Sunday, June 06, 2010

Good riddance to "Deep Reading?"

My previous post highlighted Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky's recent books which seem to agree that Internet and Web and related technology are changing our daily habits and also the way we think.

Carr suggests we are gaining a lot but also losing something important. Shirky counters: "good riddance!" to whatever we might be losing.

Maybe it's just a touch of reactionary temperament in me, but for me this brings to mind this sage advice about change:
"Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up."

I'm not exaggerating Shirky's view, nor is he the only one to hold it, so I think it is worth looking at this question in a little more detail.

What is it that we agree we are losing in order to gain faster, more agile, more network-literate minds, and why does Carr think it is important and Shirky does not?

What's the Argument About?

The essence of Carr's argument as I interpret it is that:

1. Our daily habits, the tools we use, and the ethic with which we use those tools has a considerable shaping influence on the way human beings think.

2. This shaping of our thought by our tools is not an empty metaphor, it has a literal aspect because of the "plastic" nature of the brain that has been discovered in recent decades.

3. Prime examples have been the shift from oral to written culture, the use of maps, the use of clocks, the widespread availability of books, the use of audio and video media, and culminating most recently in mobile constantly online hyperlinked multimedia networking.

4. As each type of media proliferates, the people who use it gain new ways of thinking through new habits, new patterns of attention allocation, new ethics regarding how information and knowledge are related and what it means to be smart and informed.

5. These gains do not generally co-exist with the previous ways of thinking, they greedily force the old ways out. This happens for two kinds of reasons: (1) the economics of production and aquisition of technology, and (2) the plasticity of the brain. Over time our habits carve increasingly deeper ruts that shape the way we think. New habits replace old and new ways of thinking replace old, essentially as a matter of making efficient use of brain tissue.

I think the argument so far is pretty sound, although certainly one could quibble about any of the points. Carr finds examples for which each of these points do seem to legitimately apply.

The example that is most relevant, the one Carr starts with and the one for which he is most dimetrically opposed with Shirky, boils down to the concept of "deep reading."

What is "Deep Reading?"

Deep reading refers to the tradition of reading long, structured written content in an a focused, undistracted manner while using active learning skills. This is not a particularly natural mode for human beings, and so deep reading refers to an ability that requires considerable expertise to be developed. Some reading skills that are naturally difficult must be automatized so we don't have to think about them and can devote precious cognitive resources to thinking about the subject matter.

The cortical resources for maintaining attention on linear written material without allowing distractions to derail us are significant. We all agree on this. Carr makes a point of it and it is also a big part of why Clay Shirky finds web technology to be so freeing. Linear reading is very difficult until you become extremely expert at it. Many people faced against their will with the intellectual ethic of book scholarship have felt the same way Shirky does, that it just isn't worth all the effort to do without the expertise. And furthermore they can't understand why it would be worthwhile to acquire the expertise if it is so difficult and takes so long.

To read effectively, reading has to become second nature so that the basic reading skills are applied without thinking in a matter of milliseconds. Like all forms of expertise, this takes many years of training and most readers probably take that for granted. Some people enjoy the process much more than others. My baby book records my first sentence as an infant as being a complaint: "I can't read!" With my parents help, I put a lot of time and effort into solving that problem, so although I enjoyed the journey, I appreciate why people who don't enjoy that sort of thing find it so intimidating to contemplate crossing that chasm of years of training to get into deep reading.

Why do some people care about Deep Reading?

What deep reading refers to in terms of cognition is "an array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight." (Educational Leadership, March 2009, Wolf and Barzillai)

I think Clay Shirky would argue that the above abilities can be gotten, perhaps better, without the difficulties of deep reading. I hope he is right, but Nicholas Carr and I both suspect he would be wrong about that. There's a kind of "no free lunch" argument here I think. Web hyperlinking works so efficiently with our brain and gives us so much of what Shirky calls "cognitive surplus" because it leverages our natural inclination to get distracted by each new thing and then follow it. Rather than finding ways to fight our distractability as we do in deep reading, on the web we let it drive us to explore new things. So we are exploring, hunting and gathering new information. We all agree that this is often a big rush and exposes us to potentially much more diverse information (and people!) in a shorter time than we would ever achieve buried in books in a libary.

