Opinion: Typing – an important skill that we neither teach nor require

Recently I was sat in a GP’s surgery waiting for him to type out a prescription for me. Until that point I had been nothing but impressed with his patience and knowledge. Then I saw how painfully slowly he attacked the keyboard, poking at it with a few select fingers as if it was too hot to touch, swiftly withdrawing his fingers to safe distance after each quick poke at a key.

The prescription that rolled off the computer was accurate, so what was the problem save for a few extra seconds passed in chit chat whilst he did the fingers dancing on hot coals turn with the keyboard?

It’s simply this. GPs spend a large number of years learning their profession, and the state puts in huge amounts of money to honing and then harnessing their skills. They learn to do all sorts of things, and their job inevitable involves large amounts of typing – yet how to type isn’t taught, isn’t required and isn’t expected.

Poor typists take up time and make more mistakes. Even small slices of time wasted add up quickly; the mistakes can be far more serious.

This isn’t just a matter of my personal experience or even just for GPs. It is widespread through both the public and private sector that jobs can be done quicker and better by people who can type, but typing skills are not asked for, not required and do not feature in even highly resourced or heavily administrated training plans, personal development programs or professional qualifications.

A while back I was chatting to a former senior civil servant and he expressed very similar views about the welfare system. Want to speed up the system and cut down on mistakes he asked me over a hot chocolate? Get the Department of Work & Pensions staff who spend most of their day at a computer off on typing courses.

Look at the range of advice and training people do get, and you find typing sits in a weird limbo. Advice on how to adjust your chair and arrange your posture so that your hands are poised over your keyboard in a safe and comfortable way? Check. Guidance on which keys do what in the computer program you are using? Check. Training on how to quickly and accurately use your hands to press those keys? No, sorry – that’s not what we do here.

So here is my question for those into our education policies; why do we value ensuring people can write by hand so highly yet value teaching typing so lowly, even though typing has become the dominant form of creating words for so very many people most of the time?

And here’s my question for those into improving public services: why do we employ so many people in jobs that are done better and quicker by skilled touch typists yet neither require such skills nor train people to have them?

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • Typing on a QWERTY, Dvorak or chorded keyboard?

    If you want to reintroduce typing as a subject (I have two SCOTVEC certificates in touch typing), then why not go the whole hog and teach people to use one of the alternative keyboard layouts which are faster and more accurate that QWERTY?

  • Simon McGrath 2nd Aug '13 - 7:16pm

    Completely agree. We sent our son on a 3 day typing course a few years ago – now he can touch type. Far more use in his life than some of his more abstruse GCSEs.

  • Helen Tedcastle 2nd Aug '13 - 8:59pm

    @ Mark Pack : “And here’s my question for those into improving public services: why do we employ so many people in jobs that are done better and quicker by skilled touch typists yet neither require such skills nor train people to have them?”

    That’s easy to answer. Large numbers of Typists have been laid of/not employed in the public services for years – why? To save money! With the advent of the personal computer in schools, it is far far easier and cheaper to make teachers do their own typing than employ a junior or even senior typist in an office to do it for them. How do I know? I went into teaching at a time when typists did do our typing for us – then it stopped. Senior team only and heads of departments – letters only.

    Perish the thought that departments themselves. have typists! So yes, hard-pressed professionals do their own typing.

    That’s what happens when public services are cut. First the training courses go, then office staff and part-time teachers etc etc…I am rather surprised you didn’t realise this consequence of policy decisions.

  • Helen: I think you’ve missed my point, which isn’t about employing dedicated typists but rather expecting those whose job involves typing to be able to type themselves (whether that’s done through requiring it at recruitment or training on the job or, most likely a mist of the two). The whole point is that plenty of people do indeed do their own typing – but never learn to type properly themselves. That’s the problem.

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Aug '13 - 9:15pm

    I have a background in IT, having taken IT Apps at college and then gone on to first line support and repair of computers.

