A student works out a math problem on a digital board while a teacher helps.


What’s a Paperless Classroom and Is It Really a Good Thing?

Oct 30, 2017

I was excited when the litter-less lunch concept was introduced at my boys’ elementary school. What a great way to teach kids (and parents!) about reducing waste and reusing lunch containers day after day. Our principal also encourages us to send reusable water bottles and walk our kids to school whenever possible. On top of that, every piece of paper my boys have brought home from schools is covered with EEEEs on one side. It’s called GOOS Paper (Good On One Side) and represents one way our school re-uses misprinted paper.

I’ve since learned it’s all part of the Toronto District School Board’s EcoSchools program. This is an overarching across-the-board initiative that encourages all schools to consider ways to implement more sustainable practices at school. Some of these environmentally friendly initiatives stem from a report published two years ago that offers ideas and best practices that schools can adapt to their own environments.

I was talking to a group of parents about these amazing eco initiatives recently when one parent mentioned they’d heard of a school experimenting with something called a paperless classroom.

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Of all the eco initiatives I’d heard of, this one caught my attention. How exciting and revolutionary! I grew up using paper — and lots of it. We wrote in notebooks, printed school assignments at home and brought them in for marking. We were given handouts and photocopies galore. If everything in a paperless classroom is digital, it will prepare our kids for a future of collaboration and global citizenship. They’ll save the environment one e-assignment at a time.

But then I got to thinking: how do you work out a math problem without paper? How do you practice your printing or penmanship? How do you commit facts to memory if you can’t physically write them down, a strategy that works for me?

I contacted Corey Birnbaum, principal of Armour Heights Public School in North York, ON. Two classrooms in his school are credited with being among the first in the school board to experiment with a paperless classroom.

“The idea really came from our students,” says Birnbaum, who heads a kindergarten to Grade 6 school. “We were talking about environmental stewardship and trying to empower students in our older grades to take on an environmental issue. We presented problems to the students and they came up with a model for a sustainable eco-classroom.”

Their ideas focused on adding more plants to their classes, using an interactive whiteboard, writing on dry erase boards, using dry erase markers on desks and being thoughtful and deliberate about when, how and if paper is used.

“We ended up starting one of the first Google Classrooms in the TDSB,” says Birnbaum.

It was a big learning opportunity for students and their teachers and changed the game when it how students and teachers could interact.

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“Students used iPads from home and school to complete work, we used an Apple platform to display presentations, assigned and submit work digitally, and teachers provided feedback and marks online,” says Birnbaum. “Student engagement went through the roof.”

As exciting as it sounds, there was pushback from parents. For instance, technical glitches led to added stress when parents couldn’t access student assignments online at night.

“Though we experienced some of these struggles,” says Birnbaum, “students became better problem solvers.”

It also forced teachers to look at traditional teaching and learning and to adapt their methods accordingly. Though some of the student pioneers have since graduated, all junior classrooms are still using Google Classroom and the school uses much less paper than it used to. The school has become “paper-less” rather than “paperless.”

“In many cases, we can find a better way than using paper and photocopying if we just ask the question,” says Birnbaum. “When students are asked to consider the environment when making choices at school, they can learn to be more responsible citizens.”

Article Author Erin Silver
Erin Silver

Read more from Erin here.

Erin Silver is a freelance writer and blogger whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, The Globe and Mail, and many other national magazines and newspapers. A single mom, she is hard at work on her first book about the adventures of divorce and single parenthood. Visit her online at erinsilver.ca.

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