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Why do we insist on handwritten assignments?

Handwriting? So the High School and a couple of the sending schools have all gone “1 to 1” with Google Chromebooks. Yeah! We’re all paperless now! Right?

Nope. Not in foreign languages, at least. We still insist on using paper and doing most of our assignments handwritten. Why? Are we just eco-terrorists wanting to cut down trees?

The answer is clearly, no. One of our major initiatives within the foreign languages involves basing a great deal of what we do on current second language acquisition research and pedagogy. That research shows that handwriting has a much more profound impact on learning than does typing. Firing all those neurons involved in the tactile nature of handwriting, and the visual cortex involved in seeing ones’ own handwriting when reviewing class notes and vocabulary lists turns out to be much more effective than typing the same.

So, we continue to insist on handwritten assignments for some types of activities and will do so for the foreseeable future.

For a relatively easy to read summary of some of the research, see this New York Times report.

Furthermore, recent research shows that anything more than moderate use of technology in the classroom has a detrimental effect on learning.

As reported by the BBC, the impacts of too much use of technology are wide ranging:

  • Students who use computers very frequently at school get worse results
  • Students who use computers moderately at school, such as once or twice a week, have “somewhat better learning outcomes” than students who use computers rarely
  • The results show “no appreciable improvements” in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information technology
  • High achieving school systems such as South Korea and Shanghai in China have lower levels of computer use in school
  • Singapore, with only a moderate use of technology in school, is top for digital skills

Clearly, as is often the case, the introduction of new tools results in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I have been personal witness to this for over thirty years while working in technology and language instruction. The advent of the language laboratory and audio recording saw many calls for reducing classtime and increasing visits to little booths with isolating headphones. Then came digital technologies with many of the same claims for revolutionary change in pedagogy and course design. What’s old is new again, and the reality is that technology is a tool, and a tool alone. It will not and cannot replace pedagogy. It will not and cannot replace good curricular design.