I was just scrolling through my twitter feed and found this.

ImageIt is a very simple and graphic way of illustrating Roger’s Bell curve of adoption.   I also think that it is a very apt image to use for education.  However, it made me think of a “story” that went around the email circuit way back in the 90’s when I was first experimenting with using computer technology in the classroom.  When we were fighting to get computers in every classroom and not just in “Computer Suites”, when we wanted to have a little bit more control over the computers rather than being magnanimously granted the honour of being able to book into a computer suite once a month, when control was wielded self-importantly by those who “knew” and who had the “power”.   

Here is the story:

Pencils Across the Curriculum
A Fairy Story

Bryn Jones c 1990
(Except for some very minor revisions, the text is as it was in 1990)

SCENE : It is deep in the past, schools are using chalk and slates, stylus and tablets, chisels and granite. Suddenly a new technology appears:

The Pencil!

Once upon a time, the Ministry of Education, after appointing a Special Pencil Task Force and inviting tenders from all the major Pencil manufacturers, gave 16 Pencils to each High School as part of a Special Pencil initiative.

(They also gave ONE Pencil to each Primary School but that’s another story!).

This is the story of two of those High Schools.


Opened a New Pencil Centre in a blaze of publicity and housed all 16 Pencils in it. They appointed a Teacher-in-Charge of Pencils.

They were worried that someone might steal these rare and valuable Pencils so they put bars on the windows.

“Special Pencil Centre” signs were painted on the outside wall to tell the world that they were proud of their Pencils and that Pencils are special.

Teachers were not allowed to use Pencils unless teaching a Pencil Studies course – special training was needed to handle these expensive and delicate instruments: teachers needed to understand about Hardness, Length, Handling, Care and Safety (Pencils are very sharp).

Pencil Awareness was introduced as a compulsory course for all Year 8 students – they studied the Applications of Pencils, Pencils in Drawing, Pencils in Writing, the Social Implications of Pencils, Design and Manufacture of Pencils, History of Pencils and Future Trends in Pencils.

10 Pencil Scholarships were offered to local primary students to attract the brightest and best.

One day the Art teacher heard about these new Pencils and thought they could be useful in Art classes but the Pencil Studies teacher explained that all the Pencils were always being used by Pencil Studies classes, and anyway, you need special training to use a Pencil.

The Pencil Studies teacher agreed to do a few lessons on the use of Pencils in Art as part of the Pencil Awareness Course (despite not knowing anything about Art).

“Wouldn’t it be better if we had our own Pencils in the Art Dept?” inquired the Art teacher.

“NO, NO, NO! DON’T BE SILLY!” countered the Pencil Studies teacher.

A similar thing happened in Technical Drawing:

“I’ve heard these Pencils are great for Technical Drawing – really sharp!” and “It sure beats chiselling in granite – can we have some?”

Across the way in English:

“Could we use Pencils do you think? Would they make it easier to create and edit writing?”

“We’ll see what we can do,” said the Teacher-in-Charge of Pencils, “but it’s very hard to fit any more into the Pencils Awareness Course. Besides, all our Pencil teachers are incredibly busy”.

In Business Education they got the news:

“Accounts, Letter Writing, Bookkeeping…could pencils have a role to play here?”

Similar things happened in Music/ Theatre Arts/ Home Economics/ Science/ Mathematics/ Library.

Demand for Pencil Studies courses became so great that School A had to spend $100 000 on new buildings to house more Pencil Labs and hired more Pencil teachers.

Meanwhile, back in the Technical Drawing room the stylus and tablet is all they have, in Art, chalk is state-of-the-art and in Business Ed the abacus is all the go.

Tons of granite are consumed daily and a granite recycling programme is introduced.

Five years later School A had 5 Pencil Labs, 6specialist Pencil teachers and half the students doing Pencil Studies courses.

But no-one else in the school ever used a Pencil!

Then one day all the Pencil Studies teachers left to work in private schools and industry!


School B also started with it’s 16 Pencils in a special room but they had a PLAN.


It was a Brave Plan, a Bold Plan, a Problematical Plan – but it was a Good Plan!

