The physical act of handwriting has many proven benefits. According to one study, it promotes learning through the use of motor skills. This impacts upon our cognitive functioning to a greater extent than typing, since it allows the muscle memory involved to contribute to retention. In fact, letter formation and pencil grip are connected to parts of the brain that process reading and print acquisition.
Despite the proven importance of handwriting, the insistence on putting it at the core of education has become an indirect barrier to technological advances. These advances would carry benefits outweighing those of handwriting. It’s true that simple typing is inferior to handwriting, but the move towards typing allows schools to ‘go digital’. This is the point at which the real transformation happens, thanks to intelligent textbooks, flipped classrooms and differentiated learning.
Desperately clinging to handwriting is one of several sentimental ideals within the education community. Although understandable, this excessively conservative approach to development is an important factor in the slow implementation of education technology. Perhaps it is due to policy makers having been brought up in an education system from which they struggle to detach. Perhaps it is due to a failure to recognise the needs of the ‘digital natives’ and the vast potential they carry. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two.
Compared to other fields, it is no exaggeration to state that education is embarrassingly behind when it comes to implementation of technology. This must, and inevitably will, change. But we can’t wait for the turn of a generation to put digital natives in the driver’s seat of education policy.
The introduction of online assessment is good news. Its contribution to the handwriting debate might be unintentional, but it has inadvertently removed one of the major hurdles preventing us from phasing out handwriting.
The IB is an isolated and forward-thinking education community, where the abandonment of handwriting is a real prospect. It is the responsibility of this cutting-edge community to take the lead in the development of education, setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.