Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Proust and the Squid

I've spent the last four days reading one of the best books about education that I've ever gotten my hands around. It goes by the unlikely name of Proust and the Squid, and the subtitle is "The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." Maryanne Wolf, the author is a cognitive scientist, an educator, a parent, and a formidably talented reader and writer. In this book, she manages to convey in a comprehensive and comprehensible way the status of our current understanding of reading as a process from pretty much every relevant point of view: historical, psychological, physiological, sociological, and educational. She appears to have read pretty much everything ever written or published that relates to the history and science of reading, and she manages to organize this mountain of data into a series of clear and funny and eminently readable segments that are intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. The book is divided up into three main parts: "How the Brain Learned to Read" (the historical analysis); "How the Brain Learns to Read Over Time" (the physiological analysis); and "When the Brain Can't Learn to Read" (the pedagogical analysis). Each of these parts is in turn divided into three chapters, which can be read more or less independently as self-contained essays ("The Birth of an Alphabet and Socrates' Protests," for example). There are about 30 very helpful illustrations that help the reader visualize the brain processes being discussed. The book is also sprinkled liberally with quotations from all sorts of sources — literary, scientific, and personal — that speak to or illustrate the themes developed in each chapter.

I've done a lot of underlining and highlighting and dogearing in this book, and have already had occasion, several occasions actually, to go burrowing back into the book to revisit a passage that had set ideas rattling about in my head. A couple of examples:

Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading. A little-discussed class system invisibly divides our society, with those families that provide their children environments rich in oral and written language oppportunities gradually set apart from those who do not, or cannot. A prominent study found that by kindergarten, a gap of 32 million words already separates some children in linguistically impoverished homes from their more stimulated peers. In other words, in some environments the average young middle-class child hears 32 million more spoken words than the young underprivileged child by age five. (20)

From a cognitive perspective, therefore, it is again not that the alphabet uniquely contributed to the production of novel thought, but rather that the increased efficiency brought about by alphabetic and syllabary systems made made novel thought more possible for more people, and at an earlier stage of the novice reader's development. This then, marks the revolution in our intlellectual history: the beginning democratization of the young reading brain. Within such a broadened context, there can be no surprise that one of the most profound and prolific periods of writing, art, philosophy, and science in all of previously recorded history accompanied the spread of the Greek alphabet. (66)

(A concluding paragraph from a section considering Socrates Objection to writing on the grounds that it would weaken the powers of memory of the Greek citizenry, which Wolf sees as an analogue to current debates about, for example, whether Google is Making Us Stupid ):

Questions from access to knowledge run throughout human history — from the fruit of the tree of knowledge to Google. Socrates’ concerns become greatly amplified by our present capacity for everyone with a computer to learn very, very quickly about virtually anything, anywhere, anytime at an “unguided” computer screen. Does this combination of immediacy, seemingly limitless information, and virtual reality pose the most powerful threat so far to the kind of knowledge and virtue valued by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle? Will modern curiosity be sated by the flood of pat, often superficial information on a screen, or will it lead to a desire for more in-depth knowledge? Can a deep examination of words, thoughts, reality, and virtue flourish in learning characterized by continuous partial attention and multitasking? Can the essence of a word, a thing, or a concept retain importance when so much learning occurs in thirty-second segments on a moving screen? Will children inured by ever more realistic images of the world around them have a less practiced imagination? Is the likelihood of assuming we understand the truth or reality of a thing even greater if we see it visually depicted in a photograph, film, or video or on “reality” TV? How would Socrates respond to a filmed version of a Socratic dialogue, to his entry in Wikipedia, or to a screen clip on YouTube? (77)

Recent reports from the National Reading Panel and the "nation's report cards" indicate that 30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension. This is a devastating figure, made even worse by the fact that teachers, textbook authors, and indeed the entire school system have different expectations from grade 4 on. This approach is encapsulated in the mantra that in the first three grades a child "learns to read," and in the next grades the child "reads to learn." After children leave the third grade, teachers expect them to have sufficiently automatic reading skills that enable them to learn more and more "on their own," from increasingly difficult text materials. Through no fault of their own, most fourth-grade teachers never take a course in teaching reading to children who have not acquired fluency. (135)

Jackie Stewart, the Scottish racing driver, won twenty-seven Grand Prix titles, was knighted by Prince Charles, and had one of the world's most successful racing careers before he retired. He is also dyslexic. Recently, he concluded a speech at an international scientific conference on dyslexia by saying, "You will never understand what it feels like to be dyslexic. No matter how long you have worked in this area, no matter if your own children are dyslexic, you will never understand what it feels like to be humiliated your entire childhood and taught every day to believe that you will never succeed at anything. (165-6)

That's a preliminary sampler. I will have more to say about spinoff issues in later posts. But this is a start.

One sometimes reads blurbs that say something to the effect that "This is a book which is a must read for every parent and educator." I've never had occasion to use that particular phrasing. Until now.


Mr. B-G said...

Thanks for the reference. I hope your school year is off to a good start.

Paradelle said...

The open everything advocate in me likes this passage:

"Computer scientists use the term 'open architecture' to describe a system that is versatile enough to change—or rearrange—to accommodate the varying demands on it. Within the constraints of our genetic legacy, our brain presents a beautiful example of open architecture. Thanks to this design, we come into the world programmed with the capacity to change what is given to us by nature, so that we can go beyond it. We are, it would seem from the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs."

The teacher in me would love to see more teachers embrace that attitude in walking into a classroom for the first time with a new class.