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What are we losing with the death of handwriting?

There is much more to handwriting than that which meets the eye. There is a culture. A tradition. A way of thinking. Yes, it has a cost, but maybe that’s a cost that a mature society should be prepared to bear, writes William McKeith.

I think it’s fair to say that almost without exception, school leaders I speak to are anxious and cautious about the apparent general public and policy bias towards replacing handwriting with word processing, the pen with digital devices.

This school year is expected to seal policy initiatives aimed at consolidating a drift from handwriting in schools and furthering the process of replacing it in public examinations and in NAPLAN.

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Seven and eight-year-old boys and girls in Year 3 complete online NAPLAN tests. Children in Brewarrina, Bourke, Vaucluse, Lightning Ridge and Balmain sitting for the same online tests; schools were compared and evaluated on the basis of computer marked and generated results.

Weird, if you ask me. There was never any intention among educators to use NAPLAN results as measures of school performance, although politicians of the day certainly saw this as a reasonable possibility.

The regrettable and not surprising result is that schools are now judged, children are judged, comparatively, on the basis of the school cohort’s performance on test results. We recently saw this in its most profound form, with the publication of school rankings from the best to the weakest schools, judged by the very spurious measure of performance on a range of HSC examinations.

In the Herald, Jenny Allum, Principal of SCEGGS recently restated her concerns and expressed those of many educators, about the use of examination results as the measure of school quality.

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Plans are afoot to turn the HSC into an online examination. The next step by policy makers then is to remove handwriting from examinations. This was flagged last year and in 2016 we should expect to see progress in this direction.

Clearly, this is a financial decision. It is cheaper to computer mark on line than it is to employ markers to assess written script. It advances a wider deleterious education development of replacing handwriting - pen, pencil and paper, with computers.

There is an odd contradiction in this. There is also a deep sense of inequity.

Access and exposure are significant influences on achievement and performance. It is hard to believe that the children at Balmain and Vaucluse won’t be advantaged in this development when compared with those who might have very limited opportunity in the IT environment of the new assessment mode.

But, more importantly for me, the trend confirms the more entrenched development in schools – pre-primary, primary and secondary - of replacing pens with screens.

The crisis in handwriting, says the great Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco, began with the ballpoint pen. The rise of computers and mobile phones means children in many schools are no longer taught the techniques required to write properly.

Eco has frequently spoken on this subject and quotes a figure of 50 per cent of Italian children who can no longer write by hand other than in laboured capital letters.

Notebooks, netbooks, interactive whiteboards, iphones, ebook readers, have all found a place in our schools, especially those schools in more advantaged regions of Australia.

We are teaching in an increasingly digital-rich community. Dynamic interactions in those schools that enjoy the benefits of efficient and fast connectivity as well as adequate funding, happen by email, on Facebook, through Twitter, by texting, on the intranet - wonderfully exciting text types, ever smaller devices, that the children and many of their parents unquestioningly accept and adopt.

What we are losing is face to face interaction. It is easier to sit and text than it is to walk and talk. We are also losing the ability to spell and the disciplined hand movements intrinsic to elegantly written flowing text, expressed at its most developed form in the design and execution of calligraphy and in well-taught cursive handwriting.

With the application of word processing to lengthy text, we are at risk of losing our capacity to structure our thinking through long pieces of writing that do not require the editing – the cutting and pasting – that is integral to word processing.

A new category of disadvantaged communicators is emerging. These are tech-skilled from childhood. I see them in prams around the inner city. They are detached from their surroundings, eyes glued to the mind-sapping, child-minding screens supplied by their otherwise-occupied parents. And in the rear seats of four-wheel-drive family vehicles eyes transfixed to rear seat integrated entertainment systems.

It seems to me that there is much more to handwriting than that which meets the eye. There is a culture. A tradition. A way of thinking. It is a process and yes, it has a cost, but maybe that’s a cost that a mature society should be prepared to bear.

Obviously, there are amazing advantages with competent digital literacy. I am writing this piece on a laptop and frequently cut and paste and access through this process, other text.

We need to educate for both. And we need to be aware of the risks and the potential disadvantage that accompanies wholesale change in the core educational goal of effective and universal communication.

Dr William McKeith AM Currently Principal of Inner Sydney Montessori School and formerly Principal of PLCs Sydney and Armidale and Rissalah College, Lakemba.

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