As a child in primary school, I learned about the history of music. As a teenager in high school, I learned a whole lot of information about the countries of the world, the amount of rice and copper they produce etc. As a freshman at my university, I learned electronics and electrical engineering, some of the least useful things I learned in my entire life. The tests weren’t easy to pass, either.
Before I started primary school, I also spent time learning to read and write and spent the first few years in school perfecting these skills. On the other hand, typing, the fundamental skill of using a fundamental interface to the digital world (the keyboard), gets absolutely no attention within formal, mandatory education. People are left to hunt and peck their way through e-mails, scientific articles, customer support forms, discussion boards etc. This is the equivalent of letting children “figure this handwriting stuff out for themselves” while they are diligently taught to appreciate Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
I propose that teaching kids to type by the age of 10 is more important than teaching them a number of other things currently taught, but most importantly, I propose that it is worth teaching and learning as soon as children start to learn writing. Allow me to explain.
One of the more subtle and therefore mostly ignored aspects of writing and reading is neatness. The neater the text, the easier it is to read and more importantly, direct attention to the content, rather than the reading itself. Think about it for a second: skill development is very often a snowballing process, especially for children. The more they learn, the better they are at learning more: when they learn to read, they get access to a large variety of content to learn from, when they learn to write, they get to make notes, summarize larger volumes of information, store thoughts for later retrieval etc. Now, if children typed and read from a screen rather than from paper, it is reasonable to expect that the neater text would be easier to read, comprehend and would make reading a more comfortable, less straining experience. Formal education lasts anywhere between 12 and 20 years: this is a lot of time for an initially small advantage to make a large impact.
Much as there is great concern about the amount of time children spend in front of various screens, there is incredible value in exposing them to the digital world, to which the keyboard is, well, the key. Being comfortable with e-mail, instant messaging, in contact with people not immediately there, collaborating on school projects, searching for information, translating using tools unimaginable as recently as the ’80s, learning to take part in the most democratic medium ever invented – these are obviously skills which would be of value to children. And it is worth pointing out that this does not mean that this comes at a cost to playing and other social interaction: this is more about changing the way children study, something they already do in front of a different kind of screen today – a paper screen.
An important side effect of entering the digital world is getting comfortable with computing technology, a technology which has changed the face of human civilization: design, construction, architecture, business in general, medical research – none of this can seriously be done any more without computers. If kids can become comfortable around computing technology (to which the keyboard is the dominant input interface), they get to reap all kinds of benefits: they develop a broad world view regardless of the community they live in, they will be able to get things done on-line (activism, enjoying the arts, shopping, paying bills, travel planning etc.). There is basically little choice – if they do not, they will be left behind by other children.
Typing makes it possible to express their thoughts much faster than in writing making for clear, unobstructed flow of thought, leading to unpredictable advances in what people can achieve. People who develop average or good typing skills can type 2-3 times faster than they can write. Most people unfortunately completely miss the spectacular consequences of such a huge difference. Again, how many times does it happen that pupils or students simply are not able to write down what is being said quickly enough? How much time is needlessly spent during class waiting for students to write things down? How much time is wasted writing all the homework or on all the discussion board, e-mail and instant messenger chatter using two fingers to type?
All this was just the start: let me try to draw an few analogies… If you tried to scale the technology used to produce a small city car to producing a space shuttle, it wouldn’t really matter how much money, people or time you had – the spacecraft would collapse before it got of the ground. It is like attending a foreign language class once a month vs. twice a week: no one would learn anything learning it for 90 minutes once a month, even persevering for years or decades. It’s the same with typing and writing: the difference in thought recording speed is so great that some things achievable by typing can effectively never be achieved by writing. Sometimes other technology helps so people use dictaphones to record their thoughts and transcribe and organize them later. While a useful technique, this is no substitute for high-speed typing.
Finally, there is the value of the recordings themselves to consider. Written text is a recording of thoughts. Teaching children to type supports instant digitalization of ideas and digitized text is to words on paper what a two week vacation on a tropical island is to a postcard. When you search on-line for a bicycle shop in town, web search engines search a trillion (12 zeroes, and that was a few years ago…) documents and show you results sorted by relevance in a fraction of a second – that is how good digital information retrieval technology is. When it comes to sharing, a paper page is just that – a paper page – and can only be in one place at a time. When you want to share it, you can scan it or photocopy it – that’s it. For the resource cost of one photocopy, a digital page could probably be copied to half the population of Europe. When it comes to content analysis and processing, paper basically has to be processed manually. A digital document can be translated, checked for authenticity, spell checked or processed in countless other ways almost momentarily.
The total impact on society of generations of children which conquer the keyboard can only be guessed, but I would love to see it happen somewhere. A keyboard is what distinguishes passive content consumers from creators, active participants in the digital world. Typing should be a mandatory subject in primary school until children reach 80 wpm and while I am on the subject, it should be done using the Dvorak keyboard.