the information they are teaching, and who can teach it to students in a way that makes learning easy and enjoyable… Technology and resources don’t mean anything unless the teacher is effective and fully capable of their job and engaging students.”

Ultimately, some pupils will continue to work better with traditional pen and paper, and some will engage more with interactive digital platforms like ClassFlow, depending on their subject preferences or personal skills. As unique individuals, children have different needs and preferences, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

The bottom line is that forward-thinking digital technology and interactive tools in the classroom cannot detract attention from the importance of traditional pedagogy and a strong teacher-pupil bond. The energy and enthusiasm put into the subject matter and the teaching methods to engage young Generation Z students is key to inspiring their minds, regardless of the medium.

The State of Technology in Education Report 2020/21

Our latest and greatest report is here! 5 years of edtech trends, surprising stats and candid insights from over 2,000 educators.

View the report