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Why Cursive Should be Taught in the Age of STEM

Posted by Charles Chen

It's a topic that comes up from time to time in various channels on the topic of education and modern curricula.  NPR just had an article today on it and how Alabama passed a law requiring it to be taught.  Some might see that as a backwards policy from a backwards state.  Do we have a need nowadays for something as outdated as cursive?  Wouldn't it be better to spend that time focusing on math, science, or reading instead?  Won't our kids in the future just use voice dictation or typing -- why bother with handwriting?

Actually, I think there is a very good reason why cursive handwriting should continue to be taught and graded: fine motor skills and dexterity.  Even in the digital age, we still need these skills as it is a precursor to touch typing and necessary for the skills needed to manipulate small objects that are still very relevant in the age of STEM (motors, wires, circuitry, microscopes, pipettes, scalpels, transistors, etc.).  It brings to mind an awesome video of a show called "Supreme Skills" out of Japan that pitted aerospace engineers against machinists to see who could design and build a more precise spinning top:

Master Craftsmen Vs Rocket Engineers: The... by GAG_TV

(I've sometimes wondered if the reason why Asians are stereotypically good at musical instruments or manufacturing electronics and goods is because Asian languages are much more difficult to write with more patterns and strokes required to be learned and executed.)

Some argue that you can develop those skills through other means like using a mouse instead.  Imagine a simple, timed game where a child has to click or touch precisely to score.  But there are practical reasons why this doesn't work so well like cost, for example, and also having a mouse available at every desk (which implies a laptop or workstation at every desk) would be a logistical nightmare.  Cursive?  It's cheap and practical; all you need is a $0.10 pencil and a $0.001 sheet of paper to teach and practice.  Every child can practice writing cursive at home, regardless of their socico-economic background and it doesn't require much of an expense at all.  Even as the cost and prevalence of tablets and phones becomes ubiquitous and ever cheaper, it's hard to beat practically free.

Observing my 5 year-old, I can see the purpose in a lot of activities that otherwise seem like they are just for fun.  Even as a child colors or cuts shapes or glues balls of cotton to a piece of paper, all of these activities are training for precision and fine motor skills that are required for all sorts of more complex activities from playing an instrument, to being able to touch type, to having the ability to manipulate minute electronics.  These activities are not just for fun; it's how they learn to precisely control their fingers for pressure and motion.  Anyone that's had a child knows that young kids will have trouble pushing together or separating Legos or they'll squeeze out too much glue or they have trouble drawing a straight line or they can't copy shapes precisely or their cuts will be jagged and off the line.  In repeatedly performing these types of activities through the course of play, they develop the fine motor skills they need later on in life; I tend to see cursive handwriting as a natural extension of these types of activities and necessary for all young children.

So even in the digital age, as a parent, I would welcome cursive into my child's curriculum because the purpose isn't to learn cursive, but to develop the fine motor skills that will be required to perform more complex digital manipulations as my child matures.

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Thought of the Day

Posted by Charles Chen

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