Don’t bother teaching kids to take notes

I didn’t teach my kids handwriting. I assumed they would learn to write when they had things they wanted to say on paper. I assumed that would come soon. I have 50 volumes of handwritten diaries going back to preschool, and writing was my lifeline from drowning in a dangerous family.

I knew my kids wouldn’t learn cursive, because cursive is leftover from people using feathers and then fountain pens. We all have ballpoint pens! And Gelly Roll Glaze! The only thing we need cursive for today is to signify class. (Which may, actually, be the purpose of our whole education system. But I’m trying to stay on topic here.)

As always people questioned my judgment. I ranted about how young kids need to play outside. Young kids sitting at desks learning to write instead of playing outside are more likely to be anxious and depressed

It never occurred to me that kids who know how to type by age five don’t really need to write by hand. By age ten neither of my kids could print with any degree of usefulness. Whenever they need to write something down they take out their phone. 

The problem is that my son is a great test-taker, but when he’s listening to a lesson he doesn’t take notes. Many of my son’s tutors told me taking notes is essential to learning. I was planning to tell him he’s going to be screwed when lessons get too difficult to memorize. But I kept putting off the discussion because I’m not a great notetaker myself so how could I teach him? (Actually, I’m not a good listener, so I never even get to the notes, but that’s for another post.)

Then I discovered that my son’s way of preparing for tests works fine in today’s world because kids don’t need to learn to take notes. Today teachers hand out notes for kids to read on their own at home. Then kids can use classroom time to focus on more complex learning through discussion and debate. 

Finally, I convinced tutors to just hand him notes from each chapter of the textbook. I am relieved. I get tired being the revolutionary all the time. I want to just send my kid to the tutor and know everything’s fine. I want to use that time to write a blog post in peace. 


12 replies
  1. Terri Torrez
    Terri Torrez says:

    I definitely agree with the handwriting. My son is dysgraphic so he couldn’t write even if it was important but it’s not. He’s been typing since he was 5 and with the addition of LaTex to our tools, he even does his math that way. However, I disagree on note taking. Note-taking from a lecture or a reading teaches the valuable skills of summarization and synthesis. Studies show that you understand and retain better when you take notes. With his disabilities my son often has notes provided by the teacher and/or another student in his CC classes but he prefers to use those as a backup to his efforts.

  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I think PT is confusing the specific and general again. At this moment, her oldest got a pass from having to take notes by hand, therefore all taking notes and all writing by hand is no good for anyone, ever. It’s like an argumentative grandiosity.

    It’s true that the situations in which adult people need to use handwriting are far fewer than they once were. Old folks like us can reach back to those fabled times when we actually hand-wrote Letters to people, and put them in the Mail, in Envelopes. With Stamps. We can set our grandchildren on our knee and tell them these tales as if they were stories about meeting Abraham Lincoln or settling the West.

    But we can also refer to more recent situations, like being at meetings and taking notes for our future information. Or writing thank you notes to people.

    Writing by hand is less important now, but it isn’t devoid of importance. At the school level, it’s relatively more important than it is later. At the college level, it continues to be intermittently important (blue books anybody?). At the adult, professional level, yep, it’s still there sometimes.

    Like tying your shoes. That used to be a precondition for kindergarten. Now, not so much – send your kids to K in velcro shoes, or those neat New Balance shoes with the twisty dial. But someday your kid will be grown up, going to a party, and wearing black dress shoes, and will look like a total numbnuts fumbling with the laces. It is a good idea to learn to tie shoes, because you can’t bridge straight to the old man orthopedics. Likewise, everybody will have to write sometime, and if it looks like a four-year-old wrote it, it will be ridicule-worthy.

    My son had trouble with printing. It made him cry. When I homeschooled him, I first helped him learn to type, then I helped him learn to write in cursive.

    Here’s a little secret about cursive writing that some people who couldn’t be bothered might not be aware of: for many kids, it’s actually easier than printing. The rules are simpler than printing. You start at the same place. You end at the same place. You don’t take your pen off the paper until the end of the word. For my son, learning to write in cursive was a great thing, but it took a lot of practice to master. To this day, his printing sucks, and his cursive is good (his typing is excellent). At times, he remarks now on how easy it is for him to write by hand – but only in cursive.

    My daughter also knows how to write in cursive. Being different from my son, she learned in a different way: she saw cursive, she attempted it, she asked me questions, and I told her the simplest rules: you start at the same place, you end at the same place, and you don’t take your pen off the paper until the end of the word. She got it immediately, and writes everything she can in cursive now, because it’s easier and looks fancier.

    There are many case situations in school and in college where writing by hand is important. Taking notes is probably the least of them, because of course you could take notes on a computer. Even writing exam essays by hand is not always necessary now. But here’s an example where not being able to write by hand might be cumbersome: some teachers require students to annotate books (yes, write in them!) as part of the class process. For my son, the transgression of defacing a book was hard to overcome, and also he would generally rather type. But he eventually realized that the process of putting pen to paper actually improved his memory of content. Which was the point all along. And the point of taking notes is similar: your muscles make the pen move, and that fact makes you more likely to remember the words. It’s like I do when I make a shopping list, and then forget the list, and remember all the items. It’s like I do when I want to remember someone’s name: I surreptitiously write it down. It works. Writing is a better way to remember things for some people.

    Teachers don’t all hand out class notes. Teachers don’t all give kids a mulligan on writing. Professors don’t either. And jobs? In most jobs, you can’t avoid it forever. It’ll show up eventually – maybe you have to mark up a document by hand and it looks like you needed a bigger crayon.

