Thinking Through a Digital Deliberation, Part 3: What is Gained, What is Lost

Summer Institute in Digital Literacy Logo
2016 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy

In less than two weeks, I head to Rhode Island for the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. One main item on my agenda is to lead a “Digital Deliberation” session on “typing vs. handwriting.” So far, I’ve shared some initial thoughts on the debate, as well as a look at some particular concerns with curricula and web-based tools.

In this post, I want to look at “what is gained” and “what is lost,” as well as to bring in the voices of teachers. As with many of the great debates in education, there are many opinions on the matter… and most of them are based in nostalgia and some basic surveys, (though not necessarily in deep, substantive qualitative or quantitative data).

Voices in the Media

Of the responses that I got to my last blog post, a few of them pointed to articles in the popular media that discuss studies done with neuroscience and fMRI images that show positive correlations between handwriting and other functions, studies that suggest good handwriting is tied with academic achievement, and the neural pathways that are activated by cursive as compared to touch-typing. Look at a few of the headlines and, using some very basic critical discourse analysis, see if you can spot a trend.

If you need a hint, scroll down to the word cloud below, which is comprised of all the text that I copied/pasted from these articles:

Representative Language from Cursive Writing Articles (Word Cloud Created with Wordle.net)
Representative Language from Cursive Writing Articles (Word Cloud Created with Wordle.net)

Just as a side note, here are two pieces produced by National Public Radio and its affiliate, WNYC, that I left out of the word cloud.

So, what is the narrative that dominates the media? Well, it certainly has something to do with our children, their brains, and the powerful effects of cursive writing.

Also, I finally ran across two state-level curricula for handwriting, from Kansas and Utah. Why I didn’t find it last week when searching for handwriting curricula, I have no idea. Utah, coincidentally, has curriculum for keyboarding, too. There also appear to be some other handwriting/legislative updates documents on this site, sponsored by Zaner-Bloser (who also offer a handwriting curriculum).

Voices of Teachers

As you might imagine, it seems like the voices of teachers are a bit more even-keeled.

In 2012, my NWP colleague and creative teacher-leader Kevin Hodgson noted the ways in which his sixth graders struggled with the task:

… they began to type and I was curious to see their skills at the keyboard. It wasn’t so great. Some students took almost 45 minutes to write a single paragraph. Most were hovering over their keyboards (ergonomic alert!) with a single finger jabbing at keys, their eyes darting from paper to computer. When I asked how many had ever used any kind of keyboarding system, only a few raised their hands. Most of the programs were online games.

Hodgson concludes, “We don’t do our students any service by leaving out keyboarding from the school curriculum, and the ideal age is around second grade.”

Also, another NWP colleague (and Spartan!), Rachel Huntley, responded to my last post via FB with these thoughts:

As a Kindergarten teacher, I teach both handwriting (letter formation, placement, shape, etc) in conjunction with typing. I support the fact that to create digital composition beginning in 3rd grade, it benefits my students to be more familiar to keyboarding from the start. I have (and continue) to try new programs, apps, websites to facilitate this.

Those are two voices that jumped right into the conversation last week. A little more searching yielded a few other teachers with positive things to say about the need for keyboarding (with a healthy overall balance focused on handwriting as well). For instance, Jacqui Murray, a K-8 technology teacher, describes a lesson in which she asks her students to use the scientific method to measure their handwriting WPM as compared to typing WPM, all within a discussion of the school’s keyboarding curriculum. There is also this article from Education World about the importance of teaching proper keyboarding technique.  Finally, Gary Stager posted a literature review from a deceased colleague, Steve Shuller, which was written in 1989. The concluding section of Shuller’s report: “There is widespread agreement that elementary school students need keyboarding skills.”

Conclusion (for now)

As I continue to prepare for the Digital Deliberation session, I am still trying to figure out exactly how I will frame the debate. One thing is for sure, we can always look to Finland for some answers. There are many ideas for me to consider as I prepare a 30 minute, interactive talk on the topic… but I look forward to the challenge, as well as your continued comments, questions, and links to other resources.


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