Sunday, June 8, 2014

What students lose when schools abandon penmanship

This past week's Science Times showcases yet another cases where classroom practices are diverging from recent findings in cognitive science (see also "critical thinking"; novices vs. experts; learning styles; and real-life connections). The latest findings are about penmanship, increasingly downplayed in classrooms, and, as the article points out, by the Common Core:

The Common Core standards... call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, the emphasis quickly shifts to proficiency on the keyboard.
The article cites a 2012 study by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University in which:
Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer.
The kids who drew the letters freehand--i.e., on blank pages--exhibited increased activity in the same areas of the brain that are "activated in adults when they read and write." The other kids didn't. Freeform writing, James speculates, requires that "we first plan and execute the action in a way that is not required when we have a traceable outline."

Freeform writing, furthermore, produces "highly variable" results. No two handwritten letters look exactly alike--particularly when drawn by novice writers. This variability, James suggests, may aid kids in learning letters--presumably by requiring them to abstract the signal (the letters' essential features) from the noise (all that variability).

Another of James' studies, which compares "children who physically form letters with those who only watch others doing it," suggests that:
it is only the actual effort that engages the brain’s motor pathways and delivers the learning benefits of handwriting.
This is consistent with other findings on the benefits of active over passive learning: e.g., of retrieval practice and productive practice in second language learning. (And it is one of the guiding principle behind my linguistic software for autism.)

Beyond form, there's content. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, psychologist Virginia Berninger finds that:
When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.
Then there's note-taking and recall:
Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.
For experienced keyboardists, typing is generally much faster than writing. Handwritten notes, then, require more triaging of content, and, therefore, more active attention to what's most important.

Of course, typing's advantage in speed brings plenty of plusses. That's why I made fluent typing one of this year's first home-schooling priorities. My daughter now types super-fast. But she still writes about half of her assignments by hand.

1 comment:

Auntie Ann said...

Our 12 year old has good handwriting, especially for a boy, but he hates the way he writes. This year he discovered Dragon software and he loves it. He's figured out that he can write in about 15 minutes what used to take him an hour.

I'd love to see this kind of study extended to voice-recognition software to see how that stacks up. There, the process of forming the words is eliminated entirely (with revisions for the program mis-hearing and homophone problems), and it's just like thinking and talking.