June 19, 2012
This question will be posed to a panel of authors, including me, at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival in August. I imagine the discussion will be decidedly against—like asking a scarecrow if he really needs all that straw. Well, yes. The essence of the scarecrow is in the straw (I’m gunning hard for the Bad Analogy Award).
I used to think multiplication tables were overrated—all that mindless, repetitive droning in class—until I realised how often I use them, that they were a foundation for other pathways in the mind. And I only came to this conclusion recently, after watching helplessly as my young daughter grappled with the concept.
‘You don’t recite the tables?’ I asked her teacher.
Apparently not. There’s a new wave in teaching (or maybe it’s not new) that encourages kids to explore ideas and find their answers in a multitude of ways. Not by parroting tables.
Twelve eights are ninety-six. I know this. It’s carved in bas-relief on my brain. I know it without having to explore how or why, it just is, and I can skip straight to the useful part where I figure out whether three packets of Tim-Tams for $5 is good value or Coles’ shonky red-ticketing system that makes everything look like a special.
Is this new way of teaching a good thing? I don’t know. I’m not an expert. But I came from a lower socio-economic background and a public schooling system that allowed us to shave our heads and wear Dr Martens and Harrington jackets to school (we did that without understanding that we might as well have been wearing a white hood with eye-holes), and yet, I was far more literate, a far more accomplished reader and writer at a similar age to my daughter now, all from learning under a rigid system that didn’t allow much room for individuality or creative interpretation.
I guess it comes down to the adage, ‘learn the rules, then break them’. Brush your teeth. Because I said so.
No, I don’t think reading is overrated. It’s suffering. Literacy rates in Australia are falling. Why?
Maybe I’m biased. Reading is one of my basic building blocks and it gives me great joy. I get that a love of reading can’t be taught—it must be discovered. And it’s not that reading is the only bridge to greater things, but it is a foundation under that bridge. Any engineer will tell you that the bridge might be a beautiful creation, but underneath is a big, ugly stack of bricks and rio and concrete—laid the same way for generations and built to last.
My kids aren’t readers. They’re well-spoken and their vocabulary is impressive (except my son often speaks like Yoda), but they don’t seek out books. They don’t take a jumble of black print on a white page and paint whole technicolour worlds with their minds. Not yet, anyway. I figure the best I can do is help them to lay their foundations and they can use them later to build a gangplank, if that’s their thing.
Learn to read well and the pathways of the mind will open up into an astonishing wilderness that begs to be explored. The love of language and ideas that comes from reading spills over and leaves its mark on other things, the things we live for: family, love, happiness, beauty. When you’re a reader, a great film becomes so much more than pictures on a screen; a simple conversation can be profound; a problem doesn’t seem so big that it can’t be overcome.
When you’re a reader, you see more colours.
What do you think? Is reading overrated in our society?