Handwriting is largely viewed as an outdated skill: typing offers more efficient ease to teachers and students alike. The new Common Core standards, adopted in most states, only includes teaching of legible writing in kindergarten and first grade.
But according to new studies by psychologists, this recent dismissal of handwriting could have unintended consequences: the underrated skill is actually a boon to brain development and memory retention. New York Times reporter Maria Konnikova explained these studies in a Monday article:
When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children 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.
… Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.
Current educational trends tend to emphasize vocational and pragmatic elements of education. Which subjects will help students get the most lucrative jobs? Which will make them the most competitive on a global stage? Which skills guarantee the greatest college-readiness?
Yet in the midst of our quantification, we’ve lost qualitative ground. In the age of numbers, we can’t teach handwriting because it is beautiful, fun, and a building block for deeper communication and understanding of language. Instead, we dispose of it—at least until the studies come out, in all their number-crunching glory, to tell us that handwriting is actually worth something. Then, in a rather ironic twist, we discover that these qualitative skills actually hold some quantitative value, after all.
This discovery reflects our larger discussion of the humanities and their role in the modern sphere: we wonder what such studies are worth, when the modern job market seems to demand experiential, pragmatic skill sets. We vest importance in what you can do, not how you can think.
Yet the new data on handwriting seems to have some people, formerly dismissive of handwriting’s importance, conceding ground. One Yale psychologist admitted that “Maybe it [writing by hand] helps you think better.”
Some people have always believed handwriting to be beautiful and important. They know writing by hand has helped them connect meaningfully with information, in addition to helping them communicate clearly with others. But perhaps there is a level of sentiment in such value-based affection. Thankfully, we now have the data to prove that, aside from its qualitative benefits, handwriting serves important quantitative purposes, as well. Hopefully some teachers (and students) will see these truths, and take note.