The issue at hand is whether we are learning it in the same way as if we were undistractedly reading.

The Key Question

The key technical question upon which the whole argument rests becomes: Is there an added efficiency of web information hunting and gathering providing an available "cognitive surplus" usable as an attention resource that makes it easier to use the metacognitive skills we need for mastery of a subject?

Or conversely do the distractions of that mode of information hunting/gathering prevent us from using those specific metacognitive skills, and force us to think more "shallowly" in some sense?

For me the Carr vs. Shirky debate breaks down to the potential empirical questions generated by the above technical issues.

Is the Real Intelligence in the Network Rather than in Each of Us?

I suppose another way of looking at this is to question whether we really need to acquire deep expertise anymore, whether there is something "old-fashioned" and quaint about expertise itself. Maybe the new online literacy replaces expertise with some other quality that supports human thinking? I think that's intriguing an there are probably some folks who think that way, just as there are people who say that our intelligence can somehow better be transferred into computers or networks with other people rather than embedded in individual minds.

These are interesting speculations, but they seem very hard to reconcile with the mass of learning and expertise research so far. Not that we can't offload our minds from our own brains, I do think that is real possibility, and something we already do to to a great extent. The argument that our tools shape our mind is partly based in this idea of offloading memory from our brain to external tools.

I just don't think it's an entirely good thing to eliminate individual intelligence entirely. I think we still have good use for the processing we do inside our own skulls. Maybe that's where Carr and Shirky really differ most fundamentally? Maybe Shirky really wants to get rid of the individual mind and replace it with a node in a web, similar to the way ants work together in colonies?

Different Experiences with Books

Clay Shirky offers Tolstoy's War and Peace as an example of great literature (though I think it is popularly better known for its length than its literary merit). He says, "boring, too long, and overrated." Why should we care about such quaint things as novels? Although I think Shirky is overly glib on this point, I won't argue it here.

I will however agree completely with Carr that Shirky either isn't what I'm calling a deep reader, or if he has cultivated that ability he chooses not to use it very often anymore at least not on books. "Being able to read" is very different from deep reading. In an interview he admitted to spending his childhood mostly entertained by Gilligan's Island and only much later finding technical books and presumably reading them in a piecewise manner to learn specific practical skills.

Quaint artifacts like myself who spent so much time and effort learning to read deeply and actively striving to understand the mind and knowledge of authors have a different experience of books than people who read in a more passive manner. I don't think there's any doubt of that. So even if War and Peace were something he could appreciate, if he had never developed the expertise for deep reading wouldn't be able to get through it in a manner that really engaged the author as we do in deep reading. Without that different experience of books he may not feel he is missing anything important (that is precisely the point at stake afterall) but I think we all agree that some people do still manage to immerse themselves in a novel and so clearly engage a book differently than Clay Shirky does, and that tradeoff is a key point that Nicholas Carr is making.


This reminds me of the situation I discovered when I engaged the hypnosis research years ago. I discovered that there was a big difference in technical theories of hypnosis. Some of them took the phenomena of hypnotic suggestibility for granted and tried to explain them in psyhological terms. Others assumed that the phenomena were faked or pretended and tried to explain that in psychological terms. When it came down to the difference, it was really mostly a matter of whether the researcher responsible for the theory experienced the phenomena themselves or not. Researchers who had interesting experiences with hypnosis knew the phenomena were real and wanted to explain how they arise. Researchers who didn't experience the same thing assumed everyone else must be faking it as well. It turned out from the research that there is a stable trait-like quality, "hypnotizability," that makes the experience of hypnosis very different for different people. Each researcher was originally working to explain their own personal experience, as if it were universal.

The hypnosis story is perhaps not just a metaphor. One of the theories, proposed by researcher Josephine Hilgard, was that hypnosis involves an immersion similar to that found in some kinds of reading.

Deep Reading, Non-Fiction, and Expertise

Deep reading is most certainly not just about immersion in a story, however. Although I've read a small number of novels, each of them made a major impact on me, so for me it seems the experience of immersive fiction is something we should not take lightly, it can be part of a formative process in our development. But although I have a deep respect for literature, I am not primarily a literature geek, I am primarily a non-fiction geek. And for me, that is where I get the most concerned about Shirky's dismissal of deep reading as "old style" literacy.

