by Rocky Lewis
Cursive writing: Outdated mode of communication, or the latest victim of standardized testing? Advocates of cutting cursive from the curriculum say it’s time-consuming to teach and no longer useful in a keyboard world. Advocates of keeping cursive in the classroom, like Waldorf Educators, say it is more than a means to a writing ends — it’s a brain builder, a historical research tool, and a note-taking skill set.
In defense of the idea that handwriting is outdated, a 2012 survey of handwriting teachers, conducted by Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks, found that only 37% of the handwriting teachers themselves wrote in cursive, although 55% had created a hybrid method of writing. (1)
Steve Graham, Education Professor at Arizona State University says arguments for teaching handwriting are “based in nostalgia and not research.” But a handful of states disagree and have decided to make it mandatory again, including California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. (2)(3)
Their reason? A growing body of research in the neurosciences showing that writing in by hand activates brain areas involved in language and working memory.
Indiana University –
Children were asked to interact with an fMRI. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction including print (manuscript) and cursive. Writing by hand, in either print or cursive, resulted in “recruitment of letter speciﬁc neural processing regions seen in the literate adult.” And surprisingly, these results happened after a very short period of writing instruction. (4)
Researcher and Indiana University neuroscientist, Karin Harman James, says,
“These kinds of findings point to there being something really important about printing and potentially also about cursive.” (5)
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience –
A French study from 2008, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, evaluated “the ability of adults to discriminate new characters from their mirror images after being taught how to produce the characters either by traditional pen-and-paper writing or with a computer keyboard.” The researchers found that those who wrote by hand could recognize the mirrored characters for several weeks, unlike the adults who used a keyboard. (6) Handwriting advocates say this suggests a connection between writing, memory, and visual learning.
University of Washington –
Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, has spent her 30-year career studying cognitive neuroscience, specifically related to learning reading, writing, and math in children with and without disabilities. (7)
She was part of a study published in The Journal of Educational Psychology that found elementary students could not only write more quickly using cursive vs. the keyboard, but also wrote more complete sentences. (8)
Another study Berninger was involved with shows handwriting or “sequential finger movements” activate brain regions involved in thinking, language, and working memory, which are not comparable to brain activity recorded when typing. (9)
And in her article Strengthening the Mind’s Eye, A Case for Continued Handwriting Instruction in the 21st Century, published by The National Association of Elementary School Principals, she cites several additional studies that connect learning how to write by hand as a “necessary motor exercise … [to] develop eye-hand coordination motor skills (Saperstein Associates 2012; James and Gauthier 2006; James 2012; Berninger 2012).” (10)
Teachers College –
Stephen Peverly, Professor of Psychology and Education and Chair of the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Teachers College, has studied transcription speed (how fast students can write or type) and its effect on comprehension.
He says, “For kids in the first few years of school, how fast they write is one of the best predictors of the quality of essays they write in school.”
As earlier studies have noted, handwriting is faster for young children. But what if they could learn to type fast? Peverly plans to address this question in his next study — measuring results of speed and comprehension in note taking via handwriting vs. computer.
He says. “Good note-taking isn’t simply about trying to take down all the information. It’s also a filtering process, a way of zeroing in on what’s most important.” (11)
It would seem the handwriting is on the wall, so to speak. More and more research is drawing a connection between writing by hand and better learning. One can conclude that jumping too quickly to keyboarding can hinder deeper connections formed in the brain. However, the differentiation between the benefits of teaching manuscript (print) versus cursive, has not yet been solidly established by the current research.
Spring Garden Waldorf School is not required to give standardized tests and does not evaluate teachers based on scores; however, SGWS does administer the IOWA Test of Basic Skills once a year to students in Grades Four through Eight. We do not test children before Grade Four.
Administrative Team Leader, Tracy Edwards, explains:
“As a school, we use this test to compare individual and class progress from year to year as we move through our Waldorf Curriculum. Parents also appreciate having a quantitative measure of their child’s progress as compared with public education.”
And how does Waldorf, and Spring Garden, student performance compare to national averages?
The Nov/Dec 2011 Harvard Education Letter reports that “Waldorf students tend to score considerably below district peers in the early years of elementary education and equal to, or… considerably above, district peers by eighth grade.”
An independent five-year study of SGWS students’ IOWA test scores seems to confirm the results of Harvard’s national study. The 2014 study, conducted by the University of Akron Business Analytics department, found that test scores at Spring Garden rose as students rose in grade level, and that students’ national percentile ranks also increased as they moved through the grades. This means that by Grade Eight, SGWS students well outperformed their same-age and same-grade peers nationally who took the IOWA tests.
