We should be flying our cars by now, not driving. There should be robots in every home and widespread interstellar tourism.
The future is always uncertain – wrong assumptions remind us this all the time. Often, it turns out science fiction overestimates the extent and nature of change in our world.
Related to this from an educational standpoint, the digital natives, those raised only in the internet-enabled world, have long been credited with taking to tech like fish to water.
As educators, we know schools are now filled with these cohorts, hyperconnected hordes armed with their inherent and intimidating technical skills, grafted into their souls like DNA.
They have the ability to multitask – manipulating chunks of information from many sources, writing code and solving problems like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
A related implication is that those of us born before the rise of the Internet are critically disadvantaged, permanently playing catch up with these modern technical wunderkinds.
Alas, research is beginning to confirm what many in the field know already – these digital natives and their capacity when working with technology is overstated.
In fact, some researchers are beginning to explore ways of addressing the fact that although they are more comfortable with consuming and manipulating technology, a huge majority lack the ability to apply critical thinking and rigour to the information they are presented with.
The consequences of this are worrying to say the least.
Which relates to the cud I’ve been chewing lately, specifically related to the skill of writing and the mode used to do so.
There are people out there, teachers, parents and students included, who believe handwriting is a skill that will dwindle and decline in the digital age. In future, they say, it will be as quaint an activity as finger knitting or flint knapping.
They say handwriting is an old technology, destined for replacement by video and voice recordings, or the typed word.
These are the same people who own shoes with laces and drive cars with wheels.
The truth is, the reason we still have these things in our lives is that sometimes, the tools for certain tasks are so completely fit for purpose there is no need, or way, to improve it.
As with shoelaces and wheels, writing by hand is one of these useful skills that will endure.
Indeed, it is a skill that complements the use of technology in such a way that we must fight hard to ensure it is not diminished in importance for a good education.
The ‘Middle Path’ I propose is to explicitly provide opportunities for students to build capacity in written communication when operating in both digital and analogue spaces.
This is not a matter of learner preference, but flexibility.
There are a number of benefits of handwriting. It is portable and low tech. You can do it with minimal equipment and power – a finger on a frosty window, a biro on the back of a hand.
Writing by hand can be slow and fast, like thinking. It is a physical act that encourages flow and deep work – all without the necessary distraction of the bings and dings of alerts or the lure of the lit screen to disrupt thinking.
Handwriting can be a personal code or a way of teasing out deep ideas in scribbles and doodles that might make sense only to the brain working to unravel itself.
Handwriting is a wonderful tool for learning and thinking, very good at the job it does. Hence, it has endured.
On the other hand, digital writing – typing specifically, has obvious advantages.
There is the relative uniformity of layout and medium. Writing can be easily drafted, edited and published within the same device. It can be easily shared and fosters collaboration, connecting people in way that hard copy paper simply cannot.
It is easily stored and retrieved without the need for vast spaces to store notebooks and folders in hard copy.
Yet the ties to our devices and impact of screen time is an emerging issue, particularly with developing minds. We are in the midst of a hugely steep learning curve in relation to the impact on the cognitive development of children, particularly adolescents, of more screen time than any generation that has ever lived.
It is not surprising that the early signs in this domain aren’t good. The impact of technology on sleep, physical activity, motor skill development and social interaction appears profound, even in the sketchy evidence from the frontlines of schools.
It is hard to categorically link the rise in student anxiety and poor mental health in schools, other than to say there is a correlation.
Since we cannot destroy the machines or unring these bells, nor should we seek to, we must insist that students develop the ability to travel the middle path by making it an explicit focus in schools.
High performing learners are able to operate in a range of modes and arenas. They can transfer their thinking and approach and tailor it to any situation.
Therefore, sending the message that it is okay to opt out of handwriting because we will type everything in the future is severely flawed at best, unethical at worst. This is potentially more destructive than the lazy belief that the only reason students need to write by hand is because of high stakes testing and exams.
The opposite message, that we should destroy the machines before technology destroys a generation of young minds, is also a fallacy. The only way it will happen is if someone invents a time machine.
The middle path between analogue and digital is a worthy goal. Time to open up the discussion.