The reason I’m rethinking my digital classroom

The reason I'm rethinking my digital classroom

Writing by hand has been a way of life for students for years. Now that keyboards are replacing No. 2 pencils, what are we losing? (Flickr / Vassilis)

What used to be a tiny notebook or calendar in my pocket has now become Evernote on my iPhone.

From time to time, in college and soon after, I regularly had a ballpoint pen and some sort of paper in my pocket. At that point, I was a newspaper reporter, not a teacher. When new story ideas came to mind or someone called me when I was away from my desk, it was essential that I have something to record those moments.

For a while, I even switched to a Palm Pilot with its stylus and unique way of writing quasi-alphabet characters on the touchpad to enter data.

But now, it’s mostly Evernote. I open the app, create a new note and type away with my thumbs.

A Palm Pilot. (Flickr / Ian Lamont)

A Palm Pilot. (Flickr / Ian Lamont)

As we go deeper into ditching our textbooks in classrooms, it seems that there’s more and more of that — keystrokes instead of penmanship.

Typing: It’s faster. It’s searchable. All in all, it’s more efficient.

But is it better?Click here to tweet this!

Lots of research indicates otherwise. In an episode of the “Verbal to Visual” podcast by Doug Neill — an educator who writes about visual notetaking (a newfound passion of mine) — he points to two articles that say that writing by hand shouldn’t be thrown out with technological advancement.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, according to this article in The New York Times. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”

An Indiana University researcher reported in this Wall Street Journal article that children’s neural activity was more enhanced and “adult-like” when they practiced printing by hand in comparison to children who just looked at letters.

All of this research brings me back to my classroom and disappearing handwriting.

Last year, my school adopted Google Apps for Education, arguably the most powerful suite of apps for classrooms (at least in my opinion). And I jumped in full force, going even more digital with my instruction and with what my students created in my classes.

We gather information in Google Docs. We write and comment in blogs. We work as a team to compile ideas in Google Presentations.

And we do all of that by touching buttons on a keyboard instead of forming the lines and curves of letters with our hands.

At one point last spring, I realized that I had no idea what my new students’ handwriting looked like.

I didn’t know how they wrote their names (which is very personal and expressive).

I didn’t know who had sloppy handwriting and whose was neat (which shows a lot about their personality and how they approach their work).

It was sad. At first, I reasoned that it was a sign of progress and that we were forging into the future together with so much digital work.

But if we’re missing out on an important cognitive building block, then I certainly don’t want to short-change my students.

I have to admit: I don’t have all the answers to this. I see the value in both sides, but I know they’re like two sides of a fork in the road, veering farther and farther away from each other.

Maybe this visual notetaking thing I’ve written about and have been practicing is an option. I’m capturing my ideas electronically and am still forming characters by hand.

Evernote’s Penultimate app could also be an answer. It gives users a space to write by hand and then analyzes what you’ve written so you can search it later.

It’s something I’m grappling with right now. What do you think?

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24 thoughts on “The reason I’m rethinking my digital classroom

  1. I’m in the same boat. We’ve had laptops for the last 3 years and got Chromebooks with Google Apps for Ed last year. I was excited about using it to it’s highest potential and incorporated it in many aspects of my class. As summer has gone by, I was reflecting on what worked and didn’t work last year and things that I did that not only had my students excited but ME excited as well. one aspect of the class that I think I’m going to ease back on is using Google Docs for weekly/bi-weekly student reflections. Having to read through all of them and scroll down to the next entry was becoming cumbersome and I would dread having to go through all of them and then click comment to write feedback and give them a grade when it was due.

    The aspect of the class that I used it for – Genius Hour reflection – was initially done in Google Docs to be a place they could always go back to and see where they came from and an electronic “portfolio” of sorts for their journey. Did any of them/would any of them ever actually look back? I’m not sure. And keeping up with that for students who were absent? A tad harder. I’m now going to use composition notebooks and try going with an adapted interactive notebook model because it will all be in one place, a hands on activity for them, they can write, draw, plan, use color and create on paper and will be something they will have and be able to look back through at the end of the year and years to come in order to see their progress. THAT makes me excited.