    I will agree with Marks premise – up to a point. If most of a persons day is working at the keyboard typing then yes – by all means teach touch typing. But, for professionals whose hands on time is less than 15 minutes in the hour professional training is just not work the outlay – simply because you will see skill degradation.

    I have known many people in the type of jobs mentioned above buy the RSA ‘learn to type’ books for a fraction of the cost of a typing course and spend a couple of hours a week practising. Those whose job includes less than intense exposure to typing should be professional enough to get a modicom of keyboard skills – at least learning the qwerty layout.

  • Helen Tedcastle 2nd Aug '13 - 9:30pm

    Mark – I did understand your point but I do not accept the assumption that people who are employed to do a professional job, (which is in itself quite demanding), should be expected to do their own typing as well.

    Creeping ‘expectation’ actually means demanding more from fewer people. if typos creep in, who can be surprised? The idea that sending teachers, doctors etc on a course simply panders to those who generate the demands and turn up the pressure, to cut costs – the holy grail of policy.

    That was my point.

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Aug '13 - 10:03pm

    You are wrong Helen.

    Doctors typing prescriptions or the odd doctors note do not need typists to do that – just like sending them on typing courses, it is overkill. It is also impractical and uneconomical to have people sat next to the likes of nurses doing occasional data entry. I would no more expect them to do this than I would have someone type this post – because this is the level of exposure Mark is, I believe, talking about. It would be different if they were expected to churn out tens of thousands of words on a weekly basis, but most are not.

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Aug '13 - 10:09pm

    What a thread to have two typos in my first post.

    Word to self, proof read, proof read, proof read

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Aug '13 - 11:17pm

    In the old days doctors wrote out their prescriptions. No-one taught them to write properly either!

    Mark – you are so right. There was a moment, when PCs seemed the future, that kids seemed to be learning how to type. Now with smartphones and tablets and so on, they have stopped again. It should be taught in schools.


  • Helen Tedcastle 2nd Aug '13 - 11:22pm

    A Social Liberal – I don’t think so. Doctors and Nurses type rather more than prescriptions – they have to write up patients’ notes, write letters and reports. I do not expect each doctor to have a typist. I would expect adequate support for a team of doctors or nurses or a cluster of departments in a secondary school – this is professionalism.

    Yet in teaching, the office support in my experience is minimal, and this includes Heads of Department (except parental letters). Why? It is too costly to provide support. it is so much easier and more cost effective to delegate the typing to the staff – hence the proliferation of endless paperwork in that profession.

    Not only do teachers compose and compile the reports, schemes of work, programmes of study, lesson plans etc..but they type and in relevant cases, design them as well. They also input miles of data afterall tracking attainment and progression is essential.

    I suspect this level of ‘paperwork’ is also the case for many doctors and nurses.

    My question is: how many other professions get by with such minimal office support?

  • Christine Headley 3rd Aug '13 - 12:25am

    When choosing secondary schools for my children, I asked whether they taught children to type – I reckon it’s an important life skill. They don’t, of course. Where my elder daughter was in the sixth form, the local college was near by and she did a typing course in her school free time. Unfortunately my younger daughter is not at the same place and won’t be able to learn in the same way.

    I think it should be part of the national curriculum, taught daily for a year. You wouldn’t need a full hour.

  • @Christine
    >When choosing secondary schools for my children, I asked whether they taught children to type

    There is a good typing tutor available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/typing/ it is targeted at 7~11 year old’s.

    My daughter took to it, my son is another story…

  • Mark, I think you needed to have been in a position to actually see the your doctor’s screen and so better understand what exactly your doctor was doing.

    The majority of doctors will use a medical records and dispensing system, hence the doctor isn’t actually typing in the prescription details, but selecting relevant courses of medication etc. from lists, that are displayed step by step as they go through the dispensing process.