- 50% of SGWS Grade Eight students tested at a 13th grade equivalency, the grade level at which the IOWA test is capped.
- 75% of SGWS Grade Eight students performed significantly above 10th grade equivalency.
There was no significant difference in the performance of male vs. female students at Spring Garden Waldorf School.
In Grades Four, Five, and Six, the unique unfolding of the Waldorf curriculum creates some discrepancies between the areas being measured on the tests and our learning goals; therefore, we give the younger students only the Language Arts and Mathematics sections of the test. However, our Grade Seven and Eight students take all sections of the test and follow the test’s required time limits, so there were no outstanding variables in the study’s Eighth Grade comparison.
When parents are researching private schools, the myriad of options and different educational philosophies can sometimes be overwhelming. Many of our prospective parents are considering transitioning their children from public school into a Waldorf Education. And so, the question becomes, “What exactly is the difference between my child’s current experience and Waldorf?”
One might generally summarize the differences in this way: Waldorf puts high value in art, critical thinking, and creativity and does not pursue academic instruction before the age of seven. Public school puts a high value on standard and measurable academics, with a focus on math and reading starting at age five.
But this does not shed much light on the multi-layered and nuanced approaches of each system. In an effort to clarify, we have created this chart describing similarities and differences in each educational system. But, for true clarification about these methods and their appropriateness for your child, visit schools in your area and experience in-session classroom visits.
No matter what type of education is right for your child is up to you and your family, we encourage you to tour a Waldorf school while class is in session to experience Waldorf education first hand. Learn More HERE if you’d like to visit Spring Garden Waldorf of Northeast Ohio.
Opponents call it the One-Size-Fits-All education, while supporters say it’s holding children to higher, more in-depth learning standards than current achievement tests. Common Core Standards are rolling out this year and are estimated to cost school systems millions. But what does it mean for families?
Too much, too soon, too stressful
Children will be tested earlier and more regularly. Child clinical psychologist Dr. Megan Koschnick is concerned that many of the early childhood Common Core Standards are developmentally inappropriate for young students not yet reaching Piaget’s concrete operational stage. And her peers at the American Principles Project are concerned that no developmental or neuropsychologists were involved in the committees for creating the Common Core. According to Koschnick, there is also little to no scientific research supporting the aptitude recommendations at early grade levels.
As Koschnick said in this video:
When standards are not developmentally appropriate, “Teachers are going to see typically developing children as delayed, parents may be informed that their children are behind and kids are going to get measured against inappropriate standards and might be held back or tracked into remedial classes that they don’t really need.”
In addition to the standards being potentially inappropriate for a child’s cognitive abilities, principals in New York, who adopted Common Core early, also say the standards are causing undue stress to little ones. They have written an open letter of protest saying the Common Core was too hard on younger children and they reported crying and physical ailments like vomiting and wetting during test taking.
And it’s no wonder the children are stressed. In Ohio and several other states, there are strict consequences for failing the third grade test. Students unable to pass a retest will not go to fourth grade with their peers. Ohio has joined others in the 3rd grade common core retention law meaning 3rd graders who fail to demonstrate sufficient reading ability on the new state standardized test will be held back.
Are Late Readers really “Behind?”
Many great thinkers and leaders throughout history reported being late readers or late bloomers in general including Albert Einstein who could barely read in the third grade and Nobel Laureates Richard Axel and Gerardus Hooft. Would Winston Chruchill, who failed 6th grade in a traditional education system, have passed a Common Core third grade test? Hard to say. But children who are labeled as “behind” in today’s world are often thought to be, or believe themselves to be, below average.
But if a slow-reading third grader is agreed to be “behind” what is required for testing, does that mean he/she is developmentally delayed or below average? The new standards push early reading and many studies show that those who start reading at 5 versus 7 show no differences by age 11. Does this mean the only benefit to early reading proficiency is the ability to take tests? In today’s public school system that question is irrelevant, as is the psychological concern of labeling students “behind” when they are initially slower readers.
What’s The Common Core FOR?
As Common Core strives to raise standards among global peers, many find it telling that top Western school systems prescribe to an opposite approach. The ever-popular, idealized Finnish school system does not allow children to even begin academics before age seven, which means reading instruction is delayed. But students in this school system do not need to read test instructions by first or even third grade. In fact, students in these high performing schools are not required to take tests or even receive grades until 8th grade.
Sir Ken Robinson’s popular TED talk explores the idea that U.S. education is outdated because it was created during the industrial revolution for jobs that no longer exist and is also modeled after an industrial process rather than considering the unique skills and talents of individuals. He maintains that a culture of testing and standardization has inappropriately labeled students and stunted curriculum. And often he points to the Finnish system as a model for how to address individual learning styles while still competing globally.
