In Praise of Penmanship

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penmanship 300x199 In Praise of PenmanshipI have a confession to make. This could cost me serious street cred in the field of education, but it’s time I spill the beans: I am not obsessed with technology in the classroom. That’s right. I do not believe that tablets are the answer to every challenge that our educational system faces. And I don’t think it is absolutely critical that Twitter plays a part in our students’ projects. In fact, I think our fixation on technology in the classroom leads to some unintended negative consequences: Teachers lose sight of content in the name of packaging and delivery. Technology overshadows learning. New gadgets and new apps that ought to faithfully serve in the role of medium, usurp a role for which they are wholly unfit – the learning objective itself. The means become the end, and student learning is stunted.

I’ve harbored these subversive feelings for a while; now, I have the research to back it up. A recent study, summarized and analyzed in the WSJ, demonstrates that there is at least one clear downside to the hyper-focus on digital learning in the classroom. Interestingly, the problem is one that I had never considered in my own secret resistance: the neglect of handwriting.

Researchers at the University of Indiana have found that children who spend time practicing their penmanship demonstrate greater neural activity in the brain. In addition, a study that was published in 2008 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience concluded that the benefits of handwriting, as opposed to typing, are also applicable to adults. Those adults who actually drew characters from foreign languages retained knowledge of the new characters at a much greater level than those adults who simply reproduced the characters via a keyboard and screen.

Moreover, writing by hand may actually stimulate more incisive thinking. A professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington describes how the “sequential strokes” that are performed in the act of writing trigger the parts of the brain involved in language and thinking. There appears to be a psychosomatic connection between the movement of the hand and the process of cognition.

Finally, Steve Graham, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, notes that handwriting has empirically been shown to influence the opinions of one’s audience. A test score that lands in the 50th percentile can plummet to the 16th percentile all because of poor penmanship. Whether we like it or not, says Professor Graham, “people judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.”

Do you agree that there is an over-emphasis on digital media in education, at the expense of other educational values? Have you found that teaching handwriting carries important benefits beyond the technical skill itself? Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments below.


16 Responses to In Praise of Penmanship

  1. Belinda Randolph says:

    “A test score that lands in the 50th percentile can plummet to the 16th percentile all because of poor penmanship.”

    Using this quote is support of teaching/requiring handwriting in school is not valid. This very study is the reason that I support typing in school. Some student have fine-motor control issues (meaning their muscles do not work the same way as others), and as a result, their messy handwriting is judged as laziness. With the goal of not discriminating against the disabled, all students should be allowed to type at school. My son types at school.

    • Noam says:

      Hi Belinda,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I absolutely agree that those students who need to type due to fine-motor difficulties should absolutely be granted the right to do so. That being said, I think both of our positions can coexist. The reality, for better or for worse, is that one’s handwriting does affect how one’s content is received. Therefore, we would also be doing a disservice to our students if we didn’t help promote proper penmanship for those students who are capable of improving their handwriting. Best of luck to you and your son!

    • Neil says:

      I agree Belinda and in fact we are about to see if we can set something like this up for our son as well. Also we have noticed that he does a lot better at spelling when he can type the letters (spell check off ) because he isn’t focusing so hard on actually writing the letters but how they are spelled. As a teacher, I do believe students should practice their handwriting for the reasons listed however my own feeling is that most teachers don’t use gimmicky technology as the media makes out and that there is still a lack of resources for effect use of technology in most public schools.

      • Noam says:

        Interesting point, Neil. Some teachers may overuse technology and others don’t use it at all. (And again, I certainly agree that for those students who need alternatives to handwriting with a pencil, a computer should be provided.) I’m wondering if other readers/teachers out there agree regarding your assessment of technology in the classroom. Do you think the claim that technology is overused in the classroom is an exaggeration of the reality on the ground? Thanks for joining the conversation!

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think that technology definitely can improve the classroom, but I’m worried that too much emphasis is being placed here. Technology should be incorporate when it helps improve education, but the goal shouldn’t be to incorporate as much technology as possible.

    We need to explore these new tools & find the best applications, but we do need to be careful that we don’t neglect traditional teaching methods that have been proven to work.

    • Noam says:

      Thanks, Linda. Well said. Technology needs to be included in our curriculum as a means, but not as an end. Have you succeeded in incorporating technology in the classroom in a balanced manner?

  3. David Spangler says:

    I have always found that I do my best mathematical thinking while I have a pencil in my hand. The pencil encourages me try out ideas via writing and drawing. I don’t get the same experience with a keyboard.

    • Noam says:

      Great point, David. I think you’re not alone. There is clearly a strong mind-body connection for a lot of us when it comes to brainstorming.

  4. Katherine Collmer says:

    Noam, Thank you for taking the risk and sharing your thoughts about technology in the classroom. I am a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of children’s handwriting skills. The overwhelming response to the articles I shared in newspapers led to my opening a clinic to help students who were not identifed with a learning disability with their handwriting struggles. These children also have special needs, just on a different plane. Handwriting is a complex skill. The underlying skills that are required to master it are the very same skills that are necessary for educational success as a whole. Hence, if a child struggles with handwriting, he struggles with his other school subjects as well. If we decide to “forget about handwriting” and provide students with more technology instead (with the exception of those who need it as Belinda discussed), then we fail to identify those students who have visual, fine motor and other cognitive challenges that handwriting practice exposes. Handwriting is more than a pretty signature or being able to read The Constitution. It is about skills that students need to be successful. Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts! PS: I rarely use technology in my handwriting practice! THERE, I said it!

