Reading, Writing, and Ridiculous?



One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.

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228 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    On cursive, I agree. I do think that kids need a basic idea on how to do it, but it’s a pretty low priority. As I’ve gotten older, I type more than anything and when I write, I do so without cursive. With cursive, I write checks. That’s about it. A lot of the emphasis on cursive growing up was on pensmanship. It’s wasted time given how little communication occurs that way.

    On analog clocks, I disagree. It provided the foundation for my understanding of fractions. An immediately intuitive understanding of what “one-third” means (twenty minutes of the hour!) and so on. Plus, analog time devices rule and digital ones drool.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with teaching fractions using a timepiece.

      I’m not so certain that teaching time with a timepiece is a good use of time, though.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        But then it should be part of a fractions unit that is properly scoped and sequenced. Beating 5-year-olds heads against clocks is inane.Report

      • I dunno. I look back at the things I learned before I learned them, and I think they were helpful. At the lower level, analog time. At the higher level, baseball statistics. So when we got around to them in school, I was all like “I already know this!”Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

          I got fractions from discussion of pie, but I’m not about to suggest that first graders eat pies in class all day.

          I mean, pie. Nice and all. But lots of pie, bad for tummy.Report

          • Well, it’s only fair that I mention that I have always been chronobsessed. So I might have been particularly motivated. If you ever wanted to torture me as a kid, put me somewhere without a watch. Want me to learn fractions, put a clock on the wall that I can’t understand without understanding fractions.

            The tummy aches wouldn’t be the problem with using pie for me. The problem was that I would be too distracted by the pie to learn anything.Report

  2. Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

    I agree totally,

    On the special ed side of things, I am infuriated about the amount of time devoted to teaching my developmentally disabled son math and literacy versus life skills. I don’t care if he ever learns to read, it will make a far bigger difference to his life and all our lives if he learns to go to the bathroom and dress himself. But special ed just seems adapted straight from the regular curriculum.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

      I think this might be somewhat a part of what Malcolm Gladwell calls America’s “best culture”, which we opt for over a “better culture”. Instead of simply trying to make everyone better, we try to make everyone THE BESTEST! Some people aren’t going to be the bestest, but in attempting to make them so, we fail to make them better.

      There certainly are pros to this approach, but I don’t know that they outweigh the cons.Report

  3. Avatar Murali says:

    A few things:

    1. telling time on analogue clocks is a matter of pride, to be unable to do so is a matter of shame. The attitude is probably irrational, but I don’t remember taking all that much time to learn it. (The most appropriate time to teach them about time is when they have learnt how to multiply by 5. before that is almost an exercise in futility)

    2. I use cursive writing fairly often. It may be closer to a mongrel cursive, but at least some of the conventions that I learned when I was taught cursive writing have stuck with me when I have to do any casual writing by hand.

    3. 2nd grade is way too early to teach cursive writing. Maybe 5th and 6th grade is enough.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Murali says:

      I think we started cursive in third or fourth grade.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to NewDealer says:

        On further reflection, it is likely the age that is more of a bother for me than the content itself. You can probably teach a reasonably intelligent 24-year-old to read an analog watch in an hour. He’d likely master it in relatively short time from there, given opportunities to engage the skill.

        I wouldn’t be opposed to spending a week in 4th or 5th grade or at whatever point it is that kids have the requisite multiplication and spatial awareness skills.

        Cursive is similarly problematic in it’s time. Most second graders haven’t even mastered handwriting. Letter reversals are still developmentally appropriate in 1st grade! I learned cursive over about two months in 5th grade. So why are kids spending vast amounts of time over 2nd and 3rd grade learning it?

        And it is EXCRUCIATING to both teach and learn at those ages. It’s like teaching algebra to a fish… no one wins.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        It was fourth or fifth for me. I used to consider that too late, insofar as it was past the age where I was getting frustrated with my inability to read things that were cursive-written. But I don’t think that’s the issue now that it was 25 years ago.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

          Someone will eventually jump in and insist that we’ll never be able to read the Constitution without cursive.

          I also remember a teacher scolding me for using a cursive font on the computer, insisting that I should “always use the most readable font”. “Then why are we taught cursive?” “Shut up and go do your work.” “Oh.”Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

            If kids read the Constitution too early, they might get the wrong idea. Kids are kind of literal-minded, from what I understand.

            Seriously, I do think that learning how to read cursive is important at some point. You’re not really saying otherwise, though.Report

            • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Will Truman says:

              “Johnny, did you break all of the crayons?”

              “No, teacher.”


              “No, teacher.”


              “I don’t have to tell you. That’s in the Constitution!”Report

              • Avatar NewDealer in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                If it is a public school, she is technically a government employee.

                If I had a kid who said this, I would be rather impressed. You might still have to lecture them but I would be impressed and proud.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

                Scene II.

                “Jimmy, usually I’d make you stay after school. But I’m very happy about the way you learned the lesson, so you can just clean the whiteboards and go.”

                “You can’t do that, teacher. It’s an unusual punishment. And that’s not in the Constitution!”Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

              I do think one can learn to read cursive without learning the painstaking process of perfecting every single loop and swirl. It’s like figure skating, but worse.Report

              • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:

                I never learned how to do the capital “Q.” Of course, I “know” how to do it, but I never really did it. When I did write cursive, I just wrote a print “Q” and did the rest in cursive. I didn’t get the “2” thing for “Q.”Report

            • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Will Truman says:

              Erwin Cheminrinsky is one of the reigning deans of Constitutional Law. He also does the lectures of Bar Review.

              He told a cute story about how he once told his sons to be quiet because they were bickering over toys or baseball cards and his son said he had a free speech right. Dean Chemerinsky told his son”The Constitution only applies to the Government.” His son retorted “You are like the government to me”Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to NewDealer says:

                Thx for the heh heh, Mr. Deal. FTR, the family has the best form of government, that of the philosopher-king.

                [And the worst, when the king happens not to be a philosopher, which is almost always the case.]Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

            Of course, this makes me think: “If cursive is good enough for the Founding Fathers, then by heavens it’s good enough for grade schoolers.”

            Which reminds me of this classic: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”Report

          • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:

            “Someone will eventually jump in and insist that we’ll never be able to read the Constitution without cursive.”

            As a (aspiring) historian, I do think knowing cursive and the ability to read handwriting is valuable if you are going to go through handwritten documents. However, I was taught cursive–probably closer to 4th or 5th grade than 2nd grade–and it’s still really, really hard to read most handwritten letters from as early as 100 years ago.Report

        • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Will Truman says:

          It was fourth for me, and it was a big deal. All through third, we were told that next year we’d be able to read and write the same way grownups did. And I thought cursive was some sort of secret code, since I’d never been able to make heads or tails of anything written in it. What I learned in fourth grade was that cursive wasn’t that hard, but everyone in my family had really crappy handwriting.Report

          • What I learned in fourth grade was that cursive wasn’t that hard, but everyone in my family had really crappy handwriting.

            Replace “everyone in my family” with “grown-ups” and you’ve touched on an existential life lesson.Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I still think teaching kids to read time is useful. If only because there are still plenty of non-digital clocks and watches around. I use a non-digital watch (same one I’ve owned since I was 17. It was a high school graduation present).

    Cursive I am less sure about.Report

  5. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Cursive might also teach fine motor skills!Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to NewDealer says:

      No offense, but that is ass backwards. Kids should have well-developed fine motor skills before learning cursive. Cursive might teacher a particular subset of fine motor skills, but it won’t aid in the development of the base set of skills.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to NewDealer says:

      But doesn’t using a mouse do the same? I recall when my parents (born in the 1920s) first tried my computer my dad had a problem with the mouse, while my mother who did needlepoint had no problem with the mouse. So using a mouse should teach fine motor skills.Report

  6. Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

    Couldn’t you teach time in 6th grade or whatever when they’ll learn it in, like, 5 minutes?Report

  7. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Other than the need to sign documents, does anyone need – or even use – cursive any more?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I use it on checks (not just the signature part). Of course, I live in one of the receding parts of the country where I have to write four or five checks a month because organizations around here aren’t yet fully on board with alternative payment arrangements.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

        What’s a “check”?Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

          A pain in the rear. That’s what.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Kazzy says:

          A way to have a hardcopy record of the disbursement of funds and the receipt of same, which can be quite useful.

