The Transition from Cursive to Coding

Blog Series, Learning, Learning Innovations, Smart Teachers

My son missed a day of school last week, and when he returned, his teacher gave him directions for his makeup work that were written in cursive. He returned to that teacher later in the day, and this exchange took place:

Son: Mrs. Soandso, excuse me, I‘m sorry, but I can’t read your writing.

He gave the note back to her. She smirked at him with a disapproving look. (His words.) Another student who didn’t learn to read or write cursive. She then looked at the note and was a bit puzzled. Something was wrong. Finally . . . .

Mrs. Soandso: Why didn’t you bring this to me sooner?  I can’t remember what I wrote!

She couldn’t read it either! Cursive. Indecipherable, even to its own writer.

Its usefulness heated up in our house last week (because we don’t have real things to keep us up at night).

“It was difficult for doctors to give up leeches for modern medicine, but after the witch uprising was put down, it seemed like the right thing to do. We can shed cursive in the same manner.”

That is how I waded into the deep end of the Great Cursive Debate 2013 pool last week, but old-school English teachers and grammarians (“old” implied) on Reddit and other forums fought back with rather vicious attacks, mostly ad hominem in nature.  I was called an English-language traitor and much worse. Their invective mudslinging language was right out of Star Wars (“wretched hive of scum and villainy”) and True Grit, the new one, not the old one (“You, sir, are the rodeo clown from Yell County!”). Thank you dictionary.com and urbandictionary.com for translating some of the insults for me. I was undaunted, though. They were empowered with righteousness. I had rightness on my side.

Their arguments to maintain cursive instruction in the grade school curriculum can be lumped into these airtight, data-driven arguments:

It’s tradition. (Logical fallacy in determining merit.)

I had to learn it. (What’s your position on Pluto as a planet?)

It lets you write faster! (Myth.)

Heaven forbid we actually make students do something hard. (You’re just saying words now.)

It’s our signature. How will people know it’s really us? (You’re the reason we have captcha.)

It’s beautiful. (Really? Don’t confuse cursive with calligraphy.)

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Meanwhile, in Estonia . . . .

Students are learning to write code in first grade! Estonia, also known as “E-stonia”, is not just a technology driven country (that has given us Skype among other things), but also ranks above the U.S. in reading, math, and science scores. Parmy Olsen, of Forbes, writes, “The idea isn’t to start churning out app developers of the future, but people who have smarter relationships with technology, computers and the Web .”

If we’re looking for areas to replace outdated skills with 21st-century skills in the curriculum, this would be Ground Zero. Estonia’s first graders are learning the logic skills necessary for coding at the later grades. That’s uber practical for the 21st Century.

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Reasons to Code

Madeline McSherry of Slate says it best:  “Coding is the hottest skill on the job market, the modern-day language of creativity, and a powerful force in the economy.”

Here are four reason why I believe students should be coding:

1. Language Study: Coding is the most important language in the world right now.  It’s the language that enables the  machines and software that we use every day.

2. Cross Discipline Benefits: This isn’t just about technology. All fields . . . art, music, exercise . . . have programming needs. If fact, it’s the ultimate creative outlet for the arts in digital media.

3. Entrepreneurship: The list is long of self-made youth entrepreneurs on the internet. Coding opens that door wide open. There doesn’t have to be a gap between haves and have nots here.

4. Future Ready: Coding is a future-ready job skill for all disciplines. Who’s hiring coders?  All of these people:

Ian Quillian of Mindshift identifies four other reasons to code:

1. Subject Mastery – need it before you can code

2. Systems Thinking – all in the inputs and outcomes of programming

3. Collaboration – programming often done by a team

4. Passion – students can take their programming skills into any field that they are passionalte about

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Programming pushes students to research, plan, outline, collaborate, test,  troubleshoot, and retest. It’s brain intensive language study that requires syntax and style.  It’s the application of the theoretical with concepts, proofs, and strategies.

If the programming language students are studying were to become obsolete, they would still be equipped with programming skills, and that’s essentially all that’s necessary to learn new languages quickly.

Where to Start

Here’s a good (short) list for parents and classroom teachers who want to get their Generation Z students involved in coding right away.

Code Avengers: http://www.codeavengers.com/

Code Academy: http://www.codecademy.com

Code.org: http://www.code.org/

Gamestar Mechanic: http://gamestarmechanic.com/join/CodingPlus/free

Scratch: http://scratch.mit.edu/

Hackety Hack: http://www.hackety.com/

For the iPad and iPhone

Hakitzu: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hakitzu-code-of-the-warrior/id599976903?mt=8

Works in both iPad and iPhone.

Cargo-Bot: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/cargo-bot/id519690804?mt=8

My own kids (8th grade girl, 6th grade boy) are both learning code through Code Academy.  In less than a month, they have gone from having only basic awareness about coding to acquiring rather advanced skills (way over my head). We have a standing house rule for our kids: If they want to use anything that runs on code (computer, smartphone, gaming console), they have to complete at least one Code Academy lesson for the day. It’s never an issue, though. At. All. They are intrigued by coding and find it very cool in understanding how it works and in watching their own codes work. You know, those same feelings you get when you write in cursive.

During the height of my cursive writing debate last week, I asked my kids which was more important to learn, cursive writing or coding. They looked at me like this was some sort of trick question, like I had lost my mind.  Like this was a  grasshopper-snatch-the-pebble-from-my-hand-and-become-the-master test. Then they fell on the floor laughing.

