Reading & Literacy Opinion

Who Reads Deeply Anymore?

By Contributing Blogger — June 20, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Rafael Heller, who is the managing editor of Phi Delta Kappan and the co-editor of Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work, and Life.

Since being elected into office, Donald Trump has declared on several occasions that he has no patience for the kinds of detailed intelligence reports that President Obama used to read first thing every morning. According to the Washington Post and various other sources, Trump has told aides to keep his briefing documents to a single page or less, with the information boiled down to no more than a handful of bullet points.

It’s particularly disconcerting to know that the president (um, the guy with the nuclear codes) is too antsy to get through more than a few paragraphs at a time. He’s hardly alone in his aversion to deep, sustained reading, though. Over the last several years, a whole slew of research studies, articles, and books have warned that the more time people spend on line, the more they lose their taste for a certain kind of attention to the written word, and this has troubling implications for those of us who work in education.

For example, high school and college faculty are assigning fewer and fewer texts, and students are becoming less and less likely to read them. On Amazon, consumers are downloading more and more ebooks, but they rarely finish them. And while people are reading more extensively than ever before (encountering more texts, and more kinds of text, every day), many of us are giving up on reading intensively. Increasingly, we spend our time skimming, liking, and linking, only rarely choosing to slow down, analyze, and reflect. Even more troubling are recent research findings that suggest that this isn’t just a matter of preference; “attention deficit hyperlink disorder” is more like a compulsion. Because our social media, in particular, are constantly beckoning us with the promise of new contacts and fresh information, it is becoming almost impossible for many of us to put our devices out of our minds. It’s not that we lack the ability to concentrate; the problem is that our mobile phones and other new technologies are perfectly designed to distract us, 24-7.

Not that everybody agrees that literate culture is in some sort of a technology-driven death spiral. As early as the 1990s, the literary scholar Richard Lanham made the argument (still compelling today) that digital text doesn’t kill off the kinds of reading and writing that schools have emphasized over last several hundred years. Rather, it restores balance to the equation, making students and teachers more aware of the choices they have at their disposal. Not every reading assignment has to be a long, linear text, that students must pore over word by word; not every writing project has to be a straightforward, five-paragraph essay. Sometimes, it’s good (and fun) to mess around with other styles and formats, or to write satire rather than an expository essay, or to skim some web sites rather than stay up late and immerse oneself in Macbeth. In short, the best kind of literacy for the digital age is bi-literacy--that is, we should teach young people to move back and forth between reading fast and reading slow. They should know that sometimes it’s best to skim the surface, and at other times it’s best to dive deep.

For those of us who advocate deeper learning in K-12 education, that’s worth keeping in mind. Whether we’re partial to problem-based inquiry, extensive writing assignments, inquiry-based math classes, community service projects, whole-class simulations, or some other instructional approach, we don’t have to go deep all the time. If school were just an unending series of inquiry projects and simulations, that would be exhausting for students and teachers alike. More realistic is the goal of teaching young people to read, write, and think slowly sometimes. If we can do this, then we’ve really accomplished something.

But where does that leave, say, those of us who hope to reach an audience of educators? It’s one thing to persuade one’s students to spend a few hours immersed in a science experiment, or to dive into a social studies project for a couple of days, or to read an entire twelve-page essay over the weekend to prepare for a class discussion on Monday morning. But what leverage do writers and publishers have over teachers, school administrators, U.S. presidents, and other full-fledged adults? How does one get them to slow down and read an entire magazine article, white paper, or intelligence report once in a while?

That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. Seriously, what will it take to get more K-12 educators -- a population that is not just chronically overworked and under-resourced but just as antsy and distracted as every other citizen of the digital age -- to devote significant amounts of their time to reading articles and books that challenge them to learn about the latest research into arts instruction, to reflect on the larger purposes of public schooling, to wrestle with nuanced arguments about teacher tenure, to reconsider the value of career and technical education, and on and on?

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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