Reading as a Defence of Focus


Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. James Baldwin

Biologists Heather Heyining and Bret Weinstein, in their book on the challenges of modern life, note that today's world is characterised above all by a multitude of rapid changes in a short space of time. They add that although humans as a biological species are well prepared for change and can adapt quickly, the pace of change in the 21st century is so rapid that human brains, bodies and social systems are constantly lagging behind. One can hardly disagree with this expert observation - the cognitive and communicative apparatus of man evolved in an informationally and technologically modest environment; historical societies or historical individuals usually had enough time to receive and process a limited amount of information.

Today's young generation is growing up in a permanent informational and technological revolution. There is a rapid increase in information resources, massive technological development and a wild competition for focus. Not only children or youth find themselves in the rapid flow of technological innovations, necessary and unnecessary information, expected acts of communication and distracting news. Teachers, the people who bear the social responsibility for pupils' communicative competences in an informationally volatile and technologically variable environment, are also in the middle of it. We do not have the space here to give even a rough indication of the content of what is to be understood by a person's ability not to fail communicatively and cognitively. It is certain, however, that this clarification will require new terms that can be used to precisely name the new informational and technological situation. Several of these are already the subject of more detailed explanations. As promising thinking tools for now, we might offer concepts such as cognitive patience, communication resilience, deep work, receptive endurance, slow thinking, deep reading, selective focus, focus protection, cognitive load, digital native, information fatigue, mental image, cognitive act. We can optimistically expect that some of the new conceptual tools will also lead to useful solutions. Slight optimism can be drawn mainly from the recognition that technical concepts arise and exist to help people understand new situations and name new problems. Indeed, an accurate mental grasp of a situation creates the assumption that one can respond to it in a reasonable, i.e. appropriate way.

Admittedly, each of the new concepts deserves at least a basic commentary. However, at the end of last year, Slovakia received a report on the quality of reading communication, mathematical thinking and scientific knowledge among the younger generation. Certainly, it is possible to talk conceptually about thinking of the reader, mathematical knowledge and science communication, but in this - not entirely new - situation, however, there is no deeper point in juggling with concepts. The latest OECD PISA study suggests, as it were, that the Slovak educational environment is on fire, and the attention of the participants in educational process should be turned to the place where it has been burning for a long time, and according to the latest data it is burning most acutely.

Reading is a communication technique that is not biologically conditioned - as living creatures, we do not have a genetic program that commands us to master written text the way we master spoken language. We learn to speak both because of the biological properties of the brain and because people talk around us and to us. This is not true for reading. Reading is culturally conditioned; we don't become readers; we learn to be readers. Mastery of reading depends on understanding of the relationship between the alphabet and speech, then on the degree and quality of one's contact with written texts, and most importantly on the help provided by the child's cultural environment - traditionally the family and school. If, as a society, we have received news of a reading debacle among the younger generation, it is not because there are less gifted children or less bright youngsters in the population. It is a reflection of the quality of the communication culture in our country, i.e. what we are doing with children communicatively, what cultural models we are presenting to them in an era of fast communication, information fatigue and digital distraction. Key to this is how and what we read at school and how we talk to children and young people about what we read.

We have been critical on several occasions in this space of the emphasis on memorizing in our schools, the results of which are well tested, easily scored and then conveniently converted into grades. This was primarily because the communicative and cognitive capacity to fail in a digital universe does not stand and fall with one's ability to reproduce what has been memorized, especially what has been received without understanding and functional repetition.

A substantial part of this competence depends on a number of circumstances: awareness of the limited amount of focused perception, the skill to regulate one's attention, the quality and extent of communication experiences, including the help children and young people need in processing them. It is only subsequently that the capacity to make competent decisions about what to admit and what not to admit into one's thought world is built up. Reading in this sense should be understood both as an indicator of these cognitive phenomena and as a method for their development. Financial support for school libraries is therefore a necessary but only first step towards strengthening the ability of children and young people to cope communicatively and cognitively in a world of permanent informational and technological revolution.

A book that sits on the shelf of a school library is a communicatively dead object. Its content has to be constructed, it has to be created by reading, revived, always re-enacted. If in the case of a film the director and the actors create the entire communicative content, in the case of a text this cognitive load is on the reader, on their ability to project the written text onto the screen of the mind. It is a complex process: the reader must first transform the written text into a mental image, which they must then maintain in their mind. The reader has to endure communicatively in order for the mental image to be formed as the text has programmed it. With every word and every sentence read, the mental image grows, becomes more precise, more detailed, denser, so to speak, throughout the whole communication. In doing so, none of these cognitive acts can be done inattentively or distractedly. The mental image produced by reading is conditioned by receptive endurance - the ability of the human being to anchor the eye in perception and the mind in the mental transformation of written words and sentences. Focused reading is thus an excellent example of deep communicative and cognitive work. It can only be performed skilfully if the eyes and mind are accustomed to doing it - consistently and patiently, at all stages, and regardless of whether it is a poem, a professional commentary, a private letter, a political statement, a chart, or a map. The second necessary step in developing cognitive patience in children and young people is to strengthen reading processes in all subjects. A culturally appealing example might be a physics teacher who, in addition to explaining the properties of fluids, devotes functional questions to a science text to students. A desirable cultural role pattern could then also be a history teacher who does not see their teaching as exclusively a time for a memory drill, but also as an opportunity to think together about the present and the past through the reading of historical sources.

A final note. In schools today, in addition to the tragedy of reading, we need to confront two other risks: threats to the safety and mental health of children and young people. Psychologists and cognitive scientists have been studying the conditions and sources of these risks for many years. Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf points out that accepting the feelings of others is one of the most profound effects of deep reading. Moreover, she speaks of reading as a special place that allows one to detach from oneself, to transport oneself to other people, and to know the otherwise inaccessible - the expectations, doubts, and feelings of others. Psychologist Daniel Goleman thematizes social sensitivity in connection with the decline of focus. Drawing on numerous research studies, he documents a direct relationship between the quality of focus and interest in other people. He draws the conclusion from many of his findings: the more we care about others, the more we pay attention to them - and the more we pay attention to others, the more we care about them. In the light of this insight, we can look at reading and attention as two phenomena that are substantively related and that go beyond feeling disappointed about the results of the international PISA test. Both the generational decline in the quality of reading skills and the population-wide decline in the quality of focus can be seen as potential causes of both the increase in the manifestation of risky behaviour and the increase in mental health problems among young people. The more readily we incorporate knowledge of the new informational and technological context of education into our thought world, the greater the chance that we can successfully counter threats not only in their consequences, but especially at their source.

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Karel Dvořák PhD. – DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


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