          It’s also an inherent gatekeeper on said disbursement. If I pay by paper check, then you don’t get the money until you get the check. And the money you get is what’s written on the check. There’s no way to, e.g., on a Friday afternoon at 4:30 PM claim that my phone bill is 12444.00 instead of 124.44 and screw my entire weekend.Report

          • Avatar Mlke Schilling in reply to DensityDuck says:

            And it’s not like some dufus could enter a check for $1000. 00 as $100,000 late on Friday so you’re overdrawn 90,000 all weekend.Report

            • Regulation QQ is a pretty effective safeguard against the doofus you describe. The OCR systems also are pretty good, and large transactions are subject to manual verification. If you deposit a check at an ATM all the checks are manually verified… by yoy. So don’t be a doofus.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Still, it happened to me. It was a check I’d written; I don’t know at what point in the process of its being deposited by the recipient and reported back to my bank the error occurred.Report

          • Avatar Ramblin' Rod in reply to DensityDuck says:

            A way to have a hardcopy record of the disbursement of funds and the receipt of same, which can be quite useful.

            Sort of. Checks only make it as far as the payee’s bank anymore, if that, where they’re scanned and then shredded. Some merchants just scan them at the point of purchase and they’re processed like a debit card.

            IIRC, Congress passed a law (or maybe the Fed made a rule, IDK) a few years ago that basically made the digital image of a check the legal equivalent of the physical cancelled check for purposes of proving payment.Report

            • Avatar Simon K in reply to Ramblin' Rod says:

              I don’t even have to take them to the bank any more – my credit union has an app that lets you photograph them and make the deposit that way. I guess it saves on shredder wear and tear.Report

      • Checks and signatures are about the only time I use it, too.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      It may just be experience, but I can scribble cursive a lot faster than I can scribble print. In classes that are heavy on math, where you just can’t type notes and keep up, fast is the important thing. I’ve been waiting 35+ years for the computer industry to give me a computer I/O device that’s as good as paper and pen for taking notes in a math class, or a meeting that’s heavy on math. And am beginning to think I won’t live long enough to get it.Report

      • I can scribble cursive a lot faster than I can scribble print.

        Me, too, but it’s counterproductive: I can’t read what I just wrote. Print forces me to slow down to legibility.Report

        • You motivated me to conduct a few experiments. Observations: (1) To my surprise, I print mixed-case text as quickly as I can write in cursive, or at least close enough that it’s not important. Cursive is clearly a habit, as I tend to break into it when I’m trying to print quickly. (2) Printing seems like slightly more work because of picking the pen tip up more often. That might make a difference over a large amount of text. Or as I mentioned in another comment, “attack” effects when using an old-fashioned dip pen might be more of a problem while printing, which would have encouraged cursive up through the invention of contemporary pen tech. (3) My printing is more legible. It’s also even more cramped than my cursive, which is saying something.Report

      • Avatar Fnord in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Cursive probably is faster than print, in some circumstances. For rapidly writing words on pen and paper, it’s probably the best tool, given enough experience in its use.

        But the reason I can’t take computerized notes effectively is equations and diagrams and graphs (not to mention arrows pointing every which way to connect related ideas). None of which cursive helps with. Writing words is not the issue.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I don’t even use it for that.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to James K says:

        My husband signs with a scribble. A very carefully designed scribble.
        Because he used to sign with a signature, until the bank started complaining that it didn’t match…Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kimmi says:

          A certain amount of variation is normal. One of the methods that used to be used to identify possible forgeries was a lack of the normal variation. A forger reproduces the signature more accurately than the real person. More recently, variations in pressure are often used — one of the reasons that so many things eventually require a real piece of paper with a real ink signature. Having a person sign on a sensitive pressure plate makes it possible to record the “rhythm” of the signature, which varies much less than the appearance, and is unforgeable for practical purposes. Even when people are instructed to write their signature differently — eg, sloped at a different angle, larger, smaller, spread out or compressed — the rhythm is still recognizable.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      No. They don’t. That’s why handwriting analysis is a dying art. People haven’t personalized their cursive enough anymore.Report

  8. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    I use handwritten notes and letters (with a fountain pen no less).

    Writing is more than the sum of the letters; typeface and composition are essential forms of the communication. Composing words and paragraphs by hand is a useful way to learn to express yourself by all these means.

    Many artists use digital media to compose artwork; but most still begin with hand sketching, for the same reason- there is an intuitive component that is difficult to express with the buttons and icons of a digital program;

    The keyboard, I suspect may actually be a dead end; I suspect that future generations of tablet computers will perfect the stylus as a way of more fully expressing thoughts.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Liberty60 says:

      Liberty60, no offense, but I think that you are dispositionally very conservative.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Murali says:

        I take it as a compliment.
        I am in fact cautious, careful, and see great value in tradition, stasis, stability and precedent.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Murali says:

        “I use handwritten notes and letters (with a fountain pen no less).”

        the vest kinda gives it away.

        typing is hella awesome. handwriting was certainly not. i remember suffering through penmanship in 4th grade and just doing the bare minimum amount of homework to pass. i also think i remember being told by my 4th grade teacher that doing this would screw up my chances of going to college but that seems too ridiculous to be true. the end result is that i type 120 wpm – even if i’m cappin’ – and my handwriting looks like a doctor who sneezed while being strangled.

        lessons to be learned from cursive? none. other than that busy work is a huge part of the public school process.Report

    • Avatar Nat C. in reply to Liberty60 says:

      “The keyboard, I suspect may actually be a dead end; I suspect that future generations of tablet computers will perfect the stylus as a way of more fully expressing thoughts.”

      If said stylus allows me to generate words at 80-100 words per minute, then I suppose it’s conceivable.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Nat C. says:

        At the very least, we can rid oursleves of QWERTY, yes?

        If anything replaces the keyboard, my guess is it will be digital tech… Voice-to-text, audio recordings, video, etc.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

          People need to learn how to type. Not saying you don’t, but learning how to type correctly means that you can type about as fast as you can talk-edit. I’m not sure that technology will ever close that gap. On the other hand, it may save our wrists. The next revolution may be OSHA-mandated!Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

            I’m a firm believer in touch-typing, or whatever approach allows someone to type quickly. I took keyboarding in high school as a filler and it might have served me better than any other indicidual class.

            I struggle with iPads and other touch screens. I’m curious to see what will bridge that gap.

            Learning the secret history of QWERTY is one of my funner bits of trivia to drop on people. That also came from keyboarding class.Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

              I took keyboarding in high school as a filler and it might have served me better than any other indicidual class.

              I voluntarily took touch typing (I’m old enough it wasn’t keyboarding) in summer school after I finished sixth grade. Quite possibly the best single decision I made in my time in K-12.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kazzy says:

              The QWERTY vs. DVORAK debate is highly overblown.

