Category Archives: Food For Thought

Food For Thought

Is Research on Cursive and the Brain Enough?

Ok. There are clearly better ways to spend a Sunday morning…

But I came across this article about what research says learning cursive does to your brain.

As I am sure is happening in many districts, some parents, community members, and School Committee members have raised the issue of how much emphasis they believe we should be placing on handwriting, especially cursive.

Others will undoubtedly find this article, and it will certainly become part of our handwriting/cursive conversation.

I'm especially concerned because our handwriting conversations seem to have an undercurrent of, at best, iPads interfere with the teaching of handwriting, and, at worst, we shouldn't have primary grades iPads because they interfere with the teaching of handwriting, conclusions that I'm not sure are valid, even if iPads may draw attention to a larger issue.

The article points to improved “efficiency thinking” and “fine motor control” when teaching cursive, over print or keyboarding. The article does not make the argument that “therefore cursive should continue to be emphasized in school,” but this article is likely to be used to make that argument.

I want to be clear. I am not concerned about this article or the research-based conclusions it shares. I am concerned about the inappropriate ways others might try to use this article to further arguments/conclusions that cannot actually be drawn from this article (in fairness, I think it would happen from a place of naïveté, not duplicitiy).

So, although the research in this article seems valid and reliable and the conclusions it shares seem appropriate, I believe using the results from this article to further an argument that we should continue teaching cursive is invalid. There are significant issues with using the article in this way.

Fallacy 1: The Rubiks Cube Curriculum
The biggest issue is that the demonstrated benefits have nothing to do with the purpose of cursive or handwriting. There is nothing here about improving the quality or efficiency of (written) communication, just of certain kinds of thinking.

That is akin to suggesting we teach chess because it improves logical thinking. Even the argument that we should teach geometric proofs to build logical thinking has lost traction in favor of teaching logical thinking in authentic, not contrived (even if traditional and conventional) contexts. At other times, I have referred to this as the “Rubiks Cube Curriculum” – placing curricular focus and value on something of little practical value in order to garner some theoretical gain in some abstract cognitive ability, even though early psychological research shows there is little to no transfer of those abilities to real world application when taught that way (out of context).

The very next question that should arise from this research is, “Are there other, more authentic ways to efficiently develop efficiency thinking or fine motor control in students?” The question after that should be, “Is there a significant difference, in any practical way, not just statistically, in these two 'benefit areas' using cursive over print or keyboarding?”

Only if the answer is “no” to the first and “yes” to the second should we start having the conversation about if cursive should be the vehicle we use to develop those skills. The article does not raise these questions (And frankly, it may not be their responsibility to do so. But it is of anyone trying to use the article to say anything beyond what the article actually says.).

Fallacy 2: The Importance of Teaching Both Cursive and Print
The next problem with how some might try to leverage this article is to point to the “importance of teaching both print and cursive over keyboarding” (or even arguing we need to teach all three). Why not choose only one form of handwriting, print or cursive? It is true that schools traditionally teach print in the primary grades and then introduce cursive a couple years later. But other schools teach only cursive, starting in the primary grades. No research findings on this issue are presented in the article (again, recognizing that it is likely legitimately beyond the scope of this article).

Fallacy 3: The False Dichotomy
The third issue is that a misinterpretation of the conclusions in the article could be used to set up a false “dichotomy” (trichotomy?). The potential argument leveraging these results to say “cursive over keyboarding” (or even cursive over handwriting) assumes that we are only going to pick one. In truth, people in our society need to develop a practical level of proficiency in written communication, both “electronic” and “manual.” There is no research here about “blended” environments, learning both keyboarding and handwriting…

Fallacy 4: Handwriting Passes the Straight-Face Test on Return On Investment
The fourth issue is the assumption that schools have an infinite amount of instructional time and can teach everything anyone in the community (parents, businesses, community groups, seniors, other community members) believe students ought to learn (or even just believe “it would be good for them to know”)…

In truth, state curricular mandates have never been larger or more demanding (and cursive is not even part of the Common Core Curriculum for Language Arts!).

Schools have to examine every potential topic someone thinks we should teach from the perspective of return on investment, bang for the buck. So, requests for teaching content need to be weighed against how much time they take to teach well, and the practical value of developing such knowledge or skills in students, COMPARED TO ALL OTHER REQUESTS/DEMANDS. We have to be selective and deliberate in choosing where we put our energies. It is our responsibilty to be choosy and discriminating in what we choose to teach. (I feel the same way when businesses seem to be asking to shift their responsibility for job training onto public schools…)

I'm not even sure that advocates for an emphasis on teaching handwriting have looked at how much of modern written communication is hand written vs electronic. Clearly, the proportion of hand written to electronic written communication has shifted enormously, even since most of the parents of our current students were themselves students…

The real question should be, “How good do people today need to be at handwriting in order to do the amount of handwritten written communication needed today (and therefore, how much time and emphasis should schools put on it – what's 'good enough')?” The arguments about how nice it is to receive a handwritten (cursive) letter just have no real bearing when return-on-investment is considered (unless, perhaps, if we are discussing moving cursive to the Fine Arts curriculum).

