Cuneiform, anyone?


Louisiana just passed a law mandating that all students learn cursive in grades 3 through 12. That’s right – all the way through high school. Not computer science. Cursive…

Beth Mizell, the state senator who sponsored the bill, said that she wanted people to have a signature. Perhaps she was so busy sealing her scrolls with wax that she missed the signal fire message that electronic signatures are now legally valid, even in Louisiana? Plus, if it takes Louisiana students ten full years to learn how to sign their name in cursive, maybe their education system is in even worse shape than I thought. Education Week gave Louisiana a D+ in overall public education performance in its most recent rankings and that was before the latest educational budget fiasco. I doubt that this law is going to improve that ranking any.

Other legislators supported the bill because documents such as the Constitution are written in cursive. Old documents also are written in Latin and Greek and Sanskrit but I don’t believe that Louisiana has passed laws on those yet. FYI, ardent readers of ye olde Constitution, perhaps this may be of service to you on your way to the pony express station?

Cuneiform as college and career readiness, anyone? Quipu?

Image credit: Quipu, Lynn Dombrowski

13 Responses to “Cuneiform, anyone?”

  1. I hear this a lot from teachers that we need to emphasize cursive writing. I once had a keyboarding teacher (a long time ago) ask when we were going to get rid of the new computers and buy more typewriters, which is what kids really needed. I also recall when I was in school students learning shorthand for stenography purposes. That is a lost art that I think no one really misses.

  2. Michael Paul Goldenberg Reply June 24, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    The dumbth is strong on this issue. Whether half-assed research that purports to prove that there’s something unique in brain development that ONLY cursive writing can bring about or these moronic conspiracy theories about Obama and the Constitution, none of it holds an ounce of water or makes a lick of sense. I’ll bless the person back in the ’60s who made keyboarding/touch typing mandatory for graduation in my district in northern NJ. Best skill I was ever forced to learn.

  3. Does anyone know whether taking notes by hand is faster in cursive than other forms of handwriting? I ask this because there is research that shows college students retain lecture information better when taking hand written notes than typing on a keyboard. I wrote about it here:

    Basically, because handwriting is slower than typing, students are forced to think about what they are writing and filter out less relevant information. The extra cognitive effort gives them better conceptual understanding of the material. As someone who’s a very slow hand writer and loves taking notes on a laptop, this came as a bit of a shock to me.

    While the Louisiana legislature justifications are absurd, there is at least some justification for students being able to write well by hand. That said, I believe most of the benefits of hand writing notes over typing can be mitigated by thoughtful and active review of lecture notes afterword. Of course, the bigger question is how much student of student learning should be relegated to taking notes from a lecturer…as little as possible.

    • As I read the ‘handwriting results in better notetaking’ research literature, the key ingredient seems to be the mental engagement with the material as opposed to simply transcribing what’s being heard. As you note here, there are numerous notetaking, review, and studying strategies that can be used to mitigate this concern without having to give up the portability and easier reuse / remixing capabilities of digital text. I have yet to see a handwriting study that compares retention and learning against some of those strategies or against some of the drawbacks of not having digital text to work with after the notetaking event.

      For me, it’s ultimately about whether we want to be paternalistic and controlling or have a thoughtful dialogue with students in which we lay out the cases for and against and then let them decide. This is particularly true as students get older. We don’t need to treat high school and college students as if they’re 7 years old again. Yes, laptops can be empowering and/or useful. And, yes, laptops also can be distracting. And, yes, sometimes perhaps you might benefit in some ways from taking handwritten notes while someone lectures but you might also lose the benefits and affordances of having digital text in your possession afterward (which no one ever seems to talk about in this research).

      Love your closing point about the uncritical acceptance of lectures and lecture notes as worthwhile. Ugh.

      If as a legislature you really wanted to make sure kids had 10 years of exposure to something, would cursive be it?!

      • I do wish that I could give the option for students to do work on their laptop (I’m a high school bio teacher). However, the laptop seems to simply be too powerful of a distraction when I’m giving direct instruction. When the students are working on a lab or another activity it is much less of an issue. I would love to allow them to make their own choices but it’s not as simple as that. If I tell students to use their laptop or hand write notes almost all of the students choose to type. For some, that is the right choice. For others, it portents doom. They earn a poor grade. I have to report that to their parents. Like it or not, that student’s choice reflects poorly on me. Additionally, I have found that when I allow students to type out assignments, plagiarism spikes. I want to provide the students with choices but, for me, in this case, the cons outweigh the pros.

