Category Archives: john dewey

“But time is a scarce resource…”

I can still remember moments from school when I started in 1980.  My first teacher was Mrs. Stock, and I still keep in touch with her to this day (thanks Facebook!).  There was no one better to invoke a love for school than her.  I remember being so excited that in grade 2 or 3, we would actually start cursive writing.  This was not because I was thinking of all the opportunities that it would provide for my future, but because it seemed like a rite of passage.  The “big kids” wrote cursive, and so you would wanted to be like them.

Yet as a student in 1980, and an educator in 2016, so much has changed in our world, but one thing hasn’t changed at all (and never will); the amount of time we have in our day.

The reason I was thinking about this, is based on a tweet that I shared the other day regarding “cursive writing” in schools.

I have written about this topic before, starting back in 2011 with a post called “Thinking About Cursive” (seriously…if anything, read the comments thread. It is pretty fascinating). Here we are five years later, and the debate continues. In fact, Louisiana just made it state law to teach cursive handwriting. In this one response, the author wonders out loud the relevancy of teaching this from 4th to 12th grade (I didn’t even have to do cursive past the 8th grade):

Is this handwriting requirement based on anything other than the argument that we learned it and turned out fine?

It would be nice if my daughter learned cursive, but not at the expense of her falling behind her counterparts around the world whose fingers will be flying over keys.

And when she’s a high school senior, I hope she’s wholly focused on the future and not being held hostage to state officials’ glorification of the past

Here is the other argument for teaching cursive in schools that many have heard. This article titled, “The Benefits of Cursive Go Beyond Writing” from 2013 (Thanks for sharing Adam Woelders!), the author shares the “brain development” that happens when writing cursive.

Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets. In fact, learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.

Yet if you read past the article, and into the comments, this one REALLY stuck out to me:

I’m dubious about there being hard evidence showing that cursive provides some significant benefits in brain development, and would want to see some real studies and numbers on that, not just claims that could be mere correlation. Moreover, if the relevant activity is putting pen to paper, why should cursive be any better than simple neat printing.

Beyond all that, however, I don’t think it’s simply a question of whether cursive has some tangible educational value — the really important question is whether it has MORE value than something else that could be taught in the same time. There are many subjects to cover in class — what will be omitted to make room for cursive , and what is the argument for that omitted subject being less valuable than cursive?

This is anecdoctal, but I look back on the time I spent learning cursive in grade school and find it was completely wasted — I never write in cursive and instances where I am called on to read it are vanishingly few. I would have got significantly more benefit had that time been used on foreign languages or math, for example.

If time was no object, and schools could instruct on all subjects equally, then sure, why not teach cursive? But time is a scarce resource, and if you’re teaching cursive at the exclusion of some other subject, there better be a good reason to favor it beyond appeal to nostalgia or aesthetics, or the vague invocation of educational benefits over printing. I’m not seeing that good reason.

When I look at this ongoing debate, this is about more than cursive.  This is the constant fight in education between asking if we should let go of some things from the past in anticipation of the future.  I have used cursive more in the last year than I have in the previous 30 because of people wanting me to sign the book I wrote.  I cringe a little each time because my writing is so poor, but hopefully it is legible.  Yet not one note from that book was ever written on a piece of paper.  It was either notes on my iPhone, or written on my computer.  The “signature” argument is also changing.  People that have bought my book in person through credit card on my phone, don’t sign with their pen, but their finger.  And really…if we are teaching kids about writing their signature, I hope it doesn’t take us to focus on this practice from grade 4 all the way to grade 12!

Some think that we should replace cursive with “typing”, and I struggle with this.  Do you know of any school that teaches kids how to type on an iPhone?   Yet many kids are not only fine with this practice, but excel it.  Quick hypothesis…when you care about what you are doing, you will do whatever you can to figure out a way to become good at it on your own.  Many kids learn to type when they actually care about the project they are doing, not simply focusing on how to type.  I personally can type so much better than I ever could when I was taking classes in school because I get to write about things I am interested in. This matters.

The world has changed a lot, but are we taking a good hard look at what our kids need right now, let alone ten years from now?  Many students are learning cursive in schools to this day, while we ignore their digital footprints in school, and many are less than positive to say the least.  What do you think an employer is more likely to do in 2016; ask for a sample of their cursive, or google the candidate?  What are schools doing about this in schools other than telling kids not to “be bad” online?

With the constraint of time always being a factor in our schools, we need to take a serious look not only at what we teach, but what kids need to learn to be successful not only in the future, but even in the world today.  Let’s spend more time not only talking about “what” we teach, but asking “why” we teach it.  Many schools get tested on writing a “newspaper article” while the industry is dying all over the world.  Would you invest your lifesavings in a newspaper?  Yet we still invest our time, and the learning of our students doing this practice.  We definitely want kids to be able to write for different audiences, but are they learning to embed media, hyperlink sources, and effectively communicate to an audience where anyone in the world can have access to the ideas they share?  There is only so much time we have with our kids, so we need to make the best of it.

The debate continues…I wonder if I will be writing about this five years from now.

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Where will school be when we are done?

About seven years ago, I was at a table with educators from many different places, with different experiences.  As I was talking about my passion for creating schools to be more focused on meaningful learning for our students, one gentleman, probably in his late 60’s started shaking his head.  I asked him directly what he was thinking, and he said, “We have been talking about this forever in education yet we never seem to get to the place we want to be.”  It was not the comment I was expecting.

What I took away from this is that there are many educators, from many generations, that wanted to see something much better than what school was providing for students.  Much of what John Dewey spoke of (born in 1859), is still what we are trying to move towards, as probably educators spoke of before, and after.

As I thought about what the gentleman said, I thought, “Am I going to be here 30 years from now listening to someone newer in the profession still talk about where we need to go?”  No matter how good of a system we can create, we will always be able to get better. That being said, there are things now that we can improve significantly right now.  And although we see it in some aspects of schools right now, are we moving from “pockets” to a “culture” of innovative teaching and learning?  Are the schools that we have now, the places we would create if we started from scratch? 

When I think about the gentleman before, sharing his thoughts, I know that he left education in a better place than when he started. I also know he wasn’t satisfied with what it was currently.  I just wonder where I will be near the end of my career.  Will I be disappointed with what school looks like, or will I be part of the generation that together, makes this a much better place for our kids than the way we have found it?  Only time, and hard work, will tell.

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