• A new Norwegian study suggests that writing by hand improves children’s capacity to learn.
  • Some schools in Scandinavia are no longer teaching children to write by hand in favour of digital learning.
  • While screen time increases during COVID-19 and in school curriculums, soft skills such as building healthy relationships and resilience are vital for children’s health.
  • Tomorrow’s labour market will need to find a balance between both hard and soft skill sets.

In our digital age, writing anything by hand beyond the shopping list may seem outdated, but a new Norwegian study suggests that handwriting may be more beneficial than typing.

In fact, it’s “vital” children are taught handwriting at school, concludes Dutch neuroscientist Professor Audrye van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

In the small study, building on her previous 2017 work, Prof van der Meer wired up 12 young adults and 12 children to an electroencephalogram (EEG) that tracks and records brain wave patterns to see which areas of the brain were sparked into action by writing with pen and paper.

Participants were shown 15 different words on a screen and asked to use a digital pen to write and draw them onto a touch screen, and a keyboard to type them.

The research, published on Frontiers in Psychology, showed how parts of the brain were activated when the subjects were drawing and writing by hand. The findings suggest the movement and cognitive effort required by both activities (as opposed to the repetitive one-finger typing action) better enable the brain to encode new information.

Learning by writing

“The delicate and precisely controlled movements involved in handwriting contribute to the brain’s activation patterns related to learning,” the authors wrote. “We found no evidence of such activation patterns when using a keyboard.”

It seems that the act of putting pen to paper (or stylus to screen), involves more sensory experience – or as Prof van der Meer puts it, it “gives the brain more 'hooks' to hang your memories on”.

“A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better," she said.

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How do hard skills and soft skills compare?
Image: Indeed

Hard skills vs soft skills

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools around the world to close and screen time to rise, the EU Kids Online 2020 survey showed smartphone and internet use by children in 19 EU countries had increased exponentially in a decade. Some nations reported children spending well over three hours a day on screens.

Countries including Finland, Norway and the United States have dropped cursive or joined-up writing lessons in recent years, in favour of typing classes, to help children learn digital skills.

Professor van der Meer says while digital learning is important, it is “vital to maintain handwriting practice in school”, as it creates a vibrant platform for learning.

“An optimal learning environment needs to include the best from all disciplines, considering the strengths and support each of them offer. This way, both cognitive development and learning efficiency can be strengthened, and pupils and students of all ages and their teachers can keep up with the technological development and digital challenges to come."

In the UK, there’s encouraging research around the benefit of soft skills in helping the next generation of workers.


What is the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit?

The World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit brings together leaders from business, government, civil society, media and the broader public to shape a new agenda for growth, jobs, skills and equity.

The two-day virtual event, being held on 1-2 June 2021, will address the most critical areas of debate, articulate pathways for action, and mobilize the most influential leaders and organizations to work together to accelerate progress.

The Summit will develop new frameworks, shape innovative solutions and accelerate action on four thematic pillars: Economic Growth, Revival and Transformation; Work, Wages and Job Creation; Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning; and Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice.

Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PHSE) is now compulsory for adolescents, which aims to develop resilience, self-esteem, risk-management, team-working and critical thinking in the context of health and wellbeing, relationships and living in the wider world (including economic wellbeing and aspects of careers education).

In 2019, the London School of Economics (LSE) studied a four-year trial of the soft-skills based Healthy Minds curriculum, and found it improved students’ physical health, and broadened their career aspirations, including reducing the likelihood boys would follow traditional male-dominated career paths.

A balance for the future

What the job market will look like in the next few decades is hard to decipher, but soft skills are gaining traction as important qualities to bring to the workplace.

From 20-23 October 2020, the World Economic Forum will host The Jobs Reset Summit, looking at how we can shape more inclusive, fair and sustainable economies, organizations, societies and workplaces.

Sessions will include how education, skills and learning can be reformed for the new economy and society.

Speaking at Davos in 2018, Alibaba founder Jack Ma said we need to change the way we teach children in order to differentiate humans from artificial intelligence.

"We have to teach our kids something unique, so that a machine can never catch up with us: values, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others – the soft skills – sports, music, painting, arts, to make sure humans are different from machines."