Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why books still matter

I am sure there are several posts about David Brooks' recent column lurking in my GoogleReader, but since they're amongst the 300 or so other unread items in my school account, I haven't read them. Which is probably good, as I'd like to come at this without everyone else's opinion rattling around in my brain. I know, from the snippets of discussion I've caught on Twitter, that much is being made of his discussion of Internet use; I find that part of his argument interesting and thought-provoking and occasionally annoying, but I'm going to leave them alone.

I want to talk about the books.

The study he refers to reminds me of a couple studies I remember reading about in library school; I'm going to be a little light on details, as all of my notes from grad school are in my office, and even I don't have unhealthy enough a work-life balance to go into the office on a Sunday in the summer.

Anyway. There were two studies, about reading and about having books in the home. The studies showed that children with more books in the home had higher educational achievement, but the gains did not necessarily seem to be tied to more reading. Children whose parents took them to the library and read to them frequently did not show the same kinds of gains. While reading to young children was important and had an impact, it seemed that in order to get the full effect you had to actually have the books physically in the home.

And of course there are all sorts of socioeconomic factors in a study like this that you can't isolate for that point to other reasons why children who had books in the home fared better educationally.

But it would seem that having books--physical books--matters. Why? I think Brooks gets it right by saying it wrong here:
But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
So, yes. The physical presence of the books matters. 'Cause you can't see yourself as building a home library unless you physically have books in your home to put in that library.

For all the arguments about "digital natives" and kids being "wired differently" these days, it seems that some things haven't completely changed yet. I know plenty of students who read a lot--articles, blogs, Wikipedia, etc.--online, but who still don't think of it as "real" reading; they talk about themselves as readers when they pick up a physical book. Will that change eventually? Probably. But it hasn't yet.

And maybe my students--for whom print presents such a barrier--are different. For many of them, printed words have for years been something inaccessible;they stayed away from words out of frustration, or shame, or because when they tried--and struggled--they were called stupid. And the words that they were denied access to were printed in physical books. So granting access to the words--more so than words on a screen--was a mark of significant achievement.

When I talk with colleagues about the role of the library at a school for students with learning disabilities, the word dignity comes up a lot. And it's a word that I take seriously. Students know that "real" schools have libraries, and having a "real" library at their school--a library with books, a library where they are welcome--matters to them more than I can explain.

So why is it that students seem to think of themselves differently--and appear to achieve at higher levels educationally--when they have books?

Part of it is self-perception, and part of it is the perception of others--or really, a student's interpretation of how others perceive him. If, for years, you've gotten the idea that others don't think you're worthy or capable, giving you a book--particularly one that comes with the understanding that the giver believes you are fully capable of reading it--changes things. It's a vote of educational confidence.

The Internet is, compared to the book, in its infancy. While there is a lot that is of educational value available online, most students' primary interactions with online content is not educationally-focused in the strictest (or even loosest) sense of the word. It just doesn't (yet) carry the same weight as a printed book.

And until it does, the printed book will still have a very important--even if primarily symbolic--place in education.

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