One of the beautiful things about America is that we provide free and compulsory schooling, which, theoretically, is supposed to produce an educated voting base. Whether that actually happens or not is a topic for a different day, but one thing that certainly does happen is that as adults we all have strong opinions about what school should be based on our own experiences. Over the last few years two subjects continuously pop-up for debate, cursive and coding.
Extras or Essentials?
Cursive and computer science are not mutually exclusive subjects. A school system could certainly teach both, and contrary to the misleading mantra that “schools don’t teach cursive anymore”, many do. I compare them, however, because both could be seen as “extras”, but also represent skill sets valuable and unique to their respective times. At one point in our not too distant past, handwriting in general and cursive in particular were key to communicating effectively and participating in society. Likewise, computer science skills are now essential tools to engage fully in our modern world. It’s true that the Common Core State Standards omit mention of cursive writing and includes keyboarding as essential, but this is simply replacing one finite, small motor task with another. Like cursive, the Common Core largely ignores Computer Science apart from urging educators to integrate technology.
To provide the how of computer science education, the non-profit International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) created the most widely recognized and adopted standards to guide technology education in schools. One of their major points of emphasis is Digital Citizenship, a point shared by the American Association of School Librarians Standards for the 21st Century Learner. The information and technology educators of the ISTE and AASL recognize the need for students to be able to fully engage with a diverse digital world. This includes ethical issues such as avoiding plagiarism, understanding digital content licensing and respecting intellectual freedom, as well as communication and collaboration behaviors such as seeking out and respecting diverse viewpoints and participating in personal learning networks and community discussions.
Proponents of teaching cursive in schools argue the fair point that students should be able to decipher historical documents, primary sources like the Declaration of Independence or their grandparents’ war time correspondence. These examples rely on an ability to read cursive, but what they’re really emphasizing is information literacy, the ability to conduct research, analyze, synthesize and evaluate sources. Consider the even broader ramifications for those without these digital citizenship skills. According to a 2014 study commissioned by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, “7 in 10 adults under age 30 say they learned news through social media in the last week.” When combined with the Indiana University discovery that that “people who seek out news and information from social media are at higher risk of becoming trapped in a “collective social bubble” compared to using search engines,” it becomes clear that the constant regurgitating of disreputable information among insular online groups is not the way to move our democracy forward into productive discussion. Rich computer and information science education in the area of digital citizenship helps information seekers both recognize trustworthy sources and engage with others fruitfully in online environments.
A Little Bit Goes a Long Way
For some students, their future digital engagement may be limited to using prebuilt forums and tools, yet possessing some basic coding skill opens up future possibilities for digital citizens, just as reading cursive opens up access to the past. Knowing a little code allows technology users to break free of many constraints, but more importantly, those with some coding experience have a better understanding of some of the critical intellectual freedom issues facing our society today. Is Apple right that creating a backdoor for the FBI would be disastrous for security? What is the hacker group Anonymous really doing when they say that they’re going to take on Isis or the KKK? What does Open Source really mean, and who owns my contributions? Those who can code are also in the position to create their own content, from video games to apps to robots and innovations. Sure, not everyone will become a professional computer engineer, but everyone benefits from some knowledge. Not everyone needs to be an accountant, but we all have to pay taxes.
But if I had to choose…
I’ll admit it; I’m a little skeptical that everyone needs to learn cursive. Most of us don’t even sign our names in anything remotely resembling the cursive we were taught in school, and more and more important documents, such as taxes, can be digitally signed. I appreciate the beauty of good penmanship, and I experience a certain nostalgia reading family history in my grandmother’s lovely hand. I also think calligraphy is aesthetically pleasing, and I’m impressed by the illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages, but the invention and use of the printing press was a more widely impactful technology that led to greater societal knowledge. So, while I don’t think there necessarily needs to be a competition between cursive and keyboard, if I were forced, as many school districts with limited budgets and time are, I would choose keyboarding every time. Why? Because keyboarding is a gateway to information and technology literacy, computer science, coding, digital citizenship, all of it. Still, the keyboard is only the currently predominate input mode to interact with computers. Voice commands, touch screens and other alternative methods may someday soon surpass keyboarding. So, rather than attaching ourselves to a particular tool, let’s think about our desired outcomes.
The point of keyboarding is to be able to interact with the computer and through it, the world. When we talk about coding in colloquial terms, we’re talking about playing around with computer programming, creating self-driven knowledge and building real-world solutions. This past week I led the second session of a video game creation class for 7-10 yrlds. In the first class, students were learning how the programming environment worked. We talked through basic components of making a game, how to program objects to move using common commands and screen coordinates, order of operations, etc… It was wonderful to see the their glowing faces as they created something that could be recognized as a game, but when they returned for the second class I was pumped to watch them independently dive in and attempt customizations, see them collaborate to figure out solutions, and best of all, vocalize to me and to each other why something worked or didn’t. These are students who, if they continue on this path, will enter their chosen professions fearlessly. They’ll be able to use the logic and lifelong learning skills they strengthened in computer science class to create websites for their small businesses, design and program clean energy solutions for their homes, and create 3 dimensional learning environments in which their children will learn. Who knows, they may even create lessons on cursive.