A student’s choice of writing tool can affect the speed, neatness and accuracy of their work, says Carly Page, with research showing that poor pen selection could even have a detrimental effect on a child’s cognitive development
Teachers know that pens matter. They fight over fine tips, wrangle over rollerballs and will bond with a ballpoint like it’s their only child. And yet, when it comes to the students, we dole out the same type of pen to everyone and expect them all to be comfortable with it, to use it for multiple different tasks, and to produce work with speed, fluency, stamina and neatness. Surely, this is madness?
Certainly, the idea of a universal pen for all people for all tasks is a little optimistic. Some pens are designed with speed of writing in mind, aiming for fluent transfer of oil-based inks, which dry faster than other inks, so smudge less. The shape is robust, built for the rigours of note taking.
Other pens are designed for a more leisurely writing experience, requiring less pressure on the paper, and shaped for stamina: a light pen, ready for hours of creative outpourings.
Then you have pens designed for drawing, pens designed for pinpoint precision, pens designed for tiny letter formations and pens designed for huge, looping letter formations. You have pens that feel like a tree trunk in your hand and pens that you hardly know are there. Basically, you have pens for everything you ever need.
Get the pen choice wrong for any given individual and you can be sure of trouble ahead. Research shows that the intricacies of a writing instrument – be that its size, shape or material – can have a major impact on a child’s writing performance, affecting not only how comfortably and quickly they are able to write but also how accurately.
What’s more, a study has shown that a poorly designed pen could end up having a damaging effect on a child’s ability to learn how to write and, ultimately, their cognitive development.
I ink, therefore I am
I know, there’s more to pen design than you ever imagined, right? And we haven’t even met Erine Petratou, yet.
Petratou is a senior user research manager at BIC. She helps design pens and, the way she tells it, there’s a lot more to it than just making ink transfer to paper.
For a start, her qualifications are not principally in design. “My background is in psychology,” she reveals.
The reason pen design needs people like Petratou is because the companies that make them do not view the process simply as the manufacture of a tool – instead, they want to manufacture a feeling in the person who holds the tool. “We’re really focused on how users feel about the products and what key challenges they face when they use them,” she explains. “It’s not just a matter of how well a product performs.”
This is particularly true with primary-age children, she explains. A big focus for pen designers is the transition phase that happens between the ages of 1 and 5, when a child is asked to add more demanding writing tasks to their creative free drawing. That shift means they must learn how to grip and position themselves differently, and Petratou says that pen designers look at all the relevant research in these areas so they can ensure that their tools help, rather than hinder, the child’s development.
So, do they start with the non-negotiable of assisting children to hone their tripod grip? Erm, no. “This isn’t critical in how a child learns how to write,” Petratou argues.
Instead, pen designers attempt to create a pen that enables a child to choose a grip that feels comfortable. “We try to identify what are the key design developments that provide intuitive gripping; we don’t force the child to grip the product in a certain way,” she says.
Otherwise, the pen “can become part of the frustration they face, and instead of making learning a pleasurable experience, it becomes a mandatory task”, explains Petratou.
The write stuff
Indeed, the whole design process is focused on making a child feel as good as possible while holding a pen, rather than it just being a means to an end. “We want the kids to be happy, and see our tools as a means to reach a nice result and to enjoy the journey, not just to focus on writing something in a precise and proper way,” Petratou says.
She also stresses that making the use of a pen more enjoyable will have knock-on benefits to learning. “A child, starting from early stages of cognitive development, needs sensory stimulation, which means they need to smell, to see, to touch and to perceive the environment,” she explains. “This helps kids to grow and to be better developed.
“This is something we focus on – we want our products to stimulate all of a child’s sensory modalities. When we activate our senses, we enhance our memory recall, and when we have products that facilitate this stimulation, this means a child can enhance their cognitive development.
“The more we focus on that, and how the child learns all of this knowledge and learns from the environment using the different senses, the better their cognitive performance will be.”
Of course, exactly how the company does this is not something she is able to discuss: pen design is cut-throat and she does not want to give away secrets to rival companies.
But surely any teacher reading Petratou’s comments will be evaluating their pen selection for pupils a little more carefully in the future.
And they may have more to choose from: Petratou says that the next big design challenge is finding the right tool for the post-Covid world of education.
Now children have gone back to school, they will have to adapt to a new environment with new conditions of socialising and interactions,” she says. “It’s a very critical process, and we are providing our support from a stationery point of view.
“We’re taking into account this transitional period and how a child’s cognitive development was potentially interrupted.
“These new elements that are affecting our society, we look at them as part of the way we investigate learning and how we can adapt our tools to new circumstances.”
Does that mean a post-lockdown pen is in the works? Is this something every pen designer is looking at? Are we set to have a new flock of antibacterial high-fun-factor pens flying into schools in 2021?
No one will say for sure. But I am hopeful: it’s not just the pupils who could do with a pick-me-up right now – that sort of pen sounds like just the thing for teachers, too.
Carly Page is a freelance writer
This article originally appeared in the 9 October 2020 issue under the headline “Let’s get straight to the (ball)point: pen choice matters”