Published on 17 April 2019
For four years he lived the life of a Benedictine monk before heading to adrenaline-driven Silicon Valley just as technology began to take over the world.
So it seems ironic that Ewan Clayton is today playing a pivotal role in keeping alive the important values of handwriting at a time when digital is threatening to engulf us all.
Ewan, a Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland, has just played a key role in the creation of a new Manifesto for Handwriting which outlines why putting pen to paper remains a vital part of our day-to-day lives.
In the Manifesto, Ewan, and his fellow contributors, urge education bosses “to choose handwriting policies, to establish standards and curricula, to train teachers, to invest in books, materials and support to favour learning and practice of handwriting”.
Ewan’s passion for the written word stems back to his childhood in Ditchling, Sussex; the same village which was home to the man deemed the ‘father of modern calligraphy’, Edward Johnston.
He said: “I was surrounded by writing influences in Ditchling but when I was 12 years old my handwriting was so bad I was moved back to junior school to learn how to write all over again.
“I was given Johnston’s biography and started to realise just how interesting a subject handwriting was.
In the Manifesto for Handwriting, Ewan, along with his contributors, outlines ‘eight good reasons to recognise and extend the role of handwriting’.
1) Handwriting is a personal, direct and accessible tool.
Given its simplicity, sustainability and low-tech requirements, handwriting is indispensable in countless aspects of daily life — also our digital daily life: handwriting is now moving into new technologies by means of digital pens, digital papers, touch screens, stylus-based smart phones and many other new interfaces.
2) Handwriting and digital skills are both important, but handwriting comes first.
In the educational process, keyboarding should be introduced when a child’s brain development is able to support efficient bimanual coordination. Conversely, handwriting is a physical process requiring fine motor skills that need to be trained from the early years. As the last fine motor skill commonly taught in most schools, handwriting plays an important part in the development of hand-eye coordination.
3) School, university, the workplace and daily life: handwriting is here to stay.
Though IT today often uses voice recognition software, not everything can be said with the spoken word. Indeed, writing (and/or typing) is virtually always required for organising all but the simplest information. Writing notes by hand puts the process of visualizing information into the hand of the writer, rather than the designers of software.
Scientific studies clearly show that the typing of information creates fewer neural links and weaker mind-maps than handwriting. This means that handwriting as a form of note-taking serves as a strong tool for the organising of information, first on the page and then in the brain.
4) Handwriting is an aesthetic process.
Learning principles of balance, harmony, regularity, clarity, elegance and indeed beauty, should be an essential part of any child’s education. These skills may translate in later life into calmness, confidence, better observational skills and a more profound sense of the meaning of education.
A technologically-based educational programme does not adequately address these aesthetic tasks and needs.
5) Handwriting is part of our culture, as well as those cultures that do not use the Latin alphabet.
Handwriting is a socialising activity. It is an essential part of the social contract that ties citizen to citizen: the writer must understand how another person will read and understand what he/she writes.
China reintroduced calligraphy into all schools in 2015 for both cultural and educational reasons.
6) Research shows that handwriting can be an essential and efficient educational tool.
Research in this area clearly shows that handwriting influences reading, writing, language, and critical thinking.
Handwriting has also been shown to impact neurological processes: research suggests that children who struggle with handwriting are less efficient in engaging their brains when learning to write new letters of the alphabet. Conversely, studies have shown that handwriting single letterforms stimulates neural activity in areas required for reading, and in older children, the physical connectivity between pen and page seems to enhance quality of written content.
7) While handwriting can be a challenge for some children, it can teach others self-mastery.
Handwriting provides a calming influence for children subjected to the many distractions of modern life, and it can be an important form of self-expression.
Handwriting is a way of enjoying the benefits of a focused attention, experiencing aesthetic principles, having fun and pride in one’s abilities to communicate.
A page of clear, legible and well-formed writing can bring a sense of personal achievement for both adults and children that is quite different to that of a typed text.
8) Contemporary handwriting needs clear teaching and functional models.
Handwriting needs clear teaching based on informed research, and an up-skilled and inspiring workforce of teachers who take pride in their knowledge of this simple yet empowering practice.
Any handwriting models to be taught at school need to feature a coherent ductus, should be as simple and logical as possible, and – since we live in the digital age – they have to be adaptable to the new technologies.
For all these reasons we urge the governments, particularly the education ministries, to choose handwriting policies, to establish standards and curricula, to train teachers, to invest in books, materials and supports to favour learning and practice of handwriting.
After leaving the monastery where he lived between the ages of 28 and 32, Ewan headed for Silicon Valley in the US where he worked as a consultant to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Laboratory in California.
Xerox PARC is the research lab that developed the concept of Windows, the look and feel of the interactive graphical user interface, the Ethernet and the laser printer amongst many other key aspects of our digital environment.
Ewan decided to take up his post at the University of Sunderland after feeling a connection to the region, not least because it was home to St Peter’s Church at Monkwearmouth, the Anglo-Saxon monastery once home to Venerable Bede.