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Next entry: Also something less tangible
Previous entry: Coffee House education
Monday November 26 2007

Last week David Thompson sent me an email about pencils.  He’d done a posting about pencils, and given my interest just now in thin pictures, might I perhaps be interested?  Well, I was, of course, and I am.  But I never got around to doing anything about it.  Then I realised that this newly activated blog was the very place for a piece on pencils.

image

When you are trying to teach small children to write, as I have been doing lately, you realise what a truly treasurable invention the pencil, together with its partner the rubber, is.

There are many kinds of teaching, but at the heart of a certain and very important sort of teaching is the refusal to accept errors.  No.  Wrong.  Please rub it out.  Please do it again, not like that but like this.  If you don’t tell the child he’s got it wrong, he’ll end up thinking he got it right when he didn’t.  You will be misinforming him, which (in this kind of teaching) is a major teaching crime.  So, all errors must be picked on, and preferably corrected.

Ink is indelible.  (Well, there is Tippex I suppose, but it takes far too long to dry.) Error correction on any scale of inked writing results in a confusion of crossings out and general disfigurements.  But when a pencil is used, all errors can be rubbed out and replaced with, if not perfection then at least adequacy.  If the child is going to take away the work, then let the work be an example of what it should be like, and a living proof that the child is capable of achieving just that.

After half an hour of hard work last Tuesday evening, I and my slightly rebellious pupil had between us produced half a page of really quite reasonable handwriting for him to take away, look at again if inclined, and maybe also show to his mother.  (Who is, after all, paying for this, and is definitely interested in what goes on.)

What is the history of the pencil?  This is what it says here:

The word pencil is derived from the Latin pencillus, meaning ‘painters’ brush.’ The earliest pencils were, in fact, fine brushes that hardly resemble our modern version. When graphite was discovered in Bavaria, however, the fine hairs of the brush were replaced with this new find and encased in wood. Graphite was originally known as plumbago - acting like lead - and up to this day people still believe that pencils contain lead, which is not the case.

The type of graphite used today wasn’t discovered until 1564. This solid, high purity graphite gave a far better result than that previously used. This graphite was initially held in the hand without any covering, The mess it made of the writer’s hand, however, became a major hassle and soon efforts were made to overcome this problem. The graphite was wrapped in a waxy material by some, enclosed in a metal tube by others and wrapped with cord or string-like material by still others. A wood encased graphite rod pencil wasn’t manufactured until 1660. This was further refined in the late 1700s when a method of grinding graphite with clay to produce a much finer, more consistent and smoother pencil was found. Thus, the modern pencil was developed into a form which has remained substantially unchanged for 300 years.

I believe in pictures on blogs, even educational blogs, and even though pictures have a very ambiguous place in modern pedagogy.  They are used, for instance, to encourage the victims of look-and-say to look-and-guess rather than to read what the actual letters say.  Nevertheless, pictures make a blog seem more welcoming.  They reinforce the idea of an active intelligence creating it, and changing it frequently.  So, there will be frequent pictures here.  A pencil picture is the perfect start.