January 24, 2012

By jleffron

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Of Serifs & Silk – Analog Learning in a Post-Analog World

Every few months it seems that the topic of handwriting comes up – generally revolving around the question: Should we still bother with teaching handwriting in this digital age?

It’s a question I’ve looked at on-an-off over a number of years; part of a series of questions about learning in a post-analog world.

There’s some interesting research on the topic, from fields like haptics and embodied cognition.*  Good stuff, important stuff; I’m always looking for more…

Understanding how writing, literacy, cognition, memory and attention work together is critical, but it’s not the only reason we need to look at handwriting and other analog activities in the context of learning.

Today I’m going to be a bit lazy (academically) and look at this with just some good old horse-sense.  It’s not just a straightforward cognition issue (that is a key element, but not the only aspect).  On a practical level, we are physical people and we do respond differently to the tactile than to the digital.

The efficiencies gained in the past 20-30 years of digital development, are quite evident.  Remember drafting images for presentation slides by hand, and then sending them over to the slide-makers to be photographed? (Of course the upside was that there were a lot fewer slides in any given talk.)

But, with any gains in efficiency there are necessary losses elsewhere and it’s good to weigh those in the balance.  By moving things from the slow and tedious to the brilliant and efficient, we may, along the way, lose some intimacy with the material – and, through that, miss out on some wide-ranging insights.

There is, of course, the famous story of Steve Jobs studying calligraphy and how that parlayed into the variety of fonts, the proportional spacing – all the visual elements that made the Macintosh so staggering when it was released.  He had a kind intuitive grasp of both the principles and the beauty of fonts that came from his extensive work with them; and he was able to translate that into a new sphere.**

In a similar vein to the handwriting vs. keyboarding question: With machine knits in every store, what is the value (beyond pure recreation) of learning to knit?  Having taught a few people to knit – I’ve watched them learn some interesting things. Things like:  wool, silk and cotton each have a different elasticity, which leads to some consideration of plant vs. animal fibers (and the underlying cell differences), the nature of protein chains… Things that they would learn in biology class, and which will now have a real, personal meaning.   It’s non-trivial stuff.

Clearly this isn’t to say that all students should try knitting, or calligraphy; its about tactile people building translatable insights from tactile experiences.

Sometimes we just need to ask the question: If the digital machine can do it faster and better, when is their value in doing things in the physical world?

There are situations where the answer is obvious, like when you are designing a manufacturing plant – you step away from the design screen and walk through the actual space and consider things like “If we move these pipes up a foot, we won’t have to duck every time we walk under them.”

It’s not so straightforward in learning, though.  We don’t have time for people to build a deep, personal knowledge of everything, and they probably don’t need to build it.  But based on your learning goals you probably have some notion of the peripheral concepts that your learners would benefit from having a good gut-feel for.  That is a good pointer to determining the types of experiential learning in one area that will greatly support digital learning in many others.

* Of note: written text is processed in the auditory centers of the reader’s brain; Braille is processed in the visual centers.  I’ve yet to find many studies about what parts of the brain are activated when writing by hand and also by keyboard.  Would welcome links on that.

** Interestingly, there was a related phenomenon when AutoCAD was introduced into the drafting profession.  Those who had started with hand drafting tended to produce AutoCAD designs with fewer errors than those who had only used AutoCAD during their carreers. This may have been because errors in hand drafting were a pain to correct, so hand drafters learned not to make them, but generally speaking it seemed that those who spend some time designing plants or buildings by hand had a deeper awareness of the systems as a whole, they weren’t just digital objects to put into place.
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