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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

My Catholic school third grade teacher was extremely tough on me. Her biggest gripe was my handwriting, which looks more like an EKG scan than penmanship. For years, I harbored not-so-fond memories of her, but now I know that her strictness about penmanship was actually helping my brain develop. Recently, scientists have shown that longhand writing benefits the brain.

Today, cursive writing is becoming a lost art as note taking with laptops becomes more and more prominent in classrooms. But what we are losing is much bigger than a few scratches on a page -- we are losing a robust way of learning.

There has been much debate on the use of laptops for note taking in classrooms. The pro side sees laptops as an efficient way of collecting and storing information. The con side sees laptops as an opportunity for distractions and multitasking. What's missing is an understanding of how taking notes by longhand influences the brain. Recent studies have shown that students taking notes with laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than the students taking notes by longhand. In short, they had the information on their computers, but did not have an understanding of that information in their brains.

So in this age of technology, I'm suggesting that students take notes with paper and pen. It's a crazy idea, but hear me out.

A Plea for Penmanship

When students take notes with their laptops, they tend to mindlessly transcribe the data word for word, like speech-to-text software. But taking notes verbatim is not the point. What is lacking in their note-taking-by-laptop is the synthesis, the re-framing, and the understanding of the information. Students that transcribe with laptops have shallow connections to what's being presented to them. However, those who are taking notes by hand are processing the information and representing it in a way that makes sense to them. They are learning.

Now, I'll be the first to say that longhand writing is so 19th century. But we need to answer a question: do we want students to have a deep or shallow connection to the information we're giving them? While we live in a world of short sound bytes where news is thrown at us unprocessed, this should not be the mode for schools. In the 21st century, the ability to connect knowledge in new ways is more important than the knowledge itself. So students with deeper connections to information can link it in new ways -- they can create.

The Pen is Mightier

All this begs the question of how we can incorporate longhand in a digital age. What about a daily notebook, written by hand?

A lost art in the world of science is the lab notebook. In it, scientists write down observations, impressions, and all the variables and outcomes of an experiment. If you are teaching STEM classes, might I suggest that you resurrect the lab notebook and have students personalize it? Give them assignments where they have to hand-draw pictures of what they see and what they predict. Let them figure out how to visually represent these things -- without digital pictures, by the way. The data says that taking images with a camera does not improve one's memory either, so these notebook entries must be written or drawn. Skill doesn't matter. What we are fostering are experiential links in a child's brain, and one of the best pathways is through their fingers.

If you are not teaching STEM classes, have students carry a personal notebook in which they write down observations and draw things by hand on whatever topic. We are trying to create more connections to information, and developing fine motor skills along the way.

If you have a classroom with lots of technology, try to integrate note taking. Often when I give my PowerPoint slides to students, I pass out a version that doesn't have all the information that students are seeing on the screen, which means that they need to fill it in by hand. And when I glance over their notes, I see how their work doesn't always look the same. This is great because my students are doing the most important thing we can teach them -- they are learning how to teach themselves.

So let us not confuse efficiency with the real goal of teaching. Teaching is not a job of cramming as much as we can into a brain. It is about learning. And getting students to learn means that we must use every pathway to connect them with the information. Using laptops reinforces the Industrial Revolution ideal that every kid should get the information in the same way, and that it should come out the same way. But by occasionally replacing the laptop with a pen, learning happens, which is why we got into this business in the first place.

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Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Lurie's picture

I teach students who have learning disabilities. Some are AIG and still dysgraphic, some have learning disabilities that are marked by slow processing speed, poor working memory, difficulty tracking/poor visual motor coordination, and reading and writing levels that are several grade levels below their peers. I have seen teachers give these students notes and they get very little from it. I do believe that they need to learn to take notes. I understand that that is a very powerful tool when done correctly. But how does my situation fit in. I teach 7th grade and have students who are in the general ed setting with 3rd grade reading levels. Any research or suggestions? Cloze notes? Are there some on the computer that are helpful?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

I think that kids like the ones you describe need a different way into the writing experience- once that doesn't require the cognitive or fine motor skills that they lack. One thing I've noticed for my own kiddo is that cursive is somehow easier for him to write and read. Unfortunately he didn't get much practice at it and has lost the skill.

Rusul's picture
Rusul
Professor of English composition and literature

Ainissa thanks for sharing these your thoughts and research. Writing using pen and paper does help students to describe snd synthesize information. Students will be summarizing important points and filtering out information. To me that alone is a good reason to keep supporting their use. This might also be helpful with taking notes in the art/ humanities discipline as more analysis and interpretation is required as opposed to memorization.

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Carla's picture

I agree with you 100%, I have been in school what seems like forever and will be completing my masters in teaching in May. I personally learn and retain best when I am using pen and paper and take my own notes. I also encourage my own children (13 and 15) to handwrite things they are struggling with or need to remember, and as much as they would love to deny that I am right, they feel they also learn better that way. When I begin teaching next fall, I will encourage my students to participate in either a journal for learning or a notebook for class. Thank you for this post and your suggestions as to how I can expand my use of handwriting in my classes to come.

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Treyce Montoya's picture

YES!! But this is not new news!! As a 27+ year international handwriting expert, 1st in world history to create an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapy program that I call "Handwriting Formation Therapy", and as a psychologist, and award-winning author of 19 books on the topic, I have been saying this for 27 years! My blog post "Handwriting is More Than Just Pen & Paper" explains it all in scientific details too!

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger 2014

Sure, this topic may not be new. However, what is new is that schools are moving away from cursive. This article serves as a reminder that cursive is still a good idea and is targeted for folks who have less experience in this topic, but are making key decisions. It serves to informed these decision makers of the history.

