Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reading as a chore



A colleague (thanks Anthony!) drew my attention to this rant from Susan Hill. It's not the first time she has expressed her views on this topic, and doubtless won't be the last as long as GCSE and A level students see the reading of books as a chore to be got through as painlessly as possible and with the least possible effort. I don't think it's actually their fault: the system encourages it, and has been running like this so long now, that, as "Suze" points out, there are teachers with the same attitude. I have commented in similar fashion myself before now.
Ms Hill used to publish a lively blog until she suddenly pulled it recently. At the time, I thought it might be because she'd received criticism for a post which, without apparent irony, praised Sarah Palin to the skies. I wonder if actually she just became so fed up with being accessible to all and sundry that she just felt she should concentrate on her writing.
We have a generation of students now for whom failure is not possible. A "pass" rate of 97% at A level means, in essence, that you pass by turning up. Coursework can, it seems, be endlessly deferred, and multiple attempts can be made to improve it. I have had to explain very patiently to lots of students what a deadline is, and also counsel them when they relapse into shock at the notion that once work is marked, that's it.
The idea that students of Literature might actually enjoy reading is seen as a quaint one by many eighteen-year-olds. I notice a distinct difference in the attitude of older students, who accept with equanimity, and, indeed, enthusiasm, the instruction to read a book - a whole book!- for next week's class.
I don't think there's any way round this. We need to re-establish in schools the habit of reading, and reading entire texts rather than the bleeding chunks beloved of A level syllabuses. I've no confidence that this will actually happen of course.

10 comments:

petal47 said...

Last year I was teaching A level English to students who saw reading as an entirely avoidable evil. The curriculum allows no time for its encouragement - students just read enough to pass the exam. If there's a film of the book - forget even doing that. Doing my degree, I worked alonside a student who thought there really was a fishtank scene in Romeo and Juliet.

Mary said...

unfortunately, this even happens at postgraduate level - some teachers on our professional development courses are - and there's no other word for it - gobsmacked to find that they
a - have to read
b - have to learn "big words"

I think I'll leave the "big ideas" for another day...

Rob Spence said...

Yes, and yes, as Molly Bloom would have said, in a book full of big words.
How depressing. It's not just us though. I was interested to read about this American professor's experiences and ideas.

petal47 said...

I read this link and could only agree. The 17-year old students I was teaching were ardent Facebookers, with high-end mobiles, car keys and an unquestioning belief in entitlement - to a place at uni regardless of their results, unrealistic starting salaries and a success that doesn't require anything other than a part-time commitment.

Rob Spence said...

Ah, yes, entitlement. Just back from a conference at which one speaker was an A level chief examiner. I was not filled with confidence for the future...

Mary said...

How about "Thinking as a chore"? I have just been marking some drafts of work (I teach research methods)and as ever, am dismayed to find that once I manage to get students to actually read, somehow they stop thinking. I get many drafts which is little more than the cobbling together of the big (and students hope, impressive) words in methodology texts, but show little real intellectual engagement with the underlying concepts. It seems to some students that if they manage to get words like ontology and epistemology into a few sentences, then by definition, their work is of high intellectual standing. I get a rather banal regurgitation of texts I have already read, and little or no conceptual engagement with them, nor consideration of their relevance to students own developing research question and plan. Somehow, they seem to have worked on the premise that reading and quoting or paraphrasing lots of standard texts is a substitute for deep thinking.

I never thought I'd hear myself saying that I just wish sometimes they would read less, but think more.

Rob Spence said...

Mary- can't we go for read more and think more at the same time? I regret the lack of intellectual curiosity in students - or any sort of curiosity actually.

Donald Clark said...

Some idle thoughts....

It was ever thus so I'm not sure about blaming students for the failings of obviously outdated teaching methods.

How about a truce or manifesto?

If we stop 'lecturing' them, they could agree to start reading and writing.

They could agree to write more if we record our lectures for use on the media they know - PCs, Macs, iTOUCH etc. This would allow them to interrogate the lecture - stop, reflect, note take, analyse. Not be swept along in a flow that allows no time for reflection.

If we stop criticising and lecturing them,we could focus on constructive, formative feedback.

I suspect this is all about dragging education into the 21st century. Art is wonderfully exciting on the ground so why do in a classroom?

Start by getting them to blog on their experiences or post their thoughts on art on Facebook. Annotate and interrogate the paintings using graphics.

Get them to present a five minute lecture on a topic or make a podcast or videoblog.


etc etc

Rob Spence said...

Hi Donald - not so idle thoughts, though just to put you right, my subject is English literature, so they don't paint. May be they should...
My lectures are available as audio files, and the slides are posted on our VLE.
I can't agree that their failure to read anything is to do with our teaching methods, though it may be to do with teaching methods in schools. For instance - reading whole texts at GCSE is now seen as outdated, and this attitude is creeping in at A level too. To go back to the debate we were having over at Plan B, the instrumental view of education enshrined in the National Curriculum and, increasingly, at A level, deprives students of the opportunity to develop the skills which we would expect them to have on entering HE. Our problem with some - not all - first years is that, even though they have signed up to a degree where extensive reading is an essential component, they are genuinely shocked when they are expected to actually get their heads down and read. And no amount of innovative teaching is going to be able to do that reading for them. If they are to be able to talk and write confidently about a text, they have to read it first. And yes, we do offer them tips and techniques on how to read, how to annotate, how to make notes- but the initial commitment is also necessary.

Robert William Atherton said...

Hi Rob, one of my ambitions and reasons for heading towards a career in teaching is to encourage reading. I have a brother you doesn't read and has just gone into university this year, I never see him with a book, oh no wait, there was one holding the living room door open of his.

I think what we learn in university can be filtered down into A level that just wasn't when I was there. I look forward to opening the eyes of teenagers to the lives of the writers, not just the writing.