I’ve blogged on the subject and importance of writing by hand a number of times before: here, here, and here. I return to the subject because this week’s New Scientist (29th October 2014) devotes no less than the cover page, an editorial and four of its pages to how the latest technology may be affecting the ways in which we read and write and learn to read and write.
As the article points out, more and more we are opting to read and write digitally. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago you’d see people commuting into work by bus or by train deeply engrossed in a book, newspaper or magazine, nowadays they’ll be reading a digital book, or, more likely, a mobile phone or notebook of one kind or another. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago you'd see students in a seminar or lecture busily scribbling away in longhand, today many of them are typing into laptops.
Are technological changes affecting the way in which we learn and retain information? Yes, says Tiffany O’Callaghan in ‘Lost for Words: the writing is on the screen’. Certainly, since I last wrote about the work of Karin James at Indiana University and also that of Marieke Longcamp at Aix-Marseille University in France (see links above), both of whom figure in the New Scientist article, the research evidence seems to confirm what has long been argued: that writing by hand helps create neuronal pathways in the brain that assist the learner in remembering not only the way in which way letters are formed and how to recognise them when reading, but also the process of writing in longhand seems to aid retention of the information encoded in the writing itself. Moreover, the evidence strongly suggests that typing letters does not have the same effect.
On the issue of retention of information, Pam Mueller, of Princeton University, and David Oppenheimer, now at UCLA Anderson School of Management, ran a number of studies which indicate that taking notes in longhand on the subjects of lectures is superior to taking notes on a laptop. Mueller speculates that the reason for this may be that taking notes very rapidly on a laptop or digital device encourages students to write down transmitted information verbatim. In so doing, they may not be paying attention and processing the information in the way that taking notes in longhand forces the writer to do.
In the New Scientist piece, O’Callaghan also brings into her piece the issue of ‘multitasking’, or the ‘widely held fallacy’, as Hattie calls it, and talks about the numerous distractions we, as readers, face when reading online. Apart from the kinds of things that are likely to distract, such as advertisements and other items competing for our attention, it takes the determination of Ares to resist that quick peek into our Facebook page, Twitter feed, or email account. As John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning and Science of How We Learn, affirms, allowing oneself to be distracted in this way, reduces mental focus and depletes attentional resources, which leads to poorer comprehension.
‘Lost for Words: the writing is on the screen’ is a thoughtful and provocative piece, although I’d question O’Callaghan’s conclusion when she claims that ‘the nature of knowledge is changing’. It isn’t the nature of knowledge that is changing; it’s the way that knowledge is encoded and is disseminated that is changing. And we need to bear in mind that while the technology constantly mutates, human cognitive architecture and the way we learn remains pretty much as it did thousands of years ago. Keeping that distinction clear is vital. As Hattie writes: ‘Skills such as becoming highly familiar with the digital world, being adept on mobile phones, being able to perform Internet searches, and being able to use clever graphics packages, ought not to be confused with actual advance of knowledge acquisition, genuine understanding of complex ideas, and becoming aware of deeper understandings’.