A former primary-school teacher and author of Zac Power Test Drive and Spy Recruit series, Park posed the question as part of her presentation, Should we be concerned with the emerging threat of digital dementia, on June 8 in Sydney.
Digital dementia happens when such technology is overused and leads to a breakdown of cognitive abilities.
“When students are constantly referring to digital devices for answers, they’re not committing basic facts and information to memory. They need to do this for neural pathways to be developed and for information to be committed to long-term memory,” she said.
“Many kids are spending more time with pixels than people.”
Park, who is also a Bright Futures Ambassador for pen company BIC, writes fiction and non-fiction that’s been published across the globe.
She said the tech boom and the loss of writing by hand were factors - not the only ones - in Australian students slipping in international rankings. Longitudinal studies were “coming out now” to show that doing less handwriting affects students’ literacy levels.
“Reading and writing go hand in hand - they are like breathing in and breathing out where literacy is concerned.
“Teachers need to encourage students to write information with pen and paper so learners are more likely to commit things to memory. It activates neural pathways to memory that typing on a keyboard doesn’t. When you are writing, you use three fingers, but the whole brain works.
“Some psychologists say the repetitive movements of handwriting can have meditative effects on the brain. It’s mindfulness practice to calm down our students’ busy brains from the digital world.”
Park said Hanover’s 2012 research had shown that just 15 minutes of handwriting can “unlock the benefits” and sparks brain activity that lasts two hours. That research pointed to evidence-based studies showing handwriting skills can increase brain activation, boost performance across all academic subjects, offer a foundation for higher-order skills and influence reading, writing, language and critical thinking.
“When students are at computers, they’re out of the driver’s seat because of predictive text and auto spell, for example. Those areas of the brain have just checked out and are not igniting.”
She gave an example of how striking the differences can be in the classroom. Park visits schools to run writing workshops. For group work, she’ll have some groups handwrite and others use an iPad.
“I see this all the time in groups brainstorming when I ask them to report. Those with the iPad will directly read from it and the ones who’ve designated a scribe will get up and talk and half the time won’t even look at their notes. They’ve paraphrased it and all the other kids in their group are chipping in – they’re all involved,” Park said.
Studies have also revealed that’s the case for senior high school and university students – if they use a computer, they’re taking notes verbatim. Paraphrasing it by hand makes it more meaningful and allows us to lay down memories, she said.
Park argued that research shows an engaged, balanced learning environment should focus on keyboarding and handwriting skills, not one or the other.
So, while your school probably has a digital policy, how about a handwriting policy?
“I work with schools to have those policies work together. We need to bring back the award of a pen license and have pride in bookmanship. Carve out that space in your classroom for writing by hand.”