They introduced special programmes to lend Pencils to teachers and put a Pencil in each staff office.

They put a few Pencils in the staff room so that staff could play with them at lunchtime.

They paid for teachers to go on Pencil courses.

They even put some Pencils in the Library for ANYONE to use even if they had no training!

“What? Anyone? “, “Oh what problems!”

“Who will sharpen them?”

“Who can understood all the jargon – HB, 2B, 2H?”

“What about quality?”

“What about editing – who will replace the erasers?”

“Who will look after them?”

“What about compatibility problems – 0.2 , 0.5 mm or non-standard leads?”

“Who decides whether to have hexagonal or circular Pencils?”

“What about all these new Pencil technologies which appear with monotonous regularity – who will make decisions?

Well yes, there were a few teething troubles but somehow people coped. After a while they began to realise that Pencils were quite easy to use, even for teachers!

A few Pencils were put in subject areas for teachers to experiment with.

Some teachers were so impressed, they even bought their own Pencils and wondered how they ever managed without one.

There were still major problems to overcome as far as using Pencils in the actual classroom. New discipline and management problems that teachers hadn’t faced before. Was it necessary for every student to have a Pencil each or could they share or work in groups?

Would One Pencil per Classroom make a difference?

To begin with, only a few brave teachers used Pencils in their lessons but as time went by more and more teachers saw the amazing work being done by the students of the teachers who used Pencils and they began to ask for some Pencils in their classroom too.

Five years later the school didn’t need its Pencil Lab any more except for a few students who wanted to do Pencil Science at University or get a job in the Pencil Industry. There were Pencils all over the school and most staff and students used them quite naturally. Some even carried a pencil about in their pocket.

This was written around 1990 and I am pretty sure that most people will have read this story several times over the last twenty years.  Sadly, there are still schools where this system holds sway, there are still schools where people lack the courage to let their staff play, experiment and explore, there are still teachers who lack the confidence to take a risk, to try something new, to allow themselves to “fail”.  There are also plenty of pressures on our schools and teachers to succeed, to have high pass rates in examinations, pressure to perform and to be seen to perform, pressure from parents to educate their children the way they were taught, self-imposed pressure to not fail. Pressures that hinder educators from doing what we know could work and could improve the way we teach and our students can learn.

Roger’s Bell Curve and the Pencil Illustration underline the fact that we are all human, we are all different, some of us naturally want to try new things and are not afraid to fail, some of us want to try but want others to trail blaze and we will follow more comfortably in their wake, some of us just want to keep on doing what we are doing, it is easy, it is comfortable, it works, but we might just be tempted to try something new once it has been proven to work.  And some, well we just want to hide in a corner and hope that the future will go away; if we keep quiet for long enough and resist for long enough maybe we will be forgotten about and nobody will bother us any more.  Worse though, are the nay-sayers, those that actively undo the good work that others are doing through constant moaning, undermining comments, they suck the good will and the positivity out of workplaces. 

We also have to understand that our students will also match these human qualities.  They may all have been born in the “Digital Age” – brought up in an age where technology is at their fingertips but they are not all “Digital Natives”.  They do not all use, know how to use, or like to use technology all the time.  Nor do they often see the benefits of what they see as a toy, to aid them in their learning. 

The challenge is to somehow encourage everyone to realise the worth of trying something new.  Not just doing new for the sake of new, but new because it helps us to do things more effectively, more efficiently.  The challenge is to negate the “nay-sayers”; they are often a vocal minority but they hold some sway.  

“Attuning yourself to others—exiting your own perspective and entering theirs—is essential to moving others. One smart, easy, and effective way to get inside people’s heads is to climb into their chairs.” Dan Pink

Thanks to George Couros for the above quote from his blogpost “The Value of the “Naysayer and Antagonist””.  He has some interesting things to say but I like his perspective that we all have the potential to be a “naysayer” or an “antagonist” depending on the context we find ourselves in.  There is also a lot to be said for putting ourselves in the shoes of others to be able to understand where they are coming from.   Food for thought…

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