Sunday, August 28, 2016

Going on automatic: should word processing supplant penmanship?

In an article in last weekend’s Times, Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, argues that cursive is no longer pedagogically useful:

People talk about the decline of handwriting as if it’s proof of the decline of civilization. But if the goal of public education is to prepare students to become successful, employable adults, typing is inarguably more useful than handwriting.
Trubek concedes that "a 2012 study of 15 children found that forming letters by hand may facilitate learning to read.” But, she notes, "there seems to be no difference in benefits between printing and cursive." Her conclusion:
If printing letters remains a useful if rarely used skill, cursive has been superannuated. Its pragmatic purpose is simple expediency — without having to lift pen from paper, writers can make more words per minute.
And the expediency argument no longer holds water: now, with computers, typing is faster.

One of the most compelling cases for cursive over typing transcends expediency, and Trubek acknowledges it:
A 2014 study found that college students who took handwritten notes in lectures remembered the information better than those who typed notes.
But Trubek dismisses that study, saying that it
may indicate only that the slower speed of handwriting causes students to be more selective about what they write down.
And it’s here that Trubek’s case falls apart. For the idea that the slower speed of handwriting causes students to be more selective is hypothesized as the very essence of its advantage over typing in note-taking. As an earlier Times article on the 2014 study reports:
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.
And as I noted in an earlier blog post:
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.
Trubek’s alternative?
Perhaps, instead of proving that handwriting is superior to typing, it proves we need better note-taking pedagogy.
Since it’s been at least half a century since we’ve had any note-taking pedagogy, one has to wonder whether Trubek has spent much time in any actual classrooms, or among any actual education policy makers.

One wonders this anew when she imagines how much better student’s writing skills must be today:
Many students now achieve typing automaticity — the ability to type without looking at the keys — at younger and younger ages, often by the fourth grade. This allows them to focus on higher-order concerns, such as rhetorical structure and word choice.
In fact, the changes imposed by the digital age may be good for writers and writing. Because they achieve automaticity quicker on the keyboard, today’s third graders may well become better writers as handwriting takes up less of their education.
Has Trubek looked at a student paper recently? Handwriting has been “taking up” much less education for a while now, and what I’m seeing doesn’t support her optimism.

Instead, I see downsides to keyboarded compositions that are similar to the downsides to keyboarded note taking. Just as the speed and automaticity in typing facilitates recording the teacher’s words without having to reflect on what’s key, it also facilitates writing down your thoughts as fast as they come—with little reason to formulate them first. Yes, there are still those who care enough about their writing to edit it before turning it in—and for these people, word processors are a wondrous boon. But the finished look of auto-corrected, auto-processed prose can make anything look “done,” and many students readily turn in what is often an unedited brain dump (sometimes warped by autocorrection howlers)—prose that is far worse, I’m guessing, than what they would have turned in had they had to write it out first in long hand.

Trubek rightly points out that:
Keyboards are a boon to students with fine motor learning disabilities, as well as students with poor handwriting, who are graded lower than those who write neatly, regardless of the content of their expressions. This is known as the “handwriting effect,” proved by Steve Graham at Arizona State, who found that “when teachers are asked to rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in legibility, neatly written versions of the paper are assigned higher marks for overall quality of writing than are versions with poorer penmanship.” Typing levels the playing field.
But, apparently unaware that penmanship hasn’t been taught in a generation, she overlooks the possibility that much of today’s poor handwriting is as readily remediable as it is rampant.

Trusdek begins her book with a history of handwriting—which supposedly buttresses her claim that handwriting is history. As Jessica Kerwin Jenkins writes in this weekend's NY Times book review,
Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century ­America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of ­pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard ­produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages ­unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and ­began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.
Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.


Niels Henrik Abel said...

I admit that I am firmly in the handwriting camp. To me it seems much easier to write with pen/pencil and paper than to stare at a blinking cursor, suffering from writer's block. I don't know whether this is a result of the generation in which I was raised, or if it's due to any actual neurological/psychological difference between writing longhand and pecking away at the keyboard. For what it's worth, I am a pretty decent typist, despite having learned late in life (after graduate school), but I suspect that's largely due to my skills as a piano player. Nonetheless, I much prefer writing a rough draft on paper and then typing it using a word processing program, even though some may view the handwritten rough draft as a "waste of time." The way I view it, however, is that it's not as much a waste of time as it would be if I just sat staring at a blank computer screen.

Anonymous said...

I read this article and it made me want to gag. I have seen so much horrific writing because the subject has been completely removed from the curriculum. Whatever is taught now the students only write in print. Nothing riles me more than seeing 12 year olds printing.

Bookish Babe

Anonymous said...

It's true that students do need to know how to type, and at an earlier age. But that doesn't mean they don't need to know how to write in cursive, for the reasons you indicate. But it's strange to me that so many think that keyboarding should actually replace handwriting. We did not propose to eliminate Algebra from secondary school curriculums when we introduced basic Computer Science; we made room for both.

Anonymous said...

5 second google search came up with these articles: