A number of years ago I was faced with a dilemma when I was preparing a student exam for Media Studies. As an educator, I try to model appropriate citation practices when I use externally sourced content so that my students can gain an appreciation of how important it is to acknowledge others’ work. The relevant part of the exam relied on different photographic images which the students were meant to identify from the applied compositional rule. The dilemma occurred when I realised that the website URL that was the appropriate citation for the “Rule of Thirds” image, had the correct answer embedded in its name. In order to maintain my authentic practice, I would be giving the students a free hit on the relevant question. After thinking it through I ultimately decided that being consistent was more important and chose to leave the image and citation in.
When I sat down to correct the exam it became apparent that my ethical vacillations were largely wasted. Despite having the correct answer right in front of their eyes, some of the students simply did not notice it and still wrote the incorrect response. When I was taught to prepare for examinations I developed the practice of reading everything on the page – especially the page number to ensure I had not accidentally skipped one – whereas my students seemed to only focus on which aspects they considered most relevant.
This moment confirmed a suspicion that I had about my students’ reading practices which has been substantiated with contemporary research. Students today are far better at skimming and far worse at reading for detail than previous generations. Students who have largely learnt to practise their reading skills on internet-enabled devices are predominantly buried in an intense over-supply of information. According to Wikicount.net, the average Wikipedia article is 1048 words. Students are simply not able to consume all of the required relevant information so have developed the capacity to skim read for highlights.
Maryanne Wolf explores this phenomenon in her 2018 Guardian article. She writes: “[we] know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.”
Wolf cites a number of studies which confirm this finding, including some from San Jose State University which found that skimming is the “new normal.” This enables individuals to process greater slabs of information in a more efficient manner. The downside of this is that students are less likely to take on longer or more challenging texts, and also are less able to delve as deep into the texts they do read. As Wolf puts it: “[when we skim] we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.”
I do not raise this topic as a technophobe or in order to join in the tradition of bemoaning the failings of today’s youth. In approximately 400 BCE Plato was worried about the popularisation of writing suggesting that “it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written.” I think we can agree that memory survived writing and I am sure that the coming generations will adapt to develop their intelligence alongside burgeoning technology.
That said, it is evident that we can give our students a great advantage by working harder to entrench a love of reading from a young age. We try to achieve this at school in many ways from inviting special guests for reading times in Kindergarten to deep comparative text analyses in VCE.
This week, our Junior School students dressed as their favourite literary characters in celebration of Book Week. Our theme was “reading is my secret power” and students were challenged to think about what special powers their character had. Characteristics such as kindness, bravery, creativity and wonderful imaginations were touted by students as their characters’ super powers. Our Years 3 and 4 students also benefited from a workshop with award-winning author, Elliot Perlman. Just a few weeks ago our Year 5 students stayed late into the night on their Write a Book in a Day experience. Each of these marked a celebration of what we hope is a continuing love affair with reading.
As acclaimed author J K Rowling famously states: “I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”