There is no doubt that technology is revolutionizing the world of education and that is changing the teaching tools in and outside classroom. This tremendous change is the source of confusion in looking at the tool for education as the aim and solution for learning and educational challenges we face in this century. It was reported recently by some media outlets that the Indiana joined US states o drop the requirement for students to learn handwriting (BBC) as this was replaced with the demand to learn basic typing skills. The motivation of school officials is based implicitly on the argument that handwriting is obsolete and typing skills are “more useful in the modern employment world”. It is to be argued that school officials make here a colossal mistake just to follow a fad. The main arguments against this trend come from common sense, research and history.
Handwriting may be a bit more complex than a vocational goal for education. Steve Jobs, one of the most innovative creators of new technologies provided at University of Stanford a moving and insightful presentation of a personal journey that should be seriously taken into consideration when we design educational solutions. In one part, he addressed the crucial importance of what may seem to be completely irrelevant for a world depressingly seduced by a right-wing dream of immediate productivity:
“…much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
It may seem to be an outrageous way to waste of time to study calligraphy, but this obviously proved to be very useful for Mr. Jobs and very productive for computing industry.
This example may be still unconvincing for those enthusiasts thinking that the panacea of education stays in the capacity to adopt only new technologies in our classrooms.
Personally, as much as I value all new opportunities opened by all new gadgets, technology and online mediums for learning, I find this painfully simplistic approach, lack of vision and understanding of learning to be distressing. Literacy is surprisingly new if we look at the history of humanity as millennia of orality precede the existence of the written words. The democratization of reading and writing is less than a millisecond in our evolution and the implications for education seem to be ignored in this model. If we have the right to ignore how complex the associated tasks of reading and writing are, we do not have the right to play with the future of our students. If we look only from this perspective we have strong reasons to think a bit more profound about experiments such as replacing handwriting with typing and all books with e-readers. The extent of functional illiteracy in United States documented by institutions such as U.S. Census Bureau or National Center for Adult Literacy is concerning: around 7 million Americans are illiterate, close to 20 percent of Americans are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level and almost 50 percent of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level.
Failing tests on basic functional literacy is far from being just an American problem – the situation is very well known in many countries. To take only UK as an example, we can just read the news and see how the lack of basic literacy skills represent a serious problem for society. In an article with a clarifying title – “Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in lost online sales” – BBC is quoting last week the head of education and skills at the UK’s top business lobbying organization: “Our recent research shows that 42% of employers are not satisfied with the basic reading and writing skills of school and college leavers and almost half have had to invest in remedial training to get their staff’s skills up to scratch […] This situation is a real concern and the government must make the improvement of basic literacy and numeracy skills of all school and college leavers a top priority.”
This situation is well known by teachers, lecturers and employers, but the rhetoric (and published research) is parallel with reality. This example is a suggestive metaphor for the state of facts. The intriguing part is that education seems to follow now surprisingly close the ideology and life of a certain economic model. Similarly, we see a time of stubborn denial and collective lack of responsibility, a paucity of vision and basic understanding of real challenges ahead, a genuine incapacity to build a truly sustainable alternatives, seduction for some rightwing economic dreams with the obtuse enthusiasm for the illusion of quantifiable “efficiency” and – ultimately – the obvious crisis. The burst of the bubble is mentioned already, but the proverbial resistance to change and inertia will delay this moment. Maybe it should be mentioned in this picture different insidious forms of corruption, but this is a different chapter. The economic crisis proved again how decision makers can ignore all signs, facts, analysis and dismiss whistleblowers. Education is at the time to have an honest discussion about the current models, evolutions and future – and “honest” is a key word. The solution may be a bit more complex for education than a new table, a new tickbox an e-gadget and Neo-Liberal illusions as ideological cure for schools and universities.
Steve Jobs offers in his address some important clues for learning nowadays. Important to listen, hear how he learned his lessons, and move beyond tinkering on an obsolete model.