              The correct answer is: programmable keyboards.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

          Dude, you read my mind.Report

        • Avatar Nat C. in reply to Kazzy says:

          QWERTY might be more easily displaced by the Dvorak layout as physical keyboards are replaced by touch-interfaces, and one layout can be easily swapped with another.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

          I have nightmares about sitting in a cubicle farm, trying to dictate to my computer, and everyone in every other cubicle is doing the same thing at the same time. Headphones, just to deaden the ambient talking, become mandatory. Ditto sitting in a 300-seat lecture hall where all of the students are dictating notes into their laptops :^)Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Kazzy says:

          Even that is probably a mere stepping stone to neural interfaces.Report

  9. Avatar Riccardo says:

    I won’t mince words: you are dead wrong about the importance of cursive. It is not all that important that children learn to write cursive, but learning to write it is the best way to learn to read it, and that is important.

    Not being able to read cursive means being unable to read our own past. That packet of lovingly preserved letters you found in your grandmother’s bureau after she passed away? If you don’t read cursive, they might as well be in another language, one you don’t know. Reading historical documents from our past? Ditto.

    Failing to learn cursive is another step towards a dismal state of ignorance, where everything comes from a fuzzy present and we are increasingly unable to learn from our past.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Riccardo says:

      But it all becomes relative. Why don’t we still learn Latin then? Folks can translate ancient Latin documents. And folks can translate my grandmother’s cursive letters. Or I can learn myself later in life rather than waste two years of schooling.Report

    • Avatar Fnord in reply to Riccardo says:

      I could, perhaps, be convinced that some amount of writing practice is efficient for teaching people to read handwriting. But the current balance? The best way to learn to read handwriting is almost entirely writing practice, with barely any formal lessons on actually reading other peoples handwriting? Color me skeptical.Report

  10. Avatar Steve S. says:

    “cursive writing.”

    Yeah, I’m a luddite and even I only use it to sign my name. Waste of time.

    “telling time on analog clocks”

    This one confuses me. I have a distinct memory of my older sisters telling me, at about the age of four or five, about the big hand and the little hand and the second hand and my response was, “oh, okay.” That is, I learned how to tell analog time in no time, so to speak. Much as I’d like to believe I was an exceptional child, I don’t think I was. Seriously, how long could it possibly take even a dense child to pick this up? I’m going to say that this should still be taught, both because there are still lots of public clocks that display analog time and because sometimes you have to teach children basic stuff just for the sake of identifying the slow ones.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Steve S. says:


      If it was taught more naturally, I’d have less of a boggle with it. But when I watch 5-year-olds (5-year-olds!) go through worksheet after worksheet where they have to figure out what little pictures of clocks mean or drawing hands onto blank clocks, I want to burn the building down.Report

      • Avatar Steve S. in reply to Kazzy says:

        So then we need to teach it more naturally rather than not at all, right? To reiterate, I was no Mozart but I had this down before I even started school, so when the teacher handed me the worksheet there should have been a way for the teacher to say, “This kid’s already got this down, let’s move on.” I’m all for that. But I still think, based on my recent experiences in public places, that reading analog time is a useful thing to know.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Kazzy says:

        1) In a classroom of 20 or 30 students, it’s the only real way to make sure they’re actually doing it and doing it right.

        One-on-one, you can tell if a kid is paying attention, if a kid gets the concept. 20 at a time? Not so much.

        2) Repitition is particularly key at the grade school age. (It’s always useful for solidifying understanding, but especially so at a younger age).

        Kids, basically, need to do stuff over and over to internalize it. This can be taken to ridiculous extremes, yes. But what would be boring tedium to an adult is useful to a child.

        Always bear in mind when it comes to kids: Their brains don’t work like adults. At times they don’t work even vaguely like an adults, and that includes how they learn. Especially how they learn.

        You can’t teach most third graders the way you’d teach a seventh grader . Well you CAN, it’s just kinda useless and you’re wasting a lot of time an energy.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Morat20 says:

          Kids, basically, need to do stuff over and over to internalize it. This can be taken to ridiculous extremes, yes. But what would be boring tedium to an adult is useful to a child.

          A lot of teachers in the district use Direct Instruction. I can see why (some) teachers hate it so much. It’s mind-numbing.

          The kids, though, (particularly at the younger ages) actually seem to enjoy it. Or they are at least really into it. Kids have an appreciation for procedure, routine, and repetition that I would never have guessed.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Trumwill says:

            Differently wired brains. 🙂 Well, to be honest, brains still in the process of wiring up.

            The way our brains mature from an infant to an adult is a fascinating topic, and anyone talking about education — from politicians to teachers — needs to be aware of it.

            Teaching without understanding at least the consequences of neurology isn’t pointless, but it’s not nearly as effective. Not even remotely.

            New Math as a classic example. 🙂 It might have been awesome in theory, but kids don’t think that way. You can’t teach abstract set theory to most little kids — their brains aren’t wired for abstractions like that.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Morat20 says:

              New Math wasn’t half bad. It was taught stupidly. I taught set theory to my kids with their (enormous) box of Legos. It was easy enough to have them sort out their blocks by type and function, but they all ended up in the same box at the end of the day.

              With little kids, it’s easy to teach math from the physical world.Report

  11. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Kids should also learn to drive manual-transmission cars.

    And learn to saddle a horse, and ride it. Horses are very important to personal transportation.Report

    • Avatar Ramblin' Rod in reply to DensityDuck says:

      DD, I grew up on a farm without horses, while my wife grew up on a ranch. Typical teenage cowgirl thing… her horse was her best friend.

      So at some point in our marriage we had opportunity to do some riding. I thought, ‘How hard can this be?’

      I have yet to live that day down more than twenty years later.Report

  12. Avatar Kazzy says:

    No jokes, most kids would rather learn either of those than time or cursive.Report

  13. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    Times tables [calcalater], spelling [spelchek], foreign languages [babelfish], music theory []. I have no sense of rhythm but I can program a drum machine. I’m like Ringo and Neil Peart except they need there whole body. I only need 2 fngrs.

    Sports is covered, whether virtual [Xbox] or virtually virtual [Wii Sports].

    I’m working on virtual weightlifting program. Lifted 10 million pounds the other day. Then I had a soda.Report

  14. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I was one of those kids who brought home all As and Bs and a D in Penmanship. (We still graded “Penmanship” back then.)

    I got in trouble when it comes to test taking because, quite often, I would write sentences but leave words out because my hands didn’t keep up with my thoughts. Typing became the most wonderful thing in the world for me.

    If I think we need to change anything, we need to start teaching Dvorak instead of Qwerty. Let the children of the future learn to type even faster!!!Report

  15. Avatar dexter says:

    The reason that America won’t change to the metric system is because it would hurt companies that make box ends and rachets because then mechanics will only need half as many tools.
    Kazzy, metres are easy. Unless there are a huge number of them think of them as yards.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to dexter says:

      Dexter (and Will above)-

      I know the basic math and could have figured it out. But do we ever talk about distances in terms of feet or yards? I just didn’t have a frame of reference for it. For whatever reason, the nonstandard-outside-of-Manhattan unit of blocks is more familiar than meters or even feet and yards. Fractions of a mile also work. But if I said, “I live 1000 feet from here, it’d probably take you more than a second to have a concrete sense of what that meant.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

        Oh, a kilofoot?Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

        But do we ever talk about distances in terms of feet or yards?

        I guess it depends on what you grow up with. I spent plenty of time outdoors with Dad and Grandpa doing hiking and hunting sorts of things, and most distances were in yards. “Mike, do you see the coyote behind the oak tree 40 yards that way?” or “The antelope is at about 250 yards, you’ll need to hold six inches high.” Pretty much everything under a half-mile was in yards.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

        do we ever talk about distances in terms of feet or yards?

        This ties in really with with your lack of interest in college football…. 😉Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

          Football is actually the only frame of reference I have for yardage. Even in golf, if they talk about a guy hitting it 270 yards, I think, “Wow, that’s more than two whole football fields.” Still, since most of us aren’t running up and down a football field, our concrete understanding of yardage as a distance is weak.

