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The Pen Is Mighty, And So Is the Keyboard

By Whit Andrews | June 05, 2014 | 0 Comments

Ditching handwriting as a key aspect of curriculae captures attention and excites educators and parents. It’s a watershed change, to move away from teaching writing to pupils at a young age. The New York Times tells me Common Core moves toward keyboard proficiency in elementary school. The article goes on to studiously and decorously lament this, citing credible evidence of the positive effects that good handwriting training offers children.

My own handwriting as a child was atrocious. My mother’s is legendarily idiosyncratic; my son hands me her cards, still, to be deciphered. She typed as part of her work for many decades. My father’s is bold; he never typed for work, and still finds keyboards challenging. We transitioned my son as early as possible to keyboards; his writing invited unfortunate attention from teachers until keyboards replaced it.

But let us not descend into the valley of either-or. Handwriting is hard for some of us. Many a teacher leaned companionably or with intensifying exasperation over my shoulder to tell me to fix my pencil-holding form. (“Imagine a bunny. Do you see its eye? I can’t see the bunny’s eye!”) I hated handwriting worksheets. I despised rote learning. Did the learning harm me? No. On the other hand, my handwriting is now block print, and mostly used for notes and lists.

The key here, as always, is to look at the whole picture. Pew research tells us that 79% of American teachers agree that digital tools such as the Internet and social media “encourage greater collaboration among students.” Those digital tools are more available to people who use keyboards than people who write. That’s obvious. So there’s a benefit from typing.

And the subtext here from penmanship advocates is that we need to take time in the school day to focus on handwriting. But we’re already losing time out of the day for art. The proportion of elementary schools offering visual arts instruction fell in the decade from 2000 to 2010, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched budgets at schools crumple. And cursive is nothing if not art. Calligraphy in any alphabet or ideographic system is, too.

Something that saddens me is the manufacture of debate that seems intended to force a conflict. “Penmanship was an art!” says a teacher in Education World’s inflammatorily titled “Have Computers Forced Handwriting Out of the Picture?”  The article paraphrases her then by noting “All cursive was to be the same; individual styles were not acceptable,” which does not sound like it was taught as an art to me, and certainly reminds me why I hated it so much. (The emotion echoes in me still.)

We don’t need to make everything a point/counterpoint debate. Handwriting triggers aspects of learning that are valuable and meaningful. So does the value of gathering text directly from keyboards. (The folks at “Handwriting Without Tears” also offer “Keyboarding Without Tears.” Which is pragmatic.) And, I think more important, so does visual art education and every other aspect of a learning system. As a technology analyst, I am particularly sorry to see this cast, as so often is the case, as an idyllic past vs. steampunk present debate. It’s not about then vs. now; it’s about understanding now what kind of value we got then, and recasting it for now. Technology conflicts ginned up to pit preservationists against newfangled thinkers get nothing real accomplished.

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