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Treyce Montoya's picture

Yep - couldn't agree more. That's why I am so happy when I see articles such as this - thus my "YES!!" as the start of my post :)

Teri Young's picture

Dear Amy,
There are, of course, hundreds of books and on-line resources that can shed some light on dysgraphia and specific learning disabilities (and I'll note a book and site you might find helpful at the end of this e-mail). However, your situation -- multiple learning disabilities and significant low reading levels/abilities -- sounds too complex for any one answer. And you're not alone. I'm wondering what kinds of support systems you can build or draw from within your school or district. Are there ways you can meet with other teachers in your building to discuss strategies for working with such a diverse group? Specialists, counselors, other teachers? Or perhaps setting up a weekly or monthly professional discussion group where you and others can share concerns, make suggestions, or share strategies that have worked. So often we think we're alone, forgetting that among us there is professional expertise. These can be one-to-one meetings or groups of three to eight educators. Sometimes groups choose a professional book to read together and discuss it. It sounds like you need more support, and if you are not receiving it through your school/district, you may need to create something for you and your colleagues. We often can't wait for help, and there are no silver bullets. It may be slow to start... just set aside a short time at first, get a few people, and then build. That expertise is there... and I'm sure you have some to share with others as well. One book suggestion: How the Special Needs Brain Learns (2nd Ed) by David Sousa. It's direct, addresses several different disabilities and makes lots of suggestions for each. Regarding a computer resource: usually if you google a specific disability, you will find an organization that will lead you to multiple resources. You can also go to a site like CAST (http://www.cast.org/index.html) which has many resources. All the best to you....

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Brent Warner's picture
Brent Warner
Proprietor of EdTech.tv

Hi Ainissa,

Great point and one we're going to struggle with a lot as tech integration takes firmer footing across schools.

I'd be especially interested to see some research comparing graphite and paper to digital pens and tablets.

A company like Livescribe seems to blend the two, but I haven't used it yet, so I'm not sure how well it serves the purpose we're talking about here.

Regardless, there's still a LOT to see about what's going to happen, if nothing else it will be an interesting ride!

Vuong Dinh's picture

I think the use of the pen or the computer in my study have benefits. However, we need to know how to use these two logical forms, depending on each course that applies the appropriate way of recording

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Wally's picture

Right on.

The article however, doesn't mention the more important point that when a child is learning to write cursive this action not only builds dendrites in the developing brain but also makes connections!!! This is the essential precursor to taking written notes. Synthesis can only happen with developed dendrites that are connected!!!

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Keddie's picture

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for posting this! I recently left a school where technology is king which is great in so many ways but I was struck over and over how little room there was for things like days without technology and reflection without technology. I fervently believe that technology alone without a critical eye, and moments of different kinds of learning is hollow. Knowing that thinkers like yourself and the researchers are looking at these issues is heartening.

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Carmen's picture

I was surprised my daughter, who is now entering 4th grade, had cursive classes last year. She cannot read cursive writing yet, but just reading this post makes me question if I should work on that with her. I recently purchased a spelling work book for her as that is her biggest struggle. The second lesson had her using a dictionary to learn how to look up words she didn't know how to spell (figuring out the long a sound in words like neighbor, betray, tape, etc) We dug around the house to find a dictionary, while I had a friend tell me to just use the internet. I think spelling is also becoming a lost art as we have online dictionaries and spell check in so many word documents. I'm hoping that by working with her on her penmanship & spelling at an earlier age I am helping her in the long run. Plus spending time with her working on this while I'm cooking dinner is great bonding time.

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ReddingS's picture

I love teaching cursive and I find it interesting when students who have poor manuscript/D'Nealian handwriting do a wonderful job writing in cursive. I've also seen where cursive has helped in their flow and fluency to write.
I'm so thankful that educators are rethinking the role that some technology has in our classrooms. I'm afraid that we may risk losing a skill like handwriting for the sake of using a form of technology. I'm also concerned over the use of technology within some assessments. I look at my 3rd graders last year trying to take the SBAC last spring on the computer compared to my students in the past years who took the state handwritten assessment. I feel like those that used a paper/pencil test were more connected to their work and didn't seem as over whelmed. They also seemed more confident and satisfied in their written answers as opposed to those that took the computerized assessment. I wonder if there has been any research comparing the methods given for standardized assessments. Especially for young students like grades 3 through 5. I know within our school when given the diagnostic assessments for Literacy many of our students preformed better in a teacher given assessment than one on a computer like ISIP.

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Cait Camarata's picture
Cait Camarata
Visual Designer at Edutopia
Staff

I take notes in longhand... be it a class, workshop, meeting, etc. I use different styles of handwriting to accentuate, highlight, and lend hierarchy to the content. This particularly helps when I need to recall the information, as it enables me to visualize the information from the page more clearly in my mind's eye.

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Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger 2014

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am reminded that many archives are in cursive. Students today will not be able to read old letters and documents. Reading cursive will be viewed like an old language.

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The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

Sometimes I give out homework just to see, usually through handwriting and grammar and punctuation analysis, the sneaky ways parents who did the homework would try to make it look like their child did the homework. Other teachers do the same thing and it gives us even more fun things to laugh and cry about.

(1)
Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger 2014

Sure, this topic may not be new. However, what is new is that schools are moving away from cursive. This article serves as a reminder that cursive is still a good idea and is targeted for folks who have less experience in this topic, but are making key decisions. It serves to informed these decision makers of the history.

(2)
Rusul's picture
Rusul
Professor of English composition and literature

Ainissa thanks for sharing these your thoughts and research. Writing using pen and paper does help students to describe snd synthesize information. Students will be summarizing important points and filtering out information. To me that alone is a good reason to keep supporting their use. This might also be helpful with taking notes in the art/ humanities discipline as more analysis and interpretation is required as opposed to memorization.

(2)

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