          Generally speaking, I think about concrete understanding of many things is poor, largely because we only learn them abstractly. Pretty much everyone knows (or should know) that there are 3 feet in a yard and 5280 feet in a mile and so on and so forth. But if you asked someone to start at a given point and walk a given distance, without counting steps or anything, they’d probably do horribly. Hell, ask people to hold their hands one foot apart and they likely won’t be within 4 inches.Report

  16. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I hated cursive. I’ve always printed. My parents always printed. My grandparents printed. My parents told me to do as I was told in penmanship class but to abandon cursive immediately.

    But the analogue clock, different story. The 60-based Sumerian numbering scheme is far older than the 100-based system.

    Fractions, ecch. I taught my kids mathematics, trig and calculus myself. That “pie” analogy was tossed out immediately. A fraction is a relationship between two numbers. It is not dessert. Swear to Christmas, I have yet to meet an elementary school teacher with any mathematical ability. All they do is screw up those poor kids’ minds and make them hate math. The kids hate math because the teachers hate it.

    If I had my druthers, I would teach math using the Cave Man’s Calculator, the sky.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I’m with BP. Cursive; useless but analog clocks.. I don’t know.. the grandfather clock… the sundial… there’s something primal about those clock faces.Report

    • Avatar Ramblin' Rod in reply to BlaiseP says:

      But the analogue clock, different story. The 60-based Sumerian numbering scheme is far older than the 100-based system.

      This is probably the best reason to teach the analog clock in early elementary school. They’re going to need the notion of minutes and seconds when they learn about measuring angles in degrees. And unlike everything else, the metric system doesn’t presume to change that.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Ramblin' Rod says:

        The new, non-digital non-linear clock: THERE IS NO TIME, ONLY NOW.

        Credit where it’s due:—clock-phrases

        SECOND PLACE: Time to get up and resume your rantings about “modern advances.”
        T.S. Ross, Onalaska, WA

        THIRD PLACE: It is now too late to accomplish anything today.
        Lorri Nandrea, Forest Grove, ORReport

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Ramblin' Rod says:

        They’re going to need the notion of minutes and seconds when they learn about measuring angles in degrees. And unlike everything else, the metric system doesn’t presume to change that.

        The SI unit for angles is Radian. The conversion is 180° = π radianReport

        • Avatar Ramblin' Rod in reply to Murali says:

          Yeah. And I knew that; should’ve remembered it. Probably the worst of the metric “improvements.” It’s great for mathematicians; sucks for everyone else.

          Do even Canadians bother to use radians vice degrees?Report

          • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Ramblin' Rod says:

            No. I learned radians in high school math class, and may have used them in chem; I don’t remember for what. Degrees are used for everything else.Report

            • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to KatherineMW says:

              The point of radians is to make calculus work better: the derivative of sin() is cos(), rather than (?/180)cos(). It’s the same as the reason for natural logarithms (logarithms base e) rather than base 10: the derivative of ln(x) is 1/x, and no other base has that property.

              That aside, there’s no advantage to radians over degrees, and I’d be shocked to ever hear anyone say “What a flip-flopper! He made a ? radians turn on that!”Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                If you see question marks above, they should both read “π”.Report

              • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                Oh, right, logs. I covered them in high school, and again in first-year university, and promptly forgot them as soon as class was over. Ditto with university calculus.

                Gah. I loved math through Grade 11, and then as soon as we got into logs and calculus and freaking derivatives that part of my brain stopped working. I somehow managed good grades while retaining nothing.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to KatherineMW says:

                Am convinced there are two types of people in this world: peopel who love calculus (and geometry), and those who love trig.
                I’m the former.Report

              • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kimmi says:

                I actually liked geometry. Limits were when things stopped making sense.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to KatherineMW says:

                Limits are the hard idea in calculus. I don’t think I understood them properly until I learned some topology and realized that the deltas and epsilons are actually defining open sets on the source and target spaces. (On topological spaces, a continuous function is one where the pre-image of every open set is also open.)

                That probably sounds like gibberish. The point is that I didn’t understand limits until I could picture them geometrically.Report

              • As Mike points out, limits are incredibly clunky because they’re taught in a super hand-wavy fashion – “Imagine a small box and shrink it to nothing!” or similar. Given that you need to learn the mechanics of calculus and you basically don’t need to learn how to prove the theorems, it’s hard to imagine a sensible way around that.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to KatherineMW says:

                In my high-school math class, we did rigorous epsilon-delta proofs, and ever learned techniques for estimating delta in terms of epsilon. I got to where could do the algebra, but absent the geometrical insight it made no intuitive sense.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW says:

                Along with the Pie Metaphor, the Shrinking Box of Limits should be routed straight to /dev/null . Start with the idea of a sequence of values.Report

              • Start with the idea of a sequence of values.

                That’s a good image, and I use it when I teach calculus as a “here’s a way to think about it” step. Unfortunately, if you’re going to be rigorous, you end up with “the limit (or derivative or continuity) exists if and only if all such sequences converge to the same value.” And the proof for that is usually a variation on epsilon-delta. When most calculus classes get to multiple variables, students will spend some time finding sequences that converge to different values in order to show that a particular function doesn’t have a limit at a particular point.

                The problem with most calculus classes is that the students aren’t segregated by what they need to get out of the class. Math majors have to understand limits deep down inside. Engineers, not at all. And business majors — well, there’s a reason that a lot of places have separate calculus-for-business-majors classes.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW says:

                That’s an excellent observation, MC. Suit the calculus to the student by its needful elements. Though there are a whole zoo of limits, I found a useful roadmap to a great many of the more common ones.

                Taking apart the simpler ones, such as the trig limits with epsilon-delta shows how to manage the stunt.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to KatherineMW says:

                I think I’ve mentioned the cartoon guide to calculus before.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW says:

                There’s a cure for that. Don’t allow small children to encounter quadratic equations until much later in their mathematical career, after they’ve mastered the basics of first-order calculus.

                I won a bet with the school principal, a good friend of mine, first-rate human being, the best educator I ever knew — that I could teach a classroom full of sixth-graders the rudiments of calculus in one afternoon.

                Took those kids out to the soccer field, set up a tennis ball machine and started firing balls. The boys would run out to stand where the ball had landed, the girls would spool out the surveyor’s tape to where the boy stood. They’d write down the X and Y for each launch, computing a firing table for that tennis ball machine. Another little team dedicated to Altitude learned to use an old theodolite so we could plot the curve.

                It was all downhill from there. All straight out of Servois.

                Math is generally taught in historical order. The farther we get in mathematics, the closer we come to the present day. I contend children would be far more interested in mathematics if they received just enough algebra to proceed on to calculus, the math of the real world.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

                reality is not continuous.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

                Reality is, however, amenable to a series of observations. Remember, Kepler put the sun at the centre because it made calculations easier.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kimmi says:

                reality is not continuous.

                As Box famously said, all models are wrong, but some turn out to be useful. There are a lot of cases where the math works out enormously easier under the assumption of continuity. I spent years applying optimization algorithms to real-life situations. Finding the maximum of a continuous nonlinear function in several variables is usually straightforward; with a discrete version of the problem, the usual first step is to determine if the continuous version gets you close enough to a suitable answer; if not, you’re into a whole ‘nother class of algorithms that run a lot slower. Economists, to choose an example, twist themselves into pretzels in the theory of micro to justify treating things as continuous (also differentiable, convex, and compact). A good economics prof will at least mention that one of the reasons for using models that are all of those things is so that the math is tractable.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Kimmi says:

                Which is where we get the old joke about assuming horses are spherical because it makes the math easier.

                Which is true. And, ultimately, you have to do *something*, because there’s no answer more wrong than no answer.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Kimmi says:

                there’s no answer more wrong than no answer.

                A. No answer.
                B. He does, and I am the complete authority on his goal and desires, and if you don’t like it, I’ve got a burning stake with your name on it.

