Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Handwriting - a dying art or a waste of time?

As schools move more and more into the use of digital tools in education, the question often comes up,  "Why are we even bothering to teach handwriting?"

I think it's a good question, but also one that is also answered a little too hastily at times. Those who argue for less of an emphasis on handwriting skills do have a case. After all, why spend so much of precious class time on a mechanical task that doesn't involve much creativity or generation of meaning? Isn't the content of what the children write more important than the legibility of their script? After all, how often are the children really going to need to write at length in tidy legible handwriting? Won't most of it be done on computers anyway?

These are good questions. How often do you write with a pen or pencil? Is it for more than quickly scrawled notes and shopping lists? I'm sure more people write emails rather than letters these days. There's also an argument that typing levels the playing field - everyone can be as tidy as the next person, and can have the reader focus on their meaning, rather than make assumptions about their intelligence based on how tidy their hand is.

In spite of all this, I still believe that handwriting skills, cursive handwriting, is still a skill worth teaching. In fact, I would argue it's an artform, a cultural treasure handed down to us over centuries, that we are surprisingly so keen to throw away.

In many cultures, the artful formation of letters is highly valued. The Japanese and Chinese approach to calligraphy, with its meditative attention to the beauty of the brush strokes is one such example. The incredible use of Arabic calligraphy to decorate mosques in the Middle East is another.

The fact is, our Roman alphabet has become a little taken for granted. It's everywhere, used by so many different languages and so we have ceased to think of it as something special. We are beginning to lose sight of the fact that cursive script is a cultural artform to be treasured, and instead see it as a functional and defunct stumbling block on the road to a good education.

However, there are also good educational arguments for teaching handwriting skills, including the effect it has on brain development. Far from being a waste of classroom time, research has shown that children who spent more time practising the shape of letters showed higher neural activity than those who didn't, as this article points out. 

      "(The) research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information."

I love technology. I love the potential it has as a tool to expand our educational horizons. That said, I do believe it can be an invasive species in our cultural ecosystem, killing off a thing of beauty handed down from the ages, one learner at a time.

What do you think? Is this something we should fight to save, or should we start typing our eulogies for cursive script?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

NZ Kids Online - How much do we know?

This year I am out of the classroom as I received a Study Award from TeachNZ, so I am working on postgraduate research instead, through the University of Auckland.

The topic I am exploring is how New Zealand children are using the internet - how they approach risks of various kinds, what skills they have in facing these risks, and how this might relate to the Key Competencies in the NZ Curriculum that we try to impart in our classroom programmes. I intend to analyse the findings to identify the conditions for increased confidence and skill levels online in order to minimise the risk of harm and maximise the opportunities that the internet offers.

My research will seek to answer the question, “How are 9-12 year old children in New Zealand using the internet, what factors lead to increased self-confidence and competency in dealing with online challenges, and what are the implications of this for schools?”

Last year I had the opportunity to present at the ULearn Conference, looking at the importance of researching children's use of the internet in a New Zealand context. While I was there I recorded this EDtalk, which has recently been put online.

To be honest, recording this was even more nerve-wracking then giving the talk itself! Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to articulate some of what I have been discovering.

When I was reading around this issue I was struck by how little research there was based on the New Zealand experience. There are some studies looking at teenage internet use, but as for children I had to go back as far as 2002 to find a decent size study. As we all know, the online world was quite a different place back then. In 2002, Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twitter, youtube and even Gmail did not exist. And that’s without discussing the changes to web access via mobile devices such as the iPod Touch and games consoles since that time. Clearly the landscape has changed. 

Take Facebook for example. Consumer Reports ‘State of the Net’ survey last year found that, quote, “Of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million of them were younger than 13”, and that most of these accounts were unsupervised by parents. In fact, in the USA the number of parents who would allow their 10-12 year olds to have a Facebook account has doubled in the space of a year, according to Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project. The same survey showed that most parents also expect teachers and schools to do more to deal with the fall out.

Clearly, whether we like it or not, this is something we as educators are going to have to invest time in, and we need to do this from a position of knowledge of our own context here in New Zealand. Research around online privacy and risk is of vital importance. The disproportionate media attention given to unusual but high profile examples of online danger can have too much influence on policy formation. New Zealand-based research will help to separate actual online practice from media-hype based on sensationalist (albeit serious) examples. It will, therefore, provide a robust and reliable benchmark that other researchers and policymakers might use to inform policy in regards to appropriate responses, both in schools and more broadly in society.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Narcissists on Facebook?

My good friend, Pacific Londoner, sent me a link this morning to this Guardian article, reporting research that relates Facebook use and narcissism. It makes for pretty interesting reading:

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a "socially disruptive" narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.
People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.
The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.
I suppose in someways it's not overly surprising that narcissists will use Facebook in this kind of way, although as they say in the article, what comes first, the chicken or egg? Is the narcissism leading to the Facebook behaviour patterns, or is there something about Facebook itself that's leading to the narcissistic behaviour? Obviously the more research that looks into these issues the better. However, there is a tendency for the media to latch onto this kind of research to generate fear and overstate the 'dark side' of social media, without acknowledging the numerous benefits social media has to offer.

It is often said that the emerging young adults of today have barely known a world without the internet. They have grown up, generally, with access to the internet and a kind of connectedness that wasn't experienced to the same degree by previous generations (and sub-generations). What would be really interesting would be to find out how much of this purported narcissism is due to these young adults having already done a lot of their identity formation online. And a key question for educators, is what can be done for children and adolescents who are forming their identities online right now - what skills and competencies do they need to be able to cope online, and see through online narcissists and be responsible digital citizens?

I think one of the differences with Facebook and similar sites, compared with one's offline life, is that your profile spells out clearly how many 'friends' you have. Imagine if we all had that written on our t-shirts or foreheads! It's an online status symbol, and an indicator of 'social gravity' - that is, if they can gain enough social mass, that in turn will attract yet more 'matter' into their orbit, and on and on. Until the inevitable supernova! 

The very design of Facebook places each user at the centre of their online social universe. But then again, my eyeballs tend to do that too in my 'offline' life - it's unavoidable! The key is learning to see from other people's point of view, sharing experiences, developing empathy, engaging with a range of ideas. Facebook can be a great tool for giving insight into the lives of those in our network - it can counteract narcissism if used well.

In my experience, Facebook does not lead to shallow friendships. It strengthens existing ones and sparks old friendships into life in a way that probably wouldn't happen without it. The 'social' has always had a dark side, because it involves people. We should no sooner reject online social interaction than we should isolate ourselves from face-to-face contacts and become hermits in the desert. We just need to learn to do it well, and that is best learnt sooner rather than later.