Waldorf Education and The Common Core
Waldorf Education is often cited for mimicking the Finnish system, which has a low-stress, non-testing environment for early elementary students and also takes a different approach to reading, with comprehension skills being taught first and phonics decoding beginning in first grade. What is core in Waldorf standards is catering to a student’s individual learning style with reverence and respect for each child and their gifts.
Waldorf educators also encourage a love of lifelong learning, which they believe cannot flourish in an environment where being slightly behind in one skill set:
- Causes undue stress and defeatist attitude.
- Elicits a label for a child as being less intelligent.
- Leads to a child being unnecessarily held back – delaying learning of other skill sets and social growth.
Waldorf Educators also subscribe to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which deconstructs the idea of one “general” intelligence ruling someone’s abilities. In other words, a slow reader is not a slow child.
Is your child at risk of being labeled “behind” because they are a late reader or an anxious test taker? Consider Waldorf. Learn more at our website, visit us, request information or call 330-666-0574 to speak with our Admissions Director.
There is a Survey of Waldorf Graduates Phase 2, by Douglas Gerwin and David Mitchell, Full Study Here, published by The Research Institute for Waldorf Education. We recently read the 2007 study and thought our parents would find these pieces of information particularly interesting.
Profile of a Typical Waldorf Graduate
- Majors in arts/humanities (47%) or sciences/math (42%) as an undergraduate
- Graduates or is about to graduate from college (88%)
- Practices and values life-long learning (91%)
- Is self-reliant and highly values self-confidence (94%)
- Highly values verbal expression (93%) and critical thinking (92%)
- Is highly satisfied in choice of occupation (89%)
- Highly values interpersonal relationships (96%)
- Highly values tolerance of other viewpoints (90%)
- At work cares most about ethical principles (82%) and values helping others (82%)
Managing a classroom of young children is a monumental task. Anyone might be tempted to use a chart, a visual, to help the children see the consequences of their behavior, but these tools have become the center of a debate among many parents, educators and psychologists.
In Waldorf schools, reverence for the child’s individuality applies as much to their personality as it does to their learning style. Teachers work to build social cohesion and empathy among students. The consistency of the one classroom, one teacher model in Waldorf is key to the success of our students learning to behave within a community of peers. Parents will be hard pressed to find a behavior chart in a Waldorf school. Which, according to recent research on the topic, is a good thing.
We all know stress has long term negative effects on health. So, in an age where younger and younger children report feeling increasingly stressed, adding shame to the mix is ill advised. As it turns out, the stress hormone, Cortisol, spikes in children as young as four when they experience embarrassment or shame.
In this recent article in Psychology Today, Understanding Children’s Emotions: Pride and Shame, author Ken Barish, Ph.D. (Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems) states the importance of the issue at hand.
“A child’s need to feel proud, and to avoid feelings of shame, is a fundamental motivation, and remains fundamental, throughout her life. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these emotions in the psychological development – and emotional health – of our children.”
But if teachers don’t use shame, then how can they let children know that what they’ve done is wrong? Aren’t guilt and shame an essential part of learning right from wrong? Dr. Gwen Dewar sees a difference, and speaks to it in her recent article at Parenting Science — Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes.
“Psychologists make a distinction between feelings of guilt and feelings of shame. Feelings of guilt are linked with a desire to make amends. Feelings of shame tend to make people angry—and not necessarily repentant. In fact, people who feel shamed may be less likely to take responsibility for their transgressions (Tangney et al 1992).
Also in Dewar’s article, she cites a study that observed how children reacted to different types of correction and then measured the effectiveness of three different types, the first of which, called “Personal,” resembles the behavior-chart method of correction.
The study, Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes (Kamins M and Dweck C. 1999. Person versus process praise and criticism:Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 30(3): 835-847.) defined three types of correction, summarized here as:
- Personal – You failed.
- Outcome based – This is incorrect.
- Process Based – This is incorrect, can you think of another way?
As one might expect, process-based criticism is the most effective for inciting change and continued trial and learning. Most children experiencing the Personal Criticism model said they would not repeat the task at hand. And while this study did not directly deal with moral-based behavior mistakes, some experts infer that a similar approach to ethical behavior modification would be more beneficial than a “you failed” chart system.
So, shame is not only detrimental to health and self esteem, but is also the least motivating form of criticism and zaps kid’s resilience and desire to learn by trial and error. While most wouldn’t blame teachers for using stoplight-type charts to help control a mob of misbehaving kids, experts are beginning to agree that it’s not the most effective means of modifying behavior in the classroom.