What deep reading typically means to a non-fiction geek like me is essentially sitting down undistractedly with a book for an hour or so, making a concerted strategic effort to understand the mind of the author, who I assume has knowledge and ways of thinking about the subject at hand that I don't yet have. So the goal of deep reading is to treat a book as if it were a conversation with the author, where I start out confused about the subject, ask questions, look for answers, take notes, keep track of useful other sources (without actually reading them yet!) and in general try to create new representations in my mind regarding the subject matter, using the author as a guide.

This is the central skillset and habit set of the "auto-didact," the person who wants to live a life of self-determined learning. Sure we do browse a lot, and we do learn the skills of hunting and gathering information on the web as well as in books and journals and other people. But, to the critical point regarding Carr's argument, we also develop ways to pull ourselves away from the distractions and focus on learning new things more deeply when we recognize that need. If Carr is right, we are making ourselves increasingly unable to use that option.

The tradition of deep reading says that this kind of process of engaging a book by actively asking questions rather than just passively skimming content is a good thing. And I know from experience, both my own and that of many others, that it is far more difficult to do this in an environment of constant distractions. We just don't have the attention resources, it is too demanding a process and our brain has finite attention capacity.

The expertise research says that it this kind of engagement not only a good thing for learning but absolutely essential for mastering new and different concepts. We don't just pile data into our brain, we have to create new representations of the material by active engagement with it. We know that passively skimming large amounts of related information does not accomplish this. This is the key technical point on which Shirky's glibness about the quaint boring linear mode of reading becomes most dangerous.

I'm not saying it is impossible to become an expert in anything without deep reading. I'm saying that deep reading greatly facilitates the process, and if we lose that ability which Shirky finds quaint, we will indeed have to learn new skills and habits and create a new intellectual ethic to replace it so that we can still acquire deep expertise without deep reading.

Carr's argument is that the shift in media technology will actually change our brains in a way that will make it either impossible or extremely unlikely that we will replace the level of cognitive processing we now enjoy through deep reading. I'm not sure I would go as far as Carr there, but I think we need to be far less glib than Shirky about it, and take the change seriously.

Experts on a subject don't just have more information in their head about a topic. They represent the information differently. That only comes from extended periods of thinking about the subject actively and coming to new insights. That means a particular way of using technology, not just leaving it to chance. No amount of following links to good sources and reading each of them superficially can accomplish what thinking about the material deeply and asking yourself strategic questions can do.

Physical Books Aren't Really So Special, Are They?

I think there are unique qualities to physical books that many of us have learned to exploit particularly well, but that doesn't mean that people can't learn to do similar things with other technologies.

I do think you can, under the right conditions, manage to acquire deep expertise from web technology the way many of us have traditionally done with books, and in some ways it even gives you significance advantages. You have better access to good sources, access to experts, interactive learning technologies, and the potential for quality feedback. These are all advantages of web technology, and some smart, motivated students have learned to make wonderful exemplary use of it.

But organizing the material for yourself and getting your sources together is not enough for real learning. You also have to know when to think about the material you are learning, to ask the right questions to achieve new insights, to use what learning researchers call metacognitive skills to evaluate your own learning and figure out the best thing for you to read or practice next, to find your own weaknesses and figure out how to improve. That's where the scarce attention resources are required, and where we need new habits and a new intellectual ethic to remind us how and where to focus on thinking about the material.

I think the Clay Shirkys of the world probably assume that the unburdening of the mind that comes with efficient use of web technology either allows them to accomplish this in a different way or else renders it obsolete.

And quite obviously people can and do learn many things without deep reading.

One argument is that the sorts of things they are learning may be different, and the depth at which they are mastering them may different. I honestly don't know if that's true, and I don't think Carr has answered the question adequately with the evidence he presents in The Shallows.

I do know for a fact that the unique habits and intellectual ethic of old-fashioned "book scholars" lead to contemplation of a subject in greater depth. And I know that the manner in which we (with vanishingly few exceptions) use web and mobile technology are not at all conducive to that kind of contemplation. Is this nostalgia on my part to find this a little worrying, or is there a meaningful tradeoff going on?

