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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