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Becoming Smarter Through Simple Handwriting

June 30, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama

See: New York Times "What's Lost as Handwriting Fades"'

During a recent project I was handed a “workbook” by a noted Maui educator. He was a graduate of a Maui high school and reached a top position in the State public school system.

As I browsed the workbook, I was struck by the cursive handwriting, so bold, clear, and strong – the expression of a very active mind, good finger/eye coordination, a solid intellect (he is in his 80s). The writing also reminded me of my father’s penmanship, the ink flowing so exquisitely during just merely his signature on a check for the electric bill.

See: Maui News past blog post “The Maui High School Class of ‘37”

My father learned his beautiful handwriting at Maui High and that style is now a lost art.

Penmanship used to be a course by itself, but now people tap on mobile phones, laptops, tablets, and even input words to games using a small console with “soft” keys on the screen.

Yes, there is something “lost” with the dying art of penmanship, of writing itself. When I send a hand-written card, I am now often frustrated by my thoughts fusing, colliding, and becoming jumbled, and my letters are not smoothly expressed. My fingers work at cross-purposes, sometimes coming up with an “i” missing in a word (I have to sneak it back in later, and “dot” it very carefully like a make-up artist covering up a splotch on a Hollywood actress).

But when I write several cards, I look at my handwriting with pride – and the recipients call me several days later, complimenting me on the handwritten cards, so “thoughtful” and “taking so much time” – when was the last time you, the reader, received a handwritten card or even a long letter? Or done so? When I visited countries around the world I sent post cards to my Uncle T. and Aunt J. in Wailuku.

(I have kept some old handwritten letters and can imagine the “voices” of my parents, relatives, and friends, although some are long deceased. The penmanship reflects identity, character, a personal brand, plus insights to their ideas and obsessions.)

The New York Times newspaper article cited above (similar to an article I quoted before, on bilingualism and its positive effects on countering dementia in old age – see below) points to good, flowing handwriting as actually bolstering or strengthening “thinking” in the brain:

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.

That is, simply, there is evidence that a child “learns” calculus or 19th century British history or physics more effectively through note-taking/handwriting on a paper pad rather than on a laptop through typing. Every child develops a “style” in writing, and this “style” is linked to how a child “thinks” and remembers information. The mind-hand “act” of handwriting is linked to some areas of the brain for memory, analysis, and learning.

I think of my elementary days when my father made me write a diary (which triggered a love of writing), then I recall a class where I “typed” on a manual typewriter without making mistakes (which led to an “electric” typewriter), then a attached keyboard to a computer “terminal” (not even a personal computer) at my first job in a computer firm (where we toyed around with the earliest internal Email system in the early 1980s) and now I borrow my spouse C.’s touch-tablet to look at World Cup scores: in my short life I have passed through several phases in “input” methods.

I am not an anti-tech person (I have spent more time in tech firms than non-tech firms), but still skeptical that technology alone has all the answers to our problems. What can we do with technology as tools is the key question to ask over and over.

Mauians have the same level of PCs and smartphones ownership and usage compared to many other places, even Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t mean everybody in Happy Valley or Maui Meadows is coding for Android phones or developing robotics apps or writing clear analyses of ocean environmental problems. That is, after a grinding day of tending bar or making hotel beds or being a greeter at Wal-Mart, people surf the Net on smartphones or tablets but that “high” Internet-savvy level of tech sophistication has little relevance to “working” at a high-tech job on Maui – now I see the same “level” of tech usage in Bangalore, India or Manila, Philippines, as well. Like the NY Times article mentioned, typing speedily without deep thinking is not learning -- it may even be a distraction to learning.

Children now are leaping directly into using touch-tablets when they are barely able to walk – with long-term consequences still not known (the Atlantic magazine had a major essay on this topic).

Just because you can touch faster on a plasma display doesn’t mean you acquire the preparation/foundation for the skills to do advanced math or e-commerce or translate ‘olelo Hawai’i.

As the New York Times article said – and it is NOT giving a “final” conclusion to the importance of handwriting to developing thinking processes in a society – shouldn’t we look again at such a simple skill that may have larger positive consequences for building cognitive (brain) skills for our children and youth?

See: past Maui News post: “Bilingualism, Aging, and Becoming Smarter”


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