Forcing our children to learn redundant skills


We wouldn’t force our children to learn how to shoe a horse or use a spinning wheel. So why do we force them to learn to write on paper with a pen? As most people do almost all writing on a keyboard, surely handwriting is redundant? And yet we force students to learn this obsolete and esoteric skill. Indeed, we force them to practice it as part of their examinations.

Teachers appear to lament the failing handwriting skills of children. See here. But isn’t the better solution to recognize:

  1. Very few people communicate through handwriting (except at school);
  2. While it is useful to learn to write with a pen and pencil, it is not a key skill for our children;
  3. Spending time in school practicing handwriting takes away time that could be used to learn useful skills, such as improving written expression; and
  4. We should stop torturing our children by forcing them to hand-write exams rather than using keyboards.


27 Responses to "Forcing our children to learn redundant skills"
  1. Do we mean handwriting as in cursive, or printing? I see no value in the former – but incredible value in the latter. I’m a software developer, so I am using a keyboard all day – yet as I look about my desk, it is littered with handwritten notes/diagrams. It is much quicker to jot these things down than to fiddle with Visio.
    (On redundant skills/technologies: as a child in the 80s when I moved from Australia to the UK, I was sent to the headmaster after turning in my first geography assignment which was written (printed) in Biro, not cursive in fountain pen!)

  2. Wouldn’t it be safer to float this suggestion if we were confident the community had a high level of functional literacy?

  3. Steven – there is use in writing notes to yourself – but handwriting is taught to communicate to others. This latter function is redundant (and I use ‘evernote’ so ditto the former!)

    Trevor – agree. But wasting time on redundant pen skills takes time away from literacy. They are separate skills. 

  4. Joshua Gans: I disagree.  You learn long division not so that you can use the technique to divide numbers, but so that you understand the abstract concept of division itself.

  5. Following the same logic, we should also stop “torturing” children with arithmetic lessons since they could always use calculators and computers to compute.
    However, writing and arithmetic, remain to be highly significant in preschool education. Apart from providing the fundamental skills needed for undertaking basic education and beyond, they enforce discipline and focus.
    Furthermore, writing by hand does not require any form of technology apart from paper and a writing instrument. Teaching our children to rely on modern technology for something as basic as writing would not be good for them.

  6. have you ever actually taught children to read and write?

    beyond that—we don’t have horses around much anymore, but pencils and paper are still abundant

    last, I am left to wonder, if you had handwritten your piece, would you have arrived at a different conclusion 

  7. John. Alas I am old enough to have had to write my Masters thesis long hand. What a waste of time!. Fortunately computers had become common before my PhD thesis. 
    And we currently have pens like they had horses in the 1890s. Having lots of redundant equipment around doesn’t make hand writing functional.
    As an aside, the keyboard will probably be redundant in 20 years (i already use voice recognition for a lot of writing). But until then, let’s teach our children the modern art of typing, not the ancient art or handwriting.

  8. I don’t know guys, if the *end times* are coming, then it might be useful to know how to write in the post-apocalyptic environment.
    Not that I agree with you at all Stephen, because this seemingly useless activity is good for cognitive development and a precursor to drawing skills.

  9. I have not quite absorbed some responses here but I agree with point 1, but not with point 2.  3 is a key in my opinion, but dubious as keyboard typing also promotes alien speak, like Hi how r u, Gr8?  Tell me that with the decline of handwriting written expression has improved. I am inclined to think that handwriting may promote development of the brain hardwiring which tapping out things on a keyboard does not. 4 – Unless a student has a physical disability I would hardly call it torture.

    Having recently taken delivery of a fountain pen I am rediscovering the joy of writing by hand.  Agree, it is not functional for a lot of people, but is a necessity for many.  It is an art, and quite special.  As with a lot of art, there are positive externalities.

    Trite example – Most people spend quite a lot of time perfecting their signiture – but that may become redundant, too.  It is true by definition that if you cannot write you cannot sign your name.  Is this desired?

    So sue me – I am fond of old technology, and anyway, how much time does it take to learn to write anyway outside of playing in the sandpit and watching TV?  A few hours a week?  I know we seek maximizing marginal benefit given our limited time learning stuff, but given that kids are kids, they are inclined to spend a lot of time in other pretty much kids pursuits. 

    The late Mr Steve Jobs did a short course in calligraphy from which I think we can source the many fonts available to us.

    I think that the dude who writes the two word access code to submit a comment didn’t learn to handwrite..

  10. I’m a maths honours student and I think computers should be used much more in maths education. The problems that can be solved on paper are trivial compared to what simple algorithms can do in Sage. I wasn’t even taught how to type a document with equations in it. You can solve thousands of very complicated equations very quickly using a CAS. Basically, computers “democratise” maths (you don’t have to be a genetic freak to do interesting things).
    I have terrible handwriting, though. I like that I can handwrite; however I remember finding it very annoying that neat handwriting was considered important in school.

  11. The author of ‘The brain that changes itself’ said on a radio show researchers are discovering that handwriting is crucial to helping with learning.

    He was focusing particularly on kids with special needs, so I’m not sure how much it would translate to everyday students, but I’ll try to find the proper reference (even though I’m not sure anyone is reading this far into the comments!) 

  12. Here’s a rather long article:–the-death-of-handwriting 

    The relevant bit is: 

    ‘But Toronto psychiatrist and neuroplasticity expert Dr. Norman Doidge fears that if cursive fades away, so will cognitive skills that handwriting builds. If children don’t learn those movements, their brains “will develop in a different way that no one has really thought through.”
    When a child types or prints, he produces a letter the same way each time. In cursive, however, each letter connects slightly differently to the next, which is more demanding on the part of the brain that converts symbol sequences into motor movements in the hand.
    That is similar to the way a child translates symbol sequences into motor movements of the mouth and tongue in order to talk or movements of the eye in order to read. That’s why Doidge says practising the complex demands of cursive also builds fluency in speaking and reading.’

