David Brooks of The NY Times reported how disadvantaged middle school students were given up to 12 books to take home and keep over the summer. And then a surprise met those involved in the study:
Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.
Books have power! They make a difference! And these results were duplicated in Europe.
In a related educational study, researchers discovered another finding:
Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores.
This study, following up on others, finds that broadband access is not necessarily good for kids and may be harmful to their academic performance. And this study used data from 2000 to 2005 before Twitter and Facebook took off.
Any language arts teacher could have told you this, but no one believes the footsoldier in the trenches of a battle. A commission or a study of “outside experts” has to be employed to tell the powers-that-be what we English teachers could have told them: books, not the internet, are better for students and their intellectual and academic development.
Now, admittedly, the “books are better than technology” argument is a bit simplistic (though still very important and true); however, the key may not be what’s in the books, but how the books make people perceive themselves.
But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.
A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.
A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.
These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”
But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.
Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.
I often harp about the idea that relationships are critical in the classroom, and one of the by-products of these relationships is how students begin to see themselves as valuable and people of import. This allows them to risk and to explore. Instead of being intimidated by the tome in front of them, the students begin to develop a confidence and pride in reading–and debating and evaluating and synthesizing–great ideas from great minds. The students begin to wrestle with grand ideas and to incorporate them into their world view.
In fact, when researchers study the effects of the internet on academics, they consistently find that internet access may be a detriment to learning:
Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.
Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, noted they “found a negative effect on academic achievement…I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”
What we knew to be true only came to be accepted through another study.
Still, immersing our students in literature, giving them books, and providing them with a new self-image–all the while limiting their web surfing–can lead to a smaller achievement gap and a larger academic record of success for our students.