Handwriting – what’s the point?

I recently enjoyed the opportunity to speak to several Year 11 students about their lives as so-called “Digital Natives”. The conversation was prompted by a Critical Thinking exercise where we interrogated an article which put forward several arguments – of varying degrees of merit – as to why we should continue to teach handwriting in a digital age. It was striking that these teenagers, the children of the digital age, were not yet ready to abandon the paper and pen. Equally striking was their reasoning.

One really engaging student from Macau was unequivocal about the cultural importance of handwriting. For her the characters in Mandarin and letters in English are integral to identity. To lose the individuality of the written word was akin to losing an important signifier of ourselves and our distinctive cultures. Keyboards, she argued, are functional but fail to achieve this more fundamental role.

Indeed, to a greater or lesser extent, the cultural importance of handwriting was a leitmotif in our conversations. One student took the debate a stage further by referencing parts of the world untouched by the digital revolution. Is it right that our world is divided by the loss of a shared activity? Writing by hand is an activity potentially open to virtually every civilisation – would the migration to a digital platform mark the opening of a divide which will only grow exponentially as the digital behemoth marches onwards?

It is clear to me that the ethics behind this debate need to be aired beyond a Critical Thinking exercise with Year 11 students. As Principal of a school where students from Year 7 are issued with a digital device, this issue is brought into sharp relief on a daily basis. It is a given that our students must write by hand – but not for ethical or cultural reasons. For schools the reality is that public examinations are handwritten and therefore students must learn to not only write by hand but write at speed. Pragmatism therefore is the main driver.

As such, to ensure we don’t sleepwalk into some dystopian digital future, should we not engage in a proper debate about handwriting? Has it a future in a digital age? It was interesting that the Year 11 students did not struggle at all with moving between handwriting and using a keyboard. Indeed, the point was made that the act of handwriting suited certain situations much better than using a keyboard. Whilst handwriting allowed for elaboration of a specific point, the use of a keyboard, with the capacity to redraft extended writing, supported extended writing activities. As students they were keen to use the most effective tool for the task in hand.

For them all, surrounded as they are by all kinds of digital paraphernalia, they held a strong sense of sentimentality about handwriting which superseded functionality. After all, it is a very personal form of expression. Our handwriting is unique – hence the science of graphology. The letters created through the tap of a finger are frankly anodyne. As a student of History myself, I have had the pleasure of looking at historical documents from across the ages. Written with a quill or a pen, the document is unique. And even the printed word annotated by the author creates a sense of connection with them.

So in the race for digital progress let’s pause and reflect on what it means for our future if handwriting becomes technologically obsolete. Should handwriting nevertheless be conserved as a skill because it is an extension of ourselves? The human footprint in history? Or frankly, just as the invention of print transformed people’s lives, is this digital revolution heralding the death knell of handwriting in countries consumed by the digital world? Surely this is worth a conversation.

11 thoughts on “Handwriting – what’s the point?

  1. Sharon Chasse

    Thank you for asking this question – I am an advisor for a Senior Student (grade 12) that is doing her Senior Project on the relevance of handwriting and teaching cursive. Would you be able to help connect her with some research? She would love to do an online debate of some sort. Can we be in touch?

  2. Bridget Costedoat (PSG 1977-84)

    I read an article recently about writing by hand facilitating memory. From what I remember, having skimmed it, as we do in the digital age, the idea was that when you write a word with a pen or pencil, your hand-eye-brain coordination is far more engaged than when you tap on a key. It seems logical that forming letters to write a word uses a different skill than tapping an A, an R or a T, for example, so we remember what we have written better. I think that is also a strong argument in favour of not only using a computer or tablet.

  3. Bette Fetter

    I am delighted to hear those students knew the act of writing by hand mattered to them. Our students know intuitively how they learn best. We just need to listen
    As an art educator and writer I have researched and written on learning styles, with a focus on the needs of visual learners. The act of writing by hand is essential to visual learners as a way to absorb information, commit it to memory, study and much more. As a visual leaner myself I would not be able to function in a classroom (life or career) without writing by hand.
    We need to keep pencil and paper in the classroom !!

  4. John Bald

    This is a much more considered view than your attributed statement in The Guardian that you were abandoning handwriting completely. It’s also pretty clear that your own entrance tests could not be completed without good fluent handwriting. I am currently teaching a thirteen year old who, this time last year, could not write anything either legible or meaningful at all. I don’t apologise for teaching him to write by hand – his school had given up on it and bought him a laptop instead (incidentally, a lot easier to type on than ipad, but not as easy as a desktop.

  5. Pingback: The pen is mightier than the keyboard | Distant Ramblings on the Horizon

  6. Pingback: Exams and | Aisling Brown

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