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Why Paper and Pencil Still Matters: Understanding the Benefits of Writing Analog

Did you receive any Christmas newsletters this year from your aunts or cousins? Were they even signed with a real pen by the author or was there a digital signature? Or wasn't there even a letter at all--maybe just a social media post made public: "Hi everyone, just to brag--I mean update--everyone on how many straight A's my kids received this year..." It seems like the artform of pencil to paper is fading all together like Marty from his family photo in Back to the Future. Should we take a step back once in awhile, or should we just get with the times?

As I sit here typing on a digital platform...I'm going to try to convince you that paper and pencil still have value. And they do, but it's not a binary where digital is bad and paper-pencil is good. They both have value.

Brain science tells us that the physical act of writing actually connects to the part of the brain that remembers things. Holding a pen or pencil and shaping letters on a page results in higher retention rates than clacking letters on a keyboard. In my high school classroom this year I've brought back a focus on note-taking by hand for this reason.

Here's something interesting. Handwriting can actually be made into digital font. There are programs you can use to copy your handwritten letters one by one and then you can make a digital font out of it. This explains why you're fooled by those thick cards in the mail who look like their from a friend, but when you open it you find it's just someone trying to reach you about your car's extended warranty. However, the beauty of handwriting is the inconsistency and micro-"flaws" in the way you craft each letter. The slant may be a little different, the serif a little shorter or longer in different words. Yes, a computer can actually mimic a bit of that too, but it's not the same. The digital print isn't your genuine individual trademark.

Here's another thing to consider: computers have lots of other things on them besides the tab a student may be taking notes on. And our students are very easily distracted. As much as the student computers have firewalls installed and software to block distractions, they still find a way to focus on anything except the thing they should be focused on.

The invention of the printing press was a beautiful thing. It changed the world so much, the event is often likened to the invention of the computer. How great was it to move from scribes who took months to copy one single book, to setting type and letting the press roll out several copies at a time. It was wonderful, but if there was a mistake in the typeset, all the copies had the mistake. Margaret Cavendish, a prominent English writer and philosopher in the 17th century, actually went around to every library that had copies of her books and corrected any errors by hand. Now that's a personal touch.

The digital era offers countless benefits, but my caution to teachers (and students!) is not to forget the power of paper and pencil. Your brain will thank you for reaching back to these archaic tools as your weapon of choice once in awhile.

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