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Return to chalk and slate best for students, schools and environment: CQU Education academic

Published:13 February 2021

Neuroscientist Dr Ragnar Purje is an Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Education and the Arts at Central Queensland University.

Australia’s primary school classrooms should ditch the digital trend and return to chalk and slate, according to CQUniversity education academic Dr Ragnar Purje.

The innovative academic, who also teaches primary school in regional Queensland, says the centuries-old approach is “profoundly important” for developing the brain, fine and gross motor skills, and the intellectual ability to construct a story.

Dr Purje recently published a three-part exploration of chalk’s classroom benefits in Australia’s Education Review, titled Chalk, talk, teach, write, read, achieve, repeat.

With nearly 40 years of classroom experience, Dr Purje argues that writing on screens cannot replace the complex skill of handwriting with chalk.

And he believes the challenge brings numerous benefits for young students, as well as saving resources for schools and our environment.

“Tapping, swiping a screen, or using the ‘pointing’ finger on a screen is not handwriting,” he said.

“The research dealing with handwriting and compositional narrative writing development is unambiguous; handwriting and narrative writing is not only complex, it requires desire, discipline, dedication, determination, perseverance and resilience.”

Dr Purje said using chalk encouraged a “tripod grip” with thumb and pointer finger, which helps shape neurological, neuromuscular, gross and fine motor skill pathways.

“Research has also linked poor orthographic-motor integration, or hand-brain coordination, with an inability to compose a well-structured and creative written narrative,” he said.

“That’s because the student is only focusing on letter formation, they haven’t developed handwriting automaticity so they can instead develop the narrative.”

Dr Purje also highlighted the environmental sustainability of chalk, and the frustration of using the popular alternative of whiteboards and markers.

“The water-based felt pens often dry out, and you need cloth and liquid to erase, so what should be an easy process becomes time consuming and unnecessarily convoluted,” he said.

“Chalk never dries out, you can write with it even as it breaks, and producing chalk does not use tonnes of plastics or megalitres of chemical liquids.”

“Schools worldwide are spending billions on plastic whiteboard markers destined for landfill, and on technology like tablets that is obsolete in a few years.”

“The financial and environmental savings of chalk are self-evident.”

While chalk and slate boards are not available in most Australian primary schools, Dr Purje recommends that parents encourage their children to practise writing with chalk in the preschool years.

“When I was at school, we practised letter formation with chalk, then progressed to pencil then pen. This process is hard work, but the brain advances in its complexities by and through the process of effort, application and hard work,” he said.

Dr Purje, who completed his PhD with CQUni in 2016 under the supervision of Professor Ken Purnell, is the author of Responsibility Theory®, a book and neuroeducation program guiding teachers in best-practice education methods for brain-friendly learning.