As was to be expected, the Finnish government’s decision to end the teaching of calligraphy in schools has sparked considerable debate.

To begin, as this comment on Slashdot adequately points out, children in Finland will continue to be taught to write; what will no longer be part of the curriculum is calligraphy. The emphasis will now be on efficient use of the keyboard. In other words, Finnish children will continue to learn to spell and to write, so let’s not jump to conclusions, and try to retain our critical faculties.

One point that many people have raised is the likely impact on children’s fine psychomotor skills of no longer teaching writing. What this ignores is that there are many ways to improve our fine psychomotor skills, and actually, writing by hand is not the best of them: drawing and manual activities specifically designed with such purpose are far better. Suggesting that by no longer learning to write in particular styles will create a generation of children with no fine psychomotor skills is patently absurd.

Concerns have also been expressed that this emphasis on the use of the keyboard will mean that children will no longer be taught how to draw. However, it is likely that in the not-too-distant future, most drawing will be carried out on some kind of electronic device rather than paper, which will allow for the development of exactly the same psychomotor skills, and perhaps even an improvement, given that it will eliminate certain limitations.

Let’s be clear about one thing: writing is not a natural ability of humans. The use of a pencil and paper to represent ideas or concepts using certain symbols or codes on a piece of paper comes from a certain historical context in which these methods were the most efficient. At present, using a pen and paper is neither the quickest way to write, nor the most efficient, and has none of the advantages obtained by electronic writing. What’s more, writing with a pen and paper imposes a kind of mental corset, as shown by the need to edit texts.

Far from creating a generation of children who won’t know how to write, putting the emphasis on the keyboard will actually improve the way our children write, because they will grow up learning to correct and change the structure of what they write as they go along, a process that also helps intellectual development (abstract and conceptual reasoning as opposed to linear and sequential thinking). Any neurologist will tell you that not practicing handwriting has no impact on brain development. In fact, the logical consequence of having a whole generation of kids growing up surrounded by all sorts of devices in which they are constantly writing texts is a much superior written expression, as this fantastic cartoon from XKCD wery well points out.

Writing onto a screen may be less romantic than doing so on paper, but it is superior. What’s more, throughout the history of writing, every change that has come along has been an improvement. Nobody in their right mind would want to go back to using clay tablets or quills. Quite simply, technologies prevail until another comes along to replace them, after which they die away. It’s the way of the world, and to not do so is simply to celebrate ignorance.

One of the more absurd arguments I have read over the last couple of days compares handwriting with mathematics, i.e. why not stop teaching children how to add up and simply give them a calculator. There is no relation between the two: Mathematics is about acquiring the knowledge and structure needed to understand the world we live in: we learn arithmetic because it helps us carry out innumerable activities that help us understand ideas like quantity, or to make tangible otherwise abstract concepts.

Counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and long division meet specific needs, providing solutions to the problems that occur in real life, and learning to solve these problems gives us freedom to face others. The calculator is simply there to do these calculations more rapidly, and is introduced into learning once we have understood the tasks we are trying to carry out.

Writing by hand is actually a barrier to my expressing oneself, it limits creativity by imposing difficulties on editing. If it can be improved by technology, then it should be. Handwriting is now effectively obsolete, something children will practice rarely in their adult lives.

The other argument put forth by defenders of handwriting is that we need a back up in case our keyboards fail, either because the power goes, our batteries run out, or a solar storm destroy our global electrical system (shades of Nostradamus!). Once again these doomsayers need to be reminded that children will continue to be taught how to write, they will just spend less class time practicing their handwriting, and instead learn to express themselves much better as a result of being able to use a keyboard properly.

Writing is not going to be banned: we’re not about to enter a Ray Bradbury novel, where pencils and pens are burned. Let’s not forget also that battery life is longer than ever, and digital devices increasingly omnipresent. And even if there was a solar storm that destroyed all electronic devices on the planet, we’d simply use the skills we’ve acquired to remake them. Anybody who thinks that humanity is about to recede to a pre-electrical age needs to stop watching science fiction movies and get a life.

This is a fascinating debate, and one that will continue. In my view, if we’re going to use pens and pencils less in the classroom, let’s get rid of paper while we’re at it. Textbooks need to be replaced by the internet, by interconnected information repositories and by teaching based on critical reasoning that allows our children to qualify information sources. We cannot go on teaching our children that knowledge is bound up between two pieces of cardboard.

Learning by working in groups and presenting information need to replace learning by rote. Children’s education cannot be based on what my generation learned when we were at school; times change, and with changing times new skills and ways of learning are required. The idea that “this is how things have always been done” has no validity, and we need to make way for an education that prepares children to live in the historical, cultural, and technological context they now find themselves in. Anything else is immobilism, pure and simple.


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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