                I prefer A.Report

              • That aside, there’s no advantage to radians over degrees, and I’d be shocked to ever hear anyone say “What a flip-flopper! He made a ? radians turn on that!”

                And in a world where everything is calculated by hand, degrees have an advantage over radians in applications such as surveying and navigation. Even if the ancient Greeks had done their theoretical thing in radians, those practical applications require some standardized small unit to use for measurements. 360 of ’em to a full circle is quite handy for calculations if for no other reason than 360 has so many factors. You can divide by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15… and the answer comes out as an integer.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Michael Cain says:

                That is pretty good compared to “All the answers are between 0 and 7, and all but one of the useful ones are transcendental”,Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Ramblin' Rod says:

        When I went through orienteering and field artillery school, the military had converted to the mils system, with 6400 degrees. I never much liked the mils system. The lensatic compass I used had both systems.Report

  17. Avatar dexter says:

    Kazzy, I agree with that. If the bar was two hundred metres away I would have said it is in the next block or just around the corner.
    All I know about celsius is that 31 is hotter than I like and 0 is not very cold.Report

  18. Avatar Mr. Harris says:

    I’m sorry, I just waisted 15 minutes reading all these comments only to see that none of them bothers to mention that cursive ISN’T taught with any regularity in most of the schools in this country. The adoption of the Common Core Curriculum by (what is it now, 48 states?) signals the end of cursive as it is no longer going to be a requirement for schools operating under these new, nationally orchestrated standards. As a teacher myself of the middle grades I can tell you most students who enter my classroom do not know, not have been taught how, to write in script. So, to answer THAT part of your question, it appears that U.S. education is already in agreement with the members of the League.

    As for teaching children how to tell time in math class, as a father of a child that just went through that phase of his elementary curriculum, I can say that it was a lot harder for him to learn than I assumed it would be. To his teacher’s credit, she didn’t belabor the topic. Once all the students demonstrated a proficiency for the skill she moved on and never looked back.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mr. Harris says:

      Mr. Harris-

      Thank you for weighing in. I’ve taught exclusively in independent schools, all of which still teach cursive. I have a passing familiarity with state standards, though likely not as much as you. My question is this: Is the exclusion of cursive mean that it is no longer taught? Or that it is simply not mandated?

      I have seen a handful of articles about eliminating cursive, with at least one arguing about the demise of it, which signals at least some schools have moved away from it.Report

      • Avatar Mr. Harris in reply to Kazzy says:

        Yes Kazzy, you probably saw some of the same articles I was looking at when I made my post. The new Common Core Curriculum doesn’t mandate it so public school districts across the country will no longer need to teach it. In my state of New York (although, like you I’m originally a Masshole) they haven’t thought cursive, or script, officially since the 80s. It’s not one of those subjects that has had a lot of support in the edusphere over the years. There are always arguments bouncing around regarding which subjects should make the cut given the scarcity of the school day and the increasing need to spend time teaching to standardized tests. There’s also this push to make students more “tech savvy” (as if that’s a problem facing our youngest) and some of the thought seems to be that typing is already a more important skill than writing neatly. As a teacher I can tell you anicdotally that I’ve noticed a steady decline In the quality of handwriting since I began nearly 9 years ago.

        I see from earlier posts that there has been a lively discussion going on regarding which topics should or shouldn’t be taught. I think technology and the needs of business will always drive instructional priorities as has been the case since public education became near universal in the 1880s.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mr. Harris says:

          Mr. Harris-

          First off, let me formally welcome you to these parts. WELCOME! If, of course, you are not new and I’ve somehow missed you all this time, let me apologize. SORRY!

          When it comes down to educational debates, I am often a broken record with, “Why can’t it be both/and?” I see no reason we can’t abandon cursive, still develop legible handwriting, and help kids develop the necessary tech skills to be considered “tech savvy”… whatever that means. Is it easy? No. It is further complicated in public schools with state standards? Sure. I’m not faulting schools or teachers who don’t take this approach, but so often these debates seem to be of the ilk that we can only do one of two things and there is no conceivable way to do both or to blend the two. I generally object to this mindset, especially as a starting point.

          If schools are moving away from cursive and using the time previously spent on it for meaningful, more relevant learning, I applaud the move. If there is a noticeable decline in related skills that can’t properly be accounted for and can only be taught through cursive, I am entirely open to revisit my thesis here.

          Regardless, I welcome you and your opinions to the posts here. As an early childhood independent school teacher, I am but one voice. I hope you continue to weigh in with your perspective. If I may ask, what part of NY are you in now? I’m in the Hudson Valley region.Report

          • Avatar Mr. Harris in reply to Kazzy says:


            I teach social studies at a large neighborhood middle school deep in the heart of Brooklyn, NY. I’ve been enjoying this forum for a while now but felt compelled to weigh in on a topic I know a little bit about. As far as the current debates about education, of which there are many, It’s easy to take a firm position only to find that there’s a mountain of evidence to weigh through and conclusions based on that evidence are often, shall we say, inconclusive.

            Of this I feel relatively certain:

            1. Children who attend private schools already have many more advantages in life than students who don’t and there fore are more likely to be successful in life (finantially). The schools they attend should continue to feel obliged to employ whatever educational philosophy they want to because it’s not going to make a huge difference one way or the other. If they want to teach script, Latin, or African basket weaving – have at it. Even if their students don’t receive all the academic skills they need in those schools they’re still more likely to receive them somewhere else.

            2. Large, urban public school districts face far more challenges than smaller, suburban districts and increased reliance on standardized tests to track student, teacher, and school progress is actually making the problem worse and not better.

            3. There are so many special interest groups with their hands in the public education cookie jar that the current trend of singling out teacher’s unions for blame is, in fact, a bait and switch being performed by conservatives who would like to privatize public education, private corporations seeking to get their meat hooks on the over 600 billion educational dollars spent each year, and centrist Democratic politicians from the federal level on down who have been forced to play the role of deficit hawks during the economic slow down.

            There’s a whole lot more I could add but these seem to be the big hot button topics of our time Personally, I think the U.S. is such a large and diverse country that wrangling education into a coherent entity that reflects some sort of core values and beliefs that all Americans share is a nearly impossible task. I actually applaud Obama for trying to do it with national standards even though I disagree with some of his other education positions.

            Skills are still now, and always have been, a lense through which we view our own beliefs about what an educated person should look like. The “math is valuable/math is useless” debate is a good example of this. But what usually ends up getting taught are the skills identified by the business and professional world as those needed to be successful in certain fields. A solid understanding of Latin and Greek will no doubt lead to an excellent verbal score on the SAT but where else in the real world will these skills be needed? Thus these skills are no longer taught, along with the classics that were originally written in those languages. Well, you might argue that good SAT scores will lead to admittance to a more selective University, and a more selective University will lead to better job prospects later on. So, the “real” world of business and opportunity has often seen educational pursuits through a selective and rather narrow lense, yet it has had an outsized impact on what ends up getting taught in our nation’s public schools.

            Currently education is becoming more and more like a job that students trudge their way through from the early years on. The evidence is growing that more and more young people are filtering through the system and coming though the other side with feeling of resentment towards the experience. I always looked at school as a canvas that I had to fill in with knowledge and experience, not a resume where I ticked off every accomplishment as though it were just one more step on the ladder to financial independence.

            Well, as you can see I’m rambling now. Probably why I don’t post more often. I would love to hear others thoughts on this.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mr. Harris says:

              There must be something about being a teacher and being prone to long-winded rants, as I could likely match what you’ve written here in a single parenthetical aside.

