Historian and author Marc Aronson has a blog at School Library Journal called Nonfiction Matters. In his posts he regularly addresses the issues surrounding nonfiction and history as it’s presented in children’s books.
In a recent post he discussed the idea that a book be something more than just a book, that interactive media should be included and that publishers couldn’t be counted on to do this. This was in reference to his seven year old son who, in his words
“wants the book to include places for readers to come up with their own ideas, suggest their own theories, email the author, post to a blog, make discoveries. He wants reading to be active and participatory, like the video games he so enjoys.
In one way he is asking for a book to be a book plus a parent, a teacher, a librarian.”
What set me off about this was the idea that a book needed to do something more, that the book couldn’t be a book. I know sometimes I can come off as a naysayer about these things — I am not a technophobe — but I’ve long felt that the adoption of technology often swept people up in the “wow” factor, allowing for transgressions and blind acceptance where a good dose of skepticism and consideration is in order.
What his son wants is a video game, something that doesn’t have anything to do with reading, that offers the illusion of accomplishment (level 18, YES!) while offering nothing substantive. A book is hard to a modern reader because culturally we have moved away from the difficult and embraced the easy. We have moved away from encyclopedias and toward Wikipedia, away from critical thinking and toward multitasking, away from the time it takes to locate and discover sources in order to become expedient and easy.
If a book did all the things his son wanted — acting as parent, teacher and librarian — essentially what he has been conditioned to want is convenience at the expense of social networking. If a book leads to questions, and questions lead to a variety of sources, and that information needs to be synthesized then the child not only gains the information but the ability to learn how to process that information and, most importantly, learn to discern ideas and truths for him or herself.
If a child says they would like their vegetables better if they tasted like honey would we be so quick to add honey to everything and have them come to expect all vegetables be so doctored? If we answer their calls to make all books an interactive media experience that best simulate the elements of electronic games and the instant gratification of the Internet are we not creating a similar veil?
Let a book be a book, was the comment I left for Aronson. And to follow up, let’s worry more about teaching children how to read a book — not just the word and meanings, not just the standardized test version of comprehension, grammar and structure — let’s make sure they know how to take any book and use it to their advantage, the bend it to their will and make use of the knowledge it contains. Without computers, without technology. Let’s get back to what it means to read.
Amended to his post Aronson pointed to a film created by teenagers in Second Life, an interactive space where people can live alternate lives through avatars they control. To him this was a sort of proof as to the kind of things kids can do with technology today.
I guffawed out loud when I saw the piece. Not that the student’s efforts lacked sincerity or seriousness — they were discussing the child warriors in Africa — but because what they did could have been accomplished 30 years earlier with the available technology. I know, I was part of a group of kids who, in 1977, used what “cutting edge” video technology we had available to us to record a newscast of the future (the year 2000) based on scientific information at the time. Surprise! Our lead story was global warming (we called it the greenhouse effect) and it looks like we might have been onto something!
All that aside, the use of technology didn’t necessarily give our education a “value add” or any sort of edge over our ability to read and think and understand our subject better than a traditional book report. It may have held our interest better, pandered a bit to our desire to “play” at school and call it “work,” but I can’t say we necessarily benefited from it.
A few days later Aronson replied to my comment by conceding the point that revolutionary educational technology was, essentially, always just around the corner and that waiting on it would be erroneous. Later he countered my arguments against the adoption of external media by saying:
“I am suggesting that a teacher, librarian, or parent could well supply the kinds of questions and challenges my son is looking for in a book. But the reality is that in most cases that will not happen. This is not just a question of time and motivation, but, as I’ve often pointed out in this column, we cannot expect teachers to have sufficient background in all of the subject areas that inspire young readers’ curiosity. So the appeal of creating these digital echoes of books — should that ever happen — is that it will guarantee readers some way to act on the questions and ideas prompted by book.
Huh. Teachers have never been expected to be all things, and yet this hasn’t been an issue in the past. If the concern is that we’ve accelerated the culture to the extent that we cannot keep up, it is still erroneous to expect answers to come from the source. American technology has accelerated at the speed of commerce and is designed for a consumer market, not an intellectual one.
The answer then is we need to teach our children to be readers, critical thinkers, and moderate consumers. Yes, we want to encourage their thirst for knowledge, but we need to make sure they are consuming quality, not quantity, and that their consumption has a purpose. Asking books to include “echo websites” or interactive media only increases the expectation that a book be something more than what it is… a book.