Is reading being crowded out in our digital age?

On her blog, 09/04/15, HMC member Tricia Kelleher, principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation discusses the unintended consequences of the digital revolution.

I am proud that my school is at the forefront of deploying digital technology in the classroom.  Technology has become embedded in our learning environment and really is just another tool in the teachers’ and learners’ toolkit.  In a valedictory letter sent to me recently by parents, who were initially sceptical about the 1:1 deployment of iPads, I was delighted to read that they were now convinced that this had had a hugely positive impact on their daughter’s education observing that for her using digital technology is completely natural.

And yet, with the many upsides of our approach, we cannot ignore a broader trend being fuelled by the omnipresence of technology.  The very real concern of our teachers, particularly teachers of English, is the growing sense that reading as an activity is being crowded out by all the distractions offered by the digital age.  There is just so much instant gratification out there.  This emerging view is coloured by the exponential changes in the world around us which we all experience day-to-day.  It is of course always difficult to calibrate change when you are in the middle of it – there are no longitudinal studies to help us.  But we do have the professional experience of staff.  Our Curriculum Leader in English is of the view that over the last 5-6 years she and her colleagues have observed a real difference in the attitude of our students in reading for pleasure.  Indeed, such is her concern, that she and her colleagues are seriously considering introducing reading lessons in our senior school next year.

But the unintended consequences of the digital revolution go beyond merely the activity of reading.  There is also a growing awareness that what is being read does not necessarily fall within the classical canon of literature famously advocated by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.  For many of our teenagers the lure of Dickens and Austen is cast into sharp relief by authors who take advantage of the free platforms to publish on the Internet.  The positive here is that at least this is evidence of reading but the real concern is about the quality of the literature being read.

So was Gove right, in his previous role, to insist that the classics of English Literature should be included in the National Curriculum and the reformed GCSE?  Certainly inclusion in the curriculum marks the importance of the English canon of literature.  Yet my concern is that force-feeding reading of the classics is not necessarily going to energise our young learners to want to explore the classics beyond Dickens and Austen.  The danger is that the classical canon of literature will be seen as the stuff for qualifications and irrelevant for reading for enjoyment.

Do I have the answer to this very digital conundrum? I don’t think I do.  But I do know that by acknowledging this reality around reading at least we have made the first step in addressing it.  What was previously backgrounded in learning is now foregrounded.  How the English canon is passed down to future generations is the challenge and this is beyond merely the process of reading – it is about our cultural identity.

Read more on Tricia's blog.