Learning and Human Futures: My Fall of “Reading”**

As many of you know, I’ve moved from a managerial role back to academia. Perhaps the most perplexing thing about changing tacks is that old habits have to be changed, and new ones developed.   It’s really, really, hard.  So, much of my “reading”** this fall has been focused on understanding the science of making change at the level of the individual (i.e. myself), which I like to think is my zone of proximal development.

But what if the changes to be made are part of a much wider societal shift?  Early in September, I realized that I had lost my ability to read longer texts (those things called “books”) with concentration. There I was, on sabbatical, time to spare –every day struggling to read about the science of human learning for any longer than 15 minutes without distraction.  

Slowly I realized this was not a Karen Mundy problem but something bigger — a problem that parents, schools, communities and workplaces are all facing at scale. Everyone is talking about it (see this from the NYT and this from the CEO of Apple). Happily I stumbled on one of NPR’s most listened-to podcasts, hosted by Manoush Zomorodi and captured in her popular book entitled Bored and Brilliant.” Manoush interviews leading thinkers on the challenges that new technologies and changing work patterns are imposing on the human brain – then she provides a series of “exercises” (she calls them challenges) to help us get things under control.   Nothing too difficult – track and limit your screen time, use the pomodoro method to rebuild concentration, drop all the notification functions on your social media, read more, and restructure your daily habits to maximize productivity (through line to Daniel Pink’s new book “When” /which I also “read”**/ and all the others trying to sell me on meditation and napping)! Ha!  

But re-learning how to read deeply is not a simple process, as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf documents in her new book – “Reader Come Home– apparently motivated by the realization that she had lost the skill herself. Her book explores the evolution of the brain’s ability to read – showing how the “reading circuit” is unlike genetically hardwired abilities (vision, language), and draws on and builds the brain’s deep seated plasticity.  The book argues – implores – us to protect the reading brain and its capacity for deep thought, even while building out new brain circuits for learning through other media. With some irony I admit to “reading”** this book on audio, a learning modality whose efficacy is rarely researched.  

Now let’s take this problem up one notch – since I’m on sabbatical anyway. How should/can we steer learning systems of today so that kids and adults around the world are ready for a 2050 future?  Let me call this out as an area where “basic research” is much needed and not yet thriving. A vast literature on the future of work is emerging, which I’ll cover in later blogs, and another on using technology to disrupt learning.  But neither of these threads seem wide enough or interdisciplinary enough to me. Such research is delinked from other changes in world order – climate change, new geopolitics, rise of populism and decline of democracy, migration, bio-engineering, all intersecting with what some call the 4thIndustrial Revolution. Nor does it utilize what we are beginning to know about the science of learning and the brain itself.  Most importantly, how to tackle this level of “change” in a world where the ability to read is already polarized between children who are schooled to fail at reading and those who have moved on to digital alternatives.

The irony is that just when we need to think on a world-historical scale and build a basic science for change that stretches downwards to brain science and outwards towards societal structures, much recent funding for educational research has gone down the path of rapid loop experimentation to test “what works” in terms of discreet interventions – (see recent blog by the Curry School Dean, Bob Piantas on this problem in the US experience).  

To think forward I say we need to start by learning from history (I always say that –  history was my first degree) and then invest in basic research. That brought me to my next deep reading challenge of the fall – Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.” In it he lays out possible futures for humanity based on lessons from his previous two histories of human society, Sapiens and Homo Deus.  Again, guilty admission:  I think I’ve picked up what is is basically a “Harari light” compared to his earlier books (this one is clearly meant for distracted readers); and even so, I’ve shamelessly supplemented the book with videos of interviews and talks by Harari (see Harari on education; discussing the book with IMF head Lagarde; and my favourite, with Christiane Amanpour).  Suffice to say that his futures are framed as extra-ordinary challenges to which only human creativity, deep learning, ethics and story telling (read education – which gets a whole chapter) provide solutions.  And he’s pretty funny about the story telling done by economists in the mix!

All of this “reading”** is helping me as I think through what research questions I will pursue now that I’m back to academe – but also what kind of writing I want to do. Epistolary writing (dear reader) is back in vogue, that’s for sure.

For now I plan to use Harari and Wolf in my redesigned course “Global Governance/Educational Change” (blog and syllabus coming soon here). Feel free to recommend more “reading” to me. 

What to “read”**  (listen, watch)

(**shout out to my dear friends the novelists Nino Ricci and Erika de Vasconcelos for pointing out to me last week we that need a new term for audio reading. For now I am going with “READING”**).

  1. Harari, Yuval Noah (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.  Signal Press/Random House.
  2. Pink, Daniel.  (2018). When:  The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.  Riverhead Books. https://www.danpink.com/books/when/or interviewed on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/17/578666036/daniel-pinks-when-shows-the-importance-of-timing-throughout-life
  3. Wolf, Maryanne. (2018). Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Harper Collins.  https://www.maryannewolf.com/reader-come-home-1/
  4. Piantis, Bob.  (November 2018) Blog. “Why Education Research Isn’t Improving Education Much.” https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2018/11/why_education_research_isnt_improving_education_much.html
  5. Zomorodi, Manoush. (2017). Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York Public Broadcasting.



2 thoughts on “Learning and Human Futures: My Fall of “Reading”**

  1. Well it took a lot of concentration to read your entire message! I have not lost the ability to concentrate though, even in retirement. I took on the challenge of reading War and Peace, and can read 20 to 30 pages a day. I think that cutting out the distractions is the only way to get to focussing.

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