The obsolete skill of handwriting

Rishi is an exceptional student. He is in only in class V - but his reading skills are phenomenal. He can read a newspaper and understand most of the items. His vocabulary is of adult level. He can express himself well in writing as well as speaking. He has a sense of humour. He can solve previously unseen Olympiad-level problems in math.

You would think parents of Rishi would be very happy with his performance. But surprise, surprise - no! In the parent-teacher meeting, Rishi’s mother seemed unhappy. ‘His writing did not improve in all these years,’ she grumbled.

I did not understand at first. ‘Writing? Rishi writes better than most adults. His ability to express himself is beyond his years,’ I point out.

‘No, no, look at this d and this m. And his writing slopes at such an unnatural angle. Some letters are big, some are very small. I find it difficult to understand his writing.’ It dawns on me that she is speaking of his handwriting, not his ability to express himself.

This is not the first time when I saw handwriting being confused with writing. Eager parents of LKG children come to the parent-teacher meeting and ask us, ‘When will they start writing?’ Initially I used to point out that they need to first learn to understand English and respond in it. Then they would start reading. Writing is a difficult skill and it comes much later. But then I saw the light - they are not talking about the writing I am talking about. They want their kids to practice handwriting!

Rishi’s mother is not alone in prioritising an obsolete skill. All over India, parents are less worried about their kid’s reading skills than their handwriting. They do not seem to care that their children do not have an ability to read an unseen passage or think and solve an unknown math problem. But they are concerned about standing lines and sleeping lines.

Handwriting does not matter. It is a skill that’s going to die. In future, (and even now), we will type much more than we write. Most exams are going to become computer-aided, where you have to click to indicate your choice in a multiple-choice question. Our use of pen is going to be limited to signing cheques.

Handwriting is not alone. Schools lay emphasis on quite a few other skills that will have less and less value in the world of future. Calculation is another one. In many schools, children are given long multiplications and divisions to practice. They typically form the bulk of homework at the primary level. As homework they are thought to be excellent. They keep the kids busy for a long time while the parents can do their socialising, TV serial watching, cooking and cleaning. According to parents, ‘kids must not lose the habit of sitting for studies for a few hours every day.’ We adults do not have that habit. What happened to us? Have we evolved backwards to become monkeys?

Those mind-numbing calculations do not involve any thinking. If you do a large number of such calculations, you stop thinking about the basic principles behind it – and just perform it mechanically. This is one situation where practice does not make you perfect, it makes you dumb.

Instead of calculating 4537 x33, why don’t we ask the kids to do some thinking instead? Why don’t we ask them whether the answer will be more than a lakh, or less than a lakh? But no, devising such sums will involve thinking on the part of the homework-giver. And neither parents nor teachers are willing to put their brains to use.

In real-life, large calculations are mostly going to be performed by computers or calculators. We must know how to organise data, how to analyse it and how to draw conclusions out of it. We must have more real-life case-study type questions at the school level. We must teach our kids how to cleverly solve repetitive problems using computer programs like Excel/Access, rather than making them perform those repetitive calculations themselves. Our brains are best used for thinking. We must not give students exercises that switch their brain off.