Vol 6|No 6|March|1997
According to Birkerts (Gutenberg Elegies, 1994), the search for truth requires deep reading and deep thinking. While the arrival of new electronic information technologies threatens to overwhelm us with info-glut and info-garbage, the post-modem school will raise a generation of highly skilled "free range students" capable of simultaneously grazing the Net and reading deeply. To achieve this goal, schools must make a dramatically expanded commitment to questioning, research, information literacy and student-centered classrooms. Students will need a radically different skills array to negotiate this new information landscape.
The search for truth should be the central focus of learning and schools. Deep reading and deep thinking are dual processors which inform such a search and lead us toward insight and illumination.
Much of the recent talk of Information Highways and the Internet misses the point. This opportunity is all about learning to make meaning with courage and independence from vast resources of variable quality and reliability.
If the business of schools in a smokestack age was teaching and imparting information, we must now shift to a focus upon learning.
Despite the hoopla and the hype, making meaning in the Information Age is not all it is cut out to be.
The implications for those who work in the so-called "knowledge industries" - schools, colleges, publishers, researchers, etc. - are immense. Our work must shift dramatically in focus and purpose.
Young people will be finding out about their worlds in ways which differ considerably from the learning of decades past. Because this learning will require great independence, skill and courage, teachers must redesign schooling to show students how to make their way across this new landscape.
Those who produce the resources face an equally daunting challenge, as it will no longer suffice to offer information like processed cheese in the form of textbooks or other outmoded and linear information delivery systems. Producers must now devote much more attention to "user interfaces" - the ways their information can be packaged and presented for exploration by their clients.
The single most important change in the knowledge business will be the centrality of independent exploration and knowledge creation by clients.
Sources will no longer be static and fixed. They will be dynamic, open and available.
Clients will select and (pay for) the palette over the mural, the toolkit over the finished work.
Spend a few hours navigating through the brave new world of electronic information resources and you may feel like a character in Alice in Wonderland or Alice Through the Looking Glass. You may find yourself running twice as fast to stay where you are or you may end up sharing tea with the Mad Hatter.
We have more information available than we can possibly digest or consume or fathom. We pass from a smokestack age which was information lean to an age of info-glut and info-garbage. As the flow of information increases, so does "noise" in the system, and Truth becomes ever more elusive, much like the famed "butterfly of love."
This is no time for rule-bound behaviors or reliance upon memorization. The prize will go to those who can make it up "on the fly," those who can invent new realities as fast as we need them.
These Post Modern times call for Post Modem Schools (see the October, 1996 issue of From Now On) which will raise a generation of highly skilled "free range students" capable of simultaneously grazing the Net and reading deeply. Such schools will offer vastly expanded opportunities for questioning, problem-solving and research. All students will spend much of their time thinking deeply.
I am indebted to Sven Birkerts for his great writing and thinking about this concept of Deep Reading. In The Gutenberg Elegies (ISBN 0-449-91009-1 - Fawcett Columbine, NY, 1994) Birkerts explains that Deep Reading has its historical roots in the times before the printing press when there were very few books owned by very few people. The book was most likely something like a Bible which would be read over and over, with certain passages being "revisited" repeatedly in the search for understanding. The more metaphorical and poetic the language, the more satisfying and challenging the return visits.
Birkerts maintains that it is such contemplative, probing and reflective reading which lies at the heart of the search for truth . . .
A sense of the deep and natural connectedness of things is a function of vertical consciousness. Its apotheosis is what was once called wisdom. Wisdom: the knowing not of facts but of truths about human nature and the processes of life. (Page 74 )
Birkerts points out that the arrival of the printing press resulted in the production of far more books on many topics for far more people, a change which made possible what he calls "horizontal reading" - a far ranging kind of information harvesting which can work very effectively to inform the kinds of thinking associated with Deep (or vertical) Reading.
With the right balance, the information gathered by horizontal reading fuels the thinking characteristic of deep reading. But that is the problem we now face . . . balance.
The trouble comes with the arrival of mass media and electronic text, as the proliferation of information leads to what is often called info-glut. Birkerts fears that the easy availability of mountains of information threatens the deep thinking process mentioned earlier . . .
Swamped by data and in thrall to the technologies that manipulate it, we no longer think in these larger and necessarily more imprecise terms. In our lateral age, living in the bureaucracies of information, we don't venture a claim to that kind of understanding. Indeed, we tend to act embarrassed around those once freighted terms --- truth, meaning, soul, destiny . . . (Page 74)
One of the most notable (and often unnoticed) challenges facing schools in this Age of Information is the preservation of a healthy balance between the types of reading, maintaining a firm commitment to the search for truth and meaning.
Most of us have experienced enough pot-luck suppers to know that we must walk up and down the 200 hundred foot long table of dishes to "graze" and "browse" the contents before loading up our plates.
