The gig is up — children should still be learning cursive in schools. According to an article written last June in the New York Times by Maria Konnikova, children that formed letters in their own handwriting vs. typing or tracing them show connections to broader educational development. In other words, “it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” Studies are showing that children who write by hand learn to read faster, show an increased vocabulary, and retain what they learn better. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. To me, it’s kind of like a body memory when you train for something over and over; in a stressful situation, your body knows how to react faster than your brain. By learning to write by hand, the brain is forced to recognize “messy” letters; being able to interpret all forms of an “a” for example, may increase the likelihood of recognizing the letter more quickly.
In free-form handwriting, the brain exhibited increased activity in three areas, an increase not seen in those who typed into a computer. But only the actual act of handwriting itself, not the observation of it, demonstrated increased brain activity. Children who produced text by hand generated more words more quickly, and they also produced more ideas in general. (James, 2012)
The benefits of handwriting extend to adulthood itself, as “not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” (Berninger, 2006.) And things just keep getting better as we write our notes long-hand instead of typing them into a computer: “writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and re-frame it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.” (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2013.)
My own belief tends to uphold the opinion of these studies, that teaching cursive to children and making them take notes by hand produces both immediate and long-term benefits. I personally take notes much better by hand than by computer, and I usually write out all my papers longhand before typing them up. (Granted, I am a generation removed from easy access to electronic devices – I still prefer books over Kindles, I’m not attached by the hip to my phone, and I don’t need a constant blast of music in my ear from my iPod.) I was taught cursive from fourth grade to eighth grade (in a private Waldorf school in California); even my peers in public school were taught cursive. With today’s bipolar emphasis on standardized testing and yet producing creative, inventive individuals, teaching cursive can only provide a benefit to students both directly and with lasting positive effects.
The American Association of Pediatrics has issued a report on the effect of lack of sleep on adolescents, which contributes to a variety of issues, including obesity, mood disorders, and impaired academic performance. I’ve long felt that teenagers don’t get enough sleep during the school year; the early start times, coupled with after-school activities and jobs, plus homework, all combine to add up to sleepy, over-extended kids. The AAP “endorses…later school start times, and acknowledges the potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.” In addition to delaying school start times, the AAP states that it is also necessary to educate parents and the community that comes into contact with the teenagers of the importance of them getting 8.5 – 9.5 hours of sleep per night. These stakeholders need to know about the scientific rationale behind the proposition to delay the start of school. Naps, sleeping longer on weekends, and coffee can only do so much toward ameliorating the sleep debt racked up by adolescents. Starting school later would allow them to get the necessary amount of shut-eye, and research indicates that this would improve many common teen ailments. We need to all get on board with this — we owe it to our kids for them to be as happy and healthy as possible. This is a start.
…about eliminating electronic devices from the classroom. Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU, recently published a blog post about why he doesn’t want students using technology during his fall seminar. He teaches theory and practice of social media, and he studies the effects of the Internet on society. He is, as he himself admits, an unlikely candidate for Internet censor, but he has come to the same conclusion that I have myself, backed up by scientific research, that multi-tasking in the classroom prevents the kind of deep thinking required by a college curriculum. In other words, cell phones and laptops are an unwelcome distraction; Shirky states that “computer hardware and software are being professionally designed to distract” and that in a contest between Facebook and his class, he loses. He also cites a study that finds that screens distract in a manner akin to second-hand smoke–the person sitting next to someone on their phone or laptop is also distracted from the task at hand.
It was this last study that tipped Shirky into the “no devices in the classroom” camp. He’s long believed that “device use in class tends to be a net negative,” but when one person’s decision to use technology adversely affects others around them, the gig is up. Shirky says “some parts of making your brain do new things are just hard,” and it takes concentration and focus to concentrate on the hard stuff long enough to get it to a useful place; i.e., long-term memory. He sees instruction as a collaboration between himself and his students, and technology use in his classroom interferes with that collaborative effort.
I am so glad that I am not alone in championing the “no technology use” in the classroom. We’ll just have to be that much more attractive to our students so that they don’t even want to use their devices in class, that’s all.
I hear the whining all the time at school: “Why do I have to learn a foreign language? Everybody in the world speaks English.” Yes, but you can’t always count on it, and by learning a new language you learn about a new culture, a different way of life. Discovering a culture other than one’s own is an incredibly enriching, eye-opening and sometimes mind-bending experience. Not to mention the fact that in today’s global marketplace, chances are good that at some time in your career you will be working with someone from another country. Or you may be transferred to another country in which your company has a branch. Alan November, an education technology consultant, apparently is fond of recounting a story about a conversation he had with a senior executive at a global investment bank. November asked the executive what was the most important skill a student should learn for future success. The answer? Empathy – the ability to understand and respect different points of view. The marketing executive stated that it was easy enough to find smart, talented workers, less so to find those that were able to empathize with the needs and values of different nations.
Learning a different language helps build this cultural empathy. And a growing number of k-12 leaders are starting to realize that exposure to foreign languages and cultures, even from a very early age, is critical to student success and forms an integral part of being a global citizen. I can personally attest to the value of learning a language from the elementary years–I started learning French and German in fourth grade, Spanish in sixth. I kept up with my French studies in high school, eventually earning a double major in French and Anthropology. But I remember enough of both German and Spanish to be able to hold a rudimentary conversation even though more than 40 years have elapsed. And learning a language at an even earlier age, like preschool, can result in native or near-native pronunciation and intonation. That’s why, in part, that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends that students “be provided the opportunity to learn a second language as early as possible in school.” Other benefits to learning foreign languages in the early grades include “strengthening of literacy in students’ first language, raising standardized test scores in other subject areas, and developing comfort with cultural differences,” the council states.
