Is handwriting a dying art? Should it be? Some argue that handwriting is an outmoded form of communication that should go the way of the goose quill pen. Others staunchly advocate for it, arguing that more classroom time be spent teaching this valuable learning tool in our nation’s schools. Are the latter antediluvian Luddites holding fast to a bygone technology?
Not so, says Princeton-based historian of technology and culture Edward Tenner, who has researched the evolution of handwriting from the Middle Ages. A former editor at the Princeton University Press, Tenner is an independent writer, speaker, and blogger on the unintended consequences of innovation. His books include “Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology,” published by Knopf in 2003.
Tenner argues that handwriting is just as valuable a skill for the 21st century as in the past. “Don’t dismiss calligraphy as silly Luddism,” he writes in a recent blog post. “The skill offers countless benefits, from better fonts to better thinking.”
Tenner claims that preserving cursive handwriting is far from a sentimental activity. He argues that handwriting exercises profound and significant connections between the hand and the brain and is a skill too important to abandon: “States and school districts thinking of eliminating handwriting teaching — cursive or italic — should at least make it possible for a minority of motivated teachers and students to learn the skill and track the results. I’ll bet that [handwriting] can be a key to a healthier approach to education and life,” says Tenner, who recently spoke on the subject of “Handwriting after Gutenberg” at the Plainsboro Public Library, where he found the majority of his audience in support of keeping handwriting in the school curriculum. To his surprise, “the children and teenagers seemed to be as overwhelmingly pro-handwriting as their elders.”
Tenner speaks on the importance of learning handwriting and why children should not be overexposed to technology at an early age at a TEDx Salon on “Perspectives on Education,” on Tuesday, January 24, at 6:30 p.m. in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street.
Joining Tenner will be media and technology enthusiast Suzanne Carbonaro, assessment coordinator for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) at Rider University, and Caroline Phinney, founder of the Princeton Waldorf School.
To participate contact event organizer Janie Hermann — firstname.lastname@example.org — or call 609-924-9529, ext. 228. The $25 fee includes dessert and coffee and a copy of Tenner’s book “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.” A reduced rate of $7 for students and seniors includes dessert and coffee but not Tenner’s book. Tickets can be purchased at http://educationtedxsalon.eventbrite.com. (See sidebar at the end of this story for an explanation of the “TEDx” format.)
What is fast becoming a hot debate on the import of technology into the nation’s schools stems from a recent decision by the state of Indiana to abolish mandatory cursive instruction. The decision sparked articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Writing in the New York Times last October 22, Matt Richtel reported on the apparent irony of Silicon Valley high-tech types such as the chief technology officer of eBay and employees at Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard, sending their children to a decidedly low-tech Waldorf School that eschews computers in the classroom, at least as far as the elementary grades go.
In the Wall Street Journal, Gwendolyn Bounds cataloged the benefits of teaching handwriting and described researchers who have used magnetic resonance imaging to show that handwriting helps children learn letters and shapes and can even improve idea composition and expression.
Learning handwriting, it appears, is good exercise for the developing brain, benefiting children’s motor skills and their ability to compose ideas and achieve goals throughout life.
That’s no surprise to Tenner, who cites a growing body of scientific support including the work of neurologist Frank Wilson, author of “The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture.” Writes Wilson: “Although the repetitive drills that accompany handwriting lessons seem outdated, such physical instruction will help students to succeed. These activities stimulate brain activity, lead to increased language fluency, and aid in the development of important knowledge.”
Wilson describes in detail the pivotal role of hand movements in the development of thinking and language capacities and in “developing deep feelings of confidence and interest in the world-all-together, the essential prerequisites for the emergence of the capable and caring individual.”
“There’s good evidence that, like other forms of manual exercise, learning some form of rapid writing — cursive or italic or possibly both — is good for the developing brain,” says Tenner.
Recent research suggests that writing by hand helps one retain information, something to do with the fact that a letter drawn by hand requires several sequential finger movements (involving multiple regions of the brain) as opposed to a single keyboard tap. How often have you heard someone say (or said yourself): “If I’m going to remember that I’ll have to write it down.”
Nevertheless, some respected academics such as linguist Dennis Baron argue against handwriting. In his book, “A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution,” he likens the reaction against computers in the classroom to the anxiety and outrage that often follows the introduction of new technology. The printing press, he says, was described as disrupting the “almost spiritual connection” between writer and page; the typewriter was considered “impersonal and noisy” as compared to the art of handwriting.
As far as Rider’s Suzanne Carbonaro is concerned, successful teaching depends on matching techniques with students and the culture of the school. She will speak on the value of bringing technology into 21st century schools: “I love to infuse tools that make my life more efficient and help me stay organized,” says Carbonaro. “As an educator, I support teachers when they implement technology into their lessons.”
As an example, Carbonaro cites teacher Jeanne Muzi at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Lawrenceville, who introduced her first graders to wikis, mobile technology, and video to enhance their critical thinking and literacy skills. “Teachers like Jeanne spot technology that supports her students’ learning and seize the opportunity to infuse it in her teaching.”