What I don't know is what the real implications of that "depth" are for expertise, intelligence, and problem solving. Is it really just a quaint linear mode of thinking that we are losing in the post-literate age as Shirky suggests, or are we effectively going back to a pre-literate age in some ways by eliminating an essential reflective aspect of our thinking, as Carr tells us?

I don't know, but I suggest the answer might be available in terms of specific empirical questions, so far as we agree on what we think the mind should best be doing. The problem is that the Shirky side and the Carr side may very well have different perspectives on what the mind should really be doing! I think this issue is important enough to keep a conversation open.

Towards a Resolution?
I'll leave you with the intriguing concluding thoughts from (Wolf and Barzillai):

Encouraging Deep Reading Online

Here lies the crucial role of education. Most aspects of reading—from basic decoding skills to higher-level comprehension skills—need to be explicitly taught. The expert reading brain rarely emerges without guidance and instruction. Years of literacy research have equipped teachers with many tools to facilitate its growth (see Foorman & Al Otaiba, in press). For example, our research curriculum, RAVE-O (Wolf, Miller, & Donnelly, 2000), uses digital games to foster the multiple exposures that children need to all the common letter patterns necessary for decoding. Nevertheless, too little attention has been paid to the important task of facilitating successful deep reading online.

The medium itself may provide us with new ways of teaching and encouraging young readers to be purposeful, critical, and analytical about the information they encounter. The development of tools—such as online reading tutors and programs that embed strategy prompts, models, think-alouds, and feedback into the text or browser— may enhance the kind of strategic thinking that is vital for online reading comprehension.

For example, programs like the Center for Applied Special Technology's (CAST) "thinking reader" (Rose & Dalton, 2008) embed within the text different levels of strategic supports that students may call on as needed, such as models that guide them in summarizing what they read. In this way, technology can help scaffold understanding (Dalton & Proctor, 2008). Such prompts help readers pause and monitor their comprehension, resist the pull of superficial reading, and seek out a deeper meaning. For example, in the CAST Universal Design Learning edition of
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (,telltale_heart.html), questions accompanying the text ask readers to highlight words that provide foreshadowing in a given passage; to ponder clues about the narrator as a character in the story; and to use a specific reading strategy (such as visualize, summarize, predict, or question) to better understand a passage.

Well-designed WebQuests can also help students learn to effectively process information online within a support framework that contains explicit instruction. Even practices as simple as walking a class through a Web search and exploring how Web pages may be biased or may use images to sway readers help students become careful, thoughtful consumers of online information. Instruction like this can help young minds develop some of the key aspects of deep reading online.

The Best of Both Worlds

No one has real evidence about the formation of the reading circuit in the young, online, literacy-immersed brain. We do have evidence about the young reading brain exposed to print literacy. Until sufficient proof enlarges the discussion, we believe that nothing replaces the unique contributions of print literacy for the development of the full panoply of the slower, constructive, cognitive processes that invite children to create their own whole worlds in what Proust called the "reading sanctuary."

Thus, in addition to encouraging explicit instruction of deeper comprehension processes in online reading, we must not neglect the formation of the deep-reading processes in the medium of human's first literacy. There are fascinating precedents in the history of writing: The Sumerian writing system, in use 3,000 years ago, was preserved alongside the Akkadian system for many centuries. Along the way, Akkadian writing gradually incorporated, and in so doing preserved, much of what was most valuable about the Sumerian system.

Such a thoughtful transition is the optimal means of ensuring that the unique contributions of both online and print literacies will meet the needs of different individuals within a culture and foster all three dimensions of Aristotle's good society. Rich, intensive, parallel development of multiple literacies can help shape the development of an analytical, probative approach to knowledge in which students view the information they acquire not as an end point, but as the beginning of deeper questions and new, never-before-articulated thoughts.

Update June 13, 2010: "How to Read a Book" --> an interesting brief article that describes a reading method very similar to the one I taught myself and still use -->

Update June 3, 2013:  Annie Murphy Paul wrote an article on this subject that I found helpful, coming to a very similar conclusion I think.

Update April 8 2014:  A Washington Post article featuring Maryanne Wolf's thinking about "slow reading."

Update April 19, 2014  "Is Reading Too Much Bad for Kids?" - just in case you need evidence that cultural values really are reversing to the point of taking reading for granted, de-valuing reading itself, and de-valuing the ability to do it well. 

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