Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals

I published this post originally on May 18, 2014. Since then the regular media has run pieces on the disappearance and revival of cursive writing. I am re-printing this post (and adding to it) since new proposals to resuscitate cursive writing have appeared. As reported in the New York Times, 24 states now require different forms of cursive writing with seven that have adopted policies since 2013.

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. There is a transfer-of-learning, what curriculum subjects, then and now, promise will occur.

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 traditional grammar 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. And have to deal with the issue of transfer-of-learning also.

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.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

8 responses to “Cursive Writing and Coding: Conflicts over School Goals

  1. Nice piece. I did not realise the coding craze had a previous incarnation in the 80’s. Today it is all the rage again in NZ primary schools, along with ‘computational thinking,’ which advocates think will transfer to other academic subjects.

  2. Paul Naso

    During my years as a Language Arts Specialist, I listened with fascination to recurring indignation from teachers about handwriting instruction. According to their bluster, a commitment to finely executed cursive writing would build character. Because I wondered if cursive instruction was more deserving of classroom time than writing or reading, I was clearly oblivious to how all of that finger twisting, grip correcting, and “stay-in-the-lines” pressuring would produce precise, detail-observant and upright students. But it occurred to me then that all of the reasoning adults use with each other for teaching cursive, made little sense to most third graders. The magical thinking that envelopes cursive instruction applies to students drawn into Latin or LOGO who then discover that painstaking hours of conjugation and coding did not become transferrable powers. We continue to use this reasoning with student: if you do this, it will make you better at that or prepare you for there. This blog, however, brings to my mind one reason worth putting into this discussion, one that says more about the teacher than the student. I recall Herbert Kohl mentioning in one of his books an occasion when he offered students a reason. If I remember correctly, one of his students asked why he was showing them some intricate detail about English grammar. Kohl’s response: “Because it’s beautiful!” Cursive, Latin, coding and English grammar are beautiful creations; it seems that when they become school subjects, fewer and fewer notice.

  3. kategladstone

    I teach handwriting — and that’s actually one big reyason WHY I’m happy that cursive is finally on the way out.

    Research shows: legible cursive averages no faster than printed handwriting of equal/greater legibility. Highest speed and legibility in handwriting belong to those who join the most easily joined letter-combinations, leaving the rest unjoined, with print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive shapes disagree.

    Simply reading cursive can be taught in 30-60 minutes — even to five- or six-year-olds, once they read print.

    Educated adults quit cursive. In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, a cursive publisher. Only 37% wrote cursive; another 8% printed. Most (55%) wrote with some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive.
     When most handwriting teachers don’t use cursive, why mandate it?

    Cursive’s cheerleaders allege (sometimes in sworn testimony before legislatures) that cursive cures/prevents dyslexia, or makes you pleasant/ graceful/intelligent, or adds brain cells, or teaches etiquette and patriotism, or confers numerous other blessings which are no more prevalent among cursive users than among the rest of us.
    Claiming research support, the rah-rah-for-cursive squad cites research-studies — which invariably prove to have been misquoted/otherwise misrepresented to make them appear to support cursive handwriting. (This has proven to be the case in literally every state legislature where a cursive mandate bill has been introduced. For details and evidence involving one such state, Indiana, see )

    What about signatures? Brace yourselves, cursive crusaders: signatures in cursive have no special legal validity over signatures in any of the other kinds: or signatures that are not handwritten at all. (Don’t take my word for it: ask any attorney!) This fact is known to most of the legislators stampeding for cursive, as most legislators are themselves attorneys who either /a/ make clear, upon discreet inquiry, that they are unwilling or unable to discuss the evident disparity between their public claim that “signatures require cursive” and their professional knowledge that this is not so, or who /b/ simply refuse to respond when asked about this discrepancy.

     Questioned document examiners (experts in the detection of forgery, the identification of documents, etc.) find the least forgeable signatures are the plainest and easiest to identify. Most cursive signatures are loose scrawls: the rest are fairly complicated: making a forger’s life easy.
    All handwriting, not just cursive, is individual: just as all handwriting involves fine motor skills. That’s how schoolteachers immediately identify (from print-writing on unsigned work) which of 25 or 30 first-graders was responsible.
    Mandating cursive to save handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring.

    Kate Gladstone
    DIRECTOR, World Handwriting Contest

  4. carynthienngantran

    I did not learn how to code as a child, but as a college student studying biology and interested in learning what the craze was all about. Spoiler: I switched majors to Computer Science and now have a master’s. My first language was Scratch, a visual programming turtle graphics language, and my second was Scheme, a Lisp-relative of Logo. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to only look at Logo. In my experience, Logo just doesn’t seem appropriate as a language for fostering constructive learning and creativity. The friendliness and cognitive ease of using a visual blocks language takes away the tedious parts of coding (my main complaint about cursive, too), and leaves behind so much room and time for creativity. I credit so much of my desire to create to the learning of Scratch. I left that one class with the drive to hack at digital problems and experiment digitally (run numerical experiments when I didn’t trust my math/probability). It was fun, and it was powerful.

    I don’t know if it’s all about transfer of knowledge anymore, at least with coding. I think learning to code has become an entirely new demand. Being as it that nearly everyone interfaces with some kind of device running some kind of software, knowing how to code is important for having the ability to control and understand your digital life. In my opinion, of course. I would agree though that maybe I wouldn’t say transfer of knowledge happened, the creative energy I discovered in coding, only went as far as making me more creative in the digital domain, and maybe in the mathematics domain. Anyway, thank you for sharing your historical perspective!

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