I'm not sure that handwriting passes the straight face test on return on investment. Regardless, this article presents no such analysis (not the authors' job, but certainly the responsibility of anyone using the article to argue for the teaching of cursive).

Final Thoughts

And I won't get into questions around what are the best (not simply traditional) methods, approaches, and strategies for young people to develop proficiency in handwritten or electronic writing.

And I won't get into questions about why we are spending so much time debating the mechanical “drawing” of letters and words, rather than debating how to help young people use those words to express, inform, create, and persuade.

So, this article presents some interesting (research based) conclusions about the teaching of handwriting and cursive. But it is important to remember (and I'm sure the authors would echo this thought) that the only conclusions that can be drawn from this article are the specific conclusions this article shares.

In response to folks who share this article as evidence we should continue (or return to) our emphasis on teaching cursive, our questions should include the following:

  • If we believe schools are responsible for teaching efficiency thinking, what are the best evidence-based ways to do so?
  • What are the best evidence-based ways to develop fine motor control?
  • What is the research on the impact of learning handwriting on the development of effective communication skills?
  • What form of handwriting should we teach? What are the criteria for deciding?
  • To what level of proficiency should we develop handwriting? What's good enough?


A Child Struggles in School: Where Does the Problem Lie?

In a conversation recently with a caring, conscientious teacher, she commented that she had success working with struggling learners and helping to make them feel smart.

But when they got to the next grade and perhaps had a teacher that wasn't as effective at reaching those children, or perhaps thought there was a pace for learning and students should stick to it, or perhaps simply saw the onus for learning as being on the student, the students really struggled again.

She worried that perhaps she had led those students to have an unrealistic view of themselves by not being more up front with them about being struggling learners. She wondered, despite her success helping those students to learn, to feel successful, and to feel smart, if she shouldn't be more direct with them about being struggling learners, to prepare them for possible pain and disappointment later.

And I caught myself wondering, is the problem that each child isn't where the school is in the curriculum?

Or is the problem that the school isn't where the child is in the curriculum?


We Must Invest in Our Early Learners

Throughout my career as an educator, most of the initiatives, opportunities, and concerns about public education seem to have focused on the upper grades, on high school.

And yet, if we want the biggest bang for our buck, the largest return on investment, it is the opposite end of the spectrum we should be focusing on. We need to be putting our education dollars behind pre-school and early childhood education.

And business owners know its true! Watch this video from the Maine Early Learning Investment Group (MELIG):

Three of the MELIG's key members are retired high ranking military officers: retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Earl Adams, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Ralph Leonard, and retired Army Brig. Gen. Robert Carmichael.

MELIG also commissioned UMaine Economics Professor Philip Trostel’s Independent Cost-Benefit Analysis of Early Childhood Investments in Maine. The summary of the independent analysis suggests that costs for early childhood education programs would be recovered by the time a student was 14, and over the life of the child and into adulthood would continue to offer a 7.5% return on investment.


Valentines Day: Showing Love and Care of Others via Technology

The bad things kids (and adults, too) do with technology seem to get a ton of press. Kids “hacking” their school devices, playing games instead of doing learning activities, going to inappropriate sites, intentionally damaging equipment…

Platform for Good blog

So it was quite refreshing to find a post called “14 Ways People Showed Love Online This Year” (but, then again, what would you expect from a blog called A Platform For Good?!).

Besides, it's Valentines Day, and it's nice to remember that love isn't reserved for our partners and our families, but is also represented by how we show care for others.

So take a few minutes to explore this article.

And maybe think about:

  • How might we shift focus in the public from kids being bad (especially with technology), to how they can also be very, very good?
  • How do these examples give us ideas for our own classrooms?
  • How can we engage students in academic content, while they get to contribute to something they find to be of social significance?
  • How else might we leverage technology to show love and care for others?

Happy Valentines Day!


MLK, Poverty, Schools, and the War Against the Poor

Today is Martin Luther King Day.

As much as we remember Dr. King’s civil rights efforts for African Americans, he was above all else a civil rights activist. A civil rights activist for all. In fact, he was in Memphis at the end, working to improve wages for garbage workers. All garbage workers, not just African American garbage workers. If there was a category of people he worked the hardest for, that category wasn’t a race. It was poverty.

