I make lists. I make lists of things to do, groceries to buy, errands to run, menus to plan. I also take a lot of notes. I love my lists and notes. They keep me organized, remind me to buy dish soap, keep me on track while dropping off and picking up kids from sports and activities, and keep the family train moving down the track. I prefer to keep my lists on small pads of paper, but any paper will do. My dad, a teacher, was a big fan of index cards – he used them for lists and note taking as well as for bookmarks and coasters. But in this digital age, I wonder if my handwritten notes and lists are becoming obsolete. My kids have lousy handwriting and they would never even think to make a list or take notes on a pad or notecard, but they write wonderful essays using Google Docs and Pages. My 7-year old just recently left on my iPad an essay titled “The Best Mom in the World.” It was concise, well formatted and informative. I was impressed (and a little weepy).
How should students and teachers approach the dichotomy between longhand and keyboarding? My school age children are all now pretty proficient in keyboarding – they have to be to take the computerized tests the state requires each year. But my older children only spent a year each learning cursive and it is unlikely that my youngest will learn it at all. My oldest tried to sign a Mother’s Day card recently in cursive and it was largely illegible, a swirl of loops and swoops with no relation to traditional letter formation or symmetry.
We’ve known for a while now that handwriting is important when we are young –kids learn to read more quickly when they are taught to write by hand, rather than on a computer. And because handwriting is significantly slower (and, I would argue, harder) than typing, it forces us to sift through and consolidate information as we write, rendering it easier to remember later. Studies have shown that writing things out by hand results in better understanding and greater recall later. Moreover, several researchers contend that writing by hand stimulates special neural circuits in the brain, which then leads to a stronger reading ability and a greater ability to generate new ideas and retain information. And other research indicates that kids who handwrite notes, rather than type them, use more words, work faster and express more ideas.
And then there is the problem of teaching and learning math and science on digital devices. For disciplines that are so reliant on charts, graphs, equations and drawings, how do they fit in with tablets with difficult to use interfaces for drawing, sketching and digital ink modalities? It is cumbersome to write out equations using your finger on a digital tablet (slightly easier with a stylus but still tricky for many elementary and middle school students with still developing small motor skills). Writing with a touchpad, mouse or finger is notoriously difficult, awkward and sloppy.
In the digital world, there is immense pressure to adopt technology, no matter what. Lia De Cicco-Remu, Microsoft Canada’s Director of Partners in Learning asked, “When was the last time you used a piece of chalk to express yourself? Kids don’t express themselves with chalk or in cursive. Kids text.” Ms. De Cicco-Remu makes a valid point that the tools of education that were used when we were children are often no longer relevant. But that doesn’t mean they still don’t have utility — at least in building skills and competency. We gave up slates for paper when paper became more readily available and cheaper to produce. Likewise, chalkboards have given way to white boards and smart boards. However, while Ms. De Cicco-Remu equates schools to colorless, bland jails with little to engage or excite students, I would argue that the attention spans of children are still robust and, while digital tools and technology are wonderful, there is still room for both digital devices and pencils and paper.
What is the compromise, especially for students? I would suggest applications like Canary Learning. Lots of kids are in schools with 1:1 iPad or other device programs but many use apps that don’t allow kids the freedom of choice when it comes to digital or manual submission of work. Everything has to be completed within the app (or a related app) and then submitted online. Canary Learning is unique in that although the material is available digitally and can be completed within the app, the teacher can also provide the student with a paper copy of the work and the student can complete it manually and then upload it to CanaryFlow for easy collection and grading. And all this can be done without Internet access. I feel it is an incredible compromise between the benefits of continuing to teach and use handwriting and embracing digital proficiencies and efficiencies.
Writing is an important skill that has been developed through the ages, from cave drawings to hieroglyphs to cursive to block printing. And over the last hundred and fifty or so years, we have developed an additional skill: keyboarding. As the world embraces technology more and more, is still a need to learn to write longhand. But using a product like CanaryFlow Teacher and Student helps bridge that all or nothing gap between handwriting and keyboarding, giving flexibility and choice.