Henk Schweitzer in dialogue with the Schreibmotorik Institut February 2017
Writing lessons: Finding the right balance between handwriting and the digital world
In the Netherlands digitisation in schools is relatively far advanced. Most schools have introduced tablets as a supplement to existing written class work. The progressive use of computers for reading and writing in everyday life, even by children, has certainly called into doubt the relevance of handwriting. A series of studies, however, have confirmed the advantages of handwriting in literacy acquisition when compared with typing. Henk Schweitzer, principal at a school with 200 pupils in the Netherlands and well experienced in childmotor development and handwriting skills depicts his experience with tablets in class.
Could you please describe the situation at your school?
In the last five years everything in Dutch schools has been digitalised. There are no chalkboards anymore. The teacher uses a digital board with digital pens. All the educational material has been adapted for tablets. At the age of 7, pupils do almost all their exercises on the tablets which also have a keyboard. For reading we still have books.
What is the benefit of this teaching method?
Generally the learning progress is higher with the use of tablets than without. When pupils fill in their answers, the tablet gives direct feedback. It is also adapted to their individual level. The children are very excited. They love it. Their better motivation leads to more exercises being done. If you exercise more, the progress is higher. The teacher's digital board is connected with the tablets. He or she can get an overview on the kids' work. It is easy to see where the children are in the programme and what their specific learning goals are. Twice each year we have government inspections and have to compare all figures. They show that the results with tablets are better. We benefit from the advantages of using tablets and at the same time we still focus on handwriting as well.
How does this effect writing lessons?
In the Netherlands children usually start school at the age of 4. Until the age of 6 they use pen and paper to learn how to read and write. After that they start using tablets. It is important to find a good balance between using the tablet and handwriting. Now we write less. That is a problem. The legibility is diminishing. At our school pupils of all grades still have handwriting lessons where they write in exercise books. Every school is free to choose if they use print or cursive. At our school we decided on print because it is more legible and a study showed that at a young age it is also faster than cursive. During spelling lessons I realized that children are surer on the spelling if they write a difficult word down rather than typing it. When they type words, they mostly concentrate on speed and make more mistakes. My pupils also have a small whiteboard to respond quickly to questions. It works with pen and eraser. If they hesitate on how a word is spelt, I tell them to write possible options down. And they immediately know the answer. It works.
Do you think that writing movements on tablets with digital pens could solve this?
Within a few years it will be possible to write with a pen on tablets just like on paper. If you have the right pen and a good program, it will make no difference.
What are your suggestions for other schools and educational institutions?
Digitisation happens quickly. Stay noticed. Try to follow and find the right method for your school. Don't hesitate. The kids grow up in a family environment where there is a lot of digital development. The system should be quicker in adapting new ideas. But, as I said, it is important to find the right balance and still focus on handwriting as well.
Henk Schweitzer is as an integral school leader and former education lecturer with 30 years of experience in primary and special education and is still fascinated by education. His career has always been about children who require extra care and attention. These experiences led him develop products and methods for education which are currently in use. The manner in which he expresses innovative ideas and translates these into practical materials is valued highly. In many cases he managed to break away from much trodden paths and shape innovative education.