Finland recently made the news for its decision to shift away from a focus on handwriting. Beginning in 2016 students will not be required to learn cursive handwriting and instead will be taught typing skills. If this was anywhere other than Finland the decision might be ignored or ridiculed but the Finnish Education systems reputation for producing quality learning backed by innovative practice makes this hard to ignore.
In many ways this decision makes sense, handwriting is increasingly a skill our students will not require in a digital age where typing is the norm. The most common argument I hear for the continuation of handwriting is that students will need to handwrite essays for their Higher School Certificate examinations. It does seem like a great deal of time and energy therefore goes into developing a skill that is of great importance only once and then in an exam that many say needs to move into the 21st century to remain relevant. Then again there will always be those times when one is asked to sign a birthday card for a colleague and the only place left is next to the one person on staff with exquisite handwriting.
Despite the obvious shift from handwriting to typing in society there has been very little movement towards developing these skills in schools. Not that students aren’t on mass learning to type. Go into any classroom and you will see students merrily pecking away at keyboards and while few have skills that a typist would celebrate most manage the task with a degree of speed and even accuracy; at least with auto correct on. From this evidence one could conclude that typing skills can be learned by osmosis, that if you put a child in front of a keyboard they will learn what to do and in time develop sufficient muscle memory to do it well.
But what is lost in a move away from handwriting and should schools teach typing skills?
An article in the New York Times by Maria Konnikova reports on research suggesting that in this case the Finns might be heading down the wrong path. Research cited by Konnikova indicates that handwriting plays a valuable part in developing neural networks and assists with processing and recall of information. The physical act of handwriting uses parts of the brain not used in other forms of writing such as typing. Research by Virginia Berninger cited in this article reports 'When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.’ Research from University of California indicates that students learn better when they take handwritten notes. While many of these benefits apply broadly to handwriting and not specifically to cursive, one study links the development of cursive writing to treatments for dyslexia and other related difficulties with processing language 'cursive may be particularly effective for individuals with developmental dysgraphia’.
In typical Finnish fashion the decision to teach cursive or not will be in the hands of the school. In situations where the school has heavily adopted technology the move away from cursive is likely to come earlier and be less noticed as it reflects the way students are already engaging with content, in areas where technology has had less impact cursive can stay. This attribute of matching the mode of learning to local needs is a quality of Finnish education applauded widely. It also leaves scope for cursive handwriting to be pursued as an art form by those who wish. Calligraphy is a hobby for many and when done well produces undoubtedly beautiful results. Perhaps a shift away from compulsory handwriting will allow it to evolve into a valued art form cherished by those bored with computer generated repetitive perfection.
The question of teaching typing skills is one that generates great debate too. Gary Stager @garystager the well known supporter of the ‘Maker Movement’ and advocate of innovative technology labels typing skills as a waste of time, a focus on process and not results, a skill for a time when typists were required by industry to duplicate documents for businesses. Now typing is about entering data and text so it can be manipulated and acted upon, accuracy is less important than speed. Others will argue that typing will soon be replaced by voice recognition and that recent improvements through services such as Google Voice, Siri and the like mean this technology is closer than ever. There are of course those who are strong supporters of targeted typing lessons and any number of commercial programmes that support this. For touch typists the benefits of their skill set are clear and for those unable to type with such prowess a tempting skill to develop.
The whole discussion is complicated by the expansion of mobile computing and the growing dominance of touch interfaces. With this comes a great variety of keyboard and input methods from swipes, to text expanders to unconventional keyboard layouts. The debate is no longer restricted to QWERTY vs Dvorak. What has changed most as a result of this change is that the makers of keyboards are aware that they must create systems that are easy to use. Until recently Apple offered users of its iPhone and iPad devices a choice of one keyboard while Android users had a range of options. With the release of iOS 8 Apple has recognised the demand for choice and opened up the keyboard market to third party developers. The result is an increasingly competitive market where the users select the keyboard that best suits their needs, their style. With increasingly smart keyboards available the need for the user to learn a layout decreases. In the new age the keyboard will have to learn its user not the reverse.
by Nigel Coutts