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.
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.
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.