“Seriously, Dad? You’re kidding, right?”

“Cursive is basically just a font, Dad!”

“Can we also learn how to write in Helvetica or Impact or Verdana or Windings?”

“We might need that one day!”

“Is BeDazzled a font?”

“Can we learn to write in BeDazzled?”

“Yeah, but only if we can use the BeDazzler!”

Adam Renfro

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. He co-hosted the podcast series GenerationText, which explored the Generation Z learner. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011. His screenplay ROAD OF SOULS currently languishes in Development Purgatory. Creatives can follow Adam on Tumblr at http://adamrenfro.tumblr.com/. You can also follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdamRenfro, and you can follow his Flipboard magazine Edu-Nation at http://flip.it/Apupn.

11 Comments

Michael Maher /

Really interesting, especially in light of NC’s recent passage of the “back to basics” bill http://www.wral.com/nc-legislature-oks-requiring-cursive-times-tables/12499859/

Patricia /

Although I am a teacher that loves technology, I still think kids need to learn (and be able to read) cursive. Anyone that studies history, primary document, genealogy, etc. needs to be able to read cursive.

Adam Renfro /

Michael, cursive survives to live another day! I’m curious if educators would have passed the same bill. I’m not surprised, though, that it wasn’t included in the Common Core or Essential Standards.

The worst part about cursive education is the timing of when it’s taught. We teach kids for three years how to write (print), and just as they are starting to master it, we trip them up with the introduction of ANOTHER system of writing. “What we’ve taught you so far . . . that’s not how you REALLY write . . . this is how you write.” So instead of focusing on the content of their writing, now they have to learn a new system, cursive. Insane really. It would be so much better to introduce cursive at a later age.

My own kids have had very little instruction on cursive. An 8th and 6th grader . . . they’ve had maybe 3 hours each of instruction. Their teachers always pushed it off until end-of-grade testing was over, which would be on Day 178/180.

Patricia, I agree to a certain extent. If people want to study primary documents and genealogy, then let that group (a rather small group) study cursive.

This cracks me up . . . our cursive is so abysmal that most official documents now have you print your name after your signature. Check this one out:

http://math.unlv.edu/grad_programs/docs/AdvCandidacy.pdf

Also should point out that obviously cursive and coding can coexist in a curriculum. There’s no real need to pit one vs. the other. It’s just odd that we would care so much about cursive and so little about coding especially when we have coding jobs that are unfilled because we don’t have enough coders. Can’t say the same about cursive.

Ron /

I was jury duty with a teacher who when she wanted send a child home with a note, she would use cursive. She said the student had no idea what the note said.

Laura Gibbs /

Best article I have read on the cursive debacle – funny AND informative. Thank you for this! I will be sharing this with all the parents I know who are fearful about this shift in the school curriculum; I doubt that all the parents are going to want to learn to code (although that would be great also) – but it is a sad thing indeed if those uninformed parents become pawns in the games of politicians in states like NC who might try to keep children from coding.

Leslie Fish /

At least the kids had the smarts to realize that “Cursive” is just one form of handwriting. There’s also Italic, Blackletter, Copperplate, ad so on — all of which are faster and more legible than Cursive. Most people who simply learn to print well eventually evolve a form of Italic themselves, whereby some letters are joined and others aren’t. Yes, teach the kids to print clearly, then teach them to code, and they’ll learn decent penmanship on their own.

–Leslie < Fish

Patrick /

Any idea what curriculum they are using to teach coding to 1st graders in Estonia?

PWF /

A useless comparison, cursive and coding. Who cares if cursive is dying – do you know any adult that still writes, legibly, in cursive? I don’t. And coding, while another more useful language in the technology jobs world, is of little real use in school. True coding is about the thought and design process of what you want the code to represent, not another language to talk through.

Adam Renfro /

Well, like I said, cursive and coding can obviously coexist in a curriculum. The Common Core, though, did not include cursive instruction, so a number of states are trying to ensure that it’s being taught . . . at a time when other countries are becoming future ready with code instruction.

Coding is very useful outside of technology jobs, though. That’s like saying computers are only for technology jobs. Every field and discipline has the need for coding. People who enter the job market in whatever discipline with coding skills will have an advantage over applicants who do not. In fact, having coding skills puts a person on a fast track for launching his or her own web-based start up. Every education startup that I’ve interviewed . . . none of them consider themselves tech startups . . .. they are education . . . entertainment . . . social media . . . etc startups.

Jo /

I’m a parent starting my kids off on this track. A couple more app recommendations for your list: Hopscotch for iOS (its very similar to scratch), My Robot Friend for iOS (a game where you guide a robot around a maze using programming cards) and Kodable for iOS (similar but simpler than My Robot Friend).

Fritzi /

I am currently a 2nd grade teacher at an Estonian state school, and let me just inform you: Cursive is the first and foremost thing that each Estonian child has to learn in their literacy classes, starting from first grade! They use workbooks to teach writing and reading (printing and cursive at the same time) and it is practically self-understood that every child masters Cursive within their first year of formal schooling.
The coding program is still in its trial phase, and there are only selected schools that teach it from first grade (and naturally, alongside teaching Cursive in the regular Estonian language class).

On another, related note – Germany, where I am originally from, also teaches a simplified form of connected handwriting alongside printing within the first year at school. Although German Cursive gets altered very slightly every few years, supposedly to make it easier for the students and more useful, to my knowledge there has not ever been any discussion about fully abolishing the practice.