An average middle-class urban adult—consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously via TV, radio, social media, smartphones, and other devices—is estimated to consume over 34 gigabytes of data every day. This equivalent of 1 lakh words of “chop block” content sabotages deep work, deep learning and deep thinking. It is the biggest challenge for schools, colleges, teachers, parents, and employers in the next decade.
Being mindful about what and how we read is the best antidote to this tsunami crowding out the space for human reflection, ingenuity, and empathy. This needs action by schools, parents, and policymakers.
Neuroscience, psychology, and pedagogy research have made considerable progress in understanding our brain, mind, and behaviour. Professor Cal Newport of Georgetown warns that the hive mind distracts from the deep work of rethinking and reshaping your patterns of thought. MIT Professor Sinan Aral’s new book The Hype Machine warns about the adverse effects of social media on society, politics, and children.
Psychologist Sherry Turkle suggests that shifting the question from ‘What is technology doing for us?’ to ‘What is technology doing to us?” surfaces the unintended consequences of digital devices and encourages a recentering of intimate, relational face-to-face dialogue and deeper reflection to deal with the ‘empathy gap’. The most actionable advice comes from neuroscientist ‘reading warrior’ Maryanne Wolf.
Dr Wolf’s work reminds us of Greek dramatist Menander’s 2300-year-old aphorism ‘Those who can read, see twice as well”. Reading is about three critical skills: fluency, comprehension, and critical thinking, which are connected by two underlying abilities, literacy and reflection.
“We were never born to read” is the basis of Dr Wolf’s research into the complex process that humans evolved for the neuronal connections needed for decoding sounds, symbols and then constructing words, sentences, and meaning. Reading requires individual tuning in each human brain and Dr Wolf’s research suggests the importance of re-conceptualising the first 2,000 days in homes and preschools (when reading circuits are laid down) and the second 2,000 days from kindergarten to fifth grade (when children learn to read and start reading to learn).
Wolf also suggests that digital access is not digital literacy and our young also need to evolve a “biliterate brain with distinctly different modes of reading”, to become “expert code switchers”, able to move among media and from light reading to deep analysis and back again the way bilingual people switch between languages.
Let’s look at what three stakeholders can do.
The teaching of reading has to become multi-modal (reading can be physical or digital, and these form different pathways and outcomes), multimedia (reading is not only alphabet-based, but also acoustic or reading aloud, and tactile or sensory across forms like film, art, etc), multicultural (interactions, expressions, and meaning assigned differ across cultures and this knowledge is fundamental to the formation of intellectual, social and emotional experience and key to creativity in global learning and workplaces) and multilingual. NEP2020 recognises reading as critical to reform because children learn to read, so they can read to learn, and those left behind by Grade 3 in this critical milestone, stay behind.
Covid-19 has created reading losses with online learning, as demonstrated by the 2020 Stanford CREDO. The development of reading in English, Hindi, Kannada, or any other language needs the support of aligned standards, sequenced curriculum, staged and varied resources, and renewed teaching approaches. Schools must start with assessing reading skills at all levels and change routines, resources, and training.
It takes a village to bring up a child but change begins at home. Thoughtful interventions can include, creating reading maps for children (and adults) that feed and build knowledge preferences, embracing some extrinsic motivation (for example, healthy reading challenges that balance global reading with Indian literature), and building home libraries that have diverse, multicultural, multilingual books.
Maryanne Wolf advises us to build and revisit shelves of books that made us who we are; if we find this absent in our lives, we need to ask ourselves whether we want it present at least in our children’s lives, for books hold a world that they can travel and explore at their fingertips. Tagore agreed with education reformer John Dewey’s wisdom “we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience”. We must create time for discussions and debates that value readers while building relationships and safe spaces for discussions, especially during Covid-19.
We must speed up implementing NEP2020, and in the meanwhile free up government and private schools that demonstrate excellence on its metrics, expand public libraries and fill them with great global literature. We must support programmes and resources needed to develop reading skills and recognise children’s writers and literacy teachers as a public good.
We must also regulate technology better. Dr Aral suggests that only policy can put society in control of the ‘hype loop’ which is “the cyclical interplay of the machine and human intelligence that determines what we focus on and how information and knowledge are distributed” shifting control to the human agency loop. Facebook owns Whatsapp and Instagram. Google owns Youtube. While for some countries Facebook is the internet, the US is now wondering how to deal with technology monopolies without killing innovation. India needs our own debate around privacy, data integrity, interoperability and competition.
Our parents had 35-year careers in one job and place. We face 45-year careers across a few jobs, places, and professions. Our children will have 60 years of many careers in many places and in many professions that don’t exist today. The only thing that can prepare them for this new world of work, organisation and skills is lifelong learning. And deep reading is a habit that can build it. Deep reading isn’t doomed but without mindful choices, the future looks shallower, riskier, and unhealthier.
(The writer is Head of Neev Academy and Co-founder, Neev litfest)