  • Roland: interesting point. The pattern of where his fingers were hitting the keyboard (ie not just arrow keys and return, but blocks of letters) and the frequency, plus what he was saying, made me pretty sure he was typing in text. Perhaps it was notes for my medical file prior to then selecting the prescription, rather than the actual prescription phase itself then? The more general point applies about medical notes and other situations/profession even if not, though.

    Helen: having someone else do your typing adds costs, delay and increases errors. It’s much better if the person who knows what they wanted to have recorded is also doing the recording as that’s the quickest, simplest and most reliable system. For example, if a doctor makes notes and then someone else types them up, that adds in an extra stage, which takes time and gives extra opportunity for error.

  • You may well have a point Mark, about specific typists adding potential error etc, but Helen is right, that the main reason we don’t have specific typists is because of the cost of employing. The equation was given a massive boost with the introduction of new IT and again with advent of the net email etc. I had a similar case to yours watching a judge in a family law case type out a judgment. Come to think of it, I am doing it myself…

    Had trainers of my generation got to grips with this as the process proceeded, we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. Sorry.

  • Sean O'Curneen 3rd Aug '13 - 7:59am

    Very good post Mark. My mother taught me to type as a child on (what was then) a standard type-writer. It only takes a few lessons, and has been an extremely useful skill to have throughout my career (whether in science, journalism, or politics). Schools could indeed teach it, but people can also learn quickly at home or in short after-school courses. It is a valuable skill and helps to increase efficiency, and according to the Lean Manufacturing theory the constant search for greater efficiency is what is helping companies (not only manufacturing ones) in countries with higher labour costs remain competitive in this globalised world. Of course, typing on a smart phone as I am doing now is a different matter… Slower and much less comfortable!

  • A very very good point. Schools spend ages teaching children to use software that will probably have ceased to exist when they get to work (my kids spent ages doing powerpoint presentations ffs) and don’t teach them how to use a keyboard. It’s utterly ridiculous.

  • I was a sixth former when computers were just being introduced into the more progressive schools. A delegation went to the headmistress to ask if we could have typing lessons in a lunch hour, as it would be a useful skill for uni and work.

    The response: “Girls who go to this school will never be doing their own typing”.

    Thanks Miss Pattinson on behalf of several hundred middle-aged women for all the RSI, backache and lost productivity.

  • jenny barnes 3rd Aug '13 - 9:17am

    It’s historical mysogyny. Typing? That’s a woman’s job. I remember at my company which was a very early adopter of internal e-mail, how many of the managers refused to use e-maiil, insisting that their secretaries print out any e-mails they were sent, while dictating or hand writing the replies for their secretaries to send…. Not long after, most of these luddite managers were retired early, along with some of the typists, the remainder becoming card punch operators ( so you can get an idea of how long ago this was) and joining the typing pool. I learnt to type on an upright Underwood in the 6th form ( ok, year 10? now) and I think it was the most useful skill I acquired.

    As to g’s comment about different layout keyboards: the Economist reported on a study that found the difference in speed with different layouts was in fact very small, and the main reason people stick with QWERTY is because there is no significant advantage switching.

  • Helen Tedcastle 3rd Aug '13 - 10:10am

    @ Christine Headley: “I think it should be part of the national curriculum, taught daily for a year. ” So what should be axed? Something less “useful”, so what would that be? I’m afraid it is very easy to declare something must go into the curriculum – it is not as simple as that in practice due to competing demands – perhaps typing could replace cookery?
    Last month people were worried that children couldn’t cook.

    Additionally, I’m afraid under the new national curriculum, typing would be classed as ‘mickey mouse.’ It’s not academic.This Secretary of State is just not interested in vocational skills. Around a decade ago, typing was still taught amongst the vocational qualifications available in schools. In the schools I know, it was axed years ago so pupils could do more GCSEs like ICT.

    Perhaps typing could go in the carousel of ‘enrichment days’ which are short bursts of subjects deemed not important enough to be taught properly and are usually staffed by non-specialists.