    Ironically, at a middle school expo I went to that my district put together our instructional technology facilitators echoed the sentiment – just because you have the technology doesn’t mean you HAVE to use it. Is how you’re using it adding value to the instruction? The tech should be an invisible aspect of the learning.

    • Hi Lindsey —

      Thanks so much for sharing your practices and your ideas! My wife does the interactive notebooks with composition notebooks too and likes it … she does a blend of tech and traditional in her middle school social studies class.

      That is how I’m using technology — just because I have it doesn’t mean I have to use it. There are a lot of things we do that aren’t possible without the tech (or are much more limited or less efficient), but many things we do just don’t need the technology. Everyone says “tech is a tool, not a learning outcome” … I think of it like a hammer — you don’t need a hammer to do improvement project you do, so why would you force it in all the time? Just use it for what will make life easier.

  2. Interesting post, Matt. I agree- it has to be a balance between digital and paper, typing and writing. We sometimes have “unplugged” days to do hands-on or handwriting activities- it’s all about balance. Both are valuable and valid, even in my 1:1 classroom, because it’s differentiation and multiple-intelligences.

  3. Hey Matt-
    You bring up some interesting points. I think that the day may come when handwriting will be a lost art (maybe even an archaic form of communication). Until then, perhaps we should, as teachers, work to find a balance and always give our students different avenues for communicating and expressing themselves. I think the research about the neural pathway that is formed is important. It will help kids to make connections in more ways than just digital.

    It’s good that you are bringing this up at this point in time!

    • Thanks, Tim … and it does look like it’s headed toward “lost art” status — even signatures are going digital, and they have always been a very personal form of expression. Thanks for weighing in!

  4. Hi Matt,

    I agree with Kari and you that it’s all about balance and one of the ways of acquiring this balance is by using TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling); are you familiar with TPR Storytelling? It might be an interesting addition to your Spanish lessons. It’s very personal to the students and it brings back the human touch in school. TPRS teachers usually make their own materials, so no textbooks are used (although they do exist, but they’re quite different from the mainstream ones) and technology can be used in all kind of different ways. For me TPRS is part of the way I how I address Multiple intelligences, because with TPRS you can address them all. Besides that, you can differentiate wonderfully with it!
    (P.S. My name is Dutch and is pronounced like ‘Alica’)

    • Hi Alike —

      You’re completely right about TPRS — it is a WONDERFUL way to connect with kids in the target language and to differentiate. I attended one of Blaine Ray’s TPRS seminars in Chicago several years ago and use it very regularly in my class. There are great ways to integrate tech, too, like you said. It’s a great method/tool to use!

  5. Thanks for the reinforcement. I did not know the details, but I have always believed that putting pencil to paper somehow completed a circuit that was beneficial to learning and remembering. Note taking is an important activity for academic progress, long after the physical result on paper is no longer available. For many of us, handwriting information satisfies the kinesthetic aspect of one’s learning style. And socially speaking, who can deny the excitement that accompanies the receipt of an occasional handwritten note, given the physical and personal effort that is required.

  6. Matt, I’ve thought a lot about this as well. No answers and lots of questions. Personally, I carry my physical notebook around because I like handwriting out quick notes and reminders. If I want to record a lot of information (note taking during a presentation for instance), digital is my preference.

