Learning in Community

While I certainly work throughout the year to see where I need to make adjustments to maximize student learning (most notably by talking with my students), I always welcome the summer as a chance to slow down my pace and reflect on my practice. So when a prospective parent mentioned in passing research on the usefulness of handwriting, it caught my attention. I’ve been working over the past few years to create as paperless a classroom as possible, for a variety of reasons including environmental concerns and to help prepare students to easily create and manage electronic portfolios for the IB program. Had I perhaps been too successful? Catherine and I used to discusss the possibility, but had decided to continue what we were doing given positive results and reactions on the part of students. Nonetheless, it was definitely time to do some investigation.

Within moments of my putting out a request on Twitter for links to research on handwriting, Larry Ferlazzo sent me a response, and Jen Marten followed soon after. Much of the research has been conducted with elementary-age students, but related research on adults learning a second language produced similar conclusions. Handwriting can rewire the brain, involving both hemispheres more actively, slowing down thought processes, improving memory and enabling greater success in learning second languages. This is, in part, a function of handwriting being tactile as well as visual. While some studies suggested that these effects are measurable only with cursive due to the different formation of letters (printing in these studies produced the same effects as typing), others did not distinguish between cursive and printing.

So what are the implications for my teaching? First, it seems clear that I will need to ask my French II students to do most of their work by hand. I will want to have a conversation with them about how best to learn a language, and stress the need to handwrite wherever possible. Second, I will need to find a place for handwriting in Humanities 7. Independent writing (usually short stories and/or poetry) and essays profit from the ability to easily and quickly revise and restructure when needed, so those activities would probably best remain electronic (given that when a student requests to handwrite a first draft, I certainly respect that request). Vocabulary learning, though, focuses on memorization; perhaps vocabulary lists and practice work should be handwritten in the future. And certainly the extensive goal-setting and self-reflection work the students do would seem to profit from both the improved memory and additional time for deep thinking afforded by handwriting. We can try this system through the fall and see how it works, and make adjustments as needed in the winter.

Note that none of these proposed improvements to my courses would be happening without the input of a parent, colleagues, and eventually my students. While learning is ultimately an individual’s responsibility as they follow their own unique path, it is also true that the best learning happens in community. I feel lucky and privileged to be surrounded by amazing learners that support and help me, and do my best to give back.

- Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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