Handwriting In Education

Pencils and Pens

Image from abcandj.com

(This was my senior graduation project paper. Click here to see my product!)

In all the ways America has changed over the last century, schools are among what have changed the most. Some change has been for the better; some has not. For better or worse, this is mostly due to our nation’s increasingly modernizing culture. Students are not as ready for their futures after high school as they could be due to factors such as regression in their writing abilities.

The stagnancy in education has not gone on without research or a lack of trying. There are many statistics proving a decline in academic success, such as “One in four American students fails to graduate from high school within four years of entering” (“How To Improve Our Failing Education System,” Bush). This is a multifactorial issue, but one of the major factors is the fact that writing by hand has become more of a unavoidable chore rather than a productive pastime. In 1988, the National Assessment of Educational Progress “demonstrated that 99.8% of 13-year-olds had acquired rudimentary reading skills and strategies. The 6% of students with only rudimentary or basic skills would undoubtedly face serious academic problems related to their reading deficits” (Davidson and Koppenhaven 5).

Now, twenty-five years later, this percentage has decreased due to the leaps and bounds made in technology since then. This is not to say that technology has completely destroyed students’ reading and writing capabilities as it does have several benefits when used properly. But the process of handwriting has always been key in learning; therefore, a decrease in handwriting guarantees a decrease in learning. It is a cause and effect situation in which the cause outweighs the effect.

Growing up, my dad had average handwriting for a young man. Then came college. Haphazard note taking and handwriting numerous essays did nothing for his penmanship. My dad has not been the only one to experience this.

Many others find that their handwriting becomes progressively sloppier in post-secondary education due to the speed with which information must be recorded to keep up with the professor’s pace. Because of this, people resort to writing mostly on keyboards for the sake of legibility in communicating. Technology is useful and efficient, but writing on paper with a pencil or pen is significantly more beneficial for learning. Despite its seeming impracticality as far as fast note taking goes, it has been proven that handwriting is educationally superior to word-processing.

Studies have been done on children memorizing images visually and tactilely, and memorizing letters by typing and writing. Both analyses showed that tracing images and writing letters produced more accurate results than viewing the images and typing the letters did (“Does Typing Make Learning Harder?”). My dad was not an honors student, but I wonder how much worse his grades would have been had he typed all of his notes?

Learning is not merely registering new information like entering binary code into a computer. There is a complex process to it. The brain receives information from the muscles in the hand as it writes, which, combined with the senses of sight and touch, has a solidifying effect (“Write It Down Don’t Type It If You Want Knowledge To Stick,” Alleyne) that the use of keyboards cannot match. Because only one hand is used, handwriting is also a slower, more precise process than typing, which usually uses both hands. Fingers hitting buttons, while requiring a memory of which button is which, does much less to hammer new information into the brain’s long term memory. While writing, only the tip of the pen is being focused on instead of the eyes having to occasionally alternate between keyboard and screen (“Does Typing Make Learning Harder?”) and the brain switching between keyboard and mouse usage. This makes for better concentration on the present task, as well as a decreased temptation to open up a web browser: “out of sight, out of mind.” In this time of shortening attention spans in youth, every measure taken to retain attention can only be helpful.

Personally, I prefer typing over handwriting; it is much easier to proofread and edit. There is much that typing can do that writing words out cannot do, such as printing and distributing books with ease. But while in middle school, the teacher of my sixth and seventh grade history classes was a firm believer in note taking. Throughout those two years, I probably filled one hundred notebook papers with history notes. At the time, my classmates and I would complain about the cramps in our wrists and the length of his lectures, but note taking by hand really did help with our tests scores and our overall comprehension of history.

“We must also hold our schools accountable through policies that distinguish among abject failure, mediocrity, and success” (“How To Improve Our Failing Education System,” Bush). Thankfully, that teacher did just that for my class; we did not fall under that 6% of students as mentioned by Davidson and Koppenhaven in Adolescent Literacy. Looking back on middle school as a junior, I can also see the note taking habits I developed that have helped me through high school and will help me in college.

China has always been known for the beautiful writing employed by not only by professional calligraphists filling scrolls, but by the common man making a grocery list. As in other countries, the older generations are not pleased with how technology in communication is taking the place of traditional script (“Is penmanship a dying art”). And why should they not be displeased? Those people grew up learning to the write the hard way ­– copying character after character until each were mastered – only to have those labors upstaged by the younger generation learning the basics of handwriting and then using keyboards with a simplified alphabet for the rest of their lives. A professor at Tsinghua University, Ge Fei, holds that if people forget how to handwrite the complex letters of the language in favor of typing them, there will be changes for the worse, changes like who-knows-what, in the culture (“Is penmanship a dying art”). The Chinese people have a proverb, “A person’s handwriting is a reflection of character,” which, while it may no longer be strictly applied, still has cultural weight (“Is penmanship a dying art”). If handwriting is completely kicked to the curb, not only are we depriving future generations of quality learning methods, but also of the personal identities cultures have known for so long in the form of handwriting.

