Handwriting and Neuroscience

cursiveI had a conversation with a friend this past week about kids and handwriting. She was upset that her grandchild doesn't seem to be able to write or read cursive. She sees this as a big mistake. In fact, the dreaded Common Core standards call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, it is all about the keyboard. Even without those guidelines, handwriting has certainly been pushed out of the elementary curriculum.

I asked a few people I know who teach elementary school about teaching cursive. They said that though they spend less time on it than in the past, kids like to do it. They have been trying it n their own – practicing their signature is especially popular. Like keyboarding, they are doing it outside school anyway, so the earlier the school can address any “formal” training and correct bad habits, the better it seems to be. 

Some psychologists and neuroscientists have new evidence that suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development are deeper than suspected earlier.

Quick take: Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.

Were you taught cursive handwriting in your early days of school?  I was unfortunately labeled as “gifted” when I was in second grade and so I was put in an experimental combined second/third grade class. Since the third graders were already writing in cursive, my group was given a fast version of penmanship. My handwriting has suffered ever since. I did become good at printing letters and I took “mechanical drawing” (drafting) classes where we actually practiced precise block lettering. I even took a course in calligraphy in the hopes of improving my handwriting.

But cursive handwriting seems to be a rather obsolete skill, like using a slide rule. (I also learned how to use a slide rule in chemistry and physics class. Yes, I am old.)

What was the last significant document you wrote by hand?

scanNew research seems to indicate that beyond what we write how we write matters. If children had drawn a letter freehand, they showed increased activity when their brain was scanned in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write. In order to be able to read, you need to be able recognize each possible iteration of a letter no matter how we see it written - on a book's page, on a screen in different fonts or written by hand on a piece of paper. 

In one study comparing children who physically form letters with those who only watch others doing it, the result seems to be that only the actual effort of writing the letters engages the brain’s motor pathways.

It's not just about letter recognition. Young children (grades 2-5) studied showed that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns. Those patterns result in different end products. For example, composing by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.

The result that most intrigues me was from research on the older children. When they were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory, and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

I know that for myself and for others I have talked about this subject, we believe that the act of putting thoughts down on paper forces us to focus on what’s important. I still prefer to take notes at meeting and conferences by hand.

Do you remember those charts of how to make the letters that was in almost every elementary classroom? I can’t even remember how to make some letters in cursive – Z and Q are blanks. When did the decline of cursive begin? Some history - 

Our Colonial writers had a very elaborate cursive style. 

In the 1800s, the popular style was a loopy, “Spencerian” script. 

In the 1920s, educators thought that since children learn to read by looking at books printed in manuscript rather than cursive, they should learn to write the same way.

In the 1940s, manuscript (print writing) was the standard taught in  kindergarten and cursive was taught in second or third grade. The standardized practical style came from the Palmer Guide to Business Writing from back in 1894. Business practice enters school.

Why has handwriting fallen out of favor? Ask 10 people and I bet at least nine will blame technology? Between computers and smartphones, there’s not much need to write. Hmmmm…

According to the Journal of Educational Psychology, only 9% of American high school students use an in-class computer more than once a week. Just looking at the students around me at the college, most of their note taking and in-class writing is handwriting. And most of their tests still are handwritten. No doubt, email has killed letter writing which was once a formal use of cursive. But in an age of machine-scored standardized tests, handwriting just doesn’t count much in the evaluation of students.

And Then, There Is Heutagogy

You have heard of pedagogy. You may have heard of andragogy.

Pedagogy is the art or science of teaching and really has always focused on children. Andragogy is the theory and practice of teaching adults, and it comes directly out of pedagogy that did not address the specific needs in the education of adults.

Pedagogy is very old but andragogy only appeared as a field in the mid-1800s and in a more recent approach in the 1960s with the work of Malcolm Knowles.  

Some of the basic principles of andragogy are that, compared to children: Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn. They are practical in their approach to learning. They will more easily accept learning a theory before that theory is applied to a situation than a child. They bring more experience to learning and that will both aid their learning and bring biases that hinder new learning. Even more than children, they learn by doing. Adult learning focuses on problems and the problems must be realistic. They do not need as much sequential learning or formal curriculum.

With children and adult learning covered, what is heutagogy? 

Heutagogy is not age-based. It is the study of self-determined learning. It challenges some of the ideas about teaching and learning that are rooted in the teacher-centered learning that most of us experienced.