              That being said, there isn’t much I’d disagree with here. Which is why I’ll avoid saying much because I assuredly wouldn’t say it as well as you’ve said here. In these very threads, there has been a request that I post more on education theory stuff and, if it tickles your fancy, I’d encourage you to submit some guest posts to help get that conversation going. You’ve got a really thoughtful and evidence-based perspective here, which I appreciate, as I tend to come at my conclusions through other means. I like the balance you offer.

              Brooklyn! Where were you during our recent hipster conversation? I was in Manhattan for a while, attending grad school and working in Chelsea.Report

              • Avatar Mr. Harris in reply to Kazzy says:

                Hipsters! Where!

                What a wield phenomenon. Like the elusive libertarian, I’ve never really understood what qualifies a person to be a “hipster.” I live with my wife and 2 children on the Upper West Side but when I first came to New York I lived in the East Village and I remember watching the neighborhood gentrify, become more expensive, and force younger, predominantly white, inhabitants to move to Williamsburgh. I feel like that was the Genesis of the hipster in New York. Before that I don’t know what the term was for these people. It’s funny that I don’t identify with them because if there was a checklist I could probably tick off the same categories as they could. I think if there was a poll most people would probably not self-identify as hipsters yet others might identify them as such.

                I’ll try to take my post and work it into something more substantial. It’s the beginning of the year so I have to work overtime setting up my classes but when I have a minute, I would love to follow the responses of “The League.” it’s a fun group. Also, I might like to change my name to something a little less formal than Mr. Harris. I quite like the sound of Professor Tinkles, but I can run that up the flag pole first.Report

  19. Avatar Morat20 says:

    I think one thing you need to bear in mind is that kids brain’s aren’t fully formed, and they lack (especially at the grade school level) a ton of things you and I would take for granted.

    Teaching them to tell time? Maybe a waste, maybe not — but what would you replace it with? And can they actually learn it? (One of the biggest problems with New Math was the fact that, prodigies aside, kids aren’t wired to think in abstract terms at the age they started teaching it. You can give them all the set theory you want, but if their little brains are only good for concrete concepts, it’s wasted time).

    Cursive — and printing — is basically repititive letter recognition. Like multiplication tables and basic addition and subtraction are unto math (the bedrock upon which you no longer think about when doing calculus), so it hours of practicing writing words. (It helps that some kids learn much better by doing than hearing or seeing). If they write it out, cursive or print, you know they’re doing it. And remembering it. You don’t see a word and spell out the letters — it’s because when you were a kid, you had the various ways a “d” can be written burned into your brain through constant practice reading and writing it.

    As for clocks — the world is littered with analog time-pieces. Again, this is of the nature of instinct-level understanding. I look at an analog clock and do not think “the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the 3, it’s 3:00” — I just see “3 o clock”. It’s instilled through drill.

    Maybe it’s pointless drill, but again — lots of analog clocks out there. It’s probably fairly useful in math — it does introduce kids to the concepts of fractions in a very visible, but low-key way.

    Frankly, it’s always a good idea to give kids some concrete examples to fall back on at that age. You don’t have to tell the little squirts it’s fractions, but their little brains are gonna already have the basic concept there — because they can see, with their own eyes, an hour divided into smaller units.Report

  20. Avatar James K says:

    I definitely agree on cursive, I was never able to learn cursive, and it doesn’t appear to have affected my success in life.

    I can see you point when it comes to analogue clocks too. Wristwatches are rapidly becoming as much of an anachronism / fashion accessory as pocket watches. In the future, the primary timepiece people will use is their phones.Report

  21. Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

    Man, cursive is the absolute worst. The only time I’ve ever used it is when I was in school and they forced me to use it. I have literally never wanted it for anything I have had a choice about.

    Except addressing my wedding invitations, I guess.Report

  22. Avatar Kimmi says:

    My analog clock story of the week:
    I used to work in a College-level Math Learning Center. Like every place else on campus, it had an analog clock. One time, when we were cleaning, the clock fell off the wall. So we got the tallest tutor to put the clock back up on the wall.

    He put it up with the 1 on top. Everyone had a great big laugh — turns out he never did learn how to tell analog time.

    Great at tutoring calculus though.Report

  23. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Wait, kazzy’s a FPer now? I await the imminent onset of the apocalypse, with aerial swine swooping through frozen hells!

    But more (or less) seriously, I am almost incapable of cursive writing beyond my own signature, which itself is such poor script writing that only the first letters of my names are legible (and only a couple other letters are even plausibly present–the rest replaced by a swoop that stands in for the space they would occupy). To write in cursive requires concentrated focus and thought for me, and at my best I never earned above a D in handwriting. Perhaps cursive has aesthetic value, for those who can do it reasonably well, but I’ve never found much value to it myself.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

      I’ve been a FP’er for probably about a month now. Outside of my intro post, this is the first non-Off-the-Cuff post I’ve done. I’m not really one for the whole “researching and writing a good post” thing.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

        Dude, we don’t have half the education theory posts we need. This was a good one.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

          It was either this or a post about meatloaf.

          I’m still not sure I made the right call.

          But now that I’m back into the swing of things, not only will being on a regular routine likely lead to MORE posts, but being back in school will likely lead to at least some of them being about school.

          Of course, when it’s meatloaf day in the cafeteria, all bets are off…Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

            Yes, well, I’m expecting a five-paragraph essay about the X different ways you’ve found that children learn, in your experience of teaching children.

            Like, say that you’re going to be teaching a particular concept (I don’t even know what to suggest) and you start with teaching it this way, which some chunk of kids automatically get and some chunk of kids don’t… and then you switch to teaching this other way which takes care of almost all of the kids, leading up to the third (and fourth? (and fifth?)) way to talk about it which takes care of all of the kids.

            Start pondering.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

              Heh… that’s my life, man.

              While you can increasingly expect older students to adapt to the methods of the teacher, you can’t expect that of young children. I’ve got to adapt to them. Everything is done and presented in a myriad of ways with the hope that at least one of them will hit each kid. If some are still missing it, you look at more direct one-on-one support and/or start looking at possible learning differences. I could write about that for days, though it generally breaks down along Gardner’s multiple intelligences (the original 8, at least… I think he’s up to 9 million now or something).

              Happy to draw up a post on that if there is a real interest.Report

          • Avatar dexter in reply to Kazzy says:

            The thought of meatloaf singing 2 out of 3 ain’t bad while eating is enough to make me scream” can I go back to class now and practice cursive?”.Report

  24. Avatar Sierra Nevada says:

    Even in the digital age, legible writing skills are still well worth teaching. Many, many job applicants for entry level jobs don’t make it to the interview process because the of illegible scrawl on an application form.

    Problem is, cursive writing is, at best, not very legible. I won’t get into the institutional issues whereby bad curriculum persists in the system, but for any interested primary educators, I will suggest an alternative: Getty-Dubay. They are two Oregon women who came up with a sensible curriculum that teaches an Italic print script followed by a Joined Italic (not cursive) script. It has been adopted by the state of Oregon and is taught in Portland. It produces good results that allows kids with decent fine motor control to produce very good results that can be written fast, and for kids with poor fine motor control, allows them to produce a very readable script with reasonable speed (something that NO cursive script will ever do).Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Sierra Nevada says:

      How many years? Maybe it’s just me, but I see it as a remarkable waste of time to take a bright kid and have him spend four years learning cursive (or print).

      When you make things mandatory, everyone needs to be good at them.

      We don’t even make most of high school math mandatory… Why cursive?Report

      • Avatar Sierra Nevada in reply to Kimmi says:

        Tasks that require fine motor control are not a waste of time at the primary education level. Any task, be it penmanship, painting, or any other craft that forces the fingers to act according to a directive from the child’s brain, is extremely important.

