I’ve read many articles in recent years on the controversy of removing cursive handwriting—and handwriting, entirely—from school curriculum. While presenting little new information, this article from The Guardian stands out to me for its attempt at evenhandedness. And after being presented with both arguments side-by-side, I am even more convinced at where I stand in this debate:
Cursive is due for a Robert Downey Jr.-sized comeback.
During the act of cursive handwriting, the writing instrument remains on the page until a given word is complete. This means that each stroke within a given word affects all the others. This requires a deeper level of concentration, which increases neural activity in the brain. The more neural activity achieved during a given task, the deeper the processing of information (learning) during the given task.
It’s that simple. Cursive writing demands deeper concentration, which yields deeper learning.
As New York Times neuroscience writer Benedict Cary points out in his recent release, How We Learn, the harder the brain has to work to dig up a certain memory or skill, the deeper the intensity of learning. In writing instruction (and in all instruction, for that matter), it is imperative that we strike what educational researches refer to as the level of “desirable difficulty,” that sweet spot where the brain has to exert itself at an appropriate intensity in order to improve. For a bicep to strengthen, a lifter must curl a dumbbell of adequate weight. If the weight is too little, the bicep won’t strengthen. If the weight is too heavy, the bicep will become sore and the lifter will be discouraged from future training. For the vast majority of students, cursive handwriting is not only within the range of desirable difficulty, but right at its center. (Shameless plug: For those who suffer from fine motor deficiencies, some exciting new work is being done here in Boulder to remedy the problem.)
It seems clear to me that in order to strengthen student’s writing, we need not look to future innovation, but to the near past where it seems we had it just right. And this is all without mentioning the many other observed cognitive benefits of cursive handwriting.
Despite all this, cursive handwriting instruction has been removed from public education. I believe this has happened due to a well-intentioned, yet misguided belief in the supremacy of technological advancements. The arguments behind cursive’s banishment seem to fall into two categories, which are represented in the article: that the ancients never had any problem moving on to new ways of communication, and that it is optimal to find ways of writing that help us “write as fast as we can think.” The first argument is deficient in that it’s ideological rather than logical; it presupposes that all progress is “good.” If you believe that, I’ve got a nuclear bomb to sell you. The second argument is deficient in that it defies the principle of “desirable difficulty.” Writing as fast as you can think is hardly optimal. It is akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger curling a chicken bone. Consider the process of note taking: If one can transcribe everything that’s being said without having to pick apart the information for relevance and translate it into one’s own words, one learns nothing.
For these reasons and more, this writer hopes the handwriting vs. typing debate is far from finished.