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'The future requires a balance between print and digital learning'

UCLA professor Maryanne Wolf talks about the pros and cons of e-learning, which has become a norm during the pandemic, and the need to preserve slow, deep reading skills in an age of information explosion and screen time

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Sep 25, 2020 04:00:31 PM IST
Updated: Sep 25, 2020 09:33:39 PM IST

'The future requires a balance between print and digital learning'
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced students and educators across the world to adapt to a digital mode of learning. Dr Maryanne Wolf, 70, has spent decades of her career researching the reading brain. In an interview with Forbes India, Dr Wolf, director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, talks about how the brain processes print and digital reading material differently, which ultimately influences the way we analyse and interpret information. 

In an age of skimming through text as a result of too much screen time and shorter attention spans, it is important to “educate our children in ways that preserve the beauty and contributions of deep literacy [through books, printed text], and simultaneously expand their background knowledge and digital skills”, says Dr Wolf on email, as she prepares to talk about her book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, and the importance of deep reading in a virtual session at the Neev Literature Festival for Children on September 26. Edited excerpts:

Q. What will your your session at the Neev Literature Festival focus on? 

The Neev Literature Festival is a celebration of the power of books to change the lives of every reader, beginning with the youngest. This year, there is a special emphasis on the story and its ability to lift us out of our lives and experience things we might never ever have a chance to discover. There could be no better moment to remind ourselves and our children about this.

In my last book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, I could never have predicted that the very concept of reading as a ‘home’, a sanctuary where one could go to for consolation and comfort, would become such a reality for me and for all of us in this terrible moment in our history. Like most of us, I use the internet for information, professional work and communication for many hours daily. But since the beginning of the pandemic, I need books to hold and see when I begin and end my days. 

I would like to discuss at the festival the concept of deep reading as sanctuary, as an antidote to the feelings of isolation. Reading transports us, elevates us, and reminds us that we are not alone. I hope to discuss at the festival, the unique ability of reading to give hope when we are downcast, and to transport us to other views of life, when our own is too much with us.

Q. You've said that the brain is not wired for reading as it is for speaking. What are the differences between how we read in the print medium versus how we read in the digital medium?

Reading involves both biological and cultural factors, beginning with a very simple fact: No humans were ever born to read. Rather, new cultural inventions like literacy require the brain of every reader to build a new circuit that is, and remains, plastic across the reader’s development. This plastic circuit begins very simply, with a basic set of connections among existing neuronal networks for visual, language-based, cognitive and affective processes. The intrinsic plasticity means that this circuit can adapt to any writing system. 

By the same token, the plasticity of the circuit will also reflect the particular characteristics of the medium used to read. In other words, the reading brain’s circuit will develop and/or atrophy [waste away] according to the medium’s emphasis. 

The digital medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented, and well-suited for skimming large volumes of information; but it potentially disadvantages processing details like the sequence of a plot or the beauty of the author’s language, which require more time-consuming, deep reading processes. The most important issue for the future concerns how we will preserve the reader’s quality of attention and the time needed for slower reading processes. Education will be key for the young; and maintenance will be imperative for the older readers.

Q. The pandemic has forced people, particularly children, to resort to digital learning. Skimming through text is a byproduct of reading in the digital world. How does it affect the interpretations we derive out of information?

The future requires us to figure out the balance between print and digital learning for the next generation and for ourselves. “To skim to inform” has been the habitual mode for reading for some time now. Well before the Covid-19 pandemic, we were all bombarded by so much information that most people began to skim the screen with profound but invisible implications for society. What goes missing when we skim are the deep reading processes that go into comprehension. These more sophisticated processes require more milliseconds of time than the typical reader wants to expend.

The processes that vanish without notice are key to discerning the truth and worth of what we read. These include our ability to connect what we already know (background knowledge) with the new information and draw inferences, make analogies, examine the truth value (critical analysis), suspend our own thoughts and feelings to ‘pass over’ into the perspectives of others (the basis for empathy), and, if we are very lucky, have contemplative insights of our own.

With so much information available on the pandemic, many readers retreat to their familiar silos of information, which they assume is correct. This information, in turn, will reinforce what they already think instead of challenging it with a different perspective. Second, they skim the information and fail to analyse it. The convergence of these two problems makes many readers believe false information. At the same time, they fail to understand more scientifically evidenced information. This happens when their “silo of choice” calls different viewpoints “fake news”—a recipe for disaster in a democratic society.

My first recommendation is that the reader examine their purpose in whatever they are reading. If it is to read email, skim with my blessing. If they wish to understand the complexity of a topic, I exhort them to be aware of their own propensity to skim and to exert themselves to read more closely and carefully. Indeed if it can be printed out, do so, because print facilitates slower processing, just as the screen hastens us along.

Q. How can one achieve a balanced thinking process within both physical and digital realms? And how could stakeholders minimise the disadvantages of digital reading?

My hope is that we will use this knowledge to create what I call the biliterate reading brain for the next generation. Children would learn to read largely on print for the first 10 years, while simultaneously learning to use digital technologies to learn coding. This way children would develop the most important attributes of deep reading first through print mediums, while developing essential cognitive processes unique to digital learning. And then, after they are fully automatic in their reading abilities, they would learn how to read deeply on any medium, depending on the purpose and their own learning characteristics.

That said, I don’t think we as a society fully know yet what medium is best for which activities. The pandemic exacerbates every negative aspect of digital culture, all the while that digital devices simultaneously provide vehicles for the maintenance of knowledge in the most adverse circumstances. They also can provide the all-important practice of foundational decoding skills that early readers and struggling readers need. Thus, we can use the very positive aspects of digital learning, while being vigilant about developing and preserving the deep reading processes best acquired in print.

The questions, both during and after the pandemic, ultimately revolve around how best to educate our children in ways that preserve the beauty and contributions of deep literacy, and simultaneously expand their background knowledge and digital skills. There are no sure paths, but a clear-headed understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of different mediums can guide us. The stakes for our shared world could not be higher. Whether our children will develop their capacities to analyse, infer, take on the perspectives of others, and become wise citizens will affect not only our democracy, as [American historian and political scientist] Adam Garfinkle warns, but the future of our species.

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