    • Noam says:

      Hi Katherine, I appreciate your comments. Thank you for sharing your professional perspective on the subject. Have you found that parents are eager to help their children improve their handwriting (those who can)? Or, are they satisfied to offer them alternative solutions to the challenges they face, like the use of a keyboard?

  5. Brad Cooper says:

    It seems Common Core is accelerating the elimination of handwriting. Cursive is completely missing from it and states have eliminated cursive because of it. How will kids be able to read important historical documents firsthand? In Common Core states, you may “add” optional things such as cursive, but then you are asking your teachers to add things (in an already crammed day) which are not going to matter on the “high stakes” tests… so it won’t be taught. Perfect example of why having copy-written standards owned and controlled by two Washington DC lobbyist groups is a bad idea. Even if they want to, states may not add handwriting or cursive standards to the Common Core standards. Noam, your thoughts?

    • Noam says:

      Hi Brad,
      I think you’re absolutely right that for historical literacy alone, it is important that students have a working knowledge of cursive. Add that to the list of reasons why I think it is valuable to maintain penmanship in a school’s curriculum. As for Common Core, well…I suppose that’s for another blog post. But I will say for now that the problem you describe is certainly one of the drawbacks of a standardized curriculum. Thanks for the comments.

  6. Gerry says:

    I agree that caution is warranted with regard to introducing educational technology, and it’s common knowledge that hand-drawing characters when learning languages such as Chinese and Japanese is very helpful. On the the other hand, I question a few of the other assertions about penmanship.

    Writing with a pencil is, after all, a use of technology. As such, the danger of studying it for its own sake exists, too. Putting cognitive issues aside for a moment, what real value does it have these days? Who are the people who will judge me by my handwriting? Almost nobody ever sees mine, and I seldom use it. The most likely person to see somebody’s handwriting might well be their teacher. If students should learn to write well because their teachers will otherwise think worse of them, aren’t we employing the technology for its own sake?

    As to reading historical documents, printing was popularized in the 15th century. If you need to look at original documents from earlier than that, you pretty much have to learn a language anyway, and knowledge of modern cursive will be of limited value. There are myriad printed copies of the Constitution.

    Handwriting isn’t the only means of linking motor function to cognition. Maybe we should let handwriting go and spend more time teaching kids to draw.

    Even traditional keyboards are becoming less used, with thumb-typing and voice commands, as well as touch screens, taking their place.

    • Noam says:

      Hi Gerry,
      Thanks for chiming in. You are absolutely right that, as is so often the case, balance is required regarding this issue. We do ourselves no favors by swinging to the other extreme and uncritically obsessing over handwriting. That being said, as you note, there is a reality that students will encounter: teachers may judge them, even subconsciously, based on their penmanship. I agree that this is a shame, and that employing this as a reason to teach handwriting is circular. However, the need is real. Until that reality changes, we owe it to our students to equip them with the skills they will need to advance academically. (Life beyond academics is certainly of greater value, but we do owe them the chance at academic success too.)
      As far as historical documents are concerned, once again I agree with your fundamental point. The historical window in which English cursive comprises the majority of documents is relatively small. Indeed, it would not be a tragedy if a student could not decipher the original handwriting of Thomas Jefferson. But it does have some educational and experiential value. How much? I suppose that is open to debate.
      Finally, you don’t need to convince me about the value of teaching kids to draw; I strongly support increasing education of the arts and many other kinesthetic activities!
      Thanks again for the thought provoking comments.

  7. Mark Eugene says:

    I think you are combining two issues that, though not unrelated, that are not tightly linked. I hated handwriting as a student, it is slow and mine never looked good. I had an accident a few years ago and lost some function in my writing hand, my handwriting has actually gotten worse, so I tend to do use handwriting as little as possible. I learned how to type using a Smith-Corona Portable typewriter when I was in 5th grade, so that I could communicate my thoughts legibly and at speed. You might call that great piece of clunking and dinging iron technological, but it is so far from a modern PC as to be unrecognizable by many. Spell checking actually improved my writing when it came along because I could see the word I needed to spell as I needed it, a true whole-language approach to spelling. I recognize there is some need for legible handwriting in children and that there will be children who excel in penmanship, in the same way some children enjoy music, math or sculpture more than others. And you are right, good teaching will never be replaced by boxes with pretty lights (well, not till the AI’s take over). We should never lose sight that the point of writing or typing is to communicate our thoughts, that is the point of the exercise. Focusing on the tool we use to do that or making one tool exclusive to the task misses goal.

    • Noam says:

      Hi Mark, for students like you who have gained tremendously from the benefits that technology affords, I agree that penmanship should not be overemphasized. And you are correct in pointing out that ultimately we are talking about a medium of communication here, not the substance of thought itself. However, I still maintain that we may be in danger of forfeiting all of the wonderful advantages of handwriting, when possible, by overemphasizing technology. A good balance is called for. Thanks for taking the time to engage in the conversation.

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