The best thing I learned at school can’t be replaced by AI. It requires hours of repetition – and good grip

During my daughter’s first year at school, her teacher dismissed our concerns about her shaky pencil grip by saying something along the lines of: “Don’t worry, handwriting’s on its way out. By the time she’s in year 12, they’ll all be typing or voice-dictating their exams.”

Fast-forward 12 long school years and that now grown-up girl is in the throes of her final high-school exams. And of the many hours of essays and long and short answers, every single page, line, word and letter will be handwritten.

She writes fast but I find the result very hard to read and her pen grip is still, well, take your pick of elegant (her word) or awkward and inefficient (my words). Every single primary-school teacher undertook at the start of each year to fix her penmanship but it never changed.

In my daughter’s year-12 exams every single page, line, word and letter will be handwritten

I want to make it clear that I do not blame any of these teachers. Not only do I understand that teachers have way too much, administratively and curriculum-wise, on their plate to be able to perfect every child’s pen grip, but I too failed in my attempts to get her to practise at home.

In perhaps simpler educational times (AKA the 1970s), my grade 3 teacher did make a monumental effort to change my pencil grip. Mrs McEvoy dubbed me “clutchy-clutchy” in honour of the fact that I held my writing implement with enough strength to crush anything less sturdy than graphite within wood. The process of changing my grip to one I could sustain for more than a few minutes was slow and painful but I will always be grateful.

I am also eternally grateful for the fact that my high school had compulsory typing classes. It’s almost comical to think back to, but each student sat in front of a manual Olivetti typewriter and gave their finger muscles a true workout in time with the teacher calling out scintillating instructions like: “r, r, r, space, t, t, t, space, r, r, t, t, r, t, r, t, return!”

It was SO boring – for us and surely for the longsuffering teacher – but I regularly say that typing is the very best thing I learned at school.

In all my work – as a health professional, an administrator, a writer and an online tutor – being able to type efficiently, quickly and accurately has been invaluable. I’ve watched other highly qualified health professionals struggle over report typing. Effectively, each painfully created report cost hundreds of dollars or, more likely, hours of unpaid overtime for already overworked clinicians.

As a writer, I can type reasonably accurate notes during an interview, all while looking at the person I’m speaking with. As writing rates have been stagnant or going backwards, I’d have a much harder time if I couldn’t type so well.

A straw poll of friends who went to high school between the 1970s and early 2000s indicates that I’m fortunate to have had compulsory typing lessons, as some schools only offered it to girls, and some friends deliberately shunned the subject in order to avoid gender-based assumptions that they wanted to become a secretary. Typing was only offered by other schools within a “commercial stream” of study, a real shame given it turned out that everyone all the way up to CEO level would need to, at the very least, type endless emails.

The same straw poll shows that a few kids these days are learning to type, either at school (mainly primary it seems) or encouraged by their parents. For most though, kids and teens are sorting out their own unique style, sometimes very effectively and, at other times, in a digital equivalent of my “clutchy” pencil grip.

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Teaching yourself using online programs, or even going to private typing classes, is an option, though it’s hard to maintain motivation for a skill that simply can’t be learned without a heap of repetition. My dad taught himself in his early 50s after switching from academia to computer programming and deciding that paying his daughters to type dictated code wasn’t the best use of anyone’s time.

You might be thinking that none of this will be an issue for much longer, given how far voice recognition tech has come and how ChatGPT can produce reams of writing within seconds.

The truth is, though, that voice-based AI is still pretty dodgy (I’ve given up using it for interview transcripts) and we’re miles away from my somewhat hopeful (though privacy-concern filled) goal of computers being able to read our thoughts.

In fact, the increased availability of AI will perhaps mean that handwritten exams will be around for even longer, as seeing someone put pen to paper is one of the few ways we have of guaranteeing original work.

Efficient handwriting and fast and accurate typing are skills that perhaps should be more highly valued by educators and employers. Learning to hand-write and type might be boring but I predict that they’ll still be important skills even when today’s little ones are in year 12.

Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer

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