    If a kid had dysgraphia when he was five, he should probably have gotten over it by nineteen. It’s nice if a kid can get special treatment because of disability – extra time on tests, being allowed to type instead of write – but at some time that special treatment is going to end. One hopes it ends before the workplace makes it a lost job instead of just a bad grade.

    • Terri T
      Terri T says:

      While I agree with a lot of this, I need to clarify that dysgraphia is not something you get over. It is a diagnosable disability. Depending on it’s cause, some people may benefit from therapy. My son, unfortunately, is not one of them. He will never be able to write in any meaningful way. Practically speaking, there are lots of times when it would be easier if he could but he is always able to work around it. And he will continue to do so in the working world. Disability Accommodations are, of course, mandated in the U.S. But truthfully it gets easier every year to function without them. Even annotating books and documents can now be done on a computer. Digital signatures, digital whiteboards, dictation software – all of it improves the options for kids who can’t write.

  3. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    My two Gen Z daughters can both can read and write in cursive. I think a lot of it is that I write in cursive so if they want to read anything I’ve written they needed to figure it out (that may be a note to them, or the grocery list, or whatever.) It also allows them to read notes from the grandparents.

    I realize that it’s not “necessary” in today’s society – and they both type and text well. But it’s nice. Almost like knowing another language – my mom learned Polish from her grandmother and therefore could have conversations with her. My Polish was never even conversational, and my great grandmother’s English sucked, so I never got to have any significant conversations. It’s not necessary that I know Polish. My grandmother has been gone a long time now, but it would be nice.

    As far as the notes go, i see from their school work that they take handwritten notes as well as typewritten notes. And my Gen Z assistant keeps her to do list hand written on paper.

    I’m not really sure I know where I’m going with this, but i think it’s an interesting topic.

    • Terri T
      Terri T says:

      I do agree that reading cursive can be an important skill, especially in studying history or literature. In AP history you often see primary sources Docs that are handwritten. It helps to be able to decipher them.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m glad I learned handwriting even though it wasn’t an option for me while growing up. It’s a skill I learned to do very well and I’m still complimented to this day on how nice and legible it is. When I’m taking notes in my own handwriting, it helps to organize, remember, and further galvanize my thoughts coherently. It’s an active process that becomes and remains with me as compared to merely digesting someone else’s writing. Also, while attending a class or lecture, the teacher would emphasize certain key ideas or facts, expound upon them, and say them in certain ways that weren’t present in the textbook or handouts. If the textbook and handouts were sufficient, then what would be the point of going to class? Also, I can ask questions and listen to other people’s questions and then take notes as applicable.
    There’s also the freedom of having a pen or pencil and a blank sheet of paper that a computing device doesn’t offer. I can rapidly scribble notes, draw diagrams and graphs, etc. without thinking about formatting, commands, etc. that a computer program and device requires. It’s also possible the software or hardware isn’t capable or can easily do what I want. And the final result in rough format is already on hard copy without having to use a printer to print it.
    Handwriting allows me to personalize a thank you or other type of note to someone else that would mean more to them than a typed and printed note. They would know it was composed by me.
    There’s something else that occurred to me a few years ago when I learned handwriting was no longer going to be taught or encouraged to learn. Would the person who didn’t know how to handwrite be able to read other people’s handwriting? I think I can read just about anybody’s handwriting regardless of its quality or method because I can handwrite myself. It’s been useful when reading historical documents that have been handwritten. So now I’m wondering, can your sons read what you’ve written in your diaries?

  5. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I have one kid who’s a millennial and two who are GenZ and none of them have handwriting worth a damn. The older one learned cursive but abandoned it, the younger two never learned it. Only the older one can read it. I *feel* like this is a loss but I don’t *know* that it is. What I do know is that writing in cursive feels good. Printing feels clunky and slow in comparison.

    Today I’d rather type than handwrite any day of the week. I type at 100 wpm, I handwrite at probably 20 wpm. If I need to do anything more than jot down a note I want a keyboard.

    I never learned how to take notes in any structured way that let me organize material. But I had an advantage: the simple act of writing stuff down while the teacher/professor was talking let me remember with great clarity exactly what was said, even down to hearing the voice in my head. I learned that I could even just doodle through the class and looking at the doodles would bring back all that information.

    • *anonymous*
      *anonymous* says:

      My brother actually took notes the same way through college- drawing was his version of taking notes. He probably drew thousands of pictures through college!

  6. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    Cursive writing was actually easier for me. Since the letters for each word are connected, I was able to write faster in cursive than printing. I was in elementary school back when we had penmanship workbooks that would be filled with rows of the same letter. I didn’t always find it that stimulating but I’m glad it made me have at least halfway decent handwriting. I’m glad to be able to read cursive because I work in a library and there are still a lot of primary sources that have not been digitized. Also things like old family photos that have writing on the back with names, dates and other details in cursive. I may not hand write much anymore, but I’m glad to have the ability to read and write cursive.

  7. Not that Melissa
    Not that Melissa says:

    Typed, cursive, print, bubble letters, wedding invitation calligraphy, whatever. Most people can’t communicate in any meaningful way. Because trying to see the message from someone else’s point of view is a skill that needs to be practiced. And you’re not going to practice anything that doesn’t have any importance to your life. Lots of people get along just fine without needing to be persuasive. Which is probably why I am unmoved by any of the comments in favor of taking notes by hand.

    The only reason I have found to bring my Moleskine and a pen to a meeting is to fool whatever Gen X person I’m meeting with that I’m paying attention to them.

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