    • I agree — I still have some scrap paper at my desk for quick notes or passes for students … that hasn’t been totally replaced digitally yet. I am kind of interested in apps like Penultimate, Notes Plus, Paper — the ones where you can write by hand — but they still just aren’t quite as efficient as pulling out a notebook and writing. With Penultimate, though, the ability to search your hand-written notes does make it better though! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Hello I new in this, and I would like to obtain more information about the use of podcast and some activities that I can implement in my classes with the use of this tool. Thank you

  8. As one of the ICT crew at school, I feel that some colleagues believe I’m completely gung-ho about where all this technology is leading us! However I’m sure all of us share reservations about how our world is changing and I certainly feel that too. I liked the balance achieved in this article on the digital classroom. However I do worry that the horse may have already bolted!
    PS – spring (the season) needs a capitalised S! (LOL)

  9. Thank you for picking up this topic. I have long felt that the more neural pathways involved in processing new information the better. It is more “difficult” to form the shape of the letter K than to tap on the key with either a thumb, the index or the right middle finger (for touch typists). I would venture to guess that key tap generates far less neural activity.

  10. The Language Arts teacher on my team insists on having the children write instead of type in her class. I’ve thought about changing my composition notebooking (I teach science) to something digital, but you’re right, it’s important to make the connection between head and hand and to put it on paper…

  11. I love using Procreate, a Sketchnoting app that allows you to play a quick recap of your SNing process. With all the layers and dimensions you can add to the SN, it gives you so many awesome choices!
    That said, I still use Interactive Sciencw Notebooks and pen to paper writing for the exact reasons you shared! It’s part of getting to know the students! I’ve also been pushing Student Voice and Choice a lot this year. Yesterday I had students asking if they could do a specific assignment on paper… on Notability… as a video reflection.
    Yes, Yes, Yes of Course!
    What you’ve taught me through your blogs, emails, books, and tweets, is that we can push ourselves and allows our students to push for greatness, too.
    In the age of signing things digitally, I still want my students to have a unique cursive e signature of their own!
    Thank you for such an amazing post!

  12. I agree with some of the same concerns you have stated here Matt.
    I read a study over the summer that showed a stronger connection to learning if the students hand wrote vocabulary that were context connected, and also in the formal examination.
    I have made some changes to my own ‘paperless’ classroom.
    Vocabulary terms and reviews for exams are done on paper (I struggle with not releasing them on Google Classroom, but some of the accountability to students was lost if I printed them and they could simply go and reprint it).
    I have started to track performance changes to see if paper or online (Google forms) allows students to perform better.
    I have also thought about timing and when to use written assignments and online submissions much more recently. For example, around mid year exams, I have tried to coordinate with other teachers to make sure that not all exams or other performance tasks are not all online or all pen and paper types.

    Maybe a combination? (no worksheets, thanks Alice Keeler!)

  13. What do I think? I think that I constantly struggle with the old saying of “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” When inspired by new innovation, I can tend to throw out baby after baby after baby. And darn it, many of those baby’s were adorably effective. I have recently come to the conclusion that no single practice is effective, inspiring or even enjoyable for all students. Instead, mixing it up allows me to stay interested along with the kids. Some practice and collaboration is digital, some written and recorded on real paper, some are creating/exploring on giant whiteboards found on every wall and cupboard, some even on mini boards while sitting at a table. Sometimes, they are all offered at once and kids choose the method that is best for their own growth. What do I think? I think we keep those cute babies and just refill the tub.

  14. Handwriting is what makes us human and unique. Losing that skill to technology is worrisome to me. I wish there were more studies about this and why handwriting is helpful to our cognition. I’ve read articles that explain how learning cursive, for example, is similar to learning a musical instrument, in that it helps develop functional specialization in the brain. Here is one study I read in Psychology Today:

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/why-writing-hand-could-make-you-smarter

    I am an instructional tech specialist, and I still believe that sometimes we need to use the pen(cil) in addition to the tech, depending on our learning goals for students. I believe learning to print and write in cursive is especially important in primary grades (K-3).

  15. In my mind, it somewhat fell in categories with my students. Learning and reflecting? Start on paper.
    Students kept a “learning journal” notebook that accompanied EVERYTHING we did in class. I told them constantly to utilize it, consult it, reference it. I reminded students daily at first, then weekly at the least, that learning only really happens when they stop to reflect or think about what they were/are doing.
    Paper = absolutely necessary. The key was always understanding when and why and being very intentional about that diff.