Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals (Part 1)

Schools as “museums of virtue”* and schools as engines of change have been dominant and conflicting metaphors in the history of school reform. In the mid-19th century, tax-supported public schools pursued Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic–the three Rs. Basic literacy–being able to read the Bible, write one’s name, know elementary ciphering, and absorb family and community values–were the primary reasons for creating public schools. In a predominantly rural society, one-room schools sought to preserve the virtues of Protestantism, instill basic literacy, strengthen patriotism, and social custom through the three Rs.

One hundred and fifty years later, public schools are not only expected to instill the traditional three Rs and socialize children into dominant societal values but also expected to be responsible for the “whole child” and change society for the better. There has been an unrelenting expansion of traditional  three Rs to now include a suite of literacies:  scientific , numeracy, technological, and civic. The notion of schools as “museums of virtue” still exists but now competes with the idea that schools were (and are) engines of political, social, and economic changes that could (and should) transform the nation. That conflict can best be seen in the demise of cursive writing and the recent spread of K-12 students learning to code.

Goodbye Cursive

Recent articles (see here and here) have documented the slow death of a traditional subject in the elementary school curriculum for well over a century. Since the 1970s, teaching penmanship, usually in the second or third grades, declined. With 45 states adopting Common Core Standards in which there is no mention of cursive writing has hammered the last nail into the penmanship tradition. Well, not quite.

Efforts to prevent the extinction of an endangered school subject in North Carolina, Indiana and a few other states have led to legislative mandates that penmanship be taught in elementary school. That delaying action, however, will not alter the eventual disappearance of handwriting from the curriculum.

Arguments for dropping cursive handwriting include irrelevance–block printing is now acceptable in replacing cursive, typing is far more efficient than handwriting, standardized tests do not require handwriting–and its difficulty for many students to learn who will not use it much in the rest of their lives. Finally, teaching handwriting takes up valuable time in the second and third grades that could be better spent on acquiring Common Core content and skills and preparing for high-stakes standardized tests.

Arguments for keeping handwriting, while clearly in the minority, stress tradition and heritage for students writing by hand–reading key documents in the history of the nation, notes students themselves take, and an older generation’s continued use of cursive writing.  Moreover, cursive handwriting helps students develop reading, communication , and hand-eye coordination, experts say.

Even with a few states mandating the teaching of handwriting in school, mournful taps will eventually be blown for penmanship skills. Like the teaching of traditiona lgrammar and diagramming sentences or having students take wood and metal shop courses in junior high school some teaching practices and course-taking have disappeared from the crowded classroom and curriculum as times change. Modern substitutes for these extinct subjects and skills, however, eagerly step into the empty slots.

Enter Coding

Even before the current craze for teaching young children how to write code for computer software (see here, here, and here), the appearance of desktop computers in the early 1980s led quickly to teaching students how to use the keyboard and even write code (remember Basic?).

Keyboarding, like typing, was simple to learn. Computer scientists at that time, however, thought that teaching young children how to write code–I am still referring to the 1980s– would unleash children’s creativity and expression while teaching them to think sequentially and critically.  Using constructivist ways of teaching, children would be able to transfer knowledge and skills from learning to program to  other subjects in the curriculum. This innovation would transform traditional teaching and learning. Beliefs in transfer-of-learning through teaching coding and transformation of the traditional school led to the introduction of Logo in U.S. and British public schools.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. The MIT team sought to teach young children how to face and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling. As one former Logo teacher recalled:

[Logo] was a departure in terms of the pedagogical style… we have a term that is now fairly widely used in this country, “constructivism”. Logo was exactly that, the notion of people constructing
knowledge based on their experience of the world and playing with what they already know and working with other people, and the notion that the teacher should be a helper rather than a dictator
or instructor in the old-fashioned sense..

Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools here and abroad.

Yet within a decade, the glamor of young children commanding turtles to move across screens evaporated. Although Logo continues to exist, few schools now use the programming language or sustain the culture of learning that Logo promised.

The underlying assumption driving Logo was that students learning skills of programming and being creative would transfer when those students would tackle other cognitive skills and knowledge across the school curriculum. This is a variation, as one reviewer of Seymour Papert’s books put it, of Logo as Latin.

Briefly, those who staunchly argue for the cognitive benefits of learning Latin (e.g., increases English vocabulary, sharpens thinking, and increases SAT scores) assume that studying the language will transfer to English grammar, literature, public speaking, and produce collateral benefits. The research literature on these supposed benefits stretches back to the early 1920s and has disappointed champions of the language time and again (see Timothy Koschmann, Logo as Latin)

Failure of transfer-of-learning and school after school changing Logo to meets its institutional imperatives led to the demise of Logo in public schools.