    But it seems it’s still up for debate. 

  13. blu-k
    Good point. Brain researchers know that changing activities changes brain development. Indeed, our children are able to do things that elderly parents (like me) cannot do (like holding 20 facebook conversations, doing homework and watching TV all at the same time). I don’t know the role of handwriting in this – but it seems hard to hold back changes in technology until we do know.
    As an aside, early laws in the US apparently looked at banning car radios, due to potential distraction and peoples’ inability to concentrate on the radio and drive at the same time. (No – I don’t have a reference – but it is a great story!) So the process of brain change and technology has probably been going on for the past 300 years.

  14. The first thing that comes to mind it it seems to be needed a graduation towards writing university papers and exam responses.  Non stop handwriting legibly and quickly for 3 hours does actually require a lot of muscle memory, as this worker/postgrad student can attest after years of only signing my name and scribbling a few notes here and there.  How confident are your institutions that they will be able to completely abolish written papers/exams by the time today’s pre-schoolers get there?

  15. Our MBA classes have to hand in all assignments online and all marking is also online. We get a tablet especially designed for online marking and PDF annotation. So the days of the scribbled red comments on assignments are done.


  16. I really don’t think handwriting is redundant.  I happen to have just written about a dozen pages of microecon notes just now.  

    And what about if there is a blackout, how on earth do we record thoughts, ideas, instructions?  

    The pencil and paper are a simple solution in many, many areas of life where people don’t sit at computers all day. 

    And I agree with people that learning to write develops brain functionality that translates to other areas.  Think of hand-writing as cross-training for the brain, just as an athlete might play other sports to help train for his/her primary sport. 

  17. I don’t agree that handwriting is redundant, as it is extremely useful for everyday use and important for cognitive development.
    However, I wholeheartedly agree that keyboards should be used in essay-style examinations. The quality of work that could be produced would be much higher – firstly because a lot of students nowadays can type quicker than they can write, and secondly it gives students the option to rearrange their thoughts into a well constructed essay. I know it is a skill to set out your thoughts before beginning, but this in no way reflects any research/work done outside of university examinations. 

  18. Cameron – yes.  There are so many examples of people who excel in a field but who take time to learn other “redundant” pursuits.  This is pretty much a passe comment, as we all know that.

    This is not confined to academia.  Jimmy Page studied art before he picked up a guitar.  No computers.

    John Nash liked writing copious notes, but that is another story.  His PhD thesis was what, about 40 pages?

    I query the hand-writing skills of most contemporary popular musicians.  Can they even read music?  Regina Spektor can handwrite, in a few languages.

    I love people who can write by hand, however poorly or quaint.  It is a measure of effort.  My Dad left school at age 14, but he has the most delicious hand writing that would put my Gen Y friends english expression to shame.

    Phew.  I could have just said that I disagree with you Stephen, sorry.

  19. Lloyd – all great and irrelevant. I like riding a bike, many people like horse riding, some like calligraphy, weaving or brewing their own beer. That is not an excuse to make any of these activities a major part of our school curriculum. 

    Those of you who like hand writing – wonderful. But what is the point of forcing your hobby onto hundreds of thousands of young children, most of whom will have little if any use of the ‘skill’ in their lives. Unless there is an educational value of the skill (and it is hard to see that for handwriting in the modern age as it has little if any real value in communication) it does not belong as part of our compulsory education system.

    I am happy to agree that ‘learning your letters’ through handwriting and gaining the mechanical skill of handwriting (perhaps to the level of printing) is useful. It has the side benefit that you can write notes to yourself. But our education system goes well past this level of ‘skill’ to a point that is – well – redundant.

  20. Thankyou for you response Stephen.  I know that my logic is irrelevant and I recant.

    Learning handwriting should be banned.  It has never done Western civilization any good.

    On the other hand, twitter, blogs, and facebook contribute so much.

    Bearing in mind that our current government wants to ban them.

  21. “I know it is a skill to set out your thoughts before beginning, but this in no way reflects any research/work done outside of university examinations.” i would say the ability to use organised and adaptive thought processes would be greatly beneficial to future work/employment done outside university. one should always give proper thought to a job before starting.

    to me handwriting is as useful now as it  has ever been and i believe the way technology is going with tablet computers a merger of writing and technology will may be more beneficial than a keyboard.

  22. Stephen, I like the general idea that hard writing is anachronistic but my one criticism of your original post is that measuring the use of handwriting as a means of communicating with others should not be the primary basis for deciding whether to teach handwriting at school. If handwriting is useful for any important part of life or if learning the skill is a means of teaching other important things, it should be taught.  If teaching handwriting assists with literacy
    Primary kids should be taught both handwriting and typing, then given the option to use either as they find appropriate.

  23. I’m a theoretical physicist, and we spend a lot of time at the black board, because the slow deliberate way of constructing passages (math, in my case) is beneficial.

    I was given a hard time by my teachers about my handwriting, and still resent how arbitrary and unfair this felt. I’m all for a reduced focus on handwriting skills; time at school is precious and you need to allocate it wisely. But I would argue it is valuable to a large number of people in their everyday lives (much more than calculus, say).

    Finally, I agree with whole-heartedly with kme. Understanding (not just replicating, but actually understanding) long division (and similarly manual subtraction with ‘carrying the one’) marks an important step in your understanding of numbers and what they are/contain/represent/hold together. But kids find it hard and esoteric, so they rarely grasp the concept, but merely learn to turn the crank.

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