Friday, September 21, 2012

Eraser: to err is human, to erase divine

Guy Claxon has described the eraser as the "instrument of the devil". His point is that teachers need to see the wrong workings of the learner. He couldn't be more wrong. Learning is about the learner, not the teacher. The eraser is a tool for the learner and has long been a useful tool in terms of self-regulated progress for learners.
Erasure has been essential  for learners and writers since writing began. From the earliest clay tablets to the wax tablets used by the Greeks and Romans a spatula-like scraper, or melting, was used for transitory information. Slates, were also erasable with nothing more than a little spit or a cloth. When ink was used in medieval manuscripts there was, on average, one error per page, so a piece of stone or pumice was used to erase the mistakes made in writing and copying. Then came bread and the pencil eraser.
Pencil eraser
The eraser, that small, simple object, associated with the graphite pencil, has been a mainstay for students since graphite was used. Joseph Priestly describes the use of a ‘rubber’ for erasing graphite writing as far back as 1770. But it was an English inventor, Edward Nairn, who first sold ‘rubbers’. It was, curiously, the first practical use of rubber in Europe. Vulcanisation boosted its use in the mid-19th century as it gave ‘rubbers’ a longer life, as before this, they were perishable.
The next step was to put them on the end of pencils, which happened in the US in 1858. Hymen Lipman’s patent failed, as it was felt to be a composite part of one device and not something separate, However, it became common for pencils to have erasures on the non-writing end from that point onwards.
Pencil erasers come in a massive range of forms from the classic rectangular block, still popular (as the apexes are sharp for fine corrections), to conical erasers that fit on the tip of the pencil and eraser pencils where the rubber replaces the graphite. Then there’s novelty erasers in every imaginable shape and colour.
Erasers and teaching
Of course, teachers have also used erasers, especially after the widespread adoption of chalkboards in the early 19th century. In fact, the success of the chalkboard is largely down to the fact that content can be erased with a simple felt pad. Sewall Wright, geneticist and legendary absent-minded professor took live erasure on his chalkboard literally, when he famously used one of his experimental  guinea-pigs, by mistake, to wipe out work he had written on a chalkboard in his lecture!
Erasure and learning
Erasure, the ability to correct mistakes, is a potent learning technique, as failure is a normal part of learning. This is especially true in learning writing skills. To hold and use a pencil is a difficult skill to master, as is letter formation, capitalisation, alignment of lines and the various degrees of skill that writing involves.
Spelling is a lifelong, learning task. Few adults would feel confident in writing prose without access to a dictionary or spellchecker. This is especially true in languages, like English, that are highly irregular. Learning from failure goes far beyond spelling. It also applies to word order, sentence construction and the general structure of pieces of written prose. Even if one has mastered clear writing and spelling, good writing is achieved by rewriting. Erasure is an essential feature of good writing.
The ability to correct mistakes and revise has always been useful for learners and writers. Indeed most serious learning theorists see failure as an integral part of the learning process. It is almost impossible to imagine a subject or skill that doe not entail huge amounts of failure eventually learning to success. Some, such as Roger Schank, see failure as the key driver behind learning. If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn.
Whole word disaster
Interestingly, there was a fashion in primary education in the 90s to NOT correct spelling errors. This was the result of a disastrous ‘whole language’ or ‘whole word’ policy in teaching literacy. Children were encouraged to write without correcting spelling errors, as this was seen as a secondary skill, unrelated to reading. Whole language teaching was easier, felt intuitively right and avoided the perceived dullness of repeated practice on phonic components and sounds.
Much of this has been usefully reversed with a renewed focus on phonics and other constructive techniques, as the research community came out and reacted strongly against the whole language method. Research has established that we do indeed rapidly sound out words, in silent reading, even in skilled readers. Comparative studies are also convincing on this matter. However, throughout the nineties, a groupthink phenomenon took hold where the teachers were all taught teacher training courses that adopted the method, attended the same workshops and bought the same textbooks. We are only now beginning to see how destructive this was. It was a disaster for generations of children.
There is almost nothing as simple and effective as an eraser for correcting the errors of your ways. We know that correcting errors is a vital process for writing. We also know that literacy means knowing the irregular spellings of words and that writing is a skill that demands rewrites. All of this favours erasure as a learning and working tool. Witness the rise and success of word processing, where backspace, deletion, spellcheckers and electronic erasure, allows learners to correct mistakes with relative ease. No erasure, no learning - there's the rub!
Rayner K, Foorman B, Perfetti C, Pesetsky D and Seidenberg M (2002) How should reading be taught? Scientific American
Chall J, Adams M (1900)Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. MIT Press.
Learning to Read: The Great Debate.. Harcourt Brace, 1996.
Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Edited by C. E. Snow et al. National Academy Press, 1998. Available at
Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. National Reading Panel. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000). Available at
Rayner K, Foorman B, Perfetti C, Pesetsky D and Seidenberg M How Psychological Science Informs the Teaching of Reading. in Psychological Science in the Public Interest,
Vol. 2, No. 2, pages 31–74; November 2001. Available at

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Blogger Ewan McIntosh said...

Where did he say this? A link? I'd love to develop this, too

1:38 PM  

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