"Our students are forgetting how to write!" a professor at Shandong Normal University in Jinan, China confided to me over lunch after my morning lectures at his teacher training college in 2011.
The culprit was the new electronics. The input system for handheld smartphones as well as for computers uses a very efficient system to prompt the next-most-likely character. For instance, you want to start a message with "I want...." You key in the sound of the word for "I" and the many Chinese characters that have that sound are lined up with the most common word first. You merely press #1 and that complex character is selected. But before you can key in the sound for "want," the next-most-likely characters are lined up for selection. And "want" is the most likely second word. Click!
The result is that the user merely recognizes the Chinese character by overall "looks" or what we call Gestalt or pattern. "The students are forgetting how to write the characters stroke-by-stroke because the computer brings it up for them," explained my colleague.
Today, our cell phones are making texting easy for American children by using this same next-most-likely-word input system.
Students are entrained to write without elegance or creativity. They are copying the most common and simplistic way of saying things.
Reading researchers have documented the lack of deep reading among the teckie-generation. We are now experiencing a similar lack of "deep writing" as teens and tweens send an average of 200 text messages a day, often using a program that narrows their literacy by offering convenience.
Even adults can feel the pull to shallow reading on an electronic screen. I find myself skimming online documents, barely reading the first line of each paragraph—something I never do with printed pages. This drop in comprehension from scrolling (in comparison with page-by-page text) by students has been solidly documented by Sanchez and Wiley in the journal Human Factors. But a decade of documented research means nothing to the computer enthusiasts: Anything digital is always "better."
And it gets worse. A year ago, one high school teacher pointed out that some of his students could no longer name the months of the year in order. January-February-March no longer came in that order because at any time, a student can reach for the smartphone and read the date. Like a phone number that you look up and repeat to yourself as you dial—but then never move into long-term memory, many students today never look at a calendar. They no longer have the month sequence in mind, although at one time they did know it when they graduated from kindergarten to first grade.
Nor does the teckie generation think they need to know anything if they can access it by smartphone. Their memory is more-and-more stored on their belts or in their purses.
The consequences are far-reaching. For the first time, China entered the international PISA competition and scored a jaw-dropping hundred points beyond prior winners in mathematics! While in China this spring, I asked my Chinese students when were they allowed to use calculators in math class: "Never before 6th grade."
What about electronic dictionaries? The limit on English was the same as math. But electronic Chinese dictionaries had to wait until later. To put it simply, Chinese students know what division and logarithms mean; American students just hit a key on the keypad. There is a reason that nearly 90 percent of terminal graduate degrees in U.S. university engineering programs go to foreign students.
Down the road, teckie futurists have an even bigger dream.
Forget cursive writing. Why are we even teaching reading? We can put books under a scanner and the computer will read them to us.
And why teach writing? Record into DragonSpeak and it will write for us.