There has been some natural movement from andragogy to heutagogy that has been generated by technology (media, Internet, online learning, MOOC) and by changes to formal education. This is especially evident in higher education where discussions of alternative degrees and ways of measuring mastery of learning and the patch to a degree are being discussed seriously.

Hase and Kenyon (2000) coined the term heutagogy as self-determined learning which essentially means that a learner (rather than a teacher or institution) should be at the center of the learning. This learner-centric approach is very much a 21st century approach and is particularly popular in e-learning environments.

Everyone Should Be Coding

I wrote earlier about the "Hour of Code" and about how coding is a subject not often taught in schools (at all levels) or taught in isolation and to only a small percentage of students.

Students and teachers are sometimes moving into coding via other projects, such as a makerspace and playing with things like an Arduino board or robotics that require some coding knowledge. But a lot of coding education is occurring outside of traditional school settings.

Code.org has a search tool to find computer science classes in your area and my searching around New Jersey didn't turn up as much as I would have guessed.


Coding bootcamps are intensive, accelerated learning programs that teach beginners coding skills, but the "coding academies" like General Assembly, Galvanize, and the Flatiron School are much more. 

I know someone is reading this and thinking "Why do I or my students need to learn to code?"  I might answer that you don't know what skills will be necessary for your future work, but knowing something about coding could be part of that skil set. Of course, that is very close to the answer I got from my 8th grade algebra teacher when I complained that I would never need algebra to be a writer or English teacher.

These coding bootcamps and academies have only been around for about five years, although there have been computer science classes and programming courses in schools and for-profits for more than three decades.

Bootcamps can vary in length from 6 to 28 weeks, with the average at about 10 weeks long. Code schools teach a broader technical curriculum. It might include Full-Stack Web Development, Data Science, Digital Marketing, UX/UI Design along with teaching coding languages like Ruby on Rails, Python on Django, JavaScript, and LAMP Stack.

Ones that are intended for adults are usually making their money by offering courses aligned with or even in partnership with an employer network.

In 2015, it was expected that the number of graduates from such programs would be 16,000. Not an enormous number, but more than double from 2014, according to a recent survey by Course Report.

Almost none of these are accredited and so students enrolled are more interested in skills than credits or certificates. However, some of these students would probably be interested in using those courses towards a college degree if it was offered, as is the case with many college certificate programs that are usually part of their continuing education or adult learning programs. These can include courses that lead directly into graduate degree programs.

College tuition isn't cheap and these outside bootcamps and academies aren’t cheap either. A summary of the Course Report survey notes that the average cost of the courses is more than $11,000. There are about 70 of the programs in the United States and Canada today.

Last March, President Obama announced an initiative, called TechHire, to train Americans in technology jobs. Among other things, the effort encourages people to enroll in coding boot camps.

Boot camps have the potential to complement computer-science departments’ curricula and degrees, but most colleges are not comfortable in these partnerships, although they do often work with individual employers looking for customized training.

I am particularly interested in the growth of programs for our younger students that use coding both as a critical thinking builder and as a way to learn coding in order to do other STEAM projects.

The vision of many of these groups is based on the belief that computer science and programming should be part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry and algebra.

Here are some resources towards that goal.

Code.org – This nonprofit foundation website is a great starting point for coding novices. It shares lots of useful online resources, apps and places to learning coding. 

Scratch was designed by MIT students and aimed at children ages 8 to 16 as an easy-to-use programming language. Without using lines of code, you arrange and snap together Scratch blocks of code. 

Stencyl  is software inspired by Scratch's snapping blocks system that allows you to create simple games for iOS, Android, Flash, Windows, Linux and Mac. There are paid pro plans that come with advanced functionality. 

Khan Academy is best known for its math tutorials that often look like games, but it also has basic programming tutorials and students can learn to build graphics, animations and interactive visualizations.

CodeAcademy is an interactive website that has a gentle learning curve and teaches kids basic code through fun and simple exercises that feel like games.

Hackety Hack this quick download allows you to learn Ruby, an open-source programming language that's easy and intuitive. 

Code Monster is  particularly good for kids learning as the Code Monster shows two adjacent boxes - one showing code, the other shows what the code does. As you play around with the code with some help from a prompt, you learn what each command does.

No one knows how old you are when you use these sites, so all you curious adults should feel free to use them as a way to get started - an then share them with your own kids in school or at home.



