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In Praise of Penmanship
I 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.