My older son, who is 13, will with some regularity eschew video games and computer games in favor of going to his room and reading books. He doesn’t always opt for reading, but it is certainly now part of his regular free time activity. I can’t say I had much to do with achieving that, but I’m certainly happy to see it. I believe that having the reading habit is a necessary component for an individual to be able to control his own learning. I also suspect that fewer kids nowadays develop the reading habit, so it is more of an accomplishment for those that do. Now there is greater competition from games and television, and I think that since the Reagan Presidency young kids get a confused message from their parents about indulging in hedonic pleasure versus engaging in other activities that promote personal growth, give the kid a sense of accomplishment, and are engaging in their own right.
Obviously, my characterization above is a generalization. Overachieving kids nowadays will have a slew of extracurricular activities, from playing a musical instrument, to participating in organized sports, to doing a Science Olympiad project. These kids are extremely busy with very tight schedules outside the classroom. Nonetheless, I’m guessing that it is these kids who are most likely to read regularly for recreation.
Other kids, perhaps not pushed quite so hard by their parents or not quite as able in the classroom, may have a lot of social activity with peers outside school. So in that sense they are busy, but it is not obvious they have developed a self-expressed need for personal growth. Reading is anti-social. And to these kids it is not a reward in itself. So they don’t read more than they have to. An alternative view, one I don’t subscribe to but one I must recognize is there, is that these kids have quite active imaginations and do demand to have their imaginations satisfied, but those are fueled by visual information and these kids are more comfortable decoding multimedia content than text. Under this alternative view, the kids are not ignoring their own needs for growth, they just have a different way to ingest information.
I’d like to understand causality but I don’t. So I don’ know whether reading causes a demand for personal growth or if the flow is in the other direction. I only know I can’t imagine a good student not spending some recreation time reading. So let me push on and ask the next question. Does it matter what the kids are reading? And does it matter whether what they are reading is on paper? What about reading online? What about reading blogs? If you could suggest things to for a thirteen year old to read, what would you suggest?
I don’t have an answer here now. Twenty years ago, I almost certainly would have said that the kids should learn to read a newspaper, with the NY Times a good first choice. Now I’m much less certain about that. Maybe it would be better to encourage reading Brad Delong’s blog. He has sharp opinions and really is an excellent aggregator of political economy information. Maybe, instead, the kids should be read periodicals like Scientific American, Wired Magazine, or the Atlantic Monthly. The writing is more likely to penetrate deeper into the subject. Or perhaps the kids should read a few of these so they can be doing reading that spans different fields of interest.
When I was a kid, something spurred interest in a particular area and then I read all sorts of books in that same area, either until the supply of materials ran out or some other spur would direct my reading elsewhere. I’m guessing that the underlying psychology hasn’t changed much over the past thirty or forty years. So perhaps the right question to be asking is how to pique the kid’s interest and then be ready with a set of things to read that match it.
After a fashion, I think t the kid will want to turn to something that is considered high quality writing. Somewhere around 7th grade, I read The Grapes of Wrath. It’s my recollection of the first “real fiction” I read, and yet it is of interest in part because of the historical commentary in the novel. But I think I was driven to it because I had heard the name Steinbeck and we had a copy on our bookshelf.
What about kids who haven’t found the reading habit, say by their middle teens? Should we keep trying to get them there? A lot in what we are talking about in terms of pedagogic method and the use of technology really reduces to that question. My sense is that we should push, that we need to encourage these kids both to read and to then communicate about what they’ve read, talking about it and writing about it. It’s a simple way to frame the teaching approach we need. It’s not, however, a fun way for the instructor to view the goals of the pedagogy, in part because there will be a high degree of failure and in part because the students will demand a lot of attention to make any progress.