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Will COVID-19 Kids Dumb Down From Learning at Home? New Study Recommends Adding This to Their Curriculum.

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
A lost skill once taught at schools may be needed after all says study.

You had to learn this when you were a kid, but not children today. Here’s one recommendation from a study that puts the analog “R” back in the 3 R’s of basic education that you can do with your children while learning from home.

Study Reveals a Surprisingly Healthy COVID-19 Activity for Social Distancing

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Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic once were the 3 R’s of basic education. However, times have changed and so has education. In particular, the analog component of writing where kids had to learn how to write cursive, but now can communicate through writing only with the assistance of their smart phone, computer or tablet.

A Return to Learning Cursive

And that might be a problem according to a new brain research study that found that writing by hand helps children learn more and better as opposed to key tapping and mouse clicking.

The findings are based on monitoring the brain activity of both children and young adults using an EEG Geodesic Sensor Net with 256 evenly distributed sensors that was used to record EEG activity from their scalps.

A news release from Norwegian University of Science and Technology explains that the brain produces electrical impulses when it is active. While wearing an EEG Geodesic Sensor Net on the head, the sensors in the electrodes can pick up the electrical activity that takes place within the brain and provide data on where the activity is occurring and how much is taking place during a particular instance.

In the study, those instances of brain activity were captured while study participants used a digital pen to write in cursive by hand or draw directly on a touch screen, when specific words were presented. At times in comparison, the participants also typed the specified words using a keyboard.

According to the study:

“The experiment included a total of 45 trials, where each word was presented in three different conditions, represented in a semi-randomized order. The 15 words varied in difficulty, from concrete words, such as “shoe,” to more abstract words, such as “birthday.” For each trial, participants were instructed to either (a) write in cursive the presented word with a digital pen directly on the screen, (b) type the presented word using the right index finger on the keyboard, or (c) draw the presented word by freehand with a digital pen directly on the screen."

"Whereas handwriting and typewriting were both relatively simple transcription tasks, drawing included higher-level processing (ideation). Before each trial, an instruction appeared 1–2 s before one of the 15 target words appeared, and the participants were given 25 s to either handwrite, type, or draw the word. EEG data were recorded only during the first 5 s of each trial. The participants could draw and write wherever they preferred directly on the screen. The words that were typed were the only words that did not appear on the screen while the participant was typewriting. A small sound indicated that the current trial was over and a new one was about to start. The drawings and writings produced by the participants were stored for offline analyses”

What the data showed was that the brain in both young adults and children is much more active when writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard.

"The use of pen and paper gives the brain more 'hooks' to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better," says Professor Audrey van der Meer, the principal investigator of the study at NTNU.

Based on her own and others' studies that have emphasized the importance of children being challenged to draw and write at an early age, Dr. Van der Meer believes digital learning has many positive aspects, but urges handwriting training.

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"Given the development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence" of increased digital activity.

Learning Cursive is Expected to Decline

The significance of this is that with COVID-19 causing many students to learn from home, an even greater number of children are spending more time using computers and/or tablets for social isolation academic learning at home.

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Of course, arguments against learning cursive and its subsequent drop from primary school curriculums occurred well before COVID-19 began. However, the loss of skills and benefits from handwriting due to purely digital-based online learning at home might actually be doing children’s mental development a disservice resulting in a “dumbing down” of future generations.

Cursive is Food for the Brain

"Learning to write by hand is a bit slower process, but it's important for children to go through the tiring phase of learning to write by hand. The intricate hand movements and the shaping of letters are beneficial in several ways. If you use a keyboard, you use the same movement for each letter. Writing by hand requires control of your fine motor skills and senses. It's important to put the brain in a learning state as often as possible. I would use a keyboard to write an essay, but I'd take notes by hand during a lecture," says Dr. Van der Meer.

"The brain has evolved over thousands of years. It has evolved to be able to take action and navigate appropriate behavior. In order for the brain to develop in the best possible way, we need to use it for what it's best at. We need to live an authentic life. We have to use all our senses, be outside, experience all kinds of weather and meet other people. If we don't challenge our brain, it can't reach its full potential. And that can impact school performance.”

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Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of NTNU/Microsoft

References:

Why writing by hand makes kids smarter” News release from Norwegian University of Science and Technology 1 OCT. 2020.

The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults” Eva Ose Askvik et al. Front. Psychol., 28 July 2020.

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