I’m an early adopter. When a cool new technology comes out, often I must have it. I was among the first on my block to buy the iPhone and iPad, one of the first of my professor friends to see the possible benefits of holding class online or on Second Life, and the first person I know to try a smart pen. Attending the League for Innovation conference is like a trip to Santa’s workshop!
But now I am reading about a very old technology – some would argue that it’s not technology at all—that enhances learning. And, even better, it apparently can be combined with newer technology to improve writing composition skills as well as “train the brain.”
The technology? That pen or pencil languishing in the back of your desk drawer since you bought your iPad!
Recent research confirms the importance of handwriting in learning. For example, Professor Virginia Berninger, an educational psychologist, researcher, and disabilities specialist at the University of Washington used brain imaging to prove that finger movements such as those used in handwriting activate the areas of the brain involved in thinking and working memory, as well as those areas involved in language. Watch a video of her presentation on her interesting research here.
Another study, by Mangen and Velay (2010), looked at handwriting as it affected learning in both children and adults and compared it to keyboarding. Previous research has already demonstrated that using our hands to manipulate tools, including pencils and pens used in writing, “plays a constitutive role in learning and cognitive development, and may even be a significant building block in language development.”
These studies and others suggest that the recent trend of dropping handwriting, especially cursive writing, from the elementary school curriculum may be premature. The role of handwriting in brain and language development may be crucial. It is possible that students who learn keyboarding without ever engaging in handwriting may miss important aspects of cognitive development.
A brief search failed to turn up much on handwriting's role in helping college students learn composition. However, according to researchers from the Warwick Institute of Education, writing by hand appears to improve "higher order composing processes by freeing up working memory to deal with the complex tasks of planning, organizing, revising and regulating the production of text." Perhaps professors should be encouraging their first-year composition classes to create their drafts by hand.
Handwriting might well be beneficial in helping older adults keep their brains sharp. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Duke University neuroscientist Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy suggested, "as more people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise."
New technology for handwriting. Apps are available to help children learn their letters and develop cognitive skills not served by keyboarding. And for adults, there are handwriting recognition apps such as Writepad for iPad, that may, as Dr. Doraiswamy predicted, keep our brains sharp by allowing us to continue to write by hand at times.
Even so, this early adopter is convinced that nothing beats the smooth and lovely handwriting that's possible with a really fine, old fashioned fountain pen. When it comes to keeping my brain sharp with handwriting, I think I'll set aside my iPad in favor of my Pilot retractable fountain pen--another fairly new "technology" that updates an old one.