Monday, November 21, 2011

What can QWERTY teach us about education?



 History has virtually forgotten Frank E. McGurrin – which is perhaps a pity given his  unintended but very real impact upon virtually every  person living in the developed world.   It could be argued that it was McGurrin, as winner of the first ever typing contest, that cemented the place of the QWERTY keyboard as the dominant key board layout for typewriters – which evolved (or perhaps mutated) into the computer keyboard.
The survival of the QWERTY keyboard is worth contemplating as it is truly a bizarre story.  The layout of keys with which we are so familiar was actually designed to make typists less efficient – or at least slower.  Early typewriters were mechanically cumbersome and the mechanisms jammed if typists struck the keys too quickly. So,  keys were arranged in such a way as them harder to press quickly – letters that are used more often were moved so that weaker fingers were used to type them or to places where fingers would need to be moved more in order to press them – in other words to slow down the user.  There was considerable experimentation to find the right balance and produce a keyboard that was efficient enough to be better than writing by hand but not so easy as to result in jammed machines.    It is possible to write 70% of all English words using the letters   D H I A T E N S O R  - yet few of them are in favoured positions on the keyboard.   Amazingly, salesmen also apparently had input into the QWERTY design – they wanted to be able to create the word TYPEWRITER  using letters on one line of the keyboard to demonstrate the ease of use of the new machine – and they got their wish.
McGurrin, was employed by a Ms. Longley, also largely forgotten by history despite being the founder of the Shorthand and Typewriter Institute in Cincinnati.  A rival company, using a different configuration of letters on their machine, challenged Longley to a contest to see which company was producing the best typists – McGurrin was nominated to represent his employer and duly won the contest.  This was seen as endorsement of the superiority of QWERTY over other layouts and helped propel the configuration to undisputed domination of the market. (An interesting footnote to this anecdote is that McGurrin was apparently the first typist to memorise the keyboard – and it may well have been the simple fact that he may have been the first touch typist in history rather than any design feature of the keyboard that enabled him to win the competition.)
Over the years typewriters improved, non-jamming machines were created and more efficient keyboard layouts were devised. However, they were not widely adopted – despite being demonstrably more efficient. Even in the electronic age of computers QWERTY continues to rule supreme – despite there being absolutely no phsycial reason for it to do so. I’m writing this on a QWERTY keyboard, every computer in this building have one, all the  keyboards in my house are of that configuration, even my smart phone uses the layout. The  DVORAK keyboard, generally considered to be much more efficient than QWERTY, lies overlooked  in obscurity simply because we have become accustomed to QWERTY . In short, QWERTY is a survivor , it continues on and on and on – despite there being no compelling reason for it anymore. 

There are aspects of the education system that have a striking similarity to QWERTY  in that they continue long after their  usefulness has past. Examples include:
·         Starting and managing student progress through the layers of school according to the calendar rather than on progress, demonstrated learning or readiness.
·         “Streaming” students despite both social-constructivist theory and formal testing programs suggesting this does not enhance students.
·         Confusing factual recall with understanding.
·         Teaching “subjects” in silo-like isolation.
·         Clinging  to paper based practices when the world outside of the school ground  is essentially  digital.
·         Pretending that the school is still the primary source of information available to students.
·         Teaching all students more or less the same thing at more or less the same time in more or less the same way – regardless of interest, ability or appropriateness.
·         Spouting social-constructivist learning theories but practicing behaviourist techniques (seen a “star chart” lately?).
·         Providing A-E type feedback to students and parents.
·         Using formal testing data to evaluate school performance – regardless of the various social and economic factors known to impact on education.
·         The standard school day itself  is fixed and based upon the needs of a bygone era. (Why do some schools offer “before school”  and “after school” care? Why not just change the hours of operation of schools to reflect social needs?)
This list is of course far from complete...and is obviously open to addition, agreement or disagreement. In a sense agreement is not necessary here, it is discussion that is important. We as educators should question the fundamentals of our practice.  We need to examine our basic assumptions about what makes a good school, how we can best serve our students, what are we trying to achieve and how we are trying to achieve it. Then we need the courage and energy to act upon our reflections.
 If we don’t we are essentially engraving QWERTY on our educational practice.


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Historical information about the surprisingly interesting history of the typewriter is sourced from Stephen Jay Gould’s book “Bully for Brontosaurus”, published by Penguin.  

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