Somewhere around eighth grade I stopped reading for fun. I shut myself off from a world that I used to love.
The forced reading of high school became my only venture into books. I didn’t read about other interesting topics. I read what my English teacher assigned. I didn’t learn new skills for fun. I memorized the facts that my teachers and textbooks laid out.
Learning was a job that I followed with the compliance of a union employee. I had little interest in expanding that responsibility. No hunger to take on more.
It took eight years for me to pull out of this mentality. The mindset that reading is only a means to the end of getting a two-letter grade that starts with a “9.”
I cringe at the wasted time. At those lost opportunities. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that I don’t want my kids to fall into this same trap. Because it seems as though our school system is driving them into it.
How Many of Us Are Choosing Ignorance?
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” – Mark Twain
An engineer told me the other day that he doesn’t read. He can recognize letters of the alphabet and string them together into a sentence, but he willingly chooses, with a certain amount of pride, to not read anything that’s not expressly required for his job.
And he’s not alone in this. Studies show that one in four American adults read no books (print, electronic, or audio media) in the past year. None! More than 25% of us are starting a trend to go the rest of their lives without opening a book. Bookless for the next sixty years.
These are often smart people. But at first glance, they’re selecting ignorance in a world where knowledge is constantly becoming more accessible. Why do we have so many people still willing to turn a blind eye to the vast amount of knowledge that’s available in less than three clicks?
Is Jane Eyre to Blame?
I used to blame Charlotte Bronte for my dislike of reading. I thought that being forced to read Jane Eyre and other “literary classics” against my will was what soured me on reading.
But we all do things we don’t enjoy from time to time. We understand the importance and worth of trying new things. So we keep at it, while hopefully not casting off entire industries in the process.
The actual problem is much greater. We’ve confused the purpose of reading. And with it, learning as well.
Will This Be on the Test?
“Will this be on the test?” must be the question most responsible for souring generations of people on the concept of learning.
When we give someone a test, we tell them the purpose of learning is to pass the test. And when success means “passing the test,” then people will naturally bias their efforts to focus on the tested information.
And it wouldn’t be a test unless there were clear right and wrong answers. So by definition, we’re asking people to solve problems that have already been solved. Not an exciting prospect for someone who’s excited to learn.
Do this once, it’s not a big deal. Do it repeatedly for a month, people will catch on and change their behaviors. Do it year after year, with kids starting at the age of five, and somewhere along the way learning becomes synonymous with testing.
I’m excited to (eventually) read The Doors of Stone and The Winds of Winter. But if reading them was followed by a test or writing a book report, I wouldn’t be looking forward to their releases nearly as much.
We’ve prioritized testing to check that people are learning as we think they should. But the world no longer rewards recalling memorized knowledge. It rewards problem-solving.
The world doesn’t appreciate people who can repeat information that’s already been taught. It appreciates people who can extrapolate that knowledge into new areas.
Maybe that’s what we should be encouraging.
Reading Isn’t the Only Casualty
“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” – Francis Bacon
It’s easy to trivialize the impact of less adults reading for fun. Is the world really that worse off if less people are exposed to the Twilight saga?
Surprisingly, yes. Because reading leads to more reading. And more reading leads to learning. It’s that first step that’s the most difficult.
But in today’s world, reading is only half of a critical skill equation. The other half has fared even worse. For every person who’s decided to stop reading for fun, it’s dwarfed by the amount of people who no longer write for fun.
If reading leads to learning, then writing leads to teaching. When we can help people learn to enjoy writing, they’re better able to connect and spread their ideas to countless people around the world.
In seventh grade, my science teacher wanted to show us the importance of proper format when writing lab reports. So he decided to make an example of one student who had the bad fortune of using an “&” symbol throughout his report.
He made the student read it out loud, in front of the class, and then shouted “Minus 5 points!” every time he said the word “and.”
If there’s a better way to vilify writing, I don’t know what it is.
What Are We Trying to Accomplish?
“A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.” – Brad Henry
We invest a fortune teaching kids in school. We spend thousands of hours having kids read and write, but we do it in a way that encourages them to never do these things again for fun.
As I see it, we have two possible paths for future generations.
We can teach kids to focus on meeting the teacher’s expectations. We can stress retention and recollection of information. And graduate a generation of very successful test-takers.
Or we can instill a love of learning. We can teach kids to embrace their curiosities and to follow their passions. And we can let learning happen as a result.
We have this choice. Which one would you prefer?
This Isn’t a New Concept
“Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.” – Sugata Mitra
Pixar developed Pixar University, an internal program where anyone within the company can use available resources to learn a new skill. In the words of Ed Catmull, it “wasn’t to turn programmers into artists or artists into belly dancers. Instead it was to send a signal about how important it is for every one of us to keep learning new things.”
Pixar recognized the importance of reinforcing a beginner’s mindset with their people. By encouraging them to try new interests, they removed the stigma behind failure. They invited the mistakes and imperfections that come with growth and are critical to sustaining a creative culture.
In both his 2008 and 2010 TED talks, Sugata Mitra discusses a series of experiments to introduce computers into urban slums and remote villages of India. He installed them within the walls of buildings, at a height of three feet off the ground, ideal for a child. Then he watched as children, with little formal education, no ability to speak English, and no notion of the Internet, taught themselves to use a computer. In one instance, three hundred kids learned to use a computer in three months. All with one shared computer.
He repeated this all over the world, continually showing that when children have an interest in learning, they will find a way to learn. Sugata showed that when we give kids the opportunity to figure something out, they will learn, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
If Sugata told them to see what they could learn because he was going to test them on it, I’m not sure if the results would have been as positive.
Create a Love of Learning Today
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers which can’t be questioned.” – Richard Feynman
In today’s connected world, the ability to read and write has never been more important. We have unlimited knowledge at our fingertips and in our pockets. We have access to platforms that can spread and promote our ideas around the world. But these opportunities are meaningless unless we choose to take advantage of them.
When Warren Buffet was once asked about the key to his success, he pointed to a stack of books and said,
“Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”
Why bother teaching kids to read and write if we also teach them to avoid these newfound powers? Why teach them to recall existing knowledge if they’re not encouraged to apply it in new, unplanned-for ways?
We can give people the material and tell them to study for a test.
Or we can give them interesting problems to solve and the freedom to solve them.
Which environment would you rather learn in? Which environment do you want to be a part of?