This is nothing new to most European nations, who start teaching English to very young students in preschool. As my students noted earlier, most foreign students speak English fairly well by the time they reach their teens, so they balk at having to learn something other than their mother tongue, which some of them speak and write only marginally well into the bargain. But until the great education policy makers in places of power get on board with the fact that learning a foreign language is a critical skill necessary in today’s global marketplace, the status quo will remain, and English-speaking-only individuals will be left behind in the multi-lingual dust of their competitors.
There has been a long and conflicting attitude regarding class size and academic results, dating back at least to the 1990s. Study results have been mixed; yes, class size matters, no, class size is irrelevant. A meta-analysis out of Australia takes the issue back into the fray and seems to verify what I’ve felt all along–smaller classes impact student achievement, especially at the elementary level. I think that smaller classes allow for more individualized instruction, greater amounts of teacher-student interaction, and gives students a leg up when they continue on to middle and high school. Young students, with their shorter attention spans, can only benefit from more teacher involvement, and the teacher can spend more time on actual teaching than dealing with discipline problems that may arise when there are more bodies in the classroom. This particular study also found that smaller class size went a long way to reducing the minority-white achievement gap, which has all kinds of positive implications for society at large. Results for smaller class size in high school remain inconclusive, but the evidence in favor of smaller classes at the elementary level should provoke education officials into action.
There’s a working paper out of Harvard Business School Social Science Research Network that upholds the notion that reflecting on lessons learned aids in performance and perceived self-efficacy. The authors studied over 300 participants, some from varioius Northeastern universities and some from India, upon which to test their hypothesis. The authors state “In our field study we showed that taking time away from training and reallocating that time to reflection actually improved individual performance.” This emphasizes the importance of taking time to think about what you’re learning, as opposed to being fed information on a continual basis, without taking a breath. You need time to digest information in order to process it and make sense of it, thus learning smarter, not harder. To me, this makes perfect sense. I need time to think about the things I learn, letting them seep slowly into my consciousness, unfolding and unfurling their nuances as I contemplate their place next to the facts I already know. That journal that your English teacher made you keep? More useful than you could imagine.
Wow. Something else I was always curious about–turns out people who take notes using longhand retain information better than those who take notes via laptop. Laptop users tend to take verbatim notes, while those who use longhand process the information and write shorter, more consise notes. The paper, out of Psychological Science, was published just last week.
I’ve always felt there was a connection between hearing and seeing information, then writing the salient points down for reference when studying for an exam. Something about the physical act of writing longhand while thinking about the subject matter covered adds to the whole retention process. The current technology push to put electronic devices into the hands of every student is thus a little misguided. Some old-fashioned things are just worth keeping.
That’s the question posed by a working paper out of the University of Virginia in January. It’s something that has bothered me since my own kids were in kindergarten ten years ago. I remember kindergarten as a place of play and learning to get along with others. I didn’t start learning to write the alphabet until first grade, though I do remember my mom going through flash cards with me during kindergarten. I always thought that kindergarten was more of a socializing stage, where you learned to share and learned the first rudiments of conflict resolution. A formalized curriculum was not the order of the day. My kids, on the other hand, learned their ABCs in kindergarten, and regularly brought home projects to be completed. They had spelling tests every Friday, and at the end of the year there was a little graduation ceremony with caps and gowns and diplomas. Pretty scary.
“In some ways, kindergarten classrooms in 2006 do, in fact, look more like first grade classrooms in the late nineties than they do kindergarten classrooms. Specifically, the increase in time spent on ELA as well as the drop in time spent on art and music, are more aligned with the time-use patterns reported by first grade teachers…we find strong evidence that, relative to their counterparts in 1998, kindergarten teachers in 2006 are far more likely to believe that academic instruction in literacy and mathematics should begin in the preschool and kindergarten years.” (p. 21) The study also stated that there was a trend toward less time spent in PE activities, which could negatively impact the benefit children receive from physical activities.
Bottom line, the effect of the changes of kindergarten from 1998 to 2006 remains “an open-ended question.” Teaching academic content “need not be at odds with ‘play’ and other types of pedagogical approaches considered developmentally appropriate in early childhood.” (p. 22) Somehow, some way, the pendulum has to swing to find a happy medium in teaching academic content in a pedagogically appropriate manner, ensuring we don’t mess up our kids any more than is absolutely necessary.
As I mentioned in a previous post multi-tasking is largely a self-imagined myth. Another study, published in 2010 by Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, demonstrated how music can interfere with short-term memory performance in serial recall tasks. Interestingly, Perham discovered that listening to liked or disliked music impaired serial task performance equally, and both were worse than the quiet room control condition. He also stated that it was the lyrics in music, not acoustical variation, that was responsible for impairment while reading. “You’ve got semantic information that you’re trying to use when you’re reading a book, and you’ve got semantic information from the lyrics,” Perham says. “If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension.” David Cutler, a high school history and government teacher from Florida, interviewed Dr. Perham in 2013 and wrote an article for Spin Education, describing his experience with his own students and their desire to listen to music while working on assignments.
There is some evidence that suggests that listening to something you like (whether music or a book on tape) before attempting a task may improve arousal and mood, leading to better task performance. More studies have to be done to confirm this supposition, Mozart effect to the contrary. In the meantime, the bottom line is: don’t listen to music while trying to perform other tasks.