I believe that those current advocates for teaching children to code have ignored this history, the power of schools as institutions to adopt and transform innovations and, most important, the limits of transfer-of-learning.


*”Museums of virtue” come from Willard Waller’s essay on “The School and the Community” in William Goode, et. al., Willard Waller on the Family, Education, and War (University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 257. David Tyack introduced me to the writings of Willard Waller and referred to schools as museums of virtue in many essays and books.












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24 responses to “Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals (Part 1)

  1. Very interesting entry, much food for thought. The comparison of computer code to a language (Logo as Latin) is catchy but also seems extremely reductive.

    But have the effects of Latin been studied thoroughly? The higher SAT scores is evidence or suggestion of transfer and the studies cited in the Papert review do not seem definitive. It mentions three studies. Thorndike 1924 studied the effect of the study of one subject for one year (can this be definitive?). Detterman 1993 has very, very little to say about Latin (the citation in the review leads one to believe the article focused on Latin). Lave 1988, a book focused mathematics, also has very little to say about Latin (pages 24 & 34, the latter another reference to Thorndike’s studies through a secondary source).

    80 years later perhaps the Thorndike studies could be conducted better?

    Today Latin itself can be taught in different ways (look at the variety of approaches in textbooks from the Cambridge series to Lingua Latina per se illustrata by Ørberg) for different lengths of time. Which approach, which length of time has been studied?

    Perhaps the verdict is still out?

    Thanks for the entry. It gives me more to think about.
    Erick Wilberding

  2. kab13

    Reblogged this on Sugar Labs @ NDSU and commented:
    For the transferability of coding to really work, learners can’t just be using computational thinking in other contexts, they also need to be coding in contexts other than the programming class. That’s why we have been arguing for a “smarter computing culture” in which opportunities to program are broadly available.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment, Kevin. So do you mean coding across the curriculum?

      • kab13

        That would be one way to put it. That was the general education vision of some computer scientists before CS became highly professionalized. Many of my students (English majors) would benefit significantly from computational thinking and some coding knowledge, and it is hard to imagine what major wouldn’t have some disciplinary / professional application of computational thinking and coding.

      • larrycuban

        Kevin, you say that teaching coding to young children and youth in K-12 schools would be beneficial to them later on during college and afterwards. Question I have is whether learning coding in K-12 does indeed teach computational thinking and that thinking transfer to other domains of knowledge and experience.

  3. kategladstone

    Handwriting matters — but does cursive matter? The research is surprising. For instance, it has been documented that legible cursive writing averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal or greater legibility. (Sources for all research are listed below.)

    Further research demonstrates that the fastest, clearest handwriters are neither the print-writers nor the cursive writers. The highest speed and highest legibility in handwriting are attained by those who join only some letters, not all of them – making only the simplest of joins, omitting the rest, and using print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    Reading cursive matters, but even children can be taught to read writing that they are not taught to produce. Reading cursive can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read ordinary print. (In fact, now there’s even an iPad app to teach how: named “Read Cursive,” of course — .) So why not simply teach children to read cursive — along with teaching other vital skills, including some handwriting style that’s actually typical of effective handwriters?

    Educated adults increasingly quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks. Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed. The majority — 55 percent — wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. When even most handwriting teachers do not themselves use cursive, why mandate it?

    Cursive’s cheerleaders sometimes allege that cursive makes you smarter, makes you stunningly graceful, adds brain cells, instills proper etiquette and patriotism, or confers other blessings no more prevalent among cursive users than elsewhere. Some claim research support, citing studies that consistently prove to have been misquoted or otherwise misrepresented by the claimant.

    So far, whenever a devotee of cursive claims the support of research, one or more of the following things has become evident when others examine the claimed support:

    /1/ either the claim provides no traceable source,


    /2/ if a source is cited, it is misquoted or is incorrectly described (e.g., an Indiana University research study comparing print-writing with keyboarding is perennially misrepresented by cursive’s defenders as a study “comparing print-writing with cursive”),


    /3/ the claimant _correctly_ quotes/cites a source which itself indulges in either /1/ or /2/.

    What about signatures? In state and federal law, cursive signatures have no special legal validity over any other kind. (Hard to believe? Ask any attorney!)
    Questioned document examiners (these are specialists in the identification of signatures, the verification of documents, etc.) inform me that the least forgeable signatures are the plainest. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest, if they follow the rules of cursive at all, are fairly complicated: these make a forger’s life easy.
    All writing, not just cursive, is individual — just as all writing involves fine motor skills. That is why, a few months into the school year, any first-grade teacher can immediately identify (from the print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 students produced it.

    Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.


    Handwriting research on speed and legibility:

    /1/ Arthur Dale Jackson. “A Comparison of Speed and Legibility of Manuscript and Cursive Handwriting of Intermediate Grade Pupils.”
    Ed. D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970: on-line at

    /2/ Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, and Naomi Weintraub. “The Relation between Handwriting Style and Speed and Legibility.” JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 91, No. 5 (May – June, 1998), pp. 290-296: on-line at

    /3 Steve Graham, Virginia Berninger, Naomi Weintraub, and William Schafer. “Development of Handwriting Speed and Legibility in Grades 1-9.”
    JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH, Vol. 92, No. 1 (September – October, 1998), pp. 42-52: on-line at

    Zaner-Bloser handwriting survey: Results on-line at

    Background on our handwriting, past and present:
    3 videos, by a colleague, show why cursive is NOT a sacrament:



    (shows how to develop fine motor skills WITHOUT cursive) —

    Yours for better letters,

    Kate Gladstone
    Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works •

    • larrycuban

      WOW,Kate! What a crisp (and withering) reply to advocates of retaining cursive writing in the elementary school curriculum. Thanks for taking the time and providing the sources.

      • kategladstone

        Thanks to you, Larry, for caring what’s correct. Various advocates of cursive handwriting — including too many of the legislators who introduce or consider bills to mandate cursive — tell me that they do not care whether or not the research supports their misquotations thereof, because they have such good feelings about cursive that they believe any statement they make in defense of cursive to be intrinsically valid. I wish I understood how they reach that conclusion.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for follow-up comment, Kate. My hunch is that you do know why legislators defend cursive with feelings rather than facts.

      • kategladstone

        The part that I don’t understand is this: when they know they’re short on facts, why would they suppose that their feelings would do just as well? It gets especially strange when — as often — their claims about “what research supports in cursive” include claims that cursive is necessary for thinking logically and accurately.
        What is worse: in about half the states where feelings about cursive have been purveyed in the legislators as “facts” (by citing research which has been quietly changed to suit the claims made), the bills to mandate cursive are voted into law despite published evidence that the underpinnings of the bills have been falsified during the legislative testimony and/or media campaigns made to support the bill.

        For example, below are published exposés of the undue commercial influences and outright misrepresentations involved in North Carolina’s recent (2013) passage of the same bill now being considered in South Carolina. The bill currently before the SC legislature is nearly word-for-word identical to the NC bill, which passed with a large majority although factually erroneous “support” had already been publicly revealed to be based on untruthful information supplied — to the NC legislator introducing the bill — by a cursive textbook company’s sales representative whose territory is North and South Carolina —

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for sending more examples of legislators passing laws that are more symbolic than evidence-based. Goes on all the time. Cursive fits the bill for them.

      • kategladstone

        What gets interesting is when the symbolic value is paraded in the absence of whatevepr it purports to symbolize. E.g., the many cursive-ites who claim that they want cursive required in school “because it is an art” oppose school requirements for _actual_ art programs. The many cursive-ites whose “research” claims include assertions that cursive instills standard Englishgrammar, spelling, and punctuation, and who further assert that cursive conferred these advantages on them, write those claims — almost uniformly — in significantly non-standard English.

      • larrycuban

        Thank for the comment, Kate.

  4. Pingback: Goodbye Cursive~Hello Coding: Conflicts over Sc...

  5. K Quinn

    As an elementary student in the mid-80’s, I was one of those who learned Basic. That was back when computers were going to revolutionize education, and all kids were supposed to learn to code and we were going to dump cursive (sound familiar?) because we’d only be keyboarding. So I learned to code. I have yet to see that transfer to anything else other than some of the programming logic I use when I have to program various aspects of assistive tech software – assigning actions to buttons and folders, etc. Yet here we are again, and some of the teachers in my district wonder how I, as a district tech specialist, can be so unenthusiastic about coding at the elementary level and why I steer them towards multimedia projects or other, more technology-integrated projects.
    In the meantime, I am stuck with
    10 Print “XXX XXX XXX”
    20 Goto 10
    30 Run
    forever embedded in my brain.

    • larrycuban

      I wondered whether I would ever hear from someone who had learned BASIC, and here you are. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on your experience.

  6. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    There is also a #mustread second part, check here!

  7. Pingback: Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over Scho...

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