    This is the sad reality beyond the keyboard.

    The idea of professionals going on a course, fulfilling a few specifications, ticking the right boxes and leaving with a certificate, sounds pro-active. Will it enhance professionalism? To a point. Will it lessen the spiralling demands? No.

    In my view, workload is a far greater priority for Lib Dems to be concerned about – why not try to retain good professionals instead of bothering with this red herring?

  • Christine Headley 3rd Aug '13 - 10:29am

    @Helen Tedcastle
    I’m also worried that children can’t cook. If their parents can’t cook either, they won’t be able to learn at home. Schools also need to teach life skills.

    My thoughts were not directed at Michael Gove, who I reckon is a lost cause. No, he wouldn’t like it. Though it would help all those future university students produce their essays….

    Nor would typing work on enrichment days. It needs to be taught briefly, daily, and only needs to be allocated one year, somewhere between Y6 and Y9, I’d say.

  • The only place I have seen a typist in recent years was in a hospital, in a case conference. Patient, family, 3 doctors, 1 nurse and a med student, and the typist in the corner typing up the discussion and outcomes. That was useful – and capturing it live meant that it was (probably) a more balanced summary than if one person had done it afterwards from memory.

    Dragon Dictate Voice Dictation Software now has a special version for medics – presumably because lots of medics the world over can’t type very well. I imagine that is very useful for the sort of thing Mark is talking about – and it is more accurate for long complex words than short ones. It struggles with “but” and “that”, but I doubt that words such as “paracetamol” or “alendronate” have other words with which they are easily confused.

    Being able to type properly isn’t just about productivity, it is also about reducing RSI etc.

  • Helen Tedcastle 3rd Aug '13 - 11:04am

    @ Christine Headley: “Nor would typing work on enrichment days. It needs to be taught briefly, daily, and only needs to be allocated one year, somewhere between Y6 and Y9, I’d say.” Of course it wouldn’t work on an enrichment day – that is my point but that is where initiatives like this end up, because the curriculum is too crowded with things that ‘ought’ to be taught.

    You have hit the nail on the head though, Something like basic cooking could be, ought to be passed on by parents. Increasingly, schools are having to pass on the life skills taught in previous generations by parents eg: gardening. Parents, who work the longest hours in Europe, haven’t go time or prefer not to spend the time. It’s easier for everyone to get the schools to do it.

    As I wrote in a previous comment, we do have to be realists here. if typing is so vital a life skill, perhaps it could be put onto the curriculum but it won’t be part of the national curriculum inits own right – it will be part of ‘life skills’ which is a sub-set of PHSE ie: the subject most likely to be taught by non-specialists and the repository of previous anxieties among the political classes of what ‘ought ‘ to be taught.

    If typing gets a few hours a year, that will be all, because as I have pointed out, the curriculum is over-crowded. Some schools still do not teach Sport for more than a half hour a week – Typing or Sport? (Science, English, maths have priority over everything and the rest of the curriculum just has to fit around them). If I was a Headteacher, Sport would get the time slot over typing.

  • Helen Tedcastle 3rd Aug '13 - 11:25am

    Chris Smith: I have a funnier joke – lets stick it on the curriculum under ‘life skills’ and axe less important things like cooking or sex education! Then we can tick the box.

  • Mark – good post. People are often surprised that I can touch type and it’s all because I was taught how to type when I was at secondary school. Quite unusual then and presumably now, but they offered it to everyone at my school who was planning to do GCSE Business Studies and it didn’t take long to teach. At that time all essays were still handwritten, with the one exception being in Business Studies where they had to be typed. It’s been very useful since and probably speeds up a lot of the work that I have done since.

  • daft ha'p'orth 3rd Aug '13 - 7:24pm

    Well, you’re quite right. Typing is an extremely important skill as well as being easy to learn from software.

