Emerging Tech

Pen on paper facilitates learning, but is there a right way to write?

The keyboard didn't become my friend until I was almost 30 years old. In fact, I would write an 11-page report in college with paper and pencil, and then either painstakingly hunt and peck my way through it on the computer or have someone type it out for me. Even though the current generation of kids is more knowledgeable about computers and typing, there still are some benefits to writing things out by hand. Take a look at this news article: "Is the pen still mighty in the computer age?"

Here's a snippet from the article:

David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, banned laptops from his classroom in part, he said, because writing in longhand forces students to pay more attention.

"The (laptop) note-taker tends to go into stenographic mode and no longer processes information in a way that is conducive to the give and take of classroom discussion. Because taking notes the old-fashioned way, by hand, is so much slower, one actually has to listen, think, and prioritize the most important themes," Cole wrote in an essay published by the Washington Post.

Handwriting, for me, was part of the whole learning process. Writing, re-writing, and seeing what I was writing on the page actually helped me remember information on test days. I could visualize my words on the page, and I could actually remember the exact place where a particular word was located. Freakish, I know, but it's true.

Cursing the curves and curls in cursive

James Miles, a senior associate at the International Center for Leadership and Education, believes that states in the U.S. will begin to re-evaluate the introduction of cursive writing in elementary schools.

"If I go back to my generation, we did the Palmer penmanship (method), and you spent hours getting the tails and stems going the right way. That has gone by the wayside. Basically, what you do now is some form of cursive mixed in with some of the print so we don't necessarily have all our letters connected. The letters looks more printed than cursive and it's better for speed."

My son is in the 5th grade, and so I have some first-hand experience with the handwriting instruction that kids are given, at least in one elementary school in the city of Louisville, Kentucky. I remember the wide-lined writing paper in his younger years -- you know, the kind that has a dotted line in the middle of each line. It was really important, for some reason, to make sure the lowercase letters made it all the way to the dotted line. Thank goodness that there's starting to be less emphasis on the prescriptive details, like cursive curls and loops. As long as it's legible, it doesn't have to be fancy, does it?  

Is there a right way to write? 

This last point can even be transferred to typing. Like I said previously, it took years before I learned how to type, and I never learned the "proper" way. In high school, I dropped out of my typing class (long story), and so all of my subsequent learning has happened as a result of practice, practice, and more practice. Miles addresses this issue and what it means for kids today:

"From a very early age they have been on the computer and can navigate very quickly. Now there is the concern that we no longer use the correct fingering, but if the kids are doing really well without the correct fingering, is it important that we hold on to these old traditions? I'm not sure." 

Do you think there's value to typing instruction, or do you think today's youth will learn how to do it without formal education? Also, what are your thoughts concerning the pen vs. the computer debate? Do you think today's electronic notebooks and stylus successfully combine the two?


Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the Smartphones and Tablets blogs.


Interesting article and I agree that writing helps thinking in some way. I spend a fair bit of time sketching ideas for various things. Sometimes its images, sometimes its system designs or working out an algorithm. Brainstorming is probably the best name for the process. Regardless of the topic, I find I can't do the same thing with any kind of computer based tool. The thought process seems to be inextricably linked to the process of writing out or drawing some representation of what I'm thinking. This then leads to more thoughts and ideas. I've tried all sorts of tools with limited success. When I first saw MS OneNote, I thought, great, the perfect tool for brainstorming. But even that seems to be too much of a barrier to allow the free-flow of thoughts and ideas. I'm sure someone will come up with a killer app of this kind eventually, but I don't think it's out there yet. Using a tablet and pen may turn out to be the way to go, but it'll need the software to make it work well. On the topic of writing styles, I agree entirely. The details of the script you use are of little relevance, as long as it's easily legible, grammatical and spelled correctly. Some would say these last two are less important. I disagree; they are usually a fairly accurate indication of the amount of care and attention they are applying to the task. If they can't be bothered to spell correctly and ensure their sentences make sense, they probably aren't going to apply professional standards to the rest of their work. Not a problem with a fishing buddy, but a big problem in a potential consultant or employee. Regards


when it comes to notetaking, I still prefer pen and paper. It seems to me that there is a connection of sorts between my brain and my hand and that pen (beyond the physical one) that enables me to better remember the context of the original lecture, as well as understand my 'shorthand' better. The other thing - as the writer of your article stated - is that it does slow me down considerably. When I want to seriously address an issue that requires careful attention to how I use my words, for example, it helps me no end to use pen and paper first. My two cents... which may or may not be worth two cents in this day and age! :)