Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The end of linear, analytical reading?

A third education article in this past weekend's New York Times addresses the "new kind of reading" done by the growing number of "Internet readers."

Instead of the focusing on a linear progression of a single author's view point, from predetermined start to predetermined finish, as readers of traditional prose do, Internet readers can skip ahead via key-word searches and click from link to link, "quickly find[ing] different points of view on a subject and convers[ing] with others on line, and "compos[ing] their own beginnings, middles, and ends."

For example, the article describes how one child conducts Internet research on 19th-century Chief Justice Roger B. Taney:

 ...[H]e typed Taney’s name into Google and scanned the Wikipedia entry and other biographical sites. Instead of reading an entire page, he would type in a search word like “college” to find Taney’s alma mater, assembling his information nugget by nugget.

In our education world, with its celebration of multiple solutions, multiple literacies, and child-centered, child-constructed learning, is it any surprise that every single person the article quotes in support of this new reading is an education professor?

First there's Rand Spiro, professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University, who argues that kids “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” and adds, “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.” He also notes that “[i]t takes a long time to read a 400-page book,” and that the Internet lets people “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view" in "a tenth of the time."

Then there's Donna Alvermann, professor of language and literacy at the University of Georgia: “Kids are using sound and images so they have a world of ideas to put together that aren’t necessarily language oriented.” She adds that “[b]ooks aren’t out of the picture, but they’re only one way of experiencing information in the world today.”

Finally we have Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford who lobbied for an Internet component of the federal "nation's report card" tests, who says that today's children “are going to grow up having to be highly competent on the Internet.” 

Those who worry about the predominance of "the new reading," on the other hand, hail uniformly from outside the education establishment.

First there's Dana Gioia of the National Endowment for the Arts: “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading.” 

Then there's Nicholas Carr, author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the current issue of the Atlantic, who speculates that the Internet “is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” making it difficult for him to read long books.

Then there are scientists.  Noting neurological studies that "show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry," the Times reports scientists as speculating "that reading on the Internet may also affect the brain’s hard wiring in a way that is different from book reading." Some scientists, it notes, "worry that the fractured experience typical of the Internet could rob developing readers of crucial skills."

In particular, Ken Pugh, a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale who, quoting the Times, "has studied brain scans of children reading," argues that:

Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode.

Where does all of this leave linear, "left-brained" thinkers, or the left-brain skills of the population at large?

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