        What makes cursive a waste of time is that it is an anachronistic (modern pens don’t need to stay in contact with the paper as much as quills did) and poorly thought out means of written expression. Even the best cursive writing is difficult to read, and if a kid is in any way not the best at fine motor skills, almost completely illegible.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Sierra Nevada says:


      Legible writing skills need not entail script. In fact, every form I’ve ever seen requires print, in part because everyone’s script differs and are only similar in that they are all unreadable.Report

  25. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Cursive is useful, because it acts as a signaling device to separate the Educated Elite (who “write”) from the loutish oiks (who “print”).


    What surprises me is not that schools still insist on teaching cursive, but that they don’t insist on teaching typing. Of course, maybe they have the right idea, because we’ve skipped right over typing and now it’s all done with thumbs.Report

  26. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    I’ve always wondered how much cursive in common use was a response to the writing instruments of the day. When you look at, for example, Civil War diaries, the “hand” appears to me to be very good at avoiding the problems of pushing (as opposed to pulling or drawing sideways) a steel nib on soft or rough paper. When I was a kid, I used a dip pen with a sharp steel nib for drawings from time to time. On good paper, with a very light hand, it was possible to push the tip. For something like casual writing, my experience was that you wanted to avoid pushing at all costs, especially at the beginning of a stroke.

    Not an issue for ball points or roller balls today, of course.Report

  27. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    I use cursive for everything I write (to the point where I’m unused to printing, and my printing is slow and messy when I have to fill out forms), but in a world where pretty much everything is written on computers, there’s not much of a point to teaching it to people anymore. The main thing in its favour is that it provides a faster method of note-taking than printing does, and we still don’t take all our notes on computers (though with the advent of the iPad and do-everything-phone, we may not be far away from that). We could probably leave it out of the curriculum.

    Most watches are still analog rather than digital (and pretty much all classy-looking watches are), so knowing how to tell time is still a useful skill, but it doesn’t really seem like one that should need to be taught in school. It’s something your parents should be able to teach you.

    Even with the omnipresence of calculators, I think teaching math throughout elementary school is useful because of the way it exercises and develops your brain (though I don’t have any deep understanding of neural development processes, so please correct me on that if I’m wrong). Long division can go, though – I’ve never needed it outside of the few grades when I was learning it. Multiplication table is still useful, though.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to KatherineMW says:

      memorization ought to go. if you can’t solve
      6*9 in three easy ways, then what has school really taught you?Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kimmi says:

        Memorization is good for basic things. It’s the difference between having to think about an answer for a while, and just knowing it immediately. If you’re immediately aware of the basics, then you have more time to spend thinking about and figuring out the more complicated stuff.

        Heck, basically my first two years of university-level biology were memorization, just to give us a baseline for actually thinking about and studying the complicated stuff. Until the basics are second nature to you, you can’t move forward at any speed.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to KatherineMW says:

          and for those who are relatively poor at memorization?
          you’ve just created roadblocks to knowledge.

          4 years of a college physics education — memorizing simple problems that aren’t at all like real world solutions, and whose answers don’t let you solve the real world any easier. I’m certain there are good bits of biology which are the same way…Report

          • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kimmi says:

            You don’t go to university to learn skills for everyday life. If you haven’t learnt those by the end of high school, that’s a problem with our high school system.

            You go to university to learn, in depth, about the field in which you want to pursue a career (or, if you have lots of disposable time and money, just to learn in depth about a field that interests you). In my case, that was molecular biology. Very little of what I learned would be used in the “real world” by a typical person. All of what I learned would be useful for someone pursuing research in molecular biology. The average person doesn’t need to know all the different parts of a cell and the main proteins in the cell membrane and their functions, but you do need to know those things if you want to be able to read and quickly understand academic papers in that field.

            In physics, you shouldn’t be memorizing problems, just how to do them. But you should be able to remember the basic formulas for force, work, power, etc. that enable you to solve them.

            If someone isn’t good at memorizing things, then they should go into a field where large amounts of memorization aren’t necessary.Report

            • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to KatherineMW says:


            • Avatar Kimmi in reply to KatherineMW says:

              In MOST fields, large amounts of memorization aren’t necessary. Particularly if you’re solving novel (or hard) problems.

              I’m not particularly talking about the frosh physics stuff — that you can solve ten ways to sunday, and each way’s valid. I’m more thinking quantum or e&m, where the number of problems that you can solve is quite finite. (see patrick’s bitching about what a solution is.) let alone hydrodynamics…Report

      • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Kimmi says:

        Seriously? Every time you need to multiply two numbers, you’d do repeated addition instead?

        The mind “b” +”o” + “g” + “g” + “l” + “e” + “s”.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to KatherineMW says:


      Are you a teacher?

      I had a teacher in 5th grade who required cursive. She also taught cursive, which seemed a much more reasonable age to do it. I learned it quickly and the slightly faster method combined with my previously horrible print penmanship made me a fan. For a long time, everything I wrote was in cursive and, when not harried, was incredibly legible. Over time, as typing became more common, my cursive fell off and my print completely deteriorated. I can (and still do) chicken scratch together a hybrid that works for me but even I have trouble reading and no one else even tries. I also had to re-learn print when I began teaching it to my 4-year-olds. It has vastly improved and has made my chicken scratch better.

      I personally am a huge pragmatist when it comes to “writing”. The idea is to record thoughts and ideas in the written form. So long as these are intelligible to the necessary audience, you’ve done your job. I know others have very different theories on this and that there is no objectively “correct” one, but that is where I’m at.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:

        Nope, not a teacher. But after being expected to use handwriting all through school (until university, when most of what you hand in is typed) it became second nature.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to KatherineMW says:

          You seem to have a really sound sense of education and learning. Your perspective has been really valuable here. Thanks!Report

          • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:

            Thank you!Report

          • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:

            Can I propose a subject for a later post? I’m not sure which grades you teach or if it’s within your area of expertise, but it would be very interesting to have a discussion on how we teach literature in school (especially high school).

            I’m always hearing complaints that the books assigned in school are too boring, but the problem seems to go deeper. If I had read The Hobbit the way I read school-study media – one chapter at a time, analyze the chapter, look for vocabulary, similes, metaphors, themes, etc., go on to the next chapter – I would hate it, which would be tragic. It’s a method that immediately deadens a book. Same with Shakespeare – my favourite plays are, probably not coincidentally, ones I did not study in high school. (Shakespeare, however, arguably shouldn’t be taught as literature at all – he wrote plays, and having the students watch them as plays – or if that’s unaffordable, as good film versions – where the visuals help them grasp the archaic language, would be more enjoyable and more true to the medium.)

            But what’s the solution? I enjoy books most when I read them over a few sittings and a couple of days, and that would also enable students to discuss the book as a whole rather than as a series of segments, and not forget the first half of the book before they finish the second half. That works better for working out themes and meaning and things that can actually be discussed and debated. But students who don’t take to reading can’t finish a book in that amount of time, or even in a week, and that kind of assignment doesn’t balance the homework load between different classes.

            So how do we teach literature in a way that enriches it rather than detracting from it, without leaving the weaker students behind?Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to KatherineMW says:

              Hey Katherine-

              I teach early childhood (PreK to be specific) so high school literature is pretty far outside my purview, but I think I have a sense of what you’re talking about.

              In essence, it seems you are touching on the “whole language” versus “phonics” debate. In a nutshell, whole language advocates believe in teaching literature for literature’s sake… read great books that are enjoyable and digest them in a meaningful way. Phonics advocate believe in teaching all the details… Basils and guided readings and the like. The research I’ve seen indicates the former group has a much greater love of reading as they age but weaker skills; the latter has great skills but hates to read. Personally, I don’t see why you can’t take a both/and approach (which is what I employ at my level), but most teachers and educational professionals don’t like such non-black-and-white answers.

