The Radical Notion of Returning to Handwriting
The importance of writing by hand for learning
Posted May 14, 2017
In today’s classrooms, students who have trouble printing or writing are allowed—if not encouraged or even forced—to use computers instead, but research and clinical experience suggest that adopting this practice too early may cause additional setbacks.
Sensory integration specialists and child development experts assert that children who can’t hand print well don’t learn to read easily because they don’t have as strong a visual-motor “imprint” for letter recognition. In contrast, practicing and becoming proficient in printing makes both printing and reading more fluid and automatic, freeing up mental energy to work on other subjects like math and spelling.1
More generally, printing and cursive writing stimulate the brain and mind in unique and encompassing ways that typing does not, including hand-eye coordination, self-discipline, attention to detail, style, and global engagement of thinking, language, and working memory areas.2 Yet increasingly, schools bypass this critical skill and rush to let a child use a keyboard at the first sign of struggle. And teaching cursive is no longer a requirement of the national Common Core standards.
What’s more, studies show that laptop note-taking produces a more shallow understanding of material compared to notes taken by hand, and that laptops are distracting both for users and for their neighbors, even when they’re being used in an appropriate manner.3 Other research has shown that students using laptops to take notes don’t perform as well on exams compared to longhand note-takers.4
In a compelling 2007 report advocating the banning of laptops in the classroom, professor Kevin Yamamoto of the South Texas College of Law presented a litany of research supporting his case, including that the use of laptops in law classrooms is linked to a lower pass-rate on the bar exam. In a study of his own classrooms, he found that laptop use reduced student-teacher eye contact, created an over-reliance on looking up material instead of internalizing concepts, hindered critical thinking, and erected a mental and physical barrier between himself and the students.5 He also found that students were frequently not following along, making discussions maddeningly inefficient. In contrast, after banning laptops, Yamamoto noted that there were more questions from students, more in-depth discussions, and higher exam scores as well as overwhelmingly positive feedback from students: Nearly 90 percent felt positive or neutral about the keyboard ban.
Interestingly, Yamamoto noted that the ban made his administration concerned; he was discouraged from making such a bold move because his supervisors assumed such a ban would cause a student uproar. It did not, but even if it had, why are we all so afraid of removing screen-based technology from certain environments, even in an experimental manner? Was the administration projecting their own psychological dependence on devices, and reacting out of anxiety? Or were their assumptions based on the resistance they'd seen in their own children when screens were removed? Did they simply imagine that their students could not adapt?
Whatever the case, when it comes to learning, development, and health, many times the simplest and most natural way is what resonates best with the brain and body. We have to create environments that are conducive to learning, even if it goes against the cultural grain, and at the same time give young people more credit for adaptability. As boring as it may seem, "back to the basics" often works best.
1. Cris Rowan, “Ten Reasons to NOT Use Technology in Schools for Children under the Age of 12 Years,” Moving to Learn, May 28, 2014, http://movingtolearn.ca/2014/ten-reasons-to-not-use-technology-in-school....
2. William Klemm, “Biological and Psychology Benefits of Learning Cursive | Psychology Today,” Psychology Today, Memory Medic, (August 5, 2013), http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201308/biological-and-p....
3. Carrie B. Fried, “In-Class Laptop Use and Its Effects on Student Learning,” Computers & Education 50, no. 3 (April 2008): 906–14, doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2006.09.006.
4. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science, April 23, 2014, doi:10.1177/0956797614524581.
5. Kevin Yamamoto, “Banning Laptops in the Classroom: Is It Worth the Hassles,” J. Legal Educ. 57 (2007): 477.