    But I’m afraid today’s consumer-crud educational technology of choice is apparently the iPad. Which, being a touchscreen keyboardless media-consumption device, is spectacularly poorly chosen to teach the skill of typing. The best thing about the Apple Store from my point of view is watching the people who work there try to look nonchalant and purposeful while attempting to perform data entry on an iPad.

    So, if you want to teach typing you’ll have to start by persuading schools that a hardware keyboard should be a requirement for their IT platform of choice. People will insist that of course you can touch-type on an on-screen keyboard, but it plain isn’t true, and won’t be until better tactile feedback technology comes of age. But if schools accepted this, they either wouldn’t get to play with iPads or would have to put an extra fifty quid into an external keyboard, though, so expect there to be bitter, violent resistance.

  • I’m sorry, this is a really weak idea. Do you teach typing on a phone keypad, a tablet, a laptop or an old 1990s-style separate keyboard on a desktop PC? And who’s going to teach it? Children, who are used to these devices, or someone over twice their age that isn’t up-to-date with the technology?

    This is, very simply, a problem that will work it’s way out the workforce as older people retire or move to other jobs. Investing resources in tackling it is pointless because individuals that want to address this can do so by identifying their own training needs, and seeking support either with, or separate from, their employer. I suspect that the people that are really lacking in this area are averse to technology in the first place, and a training course is unlikely to shift that. By the time a policy had been developed, passed through parliament, training devised and set up and organised, learners recruited, and then trainers and learners recruited again to weed out scammers and attempt to reach learners that ACTUALLY really need it (rather than “training junkies”, who are probably the only people that would volunteer), this isn’t going to be a problem anyway. If it really is now.

  • I agree with Roland. I learned to touch type when my mother took me to the library, at the age of about 10. It was a computer “game”. In total taking 3 hours.

    Why don’t you put this link in your article Mark? http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/typing/
    Problem solved!

  • The award for best comment goes to Tony Greaves:

    “In the old days doctors wrote out their prescriptions. No-one taught them to write properly either!”

    Haha! As a research scientist, in those days all the research papers were written out by hand, and then typed up by the typists because computers were expensive and the scientists didn’t have one each (and were slow typists). Now everyone has their own computer.

    However typing fast is still a useful skill and is now called data entry.

  • Helen Tedcastle 3rd Aug '13 - 8:02pm

    daft ha ‘p’ orth: I agree. Tablet computers are currently popular and wouldn’t be the best platform for learning typing. However, you hit on a secondary problem. The primary problem is finding enough teachers of typing and deciding where in the curriculum to put this course. Is it part of the new Computing curriculum? I think there would be objections that children should be learning programming (the main reason for the new qualification) and typing suits itself more to the old ICT curriculum.

    Do we put it not the catch all ‘life skills’ as I suggested earlier? The problem is, every other political anxiety is located there. Do we put it in tutor time? In which case there is even less time for vital pastoral work and who would teach it?

    Should it be a discrete subject in its own right? If so, where will it go? It is not a national curriculum subject but if it was made into one, which subject would have to make way for it?

    Finally, is the teaching of typing really essential or is just it useful? I would suggest it is useful not essential because no evidence has been presented in the article that there is a crisis in typing on a keyboard. The only argument is the hope that less mistakes will be made if someone has a training certificate after going on a course or doing a school course.

    Certainly it will probably erase some errors and quicken the typing speed but as typing is very much a secondary activity these days for most people, why should someone be required to take yet another course in order to jump through more hurdles and meet more employer prerequisites?

    It seems to me that most of the positive comments on the thread indicate approval of the general idea of bringing back typing without full consideration of whether this is more essential than the other essentials.

    Some have argued that they did it at school (in a previous era with different curricula), therefore it is useful for pupils, the digital natives, as well. Is this is a good enough reason to spend time on typing at the expense of something else? In which case, one needs to decide what is axed to make way for it.

