Fast thumbs, Calligraphy courses, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam discuss the history and relevance of cursive writing. Can kids understand the older generation’s writing? Should we teach touch typing on phones and iPads? Plus, Adam wishes how back in the day, keyboard touch-typing should’ve been taught to everyone.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast.
Welcome to the School of School podcast.
Welcome back to another episode of the School of School podcast. Lucky me, I'm joined by Adam and Andy. Hello both.
Hi, Robin. How are you?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately because it's come up a couple of times with my kids where they get sent a birthday card, let's say, or a graduation card from their grandparents. The grandparents have written this lovely long message inside, very personalised, very heartfelt. And my kids are reading out what they've written and they can only get partway through before they find, "I don't know what that says. Can you read that?" They hand it to me and a good chance that I end up reading the entire message.
Now my kids can read, just so you know. They're way past the stage of being able to read. But cursive. It's in cursive, and it's not that the writing isn't clear, at least to me. The writing is very clear, but they really struggle reading a large amount of cursive. My daughter has pretty decent handwriting. My son does not. So it just gets me thinking about, is cursive a dying art? Then I think compared to, do kids just print nowadays when they're in the classroom? Is everyone on computers typing? What do you think? What's happening to our world, and what do you think would be... Moving forward, are we going to see less and less cursive and printing even? Is it all going to be digital?
Well, while you were talking, Robin, I was just trying to think when do I actually read handwritten things? I mean, other than things that I scribbled down. Not often. Not often at all. So I suppose it's cursive for sure, but just handwriting handwritten things in general, it's just on such a decline. Did they learn cursive, like how to write and read cursive?
Mine did to a point. I don't remember which grade or which year it stopped for them. That is why my daughter can write cursive because she did at a young age practise, they had them practising . And she's 15 now. I would say they didn't go right through. She probably was about eight when they stopped doing cursive. That's my guess. Yeah. And I remember when I first heard, and I think it was in the UK, where they had decided to stop with cursive classes anymore, and at the time I was kind of taken aback. I just thought, "Well, why are they doing that? We still use it and I think it's a good skill to have." Well, I don't know, is it? It's like learning maybe Latin or Greek at one stage. We don't hear many people taking classes in that anymore. So what do you think, Adam? Haven't heard from you.
Yeah, so a couple of things. My grandparents had beautiful writing, and if I could wave a magic wand and I could write like them, I'd do it in a heartbeat because it was beautiful. It was really beautiful. In England, my experience says that you can have handwriting programmes, but they've got to be stuck to to make them work like anything, right? And what tends to happen is if you do, say, handwriting for 20 minutes a day or however long it is? If you're not sticking to it and the results aren't there, you kind of reach a point where you go, are we going to continue to invest 20 minutes, however long it is, getting the books out, all of that sort of thing on this when we could be learning about something else?
And then we just take the view of, is the handwriting legible? Can we read it? Can the children get their ideas across? Are they able to do that? Because there's not a nationwide approach to it... So it always used to break my heart. When we used to get students from France, for example, because I am guessing that the whole of France must have collectively decided that cursive writing was something they were going to do. There was a national programme or something. Because I've never met a French child who doesn't have beautiful writing, and the reason why my heart would break is because I think I'm not sure how long that's going to last. Because you've just come into a UK system that maybe doesn't... Well, some of the-
Value it... doesn't value it. Yeah.
Yeah, but doesn't value it. Exactly. It's kind of like that attitude. If it's legible, then we're kind of good to go. I think that with things like this, if it's not consistent and it's not consistently applied. And of course the teachers, you've got to be part of that as well. Then it becomes a battle that you sort of think, would I be better off teaching a child to learn to read and do maths or do something else?
That's a different skill. Yeah, type, exactly. Anything but. Banging your head against the wall. It's something that you kind of think at some point you're going to make a decision. No one's going to tell you off for your handwriting in uni or secondary school. They're not going to have a handwriting class. If it's legible, we're good to go. So yeah, I don't know. I think you've either got to commit a hundred percent to it or just have an expectation that it's legible. You just know.
I can't see another way around that.
