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“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater,you realise that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean.” (Dave Barry)

The following thoughts are prompted by the recent marking in which the Director and his colleagues have been mired and from reading an article: Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound, by Maryanne Wolf.

I am currently marking responses from students and there is a lot of evidence that they are turning to online revision platforms to help them.  This of course, is a laudable ploy in the revision game.  However if the information on these sites is only being skimmed rather than digested in any meaningful way, then it is of extremely limited value and is probably harmful to the chances of the student understanding anything. Just as a little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, so a little surface reading may have a big impact.

To paraphrase the great Bruce Springsteen, ‘Baby we were not born to read’. In the grand genetic scheme of things, if all goes to plan, we are born with the circuitry needed to see and the circuitry for language use. The invention of literacy around about 6000 years ago necessitated a new circuit in our brains which connected up various bits and bobs.

I’m told that the reading circuit begins very basically; a rudimentary business that learns how to connect attention visual processes with all kinds of language processes. This simple circuit is excellent at reading the surface of things. Over time, and here’s where teachers and our own life history come into play, that circuit learns to elaborate itself. As it does so, this ‘reading brain’ changes and becomes the embodiment of all that it knows and all that it reads.  And so as Heraclitus might have said, we can never step into the same book twice.

All of these characteristics of language vision and attention need to come together and become automatic so ‘deep reading’ can start. Deep reading begins when we become so fluent that attention can be allocated not to those rules and connections so much as all of the stuff of our most sophisticated thinking processes: internalised knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. These and other crucial features of what it means to be human are enabled by ‘deep reading brains’.

Many have made the claim that we are what we read, but researchers are now beginning to find that we are becoming more and more how we read. There is much evidence to suggest the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is changing – a change with implications for everyone.

With the ubiquity of digital information, we’re in a world now where reading is constant.  Think of how often we read what’s on our phones. Some of you may even be reading this which is of course unlikely but if you are, it’ll be on a screen. We are at a hinge moment between print culture and digital culture. Each of the essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as the reading environment changes and we begin to ‘read’ in a different way.

For what shall it profit a student, if he shall gain the whole world on a screen but lose the little bit of understanding he had in the first place as a result?

The current dominant digital medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information. As psychologist Patricia Greenfield suggests, the result of this is that less attention and time is allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy.  (I don’t know about you, but a world without those is deeply diminished).

Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of our own. Uh oh.

Many students actively avoid classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. I mean, I’m not a fan of Dickens but I’ve read him to know that I’m not. I’m not suggesting that what’s required is a strict diet of Tolstoy, Austen, Dostoyevsky etc. But what underlies this “cognitive impatience,” is a concern.  It speaks of the potential inability of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether that be in literature and science, or in wills, contracts, or indeed in the issues surrounding politically charged referendums, for example…

The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivises a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery. And I think we all know what the results of that retreat look like.  If you don’t, well, pay more attention..

I think I may have mentioned elsewhere that context is crucial in understanding meaning.  Well, what is happening in the deep reading circuit is that we turn our attention to how to use the background knowledge we possess to examine whatever it is we’re reading. Many students don’t know what they don’t know and will assume all they need to do is just look something up.  But to do so is to miss the crucial aspect of meaning and also thereby fail to take the chance to develop the crucial aspect of being human. One of the most important aspects of human beings is our ability to make analogies. We make an analogy between what we already know and what is in front of us. I might go as far as to suggest that the only way we learn anything is by making analogous connections to what we already know.

In deep reading we take analogy and use it as the basis to make the really important deep reading processes of inference, critical analysis and empathy.  These processes help us examine what is in front of us but they take time. We take not only what we know about something but what we know about feelings, so we are inferring from what we know and what we feel, to what is in front of us. This of course, brings us to the very important idea of empathy.

Deep reading enables us to enter the perspective of others. We leave our perspective behind to discover another alternative way of thinking, of looking at the universe, of trying on the identity of others, of understanding at a deeper level alternatives to our own thinking. This is extremely important in two ways: it gives us a sense of not only the fact that there are other views that we should take seriously and understand but also that there are other feelings not our own.

I think I may have also mentioned elsewhere that how you attend to the world depends what world you find.  The qualities of the world that comes to your attention is determined by the quality of the attention you bring to it. The quality of the attention you bring to the world also changes you, the attender.  Let me not live in a semi skimmed world.

Proust wrote that at the heart of reading we go beyond the wisdom of the author to discover our own. Let us not lose the capacity for appreciating what is good, what is true, what is just, and what is beautiful. That is what the deep reading process gives us.

Until next time: Happy Deep Ocean Diving/ Reading!