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Why have we all forgotten about reading?

Amid outcry over Covid-19, the digital divide and cancelled exams, Emma White advocates a tried and tested approach to remote learning; an article published recently in ‘Independent School Management Plus

The writing was on the wall from the beginning. Remote learning meant no learning. Not for everyone, of course, but for enough children for it to ultimately kill any chance of GCSEs and A-levels taking place.

The main problem was that schools expected to lift and replicate the school day into an online setting and deliver lessons to children who would battle on as normal. Here lay the first mistake. As any successful home educator will tell you, learning from home is a very different beast from learning at school. It can turn the most reluctant child into a veritable academic but equally it can create a couch potato from a formerly budding Einstein. Success depends on keeping the day short and having the ability to engage.

Putting Covid to one side, schools should ask themselves, how has this gone so horribly wrong? I’ve had sons at five independent schools in three countries and each and every one has proudly boasted of engaged pupils, resilience and nurturing of the self learner. It’s not just private schools, state schools promote the same mantra. So why is it that most children don’t believe they can learn unless they have a teacher standing in front of them?

“Has this brainwashing made the art of learning without school psychologically unattainable?”

Is it because this needy relationship between teacher and pupil keeps schools in business? I’ve visited countless school open days and felt the pomp and splendour of the occasion where the head haughtily speaks of the challenge of educating young minds (and how good they are at it). I’ve even encountered a well-educated mother who professed that there was no way she could keep up with her Year 8 son and the things he was doing now. Really? Had she been brainwashed to that degree? Could it be that this brainwashing has made the art of learning without school psychologically unattainable?

Bringing Covid back into the debate, It’s not really about lack of laptops and unreliable Internet. It’s about resilience. I am acutely aware that some children do not have IT devices, but this need not bring everything to a grinding halt. Let’s face it, 20 years ago we all managed perfectly well without any gadgets or wifi whatsoever. We used textbooks and we simply read and revised our way to exam success. The internet makes life and learning easier, that’s undisputed, but it isn’t essential. There are books too. When all is said and done it is about “wanting to do it” and some children simply don’t want to.

“Well-heeled parents in smart rural homes bemoan wobbly internet as they make excuses.”

Well-heeled parents in smart rural homes bemoan wobbly internet as they make excuses and disadvantaged pupils decide that no laptop means that they too can honourably bow out of the race. Home circumstances vary from tragic to excellent but that is an unavoidable fact of life and we are in danger of yielding to the pace of the slowest because it is politically incorrect to do otherwise. Politicians, sensing political mileage, have quickly taken centre stage for a “woe is me” moment on behalf of potential voters.

It is funny to think these very same folk, just two years ago, had promoted stories of how children were too engulfed by the internet, social media and gaming. How a whole generation had been lost to cyber bullying and Play Station addiction. The way forward was to switch off the Wifi and confiscate any device in which the demons of technology could enter the family home. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and we lament that good old IT and Wifi are not with us enough after all.

“Most people, including teachers, don’t enjoy reading but see it as a chore.”

I understand the challenges of learning from home. When I came to teaching my own boys six years ago I didn’t consider for a moment that zero internet and a shared family laptop between four may be a barrier to success. I took my O-levels in the early 1980s when textbooks and solid reading were everything. It all boiled down to reading. If we wanted to get ahead we turned to our textbooks because there were no other options. So I took up where my own personal experience had ended – we read our way through.

The sad truth is that most people, including teachers, don’t enjoy reading. They see it as a chore. Follow social media and you will see the endless posts from teachers wanting quick fix solutions. Rarely does the suggestion of “buy the text book” come up. I deal with numerous schools of all types in 24 countries. I encounter teachers everyday who have worked round the clock to reinvent learning strategies to win the minds and interest of students from playing Versailles Volleyball in history to re-enacting the Oregon Trail. Even at A-level, where teachers should expect a greater buy-in from their students, I’ve heard of cake baking competitions to best depict the themes of War of the Worlds and Never Let Me Go. There’s something quite desperate about it all.

“There is a loud collective voice looking for problems not solutions.”

I know there are budget implications but schools are under pressure now to furnish students with laptops at a cost of several hundred pounds per unit. Official student books, endorsed by the exam boards, are on the whole excellent and a perfect match for the specification. So isn’t it a no brainer that these would be a compromise? Can’t communication be made by phone or by post telling those children in the darkest of places what they need to do? Or is it essential that we have to have a teacher before our children in order to engage their wits?

Call me cynical but the truth is we are at the mercy of a loud collective voice looking for problems not solutions. Right now, countless children who have tried hard to maintain progress are to have their chances thwarted by the cancellation of exams, to respect those who have had disadvantages that we have decided we simply cannot overcome.

There is a solution. Schools need to promote reading like never before, but reading has to be a mind-set instilled from an early age. It has to become a default setting. It has to be viewed as a muscle which needs to be kept strong.

Technology has seen us turn our backs on reading as we lust after new-fangled ways to make children engage and give up when they don’t. Teach them to take ownership of their studies, to pore over specifications and buy into their learning experience. It may seem like a step backward on the technology front but whilst the world has taken us to new levels of privilege and disadvantage in terms of material assets, it is the one skill that can make us all equal.

For all our collective cleverness, this pandemic has brought us all to our knees. A bit of old fashioned reading may just be our saviour.

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