In an article on why children don’t read any longer, Al Kahn, the Chairman of 4Kids Entertainment (best known for the kids show Pokemon) states, “I think it’s a problem because we’re in a culture that is not a reading culture. Kid’s today don’t read.” I also mistakenly believed that “kids don’t read” when trying to convert the American audience into readers back in the 1980s. It’s true that with more and more entertainment storytelling options, kids read fewer books, but I don’t believe it’s because we’re “not in a reading culture.” The past 20 years have had significant changes in our culture, society, and lives, thanks largely to technological advances unlike anything else we’ve seen in history. When in the early 1980s, the world’s gears (powered by capitalism and money), were turning by way of synchronous communications’ meetings and telephone calls, documentation found its way to offices, schools and homes all over the world by way of what we now call “snail mail,” the geek-speak term for the United States Postal Service.
The Postal Service is snail mail today only because everything now moves much, much faster. Technology has given us instantaneous messaging, free spontaneous electronic mail, word processing, faster computers, faster cars, faster access, and faster foods.
The world has changed dramatically since the invention of the Heidelberg printing press, and the “book,” which is nothing more than a linear collection of left-brain formulaic language. Americans believe books are for smart people; books are for learning, still, even in a hyper-dynamic multimedia world. That’s why kids don’t read in America, because it’s too slow for today’s kids. We’re stuck in an old world mentality of what is “intelligent” and what is “stupid.” “Words (books) are intelligent. Pictures (comic books) are stupid.”
There’s an episode in the first season of The Simpsons where Bart is suddenly considered a genius (after switching test papers with another student), and is enrolled in a school for gifted children. While in the school’s enormous library, he comes across a super-hero comic book stuffed in between some books. The teacher, appalled by such “trash,” throws it away. Most of the education world still doesn’t see it any differently today.
The modern world passed America by, with Asian powerhouses being the new world’s creative thought-process and global innovators. We cannot keep up. We cannot learn as fast as the world changes, thus forcing us to prostrate ourselves to technology (which makes things faster); and now, completely consumed by that technology, our kids watch more DVDs, play more video games, and surf the Internet.
However, I’d like to point out that even when kids are watching, playing or surfing — they are reading. It’s just smaller chunks of text incorporated into the new interface of learning, the Graphical User Interface (GUI). There are more words read in any recent Final Fantasy game than there are in any book; more reading in DVD special features than in any newspaper, and there’s how many billion of pages indexed now by Google? My son learned how to read at 1 1/2 years old because I gave him a Macintosh, not with picture books. Suddenly empowered with his new window/screen of stuff, a driving effort ensued to figure how to play with it. The GUI is an intriguing and intuitive interface, so he figured out what the words meant rather quickly.
The GUI will replace the “book” as we know it, not because “it’s prettier to look at,” but because we have to. We’ve maxed out the traditional channel of learning perception. The human species can only learn so much, so fast, reading a linear textbook. It just isn’t fast enough anymore. All this new technology, information and content has even forced higher education (steadfast for 200 years), to succumb to its power. Recently, the prestigious Indiana State University became the first institution that made a laptop mandatory acquisition for enrollment. It’s faster to type than to write. It’s faster to access data by using a searching function, rather than checking (and hoping) the index of a book includes the word.
Dr. Richard Mayer, a psychology professor at the University of California, has done extensive research concerning cognition, instruction, and technology in multimedia learning, and thus proposed a “cognitive theory of multimedia learning.” He wanted to replace the behavioral perspective (what classrooms have been like most of the last century) on multimedia instruction with a more cognitive and constructivist approach. The behavioral perspective sees students as passively absorbing new knowledge, using practice activities, memorization and curriculum instruction, while a cognitive and constructivist approach in more “like real life experiences” or “interactive.”
When an animation about how a bicycle tire pump works was presented concurrently with systematic narration, the students significantly outperformed those who just read a textbook. Additionally, using spatial contiguity (printed text, with related pictures near or integrated) students showed significantly better recall and problem solving skills (faster), than those that just read a textbook. When reading a book, you’re using a single channel of data consumption: formulaic textual language. When seeing imagery, listening to narration, and reading words together, as in a GUI (DVDs, games, Internet), you’ve opened up three channels of data consumption. Theoretically, you can learn three times faster.
It’s not that kids “aren’t reading anymore,” they’re just not reading as many old school books. They’re reading the new interface for learning, and not because “it’s got all those pretty pictures,” but because we have to open up those other two channels of learning consumption, to keep up with instantaneous messaging, spontaneous electronic mail, word processing, faster computers, faster cars, and faster everything.