Thursday, December 3, 2020
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Why pen and paper shouldn’t be written off

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TRADITIONAL handwriting is dead! It is so last century; so last two or three millennia in fact. Harold Wilson’s vision of a ‘new Britain’, forged in the ‘white heat’ of a ‘scientific revolution’, is back with a vengeance in the world of education and parenting.

The government has decided that the skill of handwriting is past its sell-by date. Ministers are advising parents to stop wasting time in supporting their children with traditional handwriting skills. They are, instead, urging parents to promote digital exercise books.

In the cause of progress, ‘ye olde pencil and paper’ are to be, at best, sidelined and, at worst, consigned to the dustbin. The Department for Education has, in preference, decided to promote six approved smart phone/tablet apps via its Hungry Little Minds website.

The ostensible purpose – bolstering ‘early literacy, language and communication’ – is laudable enough. Since the government’s own survey indicates that three-quarters of children aged five and under are using smartphone or tablet apps, why not harness the addiction to boost learning? This aspiration is rather like that expressed by Boromir in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He sought possession of the ring to use its powers for the common good.

Digital technology, unlike Tolkien’s fictional ring of power, has brought enormous benefits to the world. The digital dark side, though, should not be underestimated. Smartphones and tablets are cocaine for young minds. They are hugely addictive and, as leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield has pointed out, this addiction is changing the physiology of the brain, especially young brains. Our government should fear for some of the possible long-term consequences of what Greenfield describes as ‘mind change’ rather than feeding the addiction through promoting well-intentioned learning apps.

One of these apps, ‘Kaligo’, for three- to five-year-olds, is illustrative. The DfE describes it as ‘the first digital handwriting exercise book using a stylus and tablet, built using AI and co-created with teachers, occupational therapists and neuroscientists’.

Writing on a digital screen, sadly, is a long way from the traditional use of a stylus; more ancient Sumer, perhaps, than Ancient Rome. What is certain, is that children who are drawn in to over-dependence on digital technology are young people who are being de-skilled. The fine motor skills built up by handwriting are already withering as word processing takes over.

This is sure to have undesirable consequences. Who, for example, wishes to be operated on by a surgeon who is over-reliant on technology and who lacks the dexterity of touch nurtured by handwriting? When the airport information screens break down – not so rare – who will be writing on the whiteboards? How will notes be written when a printer malfunctions?

To some extent the DfE is simply boarding a new educational bandwagon. Children need to be ‘prepared for the future, not for the past’, according to Kathy Crewe-Read, headmistress of the £14,000-a-year Wolverhampton Grammar School. She told the Telegraph: ‘We are trying to prepare our students for a distant future where, ultimately, writing and reading might be a thing of the past.’

We confine, at our peril, the spectrum of human skills and learning. Charles Darwin had a thing or two to say about reliance on single resources. This takes the form, currently, of our growing addiction to digital technology. Handwriting is one of a number of skills that are dying out. Extinction Rebellion – your time has come!

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Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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