Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cursive handwriting (again)

Figure 1. This signature of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew
looks a lot like that of many job applicants.
The Huffington Post reports that some schools are doing away with cursive handwriting. Now, as Sisyphus reminded me a couple of years ago, "no cursive" doesn't mean "no writing"; it just means that students are being taught to print and schools are leaving it at that (I think that's the case; the vagueness of the teachers on this point is annoying).

On one level they have a point. If the students are going to be tested to death--unless Michelle Rhee is in the picture, in which case the teachers cheat or get fired if their students don't get the right test scores*--maybe that half hour a day isn't best spent on practicing writing. I have a couple of observations and questions, as always:
  • Students are still going to have to write (as in "not type") essays in classroom situations for a while, so as long as I can read what they write and they can read what I write in response, I don't care whether they print or not.
  • Will they be able to read handwriting? The article treats this as some kind of ridiculously trivial skill, like knowing the best way to powder a wig.
  • It's faster for me to write in cursive, but maybe that's because I was taught cursive (and retrained myself through calligraphy later on). That makes me a dinosaur, and I accept my scaliness with pride. Maybe instead of "digital natives" we should be talking about "print-writing natives" as the real generational divide.
  • Some have said that cursive is needed so that people can sign documents and isn't used otherwise, sort of like that kind of literacy in the 19th century when people knew enough to sign their names but were otherwise illiterate. I don't whether cursive is necessary there, though. In reading job letters over the past few years, I've noticed that a lot of the candidates sign their names with just a squiggle like a sine curve or a couple of loops rather than with a name that you can read. I'm not sure why this is so, or whether it's a trend, but I thought it was interesting.
  • I'm puzzled by why we keep wanting students to know less and less. Don't bother memorizing multiplication tables or learning how to make change--who needs it? Don't bother learning another language or having language departments, because Real Americans are proudly ignorant of any language but their own. (Remember the flack John Kerry took because he could speak French?) Don't bother learning to write in cursive, because unless you're going into a profession where people must read handwriting (such as being an academic), it's a useless skill.
  • Or it might end up being a kind of class-based skill, the way knowing Latin and Greek were once the marks of a gentleman. The rich need to know how to write in cursive; we worker drones don't have to know it. It sounds silly, but it may be part of that larger trend now toward cutting out "useless" knowledge that doesn't prepare students to get a job, when employers actually want good writing and thinking skills.
  • The thing that handwriting of any kind (not just cursive) does best is to allow the brain to make marks on paper through the fingers and thus help the retention of knowledge, as some of us have written about. It's not the same as typing, even on a manual typewriter, which seems to be making a comeback.
  • Here's what I don't understand: aren't all the Edumacrats screaming about "hands on! hands on! Learning must be hands on!"? Here is a hands-on type of learning that, let's face it, forces a kind of attention and focus as well as training the brain. Even if they're not in favor of cursive, wouldn't you think they'd like its hands-on qualities?
*Edited because I forgot to credit Historiann for pointing out the scamming outrage of falsified tests that Michelle Rhee instigated.


AliceAcademic said...

Hands on learning! I would write a long set of acronyms involving LOL something or other here if I didn't have to go look it up. Hilarious! Squiggly signatures on job applications: saves time. Its a tough market out there. We have lots of applications to get out and we're so used to typing now that writing seems so slow...Who hand writes anything except checks and grocery lists these days?

Eileen said...

Will they be able to read handwriting? The article treats this as some kind of ridiculously trivial skill This definitely isn't trivial for my students (I'm a grad student and I TA for intro-level history courses). I have relatively readable handwriting, and I've had to move to giving my students typed comments on papers because it's just easier for everyone. When I gave handwritten comments, I spent a lot of time in office hours translating for students with the initiative to ask, and being exasperated with the ones who used "I couldn't read your comments" as an excuse to not revise. With typed comments, they have no excuse.

Nicole said...

My cursive sucks, but I'm glad I have it... I can read it even if nobody else can.

We're sending our kid to a private religious school. Ze is going to learn cursive and Latin and, most importantly, history that wasn't dictated by Rupert Murdoc.

My graduate students are getting to me not having any Excel skills. That wasn't true when I started teaching-- they were better at MS Office than I was. I totes blame NCLB for that. This generation is really confused by anything that's not multiple choice. I've also got students who are really good at mental math and somehow got great GRE scores without knowing ANY algebra.

undine said...

Alice, thanks for telling me that about saving time with the squiggly signatures. That's been puzzling me for a long time. I do write things other than checks, etc., such as handwritten notes in birthday cards and editing on paper, but I realize that that may not be the new normal.

Eileen, before I read about cursive and your comment, I'd never put it together that maybe students who didn't understand handwritten comments were cursive illiterates. I type comments a lot because it's faster (as Alice says), but now the "I can't read what you wrote" thing makes more sense.

Nicole--and you're in a field where Excel is a necessary thing to know, so why wouldn't they know it? Multiple choice can't do it all.

Unknown said...

I would like to go on record as saying that returning wig-dressing to the school curriculum would be *awesome*. And I think we should bring back perruques for the young-uns.

Nicole said...

Apparently with the push to ginormous lectures in order to save the state money, the big feeder schools to our graduate program have moved to self-grading exams and assignments. Excel doesn't really fit in there.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

FWIW, there are arguments out there (that I find persuasive) suggesting that italic handwriting is easier to read than cursive - the loops in cursive hang over and under the lines a lot and confuse the eye. (The funny thing is NLLDH has the most impeccably neat, tidy, and uniform handwriting of anyone I've ever seen. And he's stopped writing in cursive because his cursive ends up a beautiful series of absolutely identical loops and NO ONE can read it!) There is an italic cursive, but the basic is a form of print. I basically taught myself to write italic-style before I knew what it even was, and I can't write in cursive any more - it's slow and awkward and ugly to me. So I print (except for my signature, which isn't a squiggle, but I totally get why people do the squiggle).

Unfortunately, while I'd be thrilled to get rid of cursive if it meant kids were getting taught italics, I'm not sure that's likely to happen (I figure kids HAVE to get taught how to print, at least, right? But the HuffPo piece does make it sound quite a lot like handwriting generally is going out the window).

I honestly don't think of Edumacats as being pro-hands-on learning, though. I think of them being pro-vocational learning, and pro-tests, neither of which handwriting has much relevance for.

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Anonymous said...

Multiplication tables are so important, I'm realizing, as I watch my son struggle to learn multiplication without them.

I want to help him make one but I don't know if that goes against the curriculum too overtly and am trying to be sensitive to the teacher's work. Since I'm a teacher, too. But still...

undine said...

Susie--totally! And perruques, too.

Nicole, self-grading exams in Blackboard & that kind of thing?

New Kid, I'm completely with you on the italics thing. My mother (schoolteacher) used to teach her students something called D'Nealian, which looks like italics and was supposed to be easier to use. You're right (as usual) about the Edumacrats. I tend to lump everyone who tries to tell me what to do (pro-vocational-learning-back-to-basics or latest-educational-fad) in one big group, and that's not right.

Ink, I'm not sure what the harm would be in making those tables (or flash cards, either). Quick recall: it's the one kind of learning that's easy and kind of fun (or at least so I found it & so did my kids), but I know it's often reviled today. Sometimes it's fun to just know that there really is an answer and that you know it, rather than wrestling with soul-searching "show your process" work.