Although the printing press was revolutionary, most schools used a limited number of textbooks up through the 19th century. While universities had libraries and a range of printed resources, elementary and high schools relied much more heavily on verbal instruction from teachers.
As printing technology rapidly improved throughout the 20th century, so did teaching methods. Elementary and high schools began to use more textbooks and, once inexpensive printing became available, they began creating more worksheets and tests as well.
Printing has affected every aspect of teaching, from classroom décor to special education best practices. Although schools still must balance finite resources and avoid wasting materials, they typically allow educators to print as freely as possible. Some schools have begun using tablets or other digital learning tools to replace textbooks, but, for the most part, paper is here to stay.
Early Printing and Copying
Modern printing presses were invented in 1440, but they were cumbersome and could not print new materials quickly. They were primarily used for religious texts until technology improved and steam power was developed in the mid-1800s. Then, serialized novels like the works of Charles Dickens became popular, allowing the world of literature to grow rapidly.
By the early 1900s, schools could afford more textbooks, but they were sometimes in short supply in rural America. They had limited illustrations and graphics, too, as printing unique illustrations was difficult. Teachers still had to supplement the textbooks with their own lectures and explanations.
Publishing companies included questions and writing prompts in their textbooks, so students who had textbooks could write out the answers on their own blank paper. While this practice is still in use today, it’s now just as common for teachers to write their own homework questions and other materials.
Copying Worksheets and Tests
For the first half of the 20th century, mimeographs and spirit duplicators (ditto machines) were the only ways for the general public to make copies. To use these machines, the user had to create an original document on special paper, then feed the document into the machine. The resulting copies were low-quality but sufficient for everyday use.
Teachers and professors often used mimeographs to create customized worksheets and tests. Unfortunately, originals made on mimeograph paper would only last for a few hundred copies. Spirit duplicator originals would only last for a few dozen.
Plus, creating clean originals required teachers to type carefully on typewriters, which made it hard to erase or cover up mistakes. Still, these machines provided a convenient way for teachers to create new tests every year or two, adding a safeguard against cheating.
The First Commercial Copiers
The first electrostatic copier was invented in 1959, but it was far too expensive for most schools to afford at first. Universities adopted it first since they had the money and space for the 650-pound device. Once an institution covered the initial up-front cost of the equipment, the resulting copies were very cheap.
As copiers became more affordable, schools and public libraries began to get them as well. This allowed teachers to use the same original documents for years but didn’t necessarily make originals easier to produce, as most teachers still had to use typewriters.
Mass-Producing Classroom Worksheets
Eventually, scientists figured out how to make a copier that didn’t rely on a paper original. The first commercial printers debuted in the 1970s, but the word processing technology was so basic at that time that it wasn’t very helpful for teachers. Plus, schools typically didn’t have computers to connect to printers in the first place. Again, universities caught on to this technology first.
Once computers became widespread in K-12 schools, teachers began to use them to produce their own worksheets. In the meantime, another problem emerged: copyright violations caused by teachers copying worksheets and textbook pages. While copyright law protects limited copying of materials for educational use, the advent of the copy machine had made things difficult for publishers that needed to stay in business.
Standardized testing existed before 2000, but it has become much more widespread in the 21st century. There are millions of students across the U.S. and distributing standardized tests to all of them wouldn’t be possible without improvements in commercial printing over the past century.
Although standardized testing is a multimillion-dollar industry for publishing companies, individual test booklets and answer sheets are incredibly cheap to print in mass quantities.
Standardized testing has had a massive influence on classroom teaching, as teachers now stick to a standardized curriculum and spend less time on art and music. Plus, teachers can now download and print practice test questions for their students ahead of time, even in elementary schools.
Connecting with Visual and Hands-On Learners
Over the past several decades, research has clearly shown that visuals are easier for learners to process and retain than large amounts of words. While some words are inevitably necessary to teach new concepts, teachers can use graphic organizers, diagrams, and other visual aids to communicate in clearer and more memorable ways.
Improvements in word processing software have made it easier for teachers to format worksheets in an intuitive way and add clipart and other graphics wherever needed. Plus, color-coding graphics and other visuals can aid in learning, as these make important graphs and statistics easier to remember.
Innovations in printer ink have made printing cheaper, allowing teachers to print and post more of their own materials. While teacher supply companies have a range of posters for a variety of subjects and topics, teachers often prefer to make their own signs for classroom rules and reminders.
Teachers can also make seasonal décor or posters for a specific topic they’re covering in class. For very young students, classroom decorations reinforcing months and days of the week are important. For older grades, displays may focus on the fundamentals of grammar or mathematical formulas.