Developing a Mindset for Workplace Learning

Jane Hart  is the Founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies (C4LPT) and someone I follow online. Her book, Modern Workplace Learning: a resource book for L&D, is a good read on that topic and she hosts MWL Association and the Social Workshops on her website.

One of her 2016 posts points out that workplace training is often interchangeably called workplace learning, and they are not one and the same thing - though we might hope they would be. She defines workplace training as "telling people what they need to learn, how they need to learn it, when they need to learn it, and making sure they do it." Her interest is in workplace learning and that involves much more and is rapidly changing. She suggests the need for a new definition or even a new mindset about learning in the workplace. I think that her suggests about what this new mindset might include offewr some suggestions that apply just as well to the classroom workplace.

Here are Jane's suggestions about elements of that midset, via her post at www.c4lpt.co.uk/blog/2016/01/02/2016-rethinking-workplace-learning

"A mindset that recognises that most learning happens as a natural part of work – through daily work experiences and interactions with colleagues and others – and that this type of learning is of no less importance than the learning that comes from being taught or though self-study.

A mindset that appreciates the fact that people are learning as much for themselves by using the Web in their daily activities – to solve their own performance problems and to keep informed about their industry and profession – and that this needs to be promoted and supported rather than banned or ignored.

A mindset that values workplace learning in ALL its forms – and it is not just about organising course and resources FOR people, but also involves encouraging, enabling and support self-organised learning

A mindset that realises that it is not about tracking and measuring what people have learned, but evaluating the impact that it has had on job, team and business performance.

A mindset that understands that the world is changing fast and that nowadays everyone has a responsibility for learning in the workplace.


Connecting to Learning in Your Unretirement Years

In preparing for my talk this month on "The Disconnected," I came across the organization Encore.org that has a Higher Education Initiative which is looking at the impact of an aging population on higher education. Those that I am calling "The Disconnected" are not disconnected in a detached or disengaged sense, but are instead disconnecting from traditional modes and sources of information and learning.

I also found a podcast that is called Unretirement and one episode talked with a woman, Sandra, who felt the need to get out of the house and start doing something to help deal with her unhappiness. She signed up for a quilt making class. It lit up a passion in her. At age 58, she’s gone back to "school" to move into a new career and is getting certified to become a professional quilting instructor. That may not sound like a typical "major" or even a viable unretirement career choice, but...

Quilting in America market is worth $3.76 billion annually” according to a trade survey trying to get at the size of the quilting economy. Sandra is not going to her local college to learn. She is not interested in credits or a degree. Quiltworx is the company from which she is getting her certification. The podcast covered why she decided to get this certification and how her family helped her figure whether the certificate was worth the cost. She has a business plan, and expects her certificate will pay off in 18 months. 

The "Baby Boomers" are just one age segment of those I am finding to be part of "The Disconnected." The largest age group is much younger and includes the traditional potential students for undergraduate and graduate programs. And even younger people are being born into and growing up in a society where the disconnects will be so common that they will probably not be seen as disconnects. 

Here is one example of that disconnect. I came of age in the 1960s and viewed television as a wireless (via antenna) service that was free if you owned a set and supported by advertising. If you grew up in the 1980s, you saw television as a service that came to your home via a cable service that you paid for (even paying for the formerly free networks that had advertising support) and could add additional premium services if you wanted them. You learned to supplement and control that content (starting to call it video rather than TV) using a VCR and videotapes and later DVDs and then a DVR. A child of today is likely to be using multiple networks via multiple devices and may be growing up in a household that has already cut the cord to those 1980s services and devices and hard media formats. 

So, grandparents and their grandchildren may find some connectiveness in being disconnected in their media consumption and even in how they both are learning and preparing for a working life.

Here are some resources about how older adults are connecting to learning and unretirement using both traditional schools and alternatives.

Improving Education and Training for Older Workers a survey from the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees from Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University

How many students graduate outside the normal age?” an international study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development

The Plus 50 Initiative at community colleges for learners age 50+ and a Lumina Foundation report on Plus 50

A state by state rundown of education opportunities for seniors

Over 50 and Back in College, Preparing for a New Career

The 40-Year-Old Graduates

4 Ways Older Students Can Avoid Student Debt

How to Make the Most of Longer Lives

Craft Artists, Income, and the U.S. Economy