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The case for cutting out your stationery

Mark Roberts takes a sword to the mighty pens, glue sticks and coloured paper that brighten teachers’ days

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I had said something deeply contentious. I had broken an unwritten code. I had spoken ill of the sacred. And the crowd had turned. Normally mild-mannered teachers were suddenly very angry teachers, and their anger was directed at me. I felt fear.

What words could I have possibly uttered to elicit such a reaction? I had merely suggested that the following beloved stationery should be banned…while providing some evidence for my case. It went like this.

Exhibit A: Highlighters

Highlighting while reading appears logical, as it draws attention to a text’s most important information. But Dunlosky et al (2013) highlight several problems with highlighters:

●Students highlight too much text.

●Over-highlighted text becomes indistinguishable and less likely to be remembered.

●Picking out the main points of a new topic is difficult for novices.

So why do pupils stick so slavishly to their Stabilos? Alex Quigley, author of The Confident Teacher, thinks highlighting is so appealing because it lacks Bjork’s (1994) “desirable difficulty”. It feels like you have learned it when you highlight, as you can recall it quickly in the immediate aftermath. But as Bjork says, you get better outcomes when greater effort is required during retrieval tasks – using flash cards to try to remember the details, for example.

Might it be beneficial, then, for teachers to urge restraint, such as limiting pupils to one highlighted sentence per paragraph? Unfortunately, even this has been found to have no overall effect; research frequently shows no difference in the performance of students using highlighters and those who just read the text.

Exhibit B: Glue sticks

On their own, glue sticks aren’t necessarily a problem. They end up minus their top more than a Love Island contestant, but they are good for sticking bits of paper into books.

But paper stuck into books usually means worksheets. Worksheets in books usually signal productivity. And signs of productivity usually mean the teacher is trying to show progress is being made.

Head of English Chris Curtis argues that Pritt-sticked worksheets are an example of what Durham University education professor Rob Coe calls “poor proxies for learning” – it looks like lots has been achieved, but in reality, not much has been learned at all.

Teachers often give worksheets to pupils without considering the knowledge required for their completion (Reid, 1984). Not only that, but they can limit pupil responses with allotted spaces too small to write in, or by being badly worded and allowing only one correct response (Lesley and Labbo, 2003).

So if worksheets – as opposed to textbooks, booklets or working directly in exercise books – are the problem, why am I making the charges stick to glue sticks? Simple. Remove glue sticks and worksheets stop being used in books as a progress-proving resource. Think of them as the gateway drug of the stationery world. And think of all the money you’ll save on photocopying when they’re gone.

Exhibit C: Red pens

Once upon a time, teachers marked in red pen when correcting errors and critiquing clichéd fronted adverbials. Then it was apparently decided that snowflakey kids couldn’t deal with red ink over their work so teachers had to switch to a more soothing colour. Was this bonkers political correctness or genuine colour symbolism? If the former, is it time for teachers to reclaim their red biros?

Dukes and Albanesi (2013) argue that writing in red makes pupils feel that teachers are shouting, like when “writing in all caps”. Scarlet-wielding teachers are viewed as “less nice, less enthusiastic [and as] having less rapport with students”. But the reaction to red is not confined to pupil psychology. Rutchick et al (2010) found that teachers marking essays in red ink picked out more errors and assigned lower grades. They concluded that “the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations”.

So what colour should you use? Aqua, apparently, with its peaceful connotations of the sea. It brings new life to the teacher’s lament of “drowning in marking”.

Exhibit D: Coloured paper and overlays

Dyslexia presents a real barrier to young learners. Schools spend a great deal of time and money attempting to alleviate the reading difficulties of affected children. Teachers regularly produce resources using special paper – owl grey, peacock blue – as well as providing coloured plastic overlays. But what if this specialised stationery didn’t actually work?

Creavin et al (2015) found little difference in the amount of visual problems in children with and without dyslexia. Only 16 per cent of the dyslexic subjects had sight problems – a proportion so low, the authors argue, that it can’t possibly explain the cause of dyslexia.

According to the Rose Review (2009), dyslexia should be largely recognised as a phonological (patterns of speech sound) condition. Griffiths et al (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of existing research, finding small effect sizes, similar to a placebo.

While coloured paper or overlays might make a difference to learners in some cases, psychologically or for visual stress conditions, providing this stationery support just isn’t going to make a difference to most.

Exhibit E: Posters

A typical classroom: a stimulating environment, full of wall displays, encouraging pupils to take in as much information as possible. Posters listing monarchs, averages or conjunctions must surely help pupils absorb extra knowledge, right? According to Sweller’s cognitive-load theory (CLT; 1988), using posters in this way increases extraneous cognitive load (inessential stuff) in a way that overwhelms pupils trying to cope with the intrinsic cognitive load (the complexity of what you’re teaching). So if a pupil is learning about static electricity, but is distracted by a redundant display on atomic structure, then the burden on their working memory will be too much. CLT is so important that professor Dylan Wiliam has suggested it’s the single most important thing for teachers to know.

Can’t we have posters anymore? If you insist on keeping your displays, you’ll need to carefully consider location, function and the amount of text. Graphical displays carry less load than words, hence the enduring usefulness of things such as the periodic table, which use colour and symbols as prompts. Even so, you wouldn’t want these next to your board, otherwise pupils might spend periods pondering what Os stands for when you’re explaining electrolytes.

So, are you now angry with me, too? I stand by my view all the same. Currently, our use of stationery is often dictated by habit and intuition. If we want to understand how our pupils learn best, we will need a greater awareness of the effectiveness of our stationery. Even if these much-loved items aren’t actively hindering learning, they may well be distracting from techniques that could result in much greater benefits.

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England