My niece wants to take a typing class. She watches her mother's hands whiz across the keyboard, rattling off 80 or 90 words per minute. She wants to be able to write quickly and effortlessly too. But her school doesn't teach typing. The question is: why not?
Learning how to touch-type is a classic example of a human capital investment. It requires hours of practice, but there is a big productivity pay-off. When typing becomes a purely automatic process, when there is no need to ever even glance at the keyboard or think about which key to use, the writer is free to concentrate on writing - something called cognitive automaticity. A person who can type quickly can get things done rapidly and efficiently. I can answer emails, write memos or accomplish other routine tasks faster than most economists, because I can type quickly. Moreover, learning good posture at the keyboard has health benefits, because it reduces the risk of repetitive strain injury.
So why isn't typing taught in school? Why doesn't every student graduate from high school knowing the the best way to use a keyboard? Why do schools no longer offer the kind of intensive training in typing that is needed to become a highly proficient typist, working consistently at 80 word per minute or more? I don't know, but I have theories.
One possibility is that the value of learning how to type as a human capital investment is far less obvious than it once was. Back in the day, typing was a specific skill with a clearly defined market value. Many women typed for living. Firms had "typing pools" - whole rooms full of typists. Managers had secretaries to type letters and correspondence for them. Students would enter a typing class with no knowledge at all of how to type; after a term or two, they would be qualified for a well-defined (if not well-paid) job.
Today, most students enter high school with a basic working knowledge of the keyboard. They can already type at, say, 20 or 30 words per minute. The value of going from 30 to 60 wpm is much less obvious than the value of going from 0 to 60. Because there are few jobs that specifically require the ability to type quickly, it has become a general skill, of amorphous value. The economic payoff is hard to quantify, so is assumed away.
An alternative story is that education is not just about human capital. It is about signalling, too. I was in high school, academically minded students generally avoided typing class. A woman who could type risked being typecast. There were even (apocryphal?) stories of women who feigned incompetence at the keyboard, to avoid being asked to do routine secretarial work. [Fortunately, my mother has no patience with pretentious signalling exercises. "You must take typing", she insisted, "It will be useful whatever you choose to do in life."]
Signalling explains why some people avoided typing classes before computers became commonplace in the 1980s and 90s. But can it explain the absence of typing classes in high school today? I think there is still a lingering belief that, in high status jobs, thinking deep and profound thoughts is more important than churning them out quickly. For example, management guru Peter Drucker argued that knowledge workers are defined by the fact that the quality of their output is more important than quantity. It is true that, sometimes, writing slowly helps me think deeply. But that's where pen and paper comes in handy. Touch typing is no barrier to serious intellectual endeavour.
There is also a slightly different signalling story one could tell. Proper touch typing is an old school, girlie, boring skill. Perhaps schools do not offer typing classes because they are trying to send a signal: that they teach real subjects. Masculine subjects. Academic subjects. Not typing.
Signalling might be part of the story, but it is hard to explain the total lack of any typing classes through signalling.
A third theory is that schools don't offer typing classes because they do not fit with modern educational pedagogy. Take, for example, this passage from a blog written by a BC teacher:
....by the time most students enter high school, they have been using a QWERTY keyboard attached to a computer for years, many without a lesson. This allows for a greater exploration of the creative applications of the technology far beyond the endless speed drills I spent doing in Typing 10.
When it comes right down to it, typing is manual labour. There is a fast way of doing it - the classic "home row" method. Self-taught typists can achieve good speeds - 50, 60 wpm - but not the ultra-fast speeds of a typist using the classic method (for discussion, see here). Creative and original approaches are generally sub-optimal. Yet telling students "your method is wrong" goes against the grain for teachers who want to encourage students to discover, explore, and work things out on their own.
A fourth theory is that teaching typing is not much fun. True, today's typing games like "spacebar invaders" or "keyboard revolution", are far more engaging than pages and pages of mindless drills. But what is the role of the teacher? To wander around, tell off people who are allowing their fingers to stray from home row, correct poor posture, and make sure no one is surfing the web instead of focusing on the typing games.
The fact that people already have a basic knowledge of the QWERTY keyboard makes teaching typing even more challenging. Take, for example, this tweet from Noah Smith: "Do normal people really type "c" with their left middle finger and "x" with their left ring finger???". I'm guessing that Noah has his own method of typing, and he figures it's quick and effective. I suspect the typical grade 10 typing teacher might have a hard time persuading him to type c with his middle finger on the grounds that it's the traditional, "right" way of keyboarding.
The difficulty of teaching typing is magnified by the intrinsic difficulty of teaching any class where everyone is on a computer. I don't like teaching those classes because I know the students are just like me - they'll tune out and start surfing the web or working ahead on their own at the first opportunity.
Moreover, every instructor prefers teaching fun material. A social science major might be taught the prisoner's dilemma 10 times in the course of an undergraduate degree, because it's really fun and easy to teach. No one teaches students grammar, though, because it's hard, intellectually unexciting, and we don't know how to teach it. Yet touch typing, like grammar, is a useful skill.
Finally, it might just come down to this: typing classes are expensive, because they require dedicated rooms full of computers. It's cheaper to offer classes in economics or philosophy. So that's what high schools put on.
My niece is planning to learn how to type at home this summer. I'm hoping she might become an economist one day - but whatever she chooses to do, typing will help her do it better.