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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PowerPoint

Before training as a teacher, I’m genuinely not even sure I was aware of the existence of PowerPoint. I’d certainly never used it, nor was it installed on my computer. I’d never encountered it as a pupil in school or a student in university (although I do recall images being used in lectures, which could easily have been delivered through a PowerPoint format).

It was in my second week of teacher training, in what is called a ‘Second School Experience,’ I first was made aware of the program. Preparing to teach a lesson for the first time, I met with the class’s usual teacher whose opening words were, ‘here’s my log-in so you can make a PowerPoint. Obviously you’ll want to make a PowerPoint.’ It didn’t seem too obvious to me then. I spent an hour or so painfully working out how to use the program, painstakingly copying and pasting images I found at random using clipart (I hadn’t yet understood how to get images from the internet onto a slide), and changing the fonts at random. During the lesson, which was obviously a disaster for far wider ranging reasons than the existence of PowerPoint, I remember finding the slides a hindrance rather than a help, as I awkwardly pointed to a slide from time to time, only really to justify the time that had been poured into making it.

Looking back on my first term of teaching, my early PowerPoints were four slide affairs. They had a title, a learning objective (it was 2010), and then a series of questions for kids to answer, split into different slides which vaguely corresponded to different parts of the text we were learning (normally, the heading was a page number, the bullet points questions).

But I learned fast. My PowerPoints soon exploded into twenty, even thirty slide affairs for a single 50 minute lesson, packed with animations, images and coloured backgrounds as standard. At peak-PowerPoint, I could knock one of these out in under ten minutes.

But I’ve since reneged, and I’ve come to believe the use of PowerPoint is misguided. Why?

  1. Life in a dark room

The first time I visited a school, after 6 interim years of work and study, my first thought was how dark it was. It was the end of the year, and so bright and beautiful outside, but in classroom after classroom it was beyond winter. It was hellishly dark, and with the blinds drawn the classrooms were sweltering. I wondered how the kids could even see what they were reading or writing. Much like modern family life, everyone seemed orientated towards the bright screen at the front. It’s depressing.

  1. Split focus

PowerPoint splits kids’ focus. You want them to focus on you, and your instruction – but instead, they are focused on the screen that bears the remnants of that instruction. You want them to focus on the text and what they are learning, but instead they have to keep looking up to find out what the question is before they write again.

  1. It stops teachers teaching

Even ten minutes to bosh out a PowerPoint is a waste of time. But more than that, it actively impedes my preparation. I’m thinking about slides instead of thinking about content. I might put twenty questions on a PowerPoint, but actually I need to be thinking about a hundred questions to ask pupils. At Michaela, we ask each of the 32 pupils in our classes at least three, and often more, questions in a single lesson. I need to spend my time planning those micro-questions as well, not just the few ‘big questions’ they might answer at length in discussion or writing.

  1. Technology fails you

If I haven’t persuaded you with the preceding arguments, perhaps I will have more luck here! Hands up who has ever had technology fail them in the classroom? That’ll be every teacher ever.

And it’s awful. You stand there at the front. You have nothing. You could write your questions on the tiny actual whiteboard that is awkwardly positioned so not all kids can even read it, but then you’d have your back to the children and we all know how that pans out. Plus, what if half your questions are about the gorgeous images you’ve meticulously selected? You’ve got nothing. You do a little dance. You pray you can contain them.

We teach a poem in year 7 by William Carlos Williams called ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’ It’s a poem about a painting by Pieter Brueghel, so obviously I felt I needed to show the kids the image in order for them to understand the significance of the poem. It was in my early days at Michaela, and I was already nervous as a visitor I knew vaguely from the world outside Michaela would be in my classroom. (I think we’re all desensitised to visitors now, as we have about five a day wander in.) I cued the image up ready. And then it transpired that my board was not connected to my computer. I absolutely panicked.

Back-up could not arrive in time, so I taught that lesson without my picture. I just explained the picture, and why it was important. The kids got it, wrote about the poem; happy days. It was fine. But by the afternoon my board was fixed. So, the second time I taught the lesson to the other year 7 class I taught, I had the image ready to go.

And it was a much weaker lesson. Because we had split attention. We had a request to pull the blinds down so they could ‘see it properly.’ They were confused by other aspects of the picture I didn’t want them to focus on. It was, all in all, a massive distraction.

  1. Work less, achieve more

Why have a resource and a PowerPoint? It’s the same argument I used to make against lesson plans – why do I need one when my PowerPoint shows my planning? Well now – why do I need a PowerPoint when my resource – poem, novel, play – shows my planning and thoughts about how I will teach these children?

At Michaela, all children have the same resource, and so does the teacher. The teacher’s is annotated with questions and key aspects to bring out in instruction. What more do we need?

A caveat

Ok – I actually do use PowerPoint. One slide, one lesson a week, for ten minutes. It is for our weekly quiz. We put the questions on a single PowerPoint slide, and the kids write their answers on paper. We then sort the papers using comparative judgement.

We’ve tried to come up with ways to avoid this, but so far everything considered has meant considerably more work for teachers than just sticking the questions up. We’re still brainstorming how to eradicate this last remaining slide. One PowerPoint slide one lesson a week. I look on that slide as a necessary evil.