The radio commercial goes something like this: A young woman says, “I parked on C-3, C-3, C-3. I’ll never remember that.” Then the announcer chimes in: “Have your Google Assistant remember it.” So, the woman obliges: “Google, remember where I parked.” Then Google’s velvety, robotic female voice chimes: “You parked on C-3.”
When I heard that, I thought, “We’re really in trouble now.” Seriously. Trying to remember where we parked, or any number of mundane facts, is exercise for your brain. If we start having a robot remember these menial things that flex our brain matter, won’t that matter atrophy like our muscles do when we plant ourselves on the couch and binge-watch “Game of Thrones” for an entire month? I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday. If I start telling a robot to remember things for me, eventually, I know my brain will turn to mush. There’s a reason I keep getting all these emails for memory brain exercises.
My mantra for maybe the last decade has been that technology, as wonderful as it is, is not all it is cracked up to be. Take the practice of taking notes in a classroom, for example. I teach a college English class, and I have noticed that my students rarely take notes by hand. Most of the time, they whip out their phones and take a picture of what I’ve written on the board, or of my PowerPoint presentation (which do I upload onto our class Moodle after the lecture anyway). I always tell them that they will remember concepts better if they physically write them down. It’s that old-fashioned tactile learning thing.
A lot of research supports this fact. Back in 2014, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer studied hundreds of students from Princeton and UCLA taking notes by hand versus typing them on a laptop, and published the results in a piece entitled, “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Their research found that “even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” In other words, the act of thinking about information as you physically write it down better ingrains it into your brain.
This act of writing is part of the great debate about teaching cursive in elementary schools – an art that some think is now unnecessary given students’ use of iPads and other technology. Back in 2011, the American Association of Educators website reported that 41 states had, in adopting the Common Core State Standards for English, officially omitted cursive handwriting from their required elementary curriculums.
Fast-forward to January 2018, where an article in the Indy Star, an Indianapolis newspaper, highlights the seventh attempt of Indiana State Senator Jean Leising to require state elementary schools to teach cursive writing. Currently, 21 states have seen the light and now require cursive instruction, because they were finding out that many young adults could not sign their names on forms. They had to print their name on both the “Print name” and “Signature” lines of the form because they had never been taught to write their name in cursive.
Leising is fighting attitudes like that of Mike Brown, legislative affairs director for the Indiana Department of Education, whose amazing stance is quoted in the Star: "Quite honestly, cursive writing is not a critical skill needed for the 21st-century workforce. To be prepared for what's to come, our time and human capital investments must be focused on STEM, coding and computers.”
While Brown is correct in that society should focus on STEM advances, research in the seven years since the Common Core eliminated the requirement for teaching cursive writing indicates that of course it is valuable. Note-taking by hand is valuable. Tactile learning is valuable.
It’s like when you are driving somewhere that you have never been before and you are behind the wheel as opposed to sitting in the passenger seat. The driver is more likely to remember the directions to the place because he or she has actually performed the action of following the directions to get there. The passenger may or may not have been paying attention; most likely they were on their phone, flipping through some social medium.
“Well now we have GPS – you can just log in the directions and it will tell you where to go,” you may argue. True. And that’s all well and good, unless your GPS wigs out on you, or there is a network failure.
Technology is wonderful – it saves lives, makes communication lightning-fast, and has myriad other advantages. But as I keep saying, it is not the end-all, be-all of society.
Be forewarned. Someday we may be asking Google Assistant: “Google, what’s my name?”
Jayne Flores is a seasoned journalist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.