Years ago, I argued with my uncle when he announced that at some point in the future all school exams would be taken on laptops. No more scribbling essays on booklets of lined paper. No more working out maths equations in the margins. No more pencil drawings of glacial erosion or the formation of oxbow lakes.
I don’t think I disagreed just because I grew up in an age when this wouldn’t have been a possibility. Home computers emerged in my teenage years and though I didn’t have an iPhone at the age of 10, I consider myself part of what I’ve deemed the “keyboard shortcut” generation. We’re computer literate, not because we have to be but because we want to be. We use technology for fun as well as work. We build our own websites and aren’t frightened by the idea of learning how.
But I’m also grateful for having lived through an age where the computer didn’t rule. I remember life before mobile phones. I remember buying CDs and cassette tapes, getting photos developed and listening in to the weekly chart show on a Sunday night to hear what music people were buying. I remember an age when radio and four television channels were king (in the UK). And I remember doing all my schoolwork with scratchy fountain pen and sheets of lined paper.
Every exam I have ever taken in my life has been preceded by hours, days, even weeks of revision. I’m not going to lie to you – I’m a bit of a geek. I fill out note cards, draw tree diagrams with multi-coloured marker pens, jot down quotes and statistics and use them to decorate all of the walls around me. And though I now spend most of my working day on my laptop, I still feel more organised when I write my to-do list in pen and ink.
I’ve noticed that many of my colleagues do theirs electronically. I ask myself, “Have I been left behind? Is this the last bastion of the digital revolution? Are they laughing at me and my archaic list? Look – it’s all messy and crossed out. They probably think I have no idea what’s going on!”
I think the crux of it is that I find the 13 by 8 inches (33cm x 20cm) of my laptop screen confining. I want to be able to spread things out around me and see them all at once. But there’s more to it than that. I’m convinced that the physical act of writing makes a difference to the way you think about information. Studies have also suggested it improves your ability to learn and recall information. There’s a creative argument too – everyone has their own style of handwriting, it says something about who you are. There’s a sense of freeform expression when you’re using your body to say something rather than just tapping letters on a keyboard. You’re physically forming the shapes of the letters and words.
I’d never argue that computers have been a bad thing. They are a testament to human skill and ingenuity and have improved our lives and workplaces. But we shouldn’t give up on the old pen and paper just yet.
I’m stocking up on notebooks and nice pens. And I hope in classrooms around the world for time to come, we hear a lot more scribbling than tap, tap, tapping.