The write stuff

Posted on 01/03/2019 by IED

Students seem to have lost much of the dexterity they used to have, affecting their ability to write, draw and perform for surgery. Colin Ledsome CEng FIED offers a way forward

Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education at Imperial College London, recently complained that students have less dexterity than they used to have, making it more difficult for them to learn the delicate skills that are needed for surgery.

I have noticed for many years that a growing number of students do not hold pens and pencils in a way that gives them full control for drawing and writing. Prof Kneebone blames the use of touch screens and other devices, and the reduction in craft skill requirements in schools.

I think it goes back much further – to a reluctance in teaching practice to ‘constrain’ children to a particular writing technique from the 1970s, allowing them to find a way that suited them. I know from my sports coaching experience that a bad technique learned in the early stages becomes more difficult to correct as time goes on.

All design-related courses require students to do some drawing, as well as writing. Sketching is an important life skill, even if we no longer use drawing boards to generate the drawings, which tell the manufacturers what to make. Historically, the Victorian engineers and inventors used to carry ‘day books’, in which they made sketches of site surveys and the things to be built, kept notes of meetings and their expenses, to be claimed later. These records show who was responsible for which decisions and actions, and so were often a basis for formal contracts.

Workshop skills often depend on dexterity. One of our fundamental attributes is the opposable thumb. This allows us to make a ‘precision grip’ between fingers and thumb, as well as the ‘power grip’ of the grasping hand. Without this, we would not have been able to thread needles, tie knots, make watches, play musical instruments or produce much of the technical world we live in. Kneebone suggests teaching students to do conjuring tricks, using sleight of hand, thus improving their dexterity.

I believe that dexterity should be taught in schools. If it hasn’t been, it is important to make it a specific aim of all courses that require design or manufacturing skills to correct the omission


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