The pen is mightier than the keyboard

..any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function, the historical origins of that relationship, or the impact of that history on developmental dynamics in modern humans, is grossly misleading and sterile.

Frank Wilson

There has been a recent spate of posts on handwriting, here (from @teachertoolkit), here (from @learningspy) and, the one that originally caught my eye a few months back, here (from @stephenperse).

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This has always been an issue that has intrigued me. My own handwriting is appalling. When I try, it is vaguely readable, but if i am writing quickly it soon descends into chaos. I start writing the next word before I finish the current one, which never works out well. I do the same when typing, but that usually turns out ok. Because autocorrect. Usually. The problem with typing for me has been that I’m not very good at it and for some reason have never had the time or self-discipline to sit down and teach myself to touch-type. It is the one super-power I would like to have.

Fortunately, technology has over the years become my friend in this respect. I’ve spent a long time searching for the nirvana of input devices. I’ve tried everything. There was the brief flirtation with an Apple Newton, with which everybody’s flirtation was brief. Then came the Palm Pilot, which for a while served me well. Ok for small amounts of text, but as you had to learn a new way of writing it was tricky. Then came the iPaq. Big, chunky but really just a hefty Palm Pilot. These devices came and went without really solving the problem.


Then there was the generation of what I call “clever pens”. I (of course) purchased a Logitech IO. Still have it some where in the house (which I might one day turn into a technology museum – “Ripleys’ things that didn’t quite catch on”). This was a proper pen. Well as proper as any pen that was nearly 2cm in diameter could be. It had a little camera near the nib and you wrote on special paper with tiny little dots on. You know, like a normal person. Later, you could plug the pen into the USB port on the commuter and transfer everything you had written. Not just the cursive, but it translated it into Word as well. Actually, not very well, it didn’t. I persevered for a while, but eventually went back to my tried and trusted A4 bound, lined notepads.

Then, about five, six years ago (bear with me, we’re in this century now) Dell released their XT2. This was a laptop, with a swivel screen that folded back, and it had a touch screen! You could use the stencil to write with and it converted the squiggles into machine readable text. It was very clever (and I don’t often say this about Microsoft stuff these days) as it also let you keep the text in its cursive form, but still gave you all the searching and tagging capabilities. For a while my XT2, OneNote and I were inseparable. Until the chronic pain in my left shoulder caused by having the hold the darn thing made me reconsider.

Now, of course, with an iPad in tow, with OneNote and Evernote the technology based handwriting solution is back. I can take notes on the iPad (using a stylus) or I can take notes in a book and photograph them and load them up to Evernote which will transpose them into machine readable/searchable text for me.

Here’s the thing. Instinctively I, a person who is a bit of a geeky propellor head, keep coming back to the cursive solution to note taking. Why? I don’t enjoy it. It feels terribly old-fashioned. And with my writing its not particularly helpful over the long run (as when I come back to my notes I often can’t read them).

When students would ask me “Why are writing this out, sir, why can’t you photocopy it and just give it to us?” my usual response was that if they were writing it out it proved that it had at least been in their brain once (cognitive science has moved on since then, but I still say I was on the right track). That was usually accepted.

There is also some research* that does back up this idea that hand-written notes are better. Some recent experiments suggest that in both the short term and longer term hand-written note-taking improves learning outcomes when compared to typed notes. In part this may be due to the form of the note-taking, rather than the mechanics. Laptop note-takers tended to take longer, more verbatim notes, whereas hand-writers used shorter notes. My take on this is that the hand-writers are already pre-processing their notes into a more digestible form, i.e. some learning is occurring at the note-taking stage. The cognitive load required to touch-type was somehow preventing that from happening. It is also interesting that even when specifically told not to take verbatim notes the types still did so – as if they had dropped into an automatic mode – “hear words, type words”.

There is much more detailed research into the science of haptics here.

The path I have taken, which was to instinctively stay on the cursive trail, despite the limitations imposed by my own rubbish handwriting, is still the best bet. The technology to support that decision is getting better. Soon, the technology solution will be an enhanced version of the natural hand-writing process, rather than a mechanical approximation. When that happens, the real learning gains will arrive.

Until then, I will continue with the best that technology has to offer me.


*Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking. Psychological Science.


6 thoughts on “The pen is mightier than the keyboard

  1. At the risk of sounding boring, I must just say that I like the pen AND the keyboard, for different reasons/in different contexts….


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