Posts Tagged ‘cursive handwriting’

When it comes to schooling everything is essential.  At least that is what we are made to believe.  While I often hear about what should be added to schools, I never hear any arguments about what should be removed to make space for new content.   One of the most prolific of these debate is handwriting – which I waded into a decade ago (and won’t again here).  One lesson from the handwriting debate is as much as we want schools to be doing more and different things, we are pained to think that our kids could miss out by not having everything required in school that we had mandated for us.  We generally seem to wish our kids to have all the same experiences we had, just more and better.

COVID has really forced us to have these conversation around what is essential, in ways that we were unable or unwilling to do outside of a pandemic.   No longer could we keep doing things because we had always done it, or everyone else was doing it in their classes.   We have had to truly adopt the Marcus Aurelius quote, “Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary.”

I have written before about the particular impact of COVID on high schools.  HERE is a recent post on COVID edu-trends that will stick and HERE is a link to a recent white paper that Dean Shareski produced working with over 200 educators from our region examining scheduling, blended learning, assessment and wellness in our secondary schools in COVID and beyond.  

More than anything else, COVID has really made us rethink the use of time in schools.  In the pre-COVID era, we had neatly organized blocks, all of the same length, with each course the same number of blocks over the year.  Some teachers had this planned down to the minute.  While jurisdictions across North America have faced different realities, the last year has seen shifts from “regular” blocks, to virtual, to hybrid to new models.  In our district, there is now more flexible time for students, and blocks are of different lengths on different days.  The traditional block model has been disrupted.  And while we can’t ignore that these efforts are occurring in a pandemic – the new models are working for many students.  

This year has been both utterly exhausting and invigorating for many colleagues.  They have had to reinvent their courses from the ground-up.  And in doing so they have cut out a bunch of stuff that now no longer is as necessary as it seemed, but they have also been able to give renewed energy to other materials – content and competencies that are truly essential and ones which bring out the passion of the students and teachers.

Asking ourselves, Is this essential?  is always a good question to ask.  But of course, we often don’t – not just in schools, but in many parts of our lives and society.  COVID is making us take a hard look at content and competencies and the results are showing that we are building back a schooling system that is different than the one we had just a couple of years ago.  

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George Couros, a principal from Stony Plain, Alberta, and my digital colleague, has done a nice job of starting a conversation last week on his blog about cursive writing here.

I definitely want to continue this conversation and, while I often write with a view or a position, I am really writing this with less of an opinion and with more of a question today.

I do come to the conversation with my own biases.  I don’t know how to handwrite.   I was slow to learn how to print and given how messy it was — and still is — I never really took to handwriting.  I don’t think I’ve missed out on not knowing how to handwrite. I can read handwritten work, sign my name but, beyond that, it has been a life of printing and, more recently, keyboarding.

I recently discussed this with several teachers in our district who suggested that handwriting is a huge hang-up — particularly for boys — and creates a level of stress that interferes with their learning.

The instruction of cursive writing is not simply teachers clinging to past practices, it is part of the curriculum.  In Grade 3, one of the prescribed learning outcomes is:

legible print, and begin to show proper alignment, shape, and slant of cursive writing

This is an important starting place.  When I posted to my Twitter network for information (pro and con) on the use of cursive writing in schools, here are some of the thoughts — and humour — I received:

“printing is the norm when it comes to using technology so cursive writing is, in effect, obsolete; no need to teach it”

“maybe it could be part of “history” class”

“it’s not the Middle Ages anymore”

“the tactile feel of pen on paper is important”

Several posters also suggest that handwriting prepares students for high school and university exams which, in large part, are still done by hand, although I think this is less true every year.

I was also pushed to a number of others who have written on the topic.

Dana Huff makes the point:

. .  .this complete inability to use cursive concerns me. It shuts off a whole realm of communication to students (even if it is, as has been argued, an archaic means of communication). For example, census images I’ve read while researching my family history were all taken down in cursive, and very few are available as transcriptions. I also experienced the recent joy of reading a diary my great-great-grandmother kept in 1893-1894 — in cursive.

Beth McKinney makes the argument, supported by a number of others:

While students do need to be digitally competent to succeed, teachers need to continue to teach cursive handwriting according to much of the research . . .  Though the repetitive drills that accompany cursive handwriting lessons may seem outdated, such physical instruction will help students to succeed. These activities stimulate brain activity, lead to increased language fluency and aid in the development of important knowledge.

Finally, like George Couros in his post on this topic, I am intrigued by the quote from Kate Gladstone:

The more education a child had been allowed to have before his/her handwriting was changed over to cursive — in other words, the fewer months and years s/he had spent learning/using cursive — the larger his or her vocabulary was (as measured by the number of different words used in the student’s writing over the course of a year).  The differences were huge — the kids who’d been required to do the least cursive had vocabularies THREE TIMES the size of those who’d been required to do the most cursive.

From this, for some reason, the researchers decided that the second half of 3rd grade was a great time to change everyone’s writing to cursive (which, as the researchers pointed out, basically means putting all other aspects of written English on hold in order to go back to scratch and start all over again with the ABC). An even more logical next step, though, would be to wonder why any age-group at all should be required to spend time on what amounted to an exercise in vocabulary-stunting (not that cursive in itself is bad for your vocabulary but you’re unlikely to increase your vocabulary while that and other things have been put on hold for the sake of changing your handwriting style). The fact that the vocabulary-stunting effect was worst for those who’d been changed to cursive the earliest can — as the researchers noted — be at least partly explained by the fact that any educational damage has worse effects when imposed on younger, more impressionable, more ignorant students.

It was also interesting, in reading the articles shared by my network, that many suggest teaching writing as a precursor to printing, such as Samuel Blumenfeld.  This, as I have found out, is quite common in other languages.

As our education system evolves, we are often looking to wedge more into the day–be it physical activity, digital literacy or a range of “21st Century skills”. The really hard part is always letting go. For our Grade 3 students beginning to learn cursive handwriting now, and graduating in 2020, will it be something they need to have learned to engage in that world?  If we were building curriculum not from our memories of our learning, but from a blank slate, would cursive handwriting cross the bar to be included?  Do teachers and parents hold onto handwriting as important because it is part of our teaching tradition? What about the research that supports the value of cursive writing, even in an increasingly digital age?

I look forward to the continued discussion.

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