Monday, October 3, 2011

Reading About Reading

According to this New Yorker article, if you enjoy reading articles or books about reading (I guess "meta-reading?") then you can count yourself among a small group of people for whom literacy is an unquestionable part of their lives. It's a bit of a litmus test. For example, if you brew your own beer, you must really be into beer.

The author also quotes from the work of historian Marshall Poe who explains why reading is so difficult and not enjoyable for many people:

Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it at all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun.

I don't think he's implying that those of us who love to read are more evolved (tell yourself that if you need to), but he does make the point that reading has only existed for 5000 years of the 180,000 years of human existence. Reading is a relatively new game. (So is humanity, for that matter.)

Not sure how long it takes for an evolutionary trait to stick, but perhaps the definition of "reading" is still up for grabs. Before long, we should have a good body of research comparing traditional reading to reading integrated with audio and visual aids (i.e. the way most people use tablets). It seems as if the new text books designed for tablets have this type of "reading" in mind. I'm skeptical, but highly aware of my bias toward book reading. I also highly doubt that students can develop strong writing skills without devoting themselves to the sustained reading of texts without audio-visual aids. (However, will writing also change? Will it evolve into some new form of visual-pattern recognition and post-symbolic communication, as suggested by Jaron Lanier?)

Can we learn more by reading a book by Jared Diamond, for example, or by reading an interview with him, or by watching his TED video? While it's obvious that his book will contain more information, more in-depth analysis, and just plain old more words, we can't say for sure when or where real learning will occur. We can't confuse instruction with learning, the biggest mistake, I think, that educational institutions make.

If Student A reads Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, and writes an effective 10-page research paper arguing either for or against the book's conclusions, and Student B consumes videos, brief interviews, and audio files of Diamond and creates a convincing 10-minute electronic presentation, who has learned more? Traditional metrics would favor Student A. But, then again, traditional metrics are designed to favor Student A. Student A learned the instruction. Instruction aside, who learned more, Student A or Student B?

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