The role handwriting has played in our country’s history is significant, as well. Can you imagine the Declaration of Independence being keyed in a Microsoft Word document, with John Hancock typing his name in some nice cursive font at size .72? I am not sure I could imagine that; not seriously, anyway.

Perhaps it is simply what we have grown up being told in school, but there is a feeling of wonderment when one sees the Constitution of the United States on display in DC. Those five pages have been preserved for over two-hundred years: not in “The Cloud,” not on a thumb drive, not in someone’s My Documents folder, but on physical paper, written on with real ink, stored in a vault with as much security, night and day, as the Presidents themselves. These documents and others like them have been studied, respected, and have stood the tests of time, not only because of their contents and purposes, but because of the firm beliefs with which the writers wrote in their own hands.

In addition, haptics involve the sense of touch, communication through touching, and passive and assertive reactions. Writing by hand is not only good for the brain, but doing so exercises haptics and consequently reinforces already present passion for the task at hand. Such exercise would be needed, for example, by John Hancock and his companions to carry out that very assertive declaration (“Write It, Don’t Type It If You Want Knowledge To Stick,” Alleyne). It has been said that history repeats itself. But when the children of today grow up to be the politicians of tomorrow, it is disconcerting to imagine legal documents being simple combinations of ones and zeros on someone’s hard drive without a pen in sight.

Replacing the written word with machines alone leads to a lesser understanding for coming generations of where this country has lodged its roots. If children do not see in the importance of handwriting in all its aspects, how can they see it being useful? Writing by hand is a tried-and-true method of communication, and if it is lost, the regard it has held throughout history and any future benefits it may have will be lost, as well. As far as academics go, this must not happen. To willingly allow such a cornerstone of education drop in favor of the up-and-coming projections of technology would be simply lazy – especially when future generations are on the line. “In no area of government or business would we reward years and even decades of failure without demanding reform. We should hold our schools to the same standard” (“How To Improve Our Failing Education System,” Bush).

The schools of America are not without hope: far from it. Teachers are doing their best to integrate modern technology in the classroom so that students will know how to use it in their careers. But to say hope alone will improve schools would be very wrong. The world is an ever-changing place, and so should schools be, too: ever changing, ever improving. But if we forget where we have been in our past success and our past routes of success, we cannot know where we are headed in our future success and our future routes of success.

Works Cited

“Adolescent Literacy.” All4Ed. Alliance for Excellent Education. Web. 1 Feb 2013 <http://www.all4ed.org/about_the_crisis/Students/Literacy&gt;.

Alleyne, Richard. “Write It Don’t Type It If You Want Knowledge To Stick.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited 2013, 20 Jan 2011. Web. 1 Feb 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8271656/Write-it-dont-type-it-if-you-want-knowledge-to-stick.html>.

Bush, Jeb. “How To Improve Our Failing Education System.” Miami Herald . 30 May 2012:  Web. 21 Feb. 2013. <http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/30/2824609/how-to-improve-our-failing-education.html&gt;.

Davidson, Judith, David Koppenhaver, et al. Adolescent Literacy. 2nd ed. New York, London: Garland Reference Library of Social Science, 1993. 5. Print.

“Does Typing Make Learning Harder?.” NHS Choices. GOV.UK, 21 Jan 2011. Web. 1 Feb 2013. <http://www.nhs.uk/news/2011/01January/Pages/writing-versus-typing-for-learning.aspx&gt;.

Ming, Xu. “Is Penmanship A Dying Art.” Global Times. The Global Times, 31 Jul 2012. Web. 1 Feb 2013. <http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/724421.shtml&gt;.

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7 thoughts on “Handwriting In Education

  1. Pingback: Handwriting Survey Documentary | CupfulOFeathers

  2. Great paper! I thought of photography, as well, while reading your points. Because pure photography is a dying art as well as cursive. Technology is taking over in so many areas. I hope you got an ‘A’ on the paper :) You should be very proud of that project.

    • Lesley,
      I kind of miss the days when we had to lug around cameras to capture moments; phone cameras are convenient, but having a specific tool for something always means better quality.
      The Senior Graduation Projects weren’t really given a letter grade; it was more along the lines of pass or fail. If you failed, you would be asked to redo your product. As long as you showed an effort and met the requirements, you passed. But thank you, anyway! :)

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