As I write this, with the world in lockdown, my thoughts are moving in all directions. Naturally high in my mental conversations with myself, is how I can help to ensure our school population does not have Learning disrupted. Right behind that thought is the dire need for Literature and History to be made mandatory in all schools in Barbados. In recent years, they have become optional subjects for many students, with parents supporting this directive and schools ‘banding’ them within CXC choices for pragmatic timetabling purposes.
These two unpopular subjects are the GREAT teachers of CRITICAL THINKING. Readers will tell you that somewhere along the way, through stimulating thought, they have been inspired to question everything. Unfortunately, Literature and History involve a lot of reading and THAT is, in my opinion, the brutally honest reason they have become optional.
Writing is the most complex form of human communication, but reading is a very complex skill. In a nutshell, here’s how it goes: first, we have to decode phonemes (distinct units of sound) and understand digraphs (ch, sh, spl, gn). Thereby, we are able to read mechanically. After decoding a sentence, we apply the punctuation which supports it. We then transfer the group of words for mental processing, creating an ‘image’ for understanding their intent and tone. That is, if we know the vocabulary with which to make an image. Our conjuring of imagery is assisted by prior knowledge, experience and our ability to link information.
This is an arduous journey of thought, with countless possible obstacles along the way – how well do we decode, how strong is our vocabulary and knowledge of the purpose of punctuation, how efficiently do we ‘picture’, how broad is our exposure, how fast is our processing, how inherent is our ability to connect disparate information?
Reading IS the starting point for critical thinking. However, our forte in making mental pictures, or ‘concept imagery’, is the real biggie. Einstein said, ‘If I can picture it, I can understand it’. So, while effective reading skills are necessary, the conversion to the ‘movie’ in our heads is critically essential for higher order thinking (HOTS) to take place. Here lie our inferences, deductions, predictions, imaginations, inventions – the world of, ‘What If’.
Therefore, an avid reader will almost always say, ‘the book was so much better than the movie’, and why irony and symbolism, philosophy and poetry have historically counted so much to the ‘giants’ of thought. As Descartes said: he can be certain that perception and imagination exist, because they exist in his mind as “modes of consciousness,” but he can never be sure whether what he perceives or imagines has any basis in truth.
How do we start a non-reading child (for whatever reason) to read? Simplest answer, remove the actual pictures and download age-appropriate audio books; those rich in vocabulary. Go to Amazon and type in, ‘Whitbread award books for children’ or ‘children’s classic audio books’. Research shows that it takes exposure to a word 13 times for it to be internalised and recognised in context. Without reading, physically or audibly, this will never happen deliberately. You cannot depend on chance, especially when we are conversing less with our children, using less complex vocabulary with them, and they are electing to use visual forms of entertaining themselves.
Within these books, particularly the Classics, enters History – a past world, whether factual or fantasy, which is mesmerising (like The Man in the Iron Mask). The rule for my students is that AFTER they have read or listened to the book, only THEN can they watch the movie. So, parents, here is the moment of decision for you: to what extent do YOU wish to get involved in your child’s THINKING? Because it starts with reading, listening, or best still, theatrically reading TO THEM.
Then there are movies; the well-made, wholesome kind. One I re-watched this week was the story of Ben Carson, Gifted Hands. His mother was (a secret and shame-ridden) illiterate until later in life when she asked a widowed employer, who had an extensive library, to teach her how to read. She then limits her sons to two hours of television weekly and tells them to go to the library. This is how their journey from really knowing nothing about anything (and failing grades at school) to a world of knowledge in every area (science, music, literature, history) begins. Mrs Carson’s decision to force her sons to read changed their destinies and those of the countless patients he saved as a brain surgeon. Could your child, through reading, become the next Ben Carson?
If, God forbid, Barbados goes on ‘lockdown’, one way you can ensure that your child’s learning is not disrupted is to plan from now to find a way for him or her to access the wonderful world of reading. Restrict the games online, provide the resources, get involved, put up with the whining and stay the course. And, of course, email me if you need problem-solving ideas: [email protected]