Okay. I have a question for you then. Maybe you have more insight. So if let's say we've cut out all cursive practise and writing, but kids are working in a journal, for example. They're in their math is no problem journal. Are they learning then to print? Is that still something that's happening in school?
Yeah. You sort of go from print to something that's loosely joined up. There's always going to be some transition and some programme there, but of course all children are not going to make the same progress at the same time. Then it's that discussion or decision about how much time do we spend? And also how much stock do you put in it? Because it's pretty demoralising for a child as well. If you've got a child and they can't write very well for whatever reason, that's legible, but they can't write in the same way it looks on the page, how much time do we want to spend? Oh, that's just not quite right. Where actually, you might want to just take stock of what they're writing. What is it they're actually saying?
And if you're having to rewrite the date four times, you might never get to find out what they're writing or saying because... So I think that the school's responsibility is to stick to something and have that very clear so it's not wishy-washy. It's not something that says, "I'm going to penalise you, Robin, because your writing's not up to scratch. I can read it, but it doesn't look like I'd like it to look." And if the next year's teacher goes, "Oh, I'm not bothered by Robin. As long as I can read it and you get your ideas down." And then it flicks over again. That's when I think it becomes unfair.
It makes me wonder if it will evolve to a point where effectively it becomes part of a history archaeology programme or an art programme like calligraphy or whatever.
Where it's an advanced skill that you learn in university as opposed to something that you try to teach really young.
But don't you think it's already there though? I've got this little sort of journal, but my grandfather used to write gardening stuff in it religiously. He was a keen gardener. And I look at that and that just smacks of old age. There's nothing about that that would suggest to me that it's from, I don't know, anyone that writes like that.
So I was going through all these old documents the other day, and I found the deed to the house that I owned, the original deeded to the house that I owned in England, which was written in the 1800s all by hand by a lawyer on this massive sheet of paper. And it's just like, "Wow, look at this." And it's a really kind of cool piece of history, and it corners up all these ideas about like, "Oh my God, what if there's a mistake? What do you do? Do they just rewrite the entire thing? Or what if there's a disagreement?" Because you look at contract negotiations now and you're emailing this Word document back and forth. Everybody's marking it up and then the thing gets rewritten several times.
What was the world like in those days? It seems like things happened a lot slower and maybe more carefully and more thoughtfully than they do now. Now there is a pressure for speed. I look at the rate that my children can type with two thumbs on their mobile phone and it blows my mind. They can type faster on their mobile phones than I can write by hand for sure or type. It's fascinating. Maybe we should be teaching that because that seems to be the primary mode of communication these days is the two thumb typing. Right?
Well, I always thought touch typing would've done me a massive favour, and I think it was optional. And back when I was in school, it was a boy girl thing. Societally, it's-
It's a secretary job, right? It was that kind of mindset.
Yeah, that was the way... Yeah, totally. And that was sort of encouraged by teachers effectively. But that would've been so helpful if everyone have had rather than, I don't know, cursive lessons. I don't know how long they went on for when I went to school, or if they did. I can't remember to be honest. When typing became a thing, computers became a thing, then I think if you had that in school, it'd be really useful. I'm always jealous of people who can touch type.
I was going to say it almost should be mandatory in schools, but at the same time, maybe kids don't need it the way we're thinking of it because they do, as Andy said, their thumbs... Or they figured out a keyboard well enough already because they've had to start at an early age.
For sure. I wish I took typing. I am horrible at typing. I mean, I can kind of do it because I worked as a programmer for a while, so I had to type a lot in those days. But the fundamental question here is for schools is how do you know when to let go of something and teach the new thing? Because especially now where the transitions happen so fast. So we all take for granted typing on a keyboard on a piece of glass with two thumbs now is a normal thing. That's still a really new thing. It wasn't that long ago that that didn't even exist. A keyboard under a sheet of glass. Now it's the norm, right? With iPads and phones and whatever. As a school, how can you keep up? How do you decide, "Okay, we don't need to do the old thing anymore. Now we should do the new thing." How do you know it's not just some transient fad that's going to last three or four years?
It's generational though, isn't it? Because I think that the critique you get as a teacher, if you don't put stock in teaching cursive handwriting, and I'm saying this from experience, is, "Gosh, this is a bit messy, isn't it? Do you guys not do handwriting anymore?" To which I'd answer honestly, "Well, no, not really, because your child's 10, they're going to secondary school in a year, and actually at the moment, they'd probably benefit more from doing this." I'd say it as nicely as possible.
