THE LATEST OECD survey reveals that almost one-quarter of Irish 15-year-olds are below the level of literacy needed to participate effectively in society. How can this be after unprecedented investment in Irish schools in the past decade?*
Research in neuroeducation – the brain science of learning – suggests that something is lost in switching from book to computer screen, and from pen to keyboard. Neuroeducation may help to explain the reported decline in literary – particularly writing – skills observed in students over the past decade.
When it comes to learning – the pen is mightier than the keyboard
Do you remember that diary you so assiduously kept or that pen pal you wrote to? Little did you know then, but the mere act of picking up a pen and writing makes you smarter. The answer may be that reading and writing involves a number of the senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of manipulating the pencil to form words on paper. This nerve activity is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard. This explains why a written signature carries so much weight in the legal and business world – because it reflects the wiring unique to that brain.
The knack to learning is – learning by doing
The trick to all learning is to create an enriched physical learning environment by employing as many of the five senses as possible – seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling – in your learning. Thus, when writing by hand, the movements involved leave behind a kind of motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which helps us recognize letters. This implies a nerve connection between reading and writing, and suggests that the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading. This nerve connection is weak or absent in keyboard typing.
Work it out – with pen and paper
In addition, writing involves more ‘doing’ than that observed for keyboard typing and the ‘doing’ actually reinforces the learning process by helping us focus on the task at hand and strengthening the nerve connections. Furthermore, brain scans of avid writers show an activation of Brocas area – a language centre within the brain – while little or no activation of this area is observed in those who had learned by typing on keyboards.
Awaken the living roots in your head – with your pen
The poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney – a master craftsman of the written word – was not far off the mark in his poem ‘Digging’. The poem takes the form of a promise from the poet to his father and grandfather, whose lives were, spent literally digging the soil. In this short poem Heaney acknowledges that he is not a farmer, and will not follow their vocation. But at the start of his career, he vows to translate their virtues into another kind of work:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
*Irish students drop in rankings for literacy and maths, Irish Times, Wednesday, December 8, 2010