And 5 decades later, the civil rights movement has widened its efforts, most recently working to insure that gay and lesbian people are treated simply as people, with all the rights of people.

But I worry we have forgotten about poverty. Or worse, that we have substituted “the war against the poor” for “the war against poverty.”

We have made poverty a scapegoat. By blaming people of poverty for their own lack of resources, we are seeing a trend toward cutting social services and programs, all while increasing support to government contractors, corporate bailouts, and tax breaks for the rich. In a country many claim to be Christian, I can think of few things less Christian.

Even if the motivation is not greed, but rather simply recognizing that programs for the poor are expensive, I would reply with a corollary to one of my favorite expressions about education, “If you think programs for the economically disadvantaged are expensive, you should try not having them!” What is the impact on society, on the economy, and on employers of not having supports in place?

Did I hear you suggest that the poor need to take responsibility for themselves and for providing for their families (as some of Nicholas Kristof’s readers do in his editorial, “Where is the Love?“)? One of my favorite Dr. King quotes is “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Dr. King Bootstrap quote

Perhaps nowhere is the war against the poor stronger that in public education. (Or maybe I just notice it more because schools are where I try to do my social justice work.)

We have known – at least since I was in my teacher preparation program in college (and my slate tablet tells me that was a VERY long time ago) – that the strongest correlate to standardized test scores was the socioeconomic status (SES) of the students. Almost no factor came close to SES. Not the curriculum. Not the educational program. Not the qualifications of the teachers. Not time on task. Not attendance rates. Not high expectations. Certainly not the level of threats of punishments and consequences for schools and teachers not raising their test scores. Just SES. Just poverty.

And yet, politicians are cutting funding to education programs that make a difference.

They are cutting early childhood funding to things like Pre-K, and Head Start, despite the evidence that each $1 spent on early childhood education returns $16 later.

They are creating school report card systems designed to “prove” our schools are failing. (Sorry, when you set the report card system up not with criteria for passing or failing, but rather to insure x% are “A” schools and y% are “F” schools – regardless of performance! – then run around proclaiming schools are failing and the school report cards prove it, you have constructed a lie to propagate a lie.) Surprise, surprise! Researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that Maine schools with higher poverty levels have lower student performance, that although poverty doesn’t explain everything, it was the single best predictor of student performance, and that SES was the strongest correlate to school report card grade.

And politicians are using the cry of school failure to shift public dollars to private schools and corporate run “public” charter schools. And where “school choice” makes good rhetoric, it ignores the fact that the poor don’t have the mobility and transportation resources to take advantage of school choice.

And politicians have set up school improvement grants so that a major evaluative component of your proposal is actually showing that your test scores are already on target (I thought the schools with struggling test scores needed the support to improve…?). And if test scores are strongly correlated to poverty, how do schools with the largest populations of low SES students ever get those supports? I guess politicians are only interested in supporting the race for those who are already at the top.

And yet, more than a 150 years ago, this country made a compact with its citizens to educate all the children of all the people.

So if we really want to address achievement and test scores (I mean, if we are serious about doing that and aren’t simply using it as an excuse to shift public dollars to private entities), or even if we simply want our schools to prepare all students to become contributing citizens, then we have to forget about the war on the poor and return to the war on poverty.

Thanks Dr. King. Thinking of you this morning.

We Need Keyboards With Our iPads. Not!

This past summer, Maine's schools got the choice for the first time to purchase tablets as part of the statewide 1to1 learning with “laptop” initiative (MLTI). It has spotlighted an interesting demand related to tablets: we need to get keyboards so students can use the tablets.

I kind of understand why people might think this. The virtual keyboard on the iPad does take a little getting used to, especially if you're a pretty good typer on a regular, physical keyboard. Also, adults and students hear other adults say, “we need keyboards for our tablets.” And the idea is reinforced by the TV ads for some tablets that state theirs come with a keyboard “so you can do real work.” Locally, we even have an owner of a call center claiming (while pounding his fist on the table…) he won't hire any of our graduates because they won't be able to type on a physical keyboard.

My own experience with a full sized iPad is that it took me a couple weeks to get used to the virtual keyboard, but now I type on it as fast or faster than I do on a physical keyboard. And I have heard similar stories of parents or community leaders in other districts demanding keyboards because of the hard time they personally are having typing on the onscreen keyboard, but a couple weeks later saying “never mind” when they have developed familiarity with it.

Admittedly, if I'm doing any quantity of writing on my iPad mini, such as writing this post, I do use a bluetooth keyboard. My hands are just too big to do anything more than a modified hunt and peck on the smaller keyboard. But the core of this debate is not about the size the keyboards on the (smaller) screens, but rather about onscreen vs physical keyboards.