In-Class Reading Assignments
Textbooks are expensive, and, in some cases, teachers may prefer to distribute excerpts of books for classroom use. While copyright law limits how much material can be reproduced for classroom use, it’s a viable option for short stories or sections from textbooks.
With printing and copying cheaper than ever, it’s easy for teachers to use the school copier or scanner to prepare material. This has made it more affordable for universities and K-12 schools to customize their teaching materials and craft a curriculum that’s more engaging for students.
Special Education and English as a Second Language
Special education encompasses a variety of learning disabilities and other conditions, so teachers must be able to adapt materials on the fly. With affordable in-school printing, it’s easier than ever for teachers to change worksheets as needed to meet a student’s needs.
For example, teachers can use dyslexia-friendly fonts to help students who struggle with reading regular fonts. Teachers can also make extra practice worksheets for a topic that a student is struggling with.
Similarly, English as a Second Language benefits from inexpensive printing because teachers need to adapt and create materials to meet a wide range of needs. Customizable graphic organizer worksheets are particularly useful to ESL students, as they allow students to organize their thoughts quickly, even if they’re still beginners in English.
Also, new students sometimes arrive at a school with little notice, and teachers have to create materials to support that student’s transition.
Sharing Materials Online
Before printing was widespread, teachers had to rely on materials created by textbook publishers and other businesses. Now, teachers can share creative worksheets, classroom posters, and other materials with each other easily. This can reduce the amount of time teachers spend creating their own materials, freeing up time for grading and attending extracurricular events.
A 2013 survey by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation showed that 91% of teachers use or share teaching materials online.
This practice has been especially helpful as states and the federal government adopt the Common Core curriculum. Despite all the changes in teaching practices and material to cover in class, teachers have been able to adapt worksheets and lesson plans from each other.
More Homework Options
As printers became less expensive, students began to have more access to printing at home or at libraries. Schools also began to make printers available for student use, especially at the high school level. Now, teachers can assign longer essays and research assignments and require students to turn in a printed copy.
Students are also sometimes assigned creative skits, presentations, and other homework with a written component. These assignments are also easier due to advances in word processors and printing.
All of this has made it easier for teachers to assess students’ abilities, despite the time constraints of the school day. However, it also may have increased the amount of time teachers spend grading.
Resources for Students Without Internet
Although high-speed internet theoretically makes it easier for students to do homework, there are surprisingly high numbers of students without broadband internet at home in low-income rural areas. While some students have access to the internet on smartphones, cell service in these areas is often weak.
In these cases, teachers must work carefully to ensure that students have the resources necessary to complete assignments at home. Sometimes printing research at school is the only way for these students to do research-heavy essays and other assignments at the high school level. Being able to print freely at school can help close the achievement gap between low-income and wealthy schools.
STEM and Digital Art
Schools have worked hard to prepare students for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and have begun incorporating hands-on lessons in robotics and programming.
To fully retain the information presented in those classes, students need to be provided with something to take home and study. Affluent schools are sometimes able to give students at-home access to software and files on a special server, but most schools still use at least some printed materials in their STEM classes.
Schools with adequate computer lab space have also begun offering digital art classes that teach students how to use Adobe Photoshop and other common software.
In order to display their artwork, students typically need to print it—which requires color inkjet printing. Schools with the resources to do so can help give future graphic designers and illustrators an early start on honing their skills.
Communication with Parents
Involving parents in the classroom can be a challenge, since many work full-time once their children are old enough for school. While many teachers use email to communicate with parents, some emails may slip through a busy parent’s inbox. Plus, parents in low-income rural areas that don’t have internet access at home might not check their emails daily. Many teachers still use printed notices for permission slips, field trip information, and other important news.
Printed Materials vs. Technology
Some schools have begun using digital whiteboards, tablets, and other technology to teach. While these tools are convenient, educators worry about their cost and effectiveness. Some studies indicate that information read on a screen isn’t retained as well as information read on paper. There are also concerns about the potential for abuse if students use tablets or computers to play games or access social media during class.
As the debate over limiting children’s screen time continues, schools may move away from these devices. While they may have their place in STEM classrooms, their usefulness in other subjects is still unclear.
The Need for Better Printers
Although modern printers are excellent, schools are sometimes on tight budgets that keep them from being used to their full potential. American schools don’t commonly have large-format printers, for example, which limits how teachers can use posters in their classrooms.
Although teachers have begun using hand-drawn anchor charts to compensate for this, hand-drawn posters like these are time-consuming and hard to replace if damaged.
Regardless of the current limits of school resources, printing tech has changed the way we study. Innovations like 3D printing may also become more common in the classroom, as they give teachers another hands-on way to illustrate concepts for children. The influences of printing on classroom practices will continue to shift and evolve for decades to come.