Common Core Curriculum Doesn't Keep Up With the Real World
So often we are told that school is preparation for the real world of work, yet so many of the technologies and practices used to get work done in the real world are not allowed or fully implemented in the classroom setting—cell phones, computers, tablets, meetings, informal conversations, team-building activities.
One of the latest initiatives to improve schools is the Common Core curriculum, yet another top-down checklist from experts in academia about what everyone needs to know in order to be properly educated. (Or "culturally literate," as another list-maker termed it. Remember E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curricula from the 1990s? The books were titled "What Your Second Grader Needs to Know," etc.) However, I was surprised by the Common Core's elimination of cursive handwriting in school, which was typically taught during grades K through five. Instead of learning cursive, students will be taught keyboarding instead: by the end of fourth grade, a student must be able to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting.
But this is wrong, to me, on two levels. First, it closes the barn doors after the horses have left: students are using touchscreens now instead of keyboards, which further complicates the picture: Will schools replace touch-typing instruction with index finger and thumb-typing lessons? Further, even this communication interface is changing as I type on my QWERTY keyboard, and speech recognition is clearly the next big development we can see coming in commercial and consumer technology. In fact, Apple has been pushing Siri's company upon us for a while now, and Google is enabling voice commands throughout its product line to "prepare for screenless computers":
The spread of computing to every corner of our physical world doesn’t just mean a proliferation of screens large and small—it also means we’ll soon come to rely on mobile computers with no screens at all. “It’s now so inexpensive to have a powerful computing device in my car or lapel, that if you think about form factors, they won’t all have keyboards or screens,” says Scott Huffman, head of the Conversation Search group at Google.
Kids always seem to learn how to leverage the latest technology for their own uses quicker than most adults, yet our educators seem to think their checklists of what kids need to know and when trump real world developments. What if, four years from now, a fourth-grader spends a lot of time typing their one page in a single sitting in public school while a private schooler simply spends 5 minutes dictating the page to their computing device? Inequity and obsolescence seem built into to this standard.
The second reason we should not abandon teaching cursive handwriting in favor of keyboarding is that young children, in particular, are still forming neural pathways and developing the mind-to-body connections necessary to perform fine and gross motor skills, including learning to read. As I wrote for another blogging site (Educational IT, now closed):
In 2011 Karin James, an Indiana University psychology professor, [reported that her research] “found teaching young children to write letters activated parts of their young brains that become critical for reading. . . . [the] experiment involved a group of a dozen four– and five-year olds. She scanned their brains, then split them into two groups — one was shown letters and instructed to recognize them visually, the other was taught to write letters. This training went on over four weeks. . . . When she put the kids back into the brain scanner, the two groups showed very different results: The scans for the group that was simply shown letters didn’t look that different. But in the scans for the group that learned to write the letters, James saw a huge spike in activity in their brains’ reading network.”
Thinking of cursive as a technology that is replaced by keyboards misses an important part of child development: the need to physically and intellectually internalize printed letters as words. Regardless of whether we use keyboards, swipes, or dictation software to enter data, building the hand-to-mind connection from an early age through handwriting is an important step we shouldn’t short-circuit in our rush to provide children with twenty-first century skills. Perhaps we shouldn’t be worried about placing our bets on which data entry technology our children need to be tutored in as much as we should focus on the most fundamental building block for literacy—handwriting?