A New Way of Reading

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Home sells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading around 100,000 words a day now. That’s a short novel, every single day. But what should be cause for celebration is in fact cause for concern, because the way we are reading is so dramatically different.

Wolf quotes a memorable speech by Barack Obama where he said that information has become ‘entertainment rather than empowerment.’ Moreover, our reading is ‘chopblock,’ not continuous, and situated within a technological world where ‘cognitive overload’ is ubiquitous. To take in all this information, ‘skimming’ has become ‘the new normal.’ We focus on the surface rather than digging deeper. And this has a profound impact on the way we process information.

I have often felt I read too much fiction; indeed, my aim this year was explicitly to read more non-fiction. That was before Wolf articulated to me (and I do feel this is personal, as she writes the book explicitly as letters to the reader) the benefits of fiction. For Wolf, we understand others and can show compassion and empathy through reading. Reading connects divergent cultures, so we have a more in-depth understanding of those different to us.

But this only happens when we read with ‘close attention.’ This kind of deep reading requires ‘analogical reasoning’ and ‘inference’ to uncover its many layers. In praise of beautiful prose, Wolf reminds us that beauty in words holds our attention so we focus on what lies deeper.

Yet in the modern world, the prevalence of digital devices results in ‘continuous partial attention’: we live in a ‘world of distraction’. This is not conducive to deep thinking. As well as cycling through the argument, familiar to readers of Lemov and Murphy and Willingham, that knowledge is crucial for deep reading, and that critical thought ‘never just happens,’ the author goes on to explore the impact on children of this way of processing words.

Boredom in children is normal. But ‘post-digital’ boredom is a different kind altogether. Wolf says that this kind of boredom, rather than provoking creativity as the former can, ‘de-animates’ children. The constant stimulation of the screen prevents them from experiencing true, tranquil tedium.

We know from our own adult lived experience how addictive devices are; studies abound to support this, but are barely needed. Of course children are much more vulnerable to this. And when they are developing their cognitive abilities, this has a devastating impact. The multiple stimulants on devices split children’s attention, and studies show that texts read on devices compared with traditional paper lead to weaker comprehension even if no other applications are running. The mere expectation that the device will have multiple purposes diverts their attention, ability to focus, and thus weakens their ability to understand what they are reading.

Moreover, the information overload of our reading society makes it much harder for children to build background knowledge. With so much information and so little time to process it, this threatens the development of children’s attentions and working memories.

There is so much more in this book, and I would urge everyone human to read it. It urged me to reflect on how I feel when I read a novel compared with how I feel when I read Buzzfeed. The guilt I used to feel for losing myself in a novel will be banished from my life. Instead, it will be my phone that I must lock away; my laptop I must periodically lose. Fiction is vital.

Wolf asks: ‘What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?… It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.’ Far from an optional extra, deep reading is the stuff of life itself.

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Top reads of 2016

Education reads:

Doug Lemov: Reading Reconsidered

I wrote at length about Lemov’s book – safe to say, it will revolutionise your teaching. Everyone should read this – not just English teachers. Lemov deeply considers the best way to read with classes, but also how to blend fiction and non-fiction for optimal understanding.

Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I also wrote at length about Chua’s book, which we now all read at Michaela for our staff CPD. Chua’s book is wildly funny, but also exposes a totally different paradigm for thinking about kids and discipline.

Roger Scruton: Culture Counts

My whole way through university, I thought I was stupid. I didn’t ‘get’ post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Foucault or Derrida. It turns out, there is an alternative way of viewing culture. Reading Scruton felt like a warm blanket. For others, this book might feel like more of a scratchy towel in its challenge. Whatever your values, this is a must-read for anyone interested in curriculum.

Michael Puett: The Path

This book is eminently useful for the way it showcases the Eastern paradigm. I stole an example from it in my speech at the Michaela book launch, with the toddler who says ‘thank you’ mindlessly, growing into the adult who can use the word with thought and understanding, to challenge the idea that explicitly teaching children (knowledge or behaviour) does not lead to adults who flail without the structures of a school.

J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Vance’s tome details his life and upbringing, and interweaves through this narrative some fascinating statistics. It gives educators pause for thought on what is really needed to ensure poor kids succeed, and triumph against not only poverty, but the ideas and values that keep poor kids poor.

E.D. Hirsch: Why Knowledge Matters

This is the best of Hirsch’s books yet – a lucid and compelling case for knowledge. It is the number one book to read if you’re interested in the knowledge debate, or if you’re still not sure that teaching knowledge is the best way to raise academic standards for all children.

 

Other non-fiction:

Charlotte Gordon: Romantic outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

If you love the Romantics, and you especially love the Romantic ladies, this is a must-read. An eye-opening lens on Shelley’s life and her mother’s influence on it, with the male poets an intriguing sub-plot (for once).

Howard C. Cutler: The Art of Happiness

This was the year I decided to try to calm my mind and quell my anxiety. Spoiler: I have not succeeded (yet). But this was one of the most helpful books in providing a different perspective on happiness, with some genuinely excellent advice to be mindful of in a modern world obsessed with acquisition and status.

Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed

I read this book in the summer (and if you know anything about Michaela you probably don’t need me to explain why) and found it both hilarious (in its tone and humorous examples) and troubling. Why do we feel like we can hurl insults at people on the internet in a way we never would in real life? Anyone interested in this should also watch the latest series of Black Mirror on Netflix.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Undeniably the most fascinating royal family in the history of the world, Montefiore’s tome explores the very beginning of their dynasty right through to the bloody and harrowing ending. This historian’s gift is to render those of the past in a convincingly human light, with details and insights from correspondence carefully chosen to humanise the fated monarchs. 

Fiction:

Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Drabble’s central character in this little book defies every expectation of her society. A virgin when everyone around her is experimenting, then rapidly reversing to become an unwed mother who keeps her child against all the advice. The heroine will fill you with hope and admiration at her calm perseverance.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

This book deftly interweaves ideas about race, class, history and geopolitics. The central character’s experience of moving from Nigeria to America and back again, with all the cross-cultural difficulties anyone who has lived overseas can empathise with, is intertwined with a quite beautiful love story. The shifting lens of the story is beautifully crafted, as we follow the heroine, who tells much of her lengthy tale to us at the salon, revealing her hopes, dreams, and fears in the most beautiful prose I read all year.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

This is the first of a long series of novels that document the lives and loves of a family living just before the Second World War. The cast of characters is large, but through different chapters you slowly begin to sense them knitting together, as they negotiate the start of the greatest upheaval of modern times.

 Elizabeth Von Arnim: The Enchanted April

I bought this book on an absolute whim, loving the idea of four strangers on holiday in a castle in Italy. A wonderful period piece, the whimsical nature of the chief perspective lends a childish delight and joy to all she sees. A life-affirming read. 

Zadie Smith: NW

This is my favourite of Smith’s novels yet. I loved the setting – near my school, I felt this gave an insight on the area I’m starting to get to know – and the relationships between the characters. At the centre is a strange relationship between two schoolgirls who have grown into very different adults, and surrounding them a cast of eternally intriguing others.

Joanne Harris: Different Class

This is a fantastically fun read, with a twist mid-way through that led me to frantically re-reading the first half of the novel to work out how I could have possibly missed it. Set in a traditional private school with a relentlessly modernising Headteacher, this novel also contains pertinent insights on education! 

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express

Despite my shameless love of murder mysteries, I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before this year. A summer holiday to Devon changed all that. (Prior to reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ my other choice for this slot was ‘Gone Girl,’ which is great by the way.) Christie is the absolute master of this genre. I’m now totally addicted to her novels. 

Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve spent a lot of this year working on (and teaching) nineteenth century fiction, and I’ve come to enjoy it more than I could have possibly anticipated. Anne Bronte is the lesser read of the sisters, and this novel is disconcertingly modern: dealing with a painful, disastrous marriage, and forbidden love, you quickly forget that this is a novel not set in our own time. I would only caution do not read the blurb of the book which will absolutely ruin the plot twist. 

William Boyd: Any Human Heart

The wonderful Liz Cowley gave me this book, and it is now one of my all-time favourites. We follow the central protagonist through his journals, experiencing his life and all its adventures, longings, desires, failures. Deeply moving.

Top reads of 2015

Non-fiction

Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth

This book is a scathing attack on the messages the media sends to women about how they should look and act. It made me really angry, in a good way.

Matthew Syed – Black Box Thinking

Syed explains how we learn from failure, and if we don’t, we are idiots. This is great for getting a new perspective on the ‘gift’ of feedback.

Susan Scott – Fierce Conversations

Sarah Donachy, the smartest person I’ve met this year, told me to read this. It really challenged my tendency to be a bit too cuddly rather than having the difficult conversation that is needed, and I’ve revisited it lots.

Irvin Yalom – Love’s Executioner

Joe Kirby told me to read this when I was feeling a bit stewed up. It’s great for giving perspective, and making you realise your emotions are in your control.

Eric Kalenze – Education is Upside Down

Since Research Ed 2015, I haven’t stopped hearing about this book, and it lived up to the hype. A great exploration of why education is set up to make disadvantaged students fail, and what we can do about it.

Anna Funder – Stasiland

I read this in Berlin, and it really brought to life the reality of living in the German Democratic Republic. The injustices suffered in East Berlin and East Germany in general astonished me.

Daniel Willingham – Raising Kids Who Read

Having listened to Katie Ashford, the guru on reading, for 2 full years, this was the year I finally began to grasp the reality of how children read, and this book really helped.

Daniel Koretz – Measuring Up

Daisy Christodoulou recommended this book at Research Ed in 2014, and it explained excellently the flaws in our current assessment model, and a better way forward.

Doug Lemov – TLAC 2.0

The first ‘Teach Like a Champion’ changed my life, and yet Lemov has improved even on this. The only guide a teacher needs for improving their classroom practice.

Fiction

John Steinbeck – The Red Pony

I read this and wept. A wonderful exploration of growing up, told beautifully in Steinbeck’s ever-complex simplicity.

Somerset Maugham – Of Human Bondage

This novel has stayed with me more than any other I’ve read this year. The horribly flawed characters and their ghastly choices felt so real and so close as I read it.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Unbelievably, even better than ‘The Secret History.’ An astonishing tome of a novel, feeling epic in its scope.

Ian McEwan – The Children Act

This book has one idea, and it explores it in great depth. A searing look at love and relationships.

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

My last line-manager recommended this book to me. I adored the narrator’s innocence which was gradually eroded throughout, and the ideas of class and community.

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