I do believe that some folks really do need a different keyboard or sometimes need a physical keyboard. MLTI provided keyboards in something like a 1-to-10 or 1-to-7 ratio to the number of student iPads. We have put those in a keyboard lending program in our school libraries (students can check them out as needed), and a few students with a specific need have one permanently assigned to them. We even have students and families who have bought their own keyboards or keyboard cases (but that was a personal choice rather than a universal demand).

But the real issue that keeps coming up is the question, does everyone (or even just most students) need a keyboard? Districts in Maine that have experience with 1to1 iPad initiatives had interesting things to say when the question of keyboards was posed on the state technology email list.

The Cape Elizabeth tech director reported:

In our high school, we bought around 40-50 iPad keyboards for use in English and Social Studies, and also in our Library. This was in response to concerns from teachers, rather than from students, and although they did get used, they got used primarily because the teachers wanted them to be used rather than students needing to use them. They certainly got used less and less as the year went on and even teachers who borrowed them stopped using them as they ended up finding the onscreen keyboard just more practical.

The high school in RSU 57 has had a 1to1 iPad initiative in place for about 2 years. Their tech person talked about the keyboard cases they had provided students:

This was based on concerns from the administration and staff that student's would need a keyboard especially for typing long papers. Two years later and (my opinion) most students do not use the physical keyboards. Last year's class used it less than the previous class. What I am seeing is that the more the iPad and its virtual keyboard become mainstream the more the students are used to virtual typing before they are ever issued an iPad. Had we stayed with our original plan, I was not going to purchase keyboards this year.

In South Portland, the high school has had a 1to1 initiative for about 3 years, involving about 400 iPads. They have had “almost zero 'real' keyboard use/demand for the few we had purchased to allay concerns.”

Similarly, folks from Falmouth shared:

We bought 50 keyboards for our Elementary School iPads when we started the program 2 years ago. The thought was that 5th graders were going to need them to be able to type papers. 48 of the keyboards are still sitting in a closet unopened because they just have not been needed. The other two I have loaned out to staff but they always bring them back because they don't use them.

Foxcroft Academy has had one of the first high school 1to1 iPad initatiives in Maine. Their Assistant Head of School for Academics pointed out:

We're beginning year 3 of our 1:1 iPad program for all of our grade 9-12 students. We bought a few keyboards in year 1…They've received almost no use. There are plenty of barriers to student writing, but I can assure you that the virtual keyboard is not a substantive one. And, with built-in speech-to-text on these fancy new MLTI iPads, the virtual keyboard is even less a barrier. In short – buy a few (no more than a handful) if you must, to show that you're listening, but know that they are very likely to gather dust.

The Tech Integrator from Bar Harbor responded this way:

We plan to disallow external keyboards for iPads in school, unless the school determines that a student needs one. The thinking is that students will learn the iPad quickly enough, and that we don't want to set up for “have's and have-nots,”…. also the experience of our teachers using iPads, is that even an adult can learn to process text on an iPad.

That educator went on to say that when parents inquire, they have been referencing the articles here and here.

The issue is primarily an adult issue. Surprisingly, much of the demand for keyboards came before any of the schools even had their iPads! As one educator stated in the online discussion:

Some can't understand how you can interact in an educational setting with a device that does not have a keyboard with keys on it. An English teacher here, who was using Edmodo, had a student submit a lengthy paper the student had “thumb typed” on their iPhone!! Don't worry, the kids are all ready there or they will adapt very quickly. We just need to get out of the way.

I am empathetic to folks having fears and concerns about “new” technology they have only a cursory understanding of. This keyboard issue is a common perception about iPads.

But being a common perception does not mean that we have to respond to it, especially if we have adequate reason to believe it is a MISperception. (Nor do we have to respond to a concern just because it is stated repeatedly, or loudly, or with confidence, or by condemning those who disagree, etc.)

It is on us to make the argument (politely and diplomatically) about what works (not what is perceived or guessed or intuited or philosophized…) and provide the evidence that it works (such as through the stories that have been shared here).


“How Is Technology Changing Schools?” is The Wrong Question

I keep hearing people ask the question “How is technology changing schools?”

But I think that's the wrong question.

I think the right question is “How is technology changing learning?”

I see technology (outside of school) playing a critical and ubiquitous role in how students learn what they want to know. (And, for that matter, how adults and organizations learn and grow.)

Maybe the real question is “Will schools respond to those changes?”

(And I worry the subtext will become, “or if we don't, will we (schools) become less and less relevant to students?”)

How will we respond?