But just to say that comes back to that choice you're talking about, Andy. So I guess every generation might have a different expectation. I still have memories of my grandparents' writing and my parents' writing is not great. So my children, I'd have to decipher it, not because it was beautifully written in cursive. Just because it was like sort of, I don't know, the running joke of a medics writing.
Neither of them were medics, by the way. But I think probably each generation, depending on what country you grew up in, you may not see that cursive writing and you just want something legible that looks readable without putting in the amount of time it takes. I wonder about how long it would take for the person who wrote the deeds for the house, Andy. How long did it take them to learn to write like that when they were in school?
Forever, I would imagine.
A long time.
Yeah. A long time.
And how long did it take him to write the deed, right?
Yes. How many deeds did he have to write?
It could have been years.
Yeah. The whole copy and pasting just didn't exist. Being a scribe was... Being able to write really well was a valuable skill and not make any mistakes, right? Because there was no way to go backwards. There's no backspace, no delete key.
But I think about some of those religious texts where you couldn't make a mistake in an art form. When you see religious texts that have been handwritten and hand drawn, God, it's beautiful. Absolute works of art.
Yeah. They would spend probably days just working on one drop cap. The big illustrated first letter of the chapter would be all this ornate stuff. They'd probably spend days just working on that one thing, or at least hours anyway, and gold foil and all this kind of stuff.
It's such a beautiful craft. But now we're just way too busy and we don't do that stuff anymore. Right?
Well, I think all writing that has, I don't know, that really sort of high aesthetic quality, it's now an art as opposed to-
Well, it's calligraphy, right? Yeah.
... something that everyone that comes through school does.
It's a university course. It's a university course that people make fun of like basket weaving or whatever. Like, "Ha, ha, ha, that's funny. You're never going to get a job doing that." It's one of those things.
Right. It's more of an art form, as you said. It's more like a fine art course or something where you're learning how to-
Yeah, exactly. It's like a self-indulgent thing. It's seen its value. While before it was like, "Hey, if you can do this, there's a career. A great, highly respected career in this." Now it's like, "If you want to waste your time doing that stuff, good for you, but you're not going to make a living out of it." Just like if you want to, I don't know, sew your own clothes or whatever, good for you. That's interesting. But it's your hobby. It's a hobby. It's not a real job.
So where does this leave us?
They're being demoted in a way, right?
What's our takeaway from all of this? Cursive? Right?
The question I would ask, should teachers make those decisions individually or should it be mandated by some higher authority, like the district or the state or the council or the government? Who makes that decision?
I think it becomes obvious, doesn't it?
Well, in the UK, it's schools. In a lot of places around the world, it'll be an individual school and you pick a patent and you stick to it, or you pick a programme and you stick to it, and you do it that way. Because I think that if we are looking at... And I think I'm right in saying this about Canada, it's certainly true of New Zealand and the UK, that there's not a societal pressure that the whole nation doesn't expect a certain type of writing style. I think there's a nostalgia to something that looks like, as I've talked, about my grandparents. But I think the reality is that you can move from print to semi or cursive where it's joined up. That's just for speed, I think.
Although you can print pretty quick as well, but I think that's probably the argument for that. But I just think the biggest thing amongst it all is if the desired outcome is not to write like my grandparents, but it's to be legible and neat and well-formed and uniform as possible, don't go changing it on kids. That's the only thing that I'd say is stick to your guns. Have a programme that's clear or whatever, don't drop it on them in whatever year and say, "Oh, now we want you to do this." If it's out of sync, if they've not got the prerequisites to do it. I think that's the tough part. And if you really want to write really, really, really well, just as far as I'm aware, go to France and just do your schooling in France, because like I said, all French children-
Never mind the language.
You can learn a beautiful language as well, but the writing's exquisite, so I don't know. Yeah.
Robin, what's right? What's wrong?
We're all moving to France. End of story. Can't wait. Perfect. Thanks.
Yeah. That's the one.
Thanks, Adam. Thanks for that.
Thank you both.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.