While technology often gets blamed for the demise of handwriting, recent developments may stem that tide. New software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, allow for handwriting. Smartphone apps such as “abc PocketPhonics” encourage children to draw letters with a finger or stylus. For those who have not adapted well to the keypads on hand-held devices, applications such as “WritePad” allow handwriting with a finger or stylus, which is then converted to text for E-mail, documents, or Twitter updates.
The Waldorf School’s Caroline Phinney will bring her years as a educator to bear on the importance of movement and play for young children and the value of keeping technology and formal instruction for later. Asked at what age she believes it appropriate to introduce technology to children, Phinney says “when they can understand it.”
As to the argument that children live in a world of technology and social media and that the sooner they are introduced to it, the better, Phinney is unmoved. She points out that any technology available today will have changed exponentially by the time today’s youngsters have grown to adulthood and that the important thing is that they should acquire their own resources of creativity and imagination through hands-on experiences and play.
“Punching buttons robs them of the opportunity of developing their own resources,” she says. “I watch young children a great deal, and I look at their hands, are they used for digging, for exploring, I believe it isn’t so healthy for them to be close to machinery; they need time to read, to be in nature, to create their own artwork.”
Now retired from teaching, Phinney remembers the fun of forming letters in the sandbox with very young children. “Writing to read is almost a motto at Waldorf,” she says. As for her participation in the TEDx event: “We all have something to learn from each other. In my case, I may be prompted to spring into movement to make my point!”
In schools like the Princeton Waldorf School, handwriting goes hand-in-hand with reading. In fact, says Phinney, children’s initial encounter with reading will be through their own writing. As an example, Phinney describes the process of learning to write the letter “g” by way of a story, “The Golden Goose” (in which everyone who comes in contact with the goose sticks to it). The goose’s curved neck is echoed in the letter “g” and from that the children eventually come to the capital letter “G.”
Teaching of this sort is a “rich experience in which letters of the alphabet are imbued with life,” says Phinney. “A typical Waldorf classroom will have ABCs on the wall, usually drawn by the teacher; children will learn the alphabet by using their arms to draw the letters and by walking their shapes; movement is a very important ingredient here, starting with the whole arm movement; by sixth grade they are doing calligraphy.”
Mention of calligraphy prompts Phinney to speak of a planned trip to China next month where she will work with the growing Waldorf movement in that country.
If you think it’s hard to learn cursive in English, consider those learning Chinese. In a recent blog, Tenner writes about the challenges faced by educated Chinese who “struggle when asked to draw traditional characters by hand.”
Tenner’s exploration of the handwriting topic led to the discovery that the issue is not confined to the United States and the English language. In China, where good calligraphy was once an essential goal of a good education, there is a dramatic decline in the ability to hand write Chinese characters. Tenner cites the findings of University of Pennsylvania sinologist Victor Mair, who describes the trend toward “dysgraphia,” or the inability to write traditional characters with a pen as opposed to using keystrokes to generate them electronically. Mair concludes that dysgraphia is an impairment “brought about by frequent cell-phone checking.”
Prompted to conduct his own survey, Tenner (a 1965 Princeton University alumnus with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago who is a visiting scholar at various universities –– edwardtenner.com; theatlantic.com) contacted nearly 200 individuals across the globe who are literate in Chinese to ask about their preferred Input Method Editor (IME). About half of Tenner’s survey group were professional teachers of Chinese. Around 98 percent told him that they were using Pinyin (Romanization) to input Chinese characters rather than creating them by hand in the traditional way.
In today’s China, very few of the younger generations opt to study calligraphy, a move that some say is eroding the country’s culture. As in the United States, the concern is that something valuable is on the brink of being lost.
Besides positive effects on brain development, Tenner says there are other reasons to cherish and promote handwriting. “On a strictly practical basis, handwriting remains useful in business and social life,” he says. Many scientists and researchers still maintain handwritten notebooks, with entries carefully dated, in part because they establish a reliable and hard-to-fake record of their intellectual progress — useful in the event of a patent or copyright suit.
Moreover, says Tenner, “handwriting a note shows you care as an electronic message can’t. One might as well ask why sign your name rather than use a rubber stamp?” William Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, says Tenner, was highly respected by the Princeton faculty partly because of his handwritten personal notes of appreciation. “Lots of other college presidents would just dictate a note.”
“Writing is a little bit of a mirror of ourselves too, isn’t it,” says Phinney. “We see ourselves in our own handwriting.”
About TED and TEDx
TED is a nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” What began in 1984 as a nonprofit conference bringing together people in technology, entertainment, and design — the origin of the TED acronym — has since grown to include two annual conferences in the U.S. and one in the U.K.
Conferences aim to attract some of the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers and challenge them to give “the talk of their lives in 18 minutes or less.”
TEDx Salons operate at the local level and include video and live talks aimed at sparking discussion and connection in small groups. “This is our third TEDx salon at the Princeton Public Library,” says Janie Hermann, public programming librarian. “We thought it timely to focus on ‘Perspectives in Education’ after articles in the New York Times noted that some prominent high-tech experts in Silicon Valley were choosing to send their children to decidedly low-tech schools — a seemingly counter-intuitive preference in our digital age.”