              I can maybe write more, but I can’t speak in much depth about anything beyond the Kindergarten or 1st Grade level. More broadly, I think that people tend to learn best when they have personal investment in what they are studying. How do you encourage this? I don’t know. How do you manage a class of 25-students who might be personally invested in 25 different things? I don’t know. I tend towards pie-in-the-sky idealism.

              Ultimately, I think it comes down to goals. So many of our problems with the education system is a lack of clear and coherent goals. Folks will often ask me, “Should I do X?” And I say, “Well, what is your goal?” They look at me like I have two heads. Few things are objectively right or wrong. The question is, do they help you achieve your goal. That begs the question of what is your goal and should that be your goal, but we rarely get there.

              So, if your goal is for kids to enjoy the literature they read, then let them read it in the way they most enjoy. They might not develop the comprehension skills you want. But if you don’t care about that, who cares? Or maybe you do and then need to find another way to teach them. So THIS book is being read to further a love of reading and THIS book is being read to develop comprehension skills, and we’ll read them differently and you’ll respond differently to them and that’s a good thing because our goals are multi-faceted. And we’re back to a both/and approach.

              But it’s just easier to standardize everything and dole out multiple choice tests. So that’s what is done most of the time.Report

            • Avatar Mr. Harris in reply to KatherineMW says:

              As I admitted below, I am a teacher and (but not a good blog editor so don’t hate) and the subject of how English teachers are adapting to these new national standards is a fascinating one. I’m currently in the process of really internalizing the details of these standards so I certainly no expert, but the gist of it is that works of literature; poems, narrative stories both novel length and short, and other creative pieces like plays must be paired with non-fiction accounts that echo or reflect the setting or themes of the creative piece. Students are now expected to draw information and understanding directly from the texts they are reading and use this information as the basis for well-formed arguments. You may be asking, ‘but what’s new about this?’ Well, a lot of English classes gave short shrift to the non-fiction genre or pursued creative writing where student placed themselves in the center of the narratives they were reading. These classes typically asked students to describe how they “felt” about events in a narrative text or they were asked to place themselves within the narrative as an imaginary participant and create Journals of their experiences. The feeling among the educational elite was that that all this activity wasn’t preparing students for college, because in college the professors expect you to do actual reading and essay writing and stuff. Research into the failure of public schools to prepare their students seemed to demonstrate this and so now we have this thing known as the Common Core Standards. Students of all ages must now construct arguments based on “text specific” information. Multiple points of view must be made available by teachers and questioning techniques must reflect close readings of “rigorous” texts. There’s even a website where teachers can test out whether the texts they are teaching from are rigorous enough based on a score generated from multiple factors like word frequency and sentence length. You can check it out at

              I hope this is of interest.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Mr. Harris says:

                “works of literature; poems, narrative stories both novel length and short, and other creative pieces like plays must be paired with non-fiction accounts that echo or reflect the setting or themes of the creative piece.”

                Indeed, imagine watching “Family Guy” but not knowing who Darth Vader was.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mr. Harris says:

                It is of interest. Do write up something on this subject and we’ll post it.Report

              • Avatar Mr. Harris in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I certainly will once I get more of a handle on it in the coming weeks. I think what’s most interesting about these new standards is that they assume that 1) there’s a set of specific skills that are necessary to be successful in post secondary school and 2) now nearly every public school student in the country is expected to attain mastery of these skills. Obama’s Ed. Department assumes that college readiness is the path that all Americans should take at a time when there are less and less jobs that pay you a decent wage for using knowledge gained in college while there are more and more graduates with some sort of college degree. More research is in order on my end.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Mr. Harris says:

                Would love to see more from you, sir. And only in part because you are willing to do research to support a thesis that I agree with but am too lazy to research myself…Report

  28. Avatar ktward says:

    Perhaps we can just agree that tech advancement inherently throws a monkey wrench into many societal establishments– including (perhaps especially) formal education–and figure out a way to constructively move forward with the times rather than lament over our fondness of what used to be. (If I were the incendiary sort, I might suggest that said lamenting is the GOP’s job.)

    The following is, admittedly, my own personal glimpse into this phenomenon, but I don’t see why it can’t serve this thread:

    – My 73yo college-educated mother still, to this day, writes in beautiful cursive. Even her quickly-penned grocery list is a legible sight to behold. She also still pays bills with actual checks and either mails them via USPS or [egads] delivers them. I’ve tried, gawd knows I have, but I can’t convince her there’s an exponentially easier and more convenient way to do any of this.

    – Myself, at 51 (also college-educated), I can barely read my (once lovely) cursive writing, nevermind my sig. I go to the grocery store with my list and annoy myself with the fact that I really have no idea what it is that I wrote down. I don’t recall the last time I wrote a check, but I do remember that when my kids were in high school (’03 to ’09), I had to find a workaround when paying school/extra-curricular fees: they were all about the check, and I didn’t possess any.

    – My 21yo daughter (currently a University Sr.) doesn’t even consider (like I still do) bothering with a handwritten grocery list magnetized to her fridge … she jots everything down on her smart phone.

    – My 24yo son (with an MA) and his darling sig-other have figured out a way to sync their lives and their smart phones and, apparently, their lists. It’s not remotely necessary for me to grasp the precise mechanics of how they do this, especially since she’s got Mac stuff and he’s got PC stuff.

    Point being, cursive is dead.
    I’ve no more inclination to mourn the demise of contemporary cursive than I do the demise of colonial cursive. (C’mon. The Fs looked like Ss. Or vice versa?)

    My overarching point: neither literacy in English nor reading comprehension is remotely hinged upon one’s cursive-writing abilities. Otoh, math and science are indeed based upon specific fundamentals that must be taught in the early years much the same as they always were.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to ktward says:

      Otoh, math and science are indeed based upon specific fundamentals that must be taught in the early years much the same as they always were.

      Math is getting harder to justify. Why should kids learn to add or do long division when calculators are ubiquitous? Why should calculus students still learn to take derivatives and integrals when Mathematica can do the same task (symbolically!) with much greater accuracy? Does anyone really need to know the formula for calculating variance when, in real life, they’re simply going to plug the data into a spreadsheet or other program? I have my own answers to those questions, but it’s increasingly difficult to convince students of the utility.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Michael Cain says:

        “Why should kids learn to add or do long division when calculators are ubiquitous? ”

        Why should we learn to read when there are computer programs to read out loud to us?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

        The answer’s pretty obvious. Calculator Thinking can’t recognise nonsense output. The calculator doesn’t care if you enter 1.23 or 12.3.

        Case in point: I prefer to engage Java coders who can write C language well. I tend to avoid people who’ve only worked in high-level languages: they don’t understand the fundamentals.

        When I started to home-school my son, I bought him the baddest-ass Mac available at the time and copies of Mathematica and Statistica. But he spent more time on Wolfram MathWorld than he ever did in the tool itself.Report

      • Avatar ktward in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Since learning to write cursive was one of the OP’s central themes, I was speaking specifically to early elementary education which is where learning to write cursive takes place.

        Skill development in competent writing (in terms of communication) or reading comprehension is no longer dependent at all upon one’s cursive writing skills, unless of course one is called upon to decipher a centuries-old document. (Or my grocery list.)

        Math fundamentals have never changed. Sure, the tech tools advance (the abacus and the slide rule have been replaced by the calculator), but the fundies don’t change. The tools simply make easier that which we already understand. Until that elementary student grasps the nature of fractions, for instance, they cannot advance in knowledge. Conversely, the student with the crappiest cursive writing in the history of mankind (I’m pretty sure that’d be both my brother and my son– must be the DNA) is not hampered in any educational sense.

        As far as analog clocks go, I suspect there yet remain in the world enough clocks with hands that kids should still learn how to read them. But learning to tell time the old-fashioned way is not nearly as intensive nor time-consuming as teaching cursive writing.Report