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Handwriting in the Age of Technology in the Classroom

Nelma Lumme

It’s the great educational debate of our time. It’s not about evolution or sex education. It’s not about what to put in or leave out of our history books. It’s about cursive writing in the age of technology in the classroom. 42 states and the District of Columbia have now adopted the Common Core Standards for English. In that document is the clear statement that cursive writing is no longer a requirement in English education. While individual states and school districts have not all dropped cursive writing from their curricula, a continually growing number have. The reason for the demise of cursive writing instruction is obvious. We have become a society that depends on technology in the classroom and the information that comes from that technology in the classroom. Children grow up with their devices from the time they are toddlers. And because so much of learning now occurs on those devices, it only makes sense that they learn how to use a keyboard. So schools have substituted keyboarding for cursive writing, an activity that traditionally took about 30 minutes a day, beginning in the 3rd grade (once printing has been mastered).

Think about it. As an adult, when was the last time you used cursive writing, other than to sign a check or to make a grocery list? We just don’t use our handwriting skills anymore. So, what is all the controversy about?

Technology in the Classroom: It’s All About the Brain

We now know so much more about the brain and its functions than we did even a decade ago. We know that the brain is very elastic; we know which parts of the brain are activated based on the activities we engage in. We know that neural connections are made when we read, when we problem solve, when we play musical instruments, and even when we learn a foreign language.

We also know what happens in the brain when we practice cursive writing. There are neural pathways developed that are not developed by tapping keys on a keyboard. Here are some of the brain development activities that occur when kids learn cursive writing.

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  • The neural pathways that are developed forming cursive letters and string them together are in that part of the brain that enhances language fluency.
  • The neural pathways developed relate to vision-motor control.
  • The neural pathways developed enhance fine motor skills – neuroscience calls these proprioceptive and vestibular senses.
  • With practice, children learn spatial relationships – positioning paper and pencil and planning how to move their arms, hands, and fingers as they form the next curve/movement.
  • The movements of arms and hands during cursive writing require both sides of the brain to work together. And the connections that are established allow those two sides to work together on future tasks.

While all of these relate to physical development, they cross over into spatial awareness, and spatial awareness is needed for reading letters that form words.

Keyboarding, on the other hand, is a homo-lateral task, using only one hemisphere of the brain, rather than the both hemispheres used in practicing cursive writing. Keyboarding does have benefits too, specifically eye-hand coordination, and memory, as kids learn where keys are located and are then able to type without “Hunting and pecking.” And there is also the benefit of developing finger dexterity.

But learning to keyboard is a must. All writing assignments, at least from middle school forward, must be typed. And students who do not type well will find that those assignments will take much longer to complete, especially when they get into college and face multiple assignments at the same time. Many choose to get help with research papers at that point, simply to keep up.

But Even Keyboarding May Be in Demise

Touchscreens are a given now. And with personal assistants like Cortana and Google, we can ask questions, do research, get directions, send text messages, and even more with our voices. In fact, there are excellent voice-activated apps that can be purchased for as little as $40. While these have been in use for disabled people for a long time, they are now becoming commonly used by all groups of people, especially business professionals and students.

How Do We Replace the Brain Development Kids Need?

It certainly looks like cursive writing and even keyboarding are on the way out. And while we can complain and moan, progress will march on. What we must look to, then, is identifying those activities which can replace these and that will have the same brain benefits. The following activities can serve as substitutes:

  • Physical exercise and other activities that promote spatial relationships. Tangrams and other puzzles work; photography works. And sports activities such as basketball will promote comparative space and measurement skills, as will golf.
  • While we may not like it, certain video games develop spatial relationship skills too, along with hand-eye coordination and finger dexterity.
  • Learning to play a musical instrument also replaces the brain development that has been attributed to learning cursive writing. Brain scans of children who learn to play instruments show growth in the same areas.

It will be up to educators and neuroscience to collaborate, especially as more research sheds additional light on the types of activities, physical and mental, that will develop all parts of a growing/developing brain. And for those who lament the loss of cursive writing instruction, remember that education, like every other sector of life and business, changes and adapts to disruptions.