    • I wrote about a study similar to the one you mention on my blog
      While I don’t dispute the results, I question the short-sightedness of believing that the reality of these studies is what will always be.

  4. Seriously?
    There are some skills that can be taught by teaching cursive writing; but none of these fine motor skills are unique to cursive writing. Why not mandate art classes instead?
    The suggestion that writing notes by hand rather than typing applies to hand printing as much as to cursive; arguably printing works even better and with a higher probability of the student being able to decipher hand printing over hand writing 8 months later…
    But the key issue is that such arbitrary legislative intervention is intended to bring back something that is already a lost art: each year for the last 20 years I’ve asked my undergraduates how many take notes by cursive and the number has declined from about 30% when I started asking to a steady 0% for the last five years. None of my undergraduates use cursive outside their own signature, and that doesn’t really count because they could as easily come up with a tag (simplified graffiti mark) that would do the job. A large percentage can’t remember any time they used cursive past grade 4 when it is still mandatory.
    So here’s the thing: my undergraduates are all student teachers. Who exactly is going to teach cursive writing if there is no longer a generation that knows how to DO cursive writing let alone teach it?
    I love how American is deeply concerned about schooling falling behind the standards of other nations, and responds by cutting funding and reversing curriculum advances, and still wonders why school reform isn’t working.
    Let’s make America great again…at cursive writing.

  5. Margaret Ann Minihan Reply June 25, 2016 at 9:19 am

    It’s easy to mandate things that most schools are already doing and that carry little to no cost. It’s low hanging fruit.

    I have both a dyslexic child and a dysgraphic child and I have noticed that they both prefer cursive to print writing. For them, writing in cursive is more natural and painless than print writing (or even than typing, for now). So, I’m thankful that they learned how to write in cursive, but I agree that mandating that all children spend 10 years learning is excessive and silly.

  6. Not to mention that a handwritten signature doesn’t need to be in cursive to be valid. Nor does it even need to be recognizable as text, actually. As long as the signer intends the mark to represent his or her signature, you can do whatever you want. I mean, look at the scribbles most people actually put down…how many of them are recognizable cursive?


  7. Cursive. Really?!

    (For what it’s worth, I have considered paying a calligrapher friend to give my daughter handwriting lessons, because she has no interest in writing neatly–but neither did I in third/fourth grade.)

    There was one time when cursive was useful to me: taking the bar exam (I was in the last sitting exam in my state where it was either handwrite or bring your own typewriter). Cursive was awesome for getting more on every line and writing quickly. That’s about all I can say for it, though.

    I value handwriting as a skill, for the reasons others have pointed out. For my daughter, I’d settle for something that looks more sophisticated than cuneiform. (Handwriting is not her bailiwick, but she will be able to write legibly…someday.)

    Her handwriting is terrible in part because she doesn’t see the value in it and I haven’t pushed it–and she’s learning to type at the same time.

    Putting in time in art and music are more valuable, I think, than handwriting drills. And it’s cruel to force overburdened teachers to take on fine motor skill work on top of everything else–often teaching computer literacy, too..

  8. As an elementary school teacher, I feel that there is a need to bring cursive instruction back into the curriculum.  However, waiting ten years seems pretty excessive. There are more valuable areas of education that take precedence, especially in a 21st century learning environment. Cursive should be embedded into lessons, not explicitly taught. By sixth or seventh grade, students should be learning skills such as coding and focusing on STEM education, not handwriting.  

  9. At a educational conference I attended recently, I participated in a workshop which talked about implementing coding in classrooms. I had an opportunity to network with teachers across the US, and particularly in the Silicon Valley, this was the latest “educational trend.” I met a first grade teacher at a charter school in San Francisco who taught the basics of coding (broken down into simple pieces) as a weekly activity, and met multiple teachers who worked on this across the board. This was an interesting concept to me, because at the school I teach at, we don’t offer any computer-related courses, not even electives, such as Java or Computer Science.

    Reading this article, I was stunned to see the mandatory implementation of cursive in schools. Although I agree that handwriting is an important tool to have in your skill set, it is hard to see how learning cursive for 9 years would allow students to gain useful skills which would apply in college and in the workforce. Through learning coding and computer science-related content, students are learning logical sequences, critical thinking skills, and meticulous technology use, as well as gaining skills which would allow them to be competitive members in the job market. I was reminded of this by the introductory statement “Louisiana just passed a law mandating that all students learn cursive in grades 3 through 12. That’s right – all the way through high school. Not computer science. Cursive…” Although humorous, this is the unfortunate status of some public school systems, and students who leave these schools are disadvantaged when it comes to gaining certain skills and attributes their peers from across the country have.

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