    The idea that writing is less important than keyboard typing in pedagogically suspect as well.

  • daft ha'p'orth 3rd Aug '13 - 9:39pm

    @Helen Tedcastle
    “The idea that writing is less important than keyboard typing in pedagogically suspect as well.”

    Yes it really, really is and it drives me nuts that so few of the decision-makers out there appear to realise this, promoting silly stuff like giving small kids tablets instead of a pencil and never mind all this ‘development of fine motor control’ nonsense. Computers have their place – so do crayons, pencils, pens and paintbrushes. Sooner or later this will sink in along with other relevant points such as the extreme cost of relicencing ebook textbooks on a yearly basis instead of reusing paper publications. It’s a fad. They happen, sadly.

    You ask where it fits in the curriculum. Good question. I wouldn’t call it essential but lack of the skill significantly reduces staff effectiveness in some jobs (IT jobs, yes, but also anything research- or input-intensive) so it is, broadly, useful. As a programmer I’d have to say that typing is absolutely part of the skillset, but it obviously isn’t the sort of thing any minister would like to stand up and say they got into the curriculum. The mere ability to express yourself fluently and swiftly in typed text? Pah.

    I suspect that it’s one of the rare skills which you really can learn without a specialist human tutor. I personally used typing tutor software and about a week of practice. So it may be that it doesn’t really need a great deal of specialist teacher time so much as it requires student motivation and an appropriate platform, by which I mean one with a keyboard.

    Oh, btw I think there is a fair argument that the ‘digital native’ is a myth, and misleading to boot. From experience of teaching programming to university-age students, they’re superficially more comfortable with computer use than would’ve been the case a few years ago but it really is superficial. Fundamentally they are comfortable with clicky buttons. They know no more than previous generations about what is going on underneath. They are just slightly better at hiding it. Of course they do differ from previous generations, as every generation does – but I don’t think the term ‘digital native’ is a very useful construction.

  • I now live out of the UK, but if doctors don’t yet just click with the mouse on the prescription they want and enter the dosage with a couple of key presses then they need new software.

  • Helen Tedcastle 4th Aug '13 - 11:25am

    daft ha ‘p’ orth: I agree with your comments in large measure, especially your points about writing. It would be a sad day if pen and paper were replaced with a keyboard – philistinism no less.

    Your point about the term digital natives: I used it to describe a generation which spends much of its leisure time playing (inane in my view) games, texting, messaging etc… My generation never did this so I suspect we are less ‘comfortable’ with the keyboard. I take your point that young people are more likely to be good at pressing buttons quickly than typing in well-expressed English. I think that is a wider cultural point – if they are pressing buttons, they are spending less time reading?

    No doubt some people on LDV will dream up a new initiative to be done by schools to treat this wider social and cultural issue!

    I am not against learning typing but I cannot see where it can be fitted into an already overcrowded curriculum.

    Perhaps it could be taught in Computing but as this subject is trying to shake off its image as a repository for skills for users, I’m not sure adding a new unit on typing fits the bill.However, I think it is probably the only place it could be fitted. Perhaps it could be taught in years 7 -9, because I’m pretty sure the new Computing course will not be as popular as ICT – it’s very mathematical and will appeal to the more able at maths, whereas ICT skills did appeal to students across the ability range.

  • @Helen
    “I am not against learning typing but I cannot see where it can be fitted into an already overcrowded curriculum.”

    I think you will find that “keyboard skills” is an element in the ICT curriculum for junior schools. However, formal (touch) typing skills do seem to be omitted. Personally, I’m all for some of the curriculum to be taught outside the normal school hours/term framework eg. in the summer holiday. I appreciate that this would most probably give the government a headache and cause some to jump up-and-down but I think we need to start getting away from the idea that all schooling should be done by the same set of teachers (because we’re paying them already) and bring in “specialists” – we are already doing this with respect to cycling proficiency (which contains a large element of road safety).

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