23 February 2011

Handwriting getting kids misplaced

Do you remember a thousand years ago, when you were elementary school?

If your school was like mine, then you probably got a grade for "handwriting". I know I did. In fact, my parents still have a framed copy of the only handwriting assignment that I ever received an "A" on. This was when I was in the 4th grade.

Recently, media outlets have been decrying the lost art of legible handwriting. Teachers have been decrying this "lost" art since about the time that Socrates taught Plato. (his scratched-in-the-stone-tablet comment? "I like where you're going with this cave idea, but I can't figure out some of the words. Handwriting?")

Why handwriting is getting worse, if it is indeed getting worse, is no great mystery. You and I are engaged in the problem right now. By typing most of the words we produce on a daily basis, and reading much of what we read in type-set text, handwriting skills obviously decrease.

This is the point where you expect me to fly into a marginally researched rant about how since handwriting isn't easy to put on a standardized test, we don't test it. If we don't test it, it can't be important. I would probably follow that with some drawn out conclusion about how important handwriting is for civil democracies, especially ones that depend on hand written signs. I would go that route, but it seems a bit pedantic and predictable. In fact, that argument is probably better made about spelling.

Instead, I'm going down a less obvious path. I'm going to attempt to answer this question:

Does good handwriting = smart kid?

The more I teach, the less I think so. Actually, to be fair, I never really thought that good handwriting indicated that a child was smart. Perhaps they had good small motor skills, but I don't think that small motor skills makes someone smarter than someone without; look at Stephen Hawking as proof of that. 

However, I do teach advanced classes (AP US History this year), and I have noticed that many of the kids who are misplaced academically; those kids who  are in far over their heads, have really nice, readable handwriting. These are also the kids who are most shocked when they are told that they might not be Noble prize laureates. Actually, most of them wouldn't know what a laureate was. 

Anyway, I was saying that kids who think that they are smarter than they are, often have really nice handwriting. Not always, but often. I was trying to figure out why this was. Then it struck me. This happens because of human nature. No, I'm not saying that people who have good small motor skills are more likely to be delusional about their ability level. I am saying that the people who asses academic ability are more likely to help foster those delusions if the deluded person is someone with nice handwriting. (would you like that in plain English? Teachers overrate the ability of students with nice writing because those kids' papers are easier to read.)

I think this hypothesis holds up. I can't prove it, but since this is a blog, I don't have to. I just have to throw the ideas out there. 

Put yourself in some poor middle school English teacher's comfortable but un-stylish shoes. She-he has to read 145 compositions by 7th graders. This sucks. Unless you've done this, you have no idea how much this sucks. It's only natural that this over-worked teacher will be more favorably inclined towards papers which are easier to read. So, those papers score better. Over time, those students consistently get grades that are above what the content of the paper deserves. The authors of those papers move through school always thinking that they're pretty smart. S-M-R-T.

Then they get to me. I actually read for content. I make those papers bleed. 

My handwriting might not be all that good, but I'm actually (despite what you read here) kind of smart. I pick those essays apart. I feel bad, because kids have genuinely never been told "this isn't very good", and I say that pretty often to Juniors with really nice handwriting. 

So, what is the solution? Well, honestly, computers without internet. Why? Those devices could just be used to equalize the small motor skills differences which are impacting teachers' ability to judge content and ability without being blinded by penmanship.

Will it ever happen? Probably not. But I'm going to sit down and hand-write a proposal for it. I hope the deciders can read it..........  

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