If we could only teach our colleagues and students to apply the same approach to the vast information feast set before us!
We know the folly of rushing to the table and loading without glancing ahead . . . mounds of food (information?) which go untouched - not to mention vast opportunities unrealized and untasted. Our plates are loaded up before we can make it past the first twenty feet.
We see students doing the same thing with information, downloading and saving files in a great rush of data gorging which rarely includes reading. Hundred of files and pages accumulate without sorting, sifting or discrimination. They search the Web, find twenty thousand hits and light up with joy. Confusing quantity and sheer volume of information with success, they greedily scoop up everything within their reach, saving it for later.
We must beware of a "buffet mentality" when we step up to the information feast.
At the same time, we should hardly be surprised by this gorging. After all, for decades these students have been asking teachers "How long must it be?" Most of us asked the same question when we were students. We once gave the impression that length and wisdom were related. And now we pay the price.
Perhaps we need to replace that old message with "less is more." Wisdom has more to do with distillation and reduction than volume. While we may want to search widely, we must harvest sparingly and wisely.
Good teachers have been using good literature for decades to inspire deep thoughts in children about moral dilemmas and essential questions about human existence.
We know that good stories, like parables, may carry great weight and that even very young children may engage in very deep thought.
I recall my days as a teacher of four year olds in Sunday School. My text was often a Frog and Toad story which raised lofty and significant questions about what it means to be a loyal and caring friend. These stories were far from simple in their meaning, even though the words were simple.
One day Toad loses a button while out walking and leads his friend Frog through a fruitless, cranky and frustrating search - retracing the steps of an earlier journey - before discovering that the button was at home. Chagrined, he makes a special jacket for Frog decorated with all the buttons they gathered along the way. Synthesis rules!
Many of these four year olds carried that story with them through the days after hearing it. They were capable of doing deep reading. Even at that age, they had the thirst as well as the capacity to reach for illumination and insight.
Does "well read" mean something different than it did a decade ago?
"Well read" now requires concurrent breadth and depth hitherto unimaginable. We gather from much richer and broader sources than before. We probe, analyze, and synthesize more powerfully than ever.
This new reading requires multi-tasking and the support of "intelligent agents." One grazes, harvests, prospects, mines, ponders and smelts all at the same time. One also enlists the services of "intelligent agents," "knowbots" and "search engines" to ensure a continuing barrage of important new information skimmed sizzling off the networks as fast as it hits the wires.
A decade ago we could not train these intelligent agents to seek and harvest for us. A decade ago, we could not count upon an electronic stream of timely digests tailored to our needs, our interests and our essential questions. We could not extend our reach or our searches beyond what now seems like a relatively parochial sphere.
Thankfully, just as we have more information than ever before, we have more information power than ever before. It is almost like someone gave us a combination wide angle and telephoto lens to zoom in and out, all at the same time.
How do we "graze our way into deep reading?"
"Deep reading" in Birkert's sense does not require continuing active eye contact with printed or electronic text. It may be contact with text or it may be reflection aimed at resolving some unanswered question, issue or dilemma.
Certain essential questions remain active in the background of our minds, simmering at all times. While it may be subconsciously, we are usually "working on" these items at all times, whether we be running, showering, chatting with a friend or watching TV. Some part of our mind is trying to rearrange, digest and resolve the bits and pieces into meaning. The mind keeps working to achieve some truth or insight.
To keep working with any power, the mind requires and enjoys periodic surges of new information to keep the "pot stirring." Grazing delivers that flow.
Grazing is far reaching searching. It is part locating, part gathering and part automating. The goal is to locate now and in the future every byte of information which might cast light upon our most important questions and issues.
With the old reading, grazing mainly meant collecting. Now we can train intelligent agents to keep the information coming from good sources almost like a pump which keeps oil flowing from a successful an well. The original prospecting leads to a lasting stream.
While there are many different ways to create these fountainheads, several examples will illustrate how this process works:
A ZINE is an Internet MagaZINE which may be sent by e-mail to subscribers on a monthly, weekly or daily basis. The skillful grazer signs up for a half dozen of these which are pointedly related to the grazer's essential questions. Because most of these contain a tidy table of contents in their headers, the grazer can quickly scan them upon arrival to see if there are any stories below actually worth reading and digesting.
Breaking edge developments arrive continually. "Just in time knowledge!"
For those interested in the World Wide Web, for example, there are several excellent ZINEs such as . . .
N E T S U R F E R D I G E S T
For a major listing of other ZINES, go to this page.
ListServs can serve a similar purpose and function by setting up a flow of messages on a particular topic of special interest. ListServs are electronic communities allied by a common interest or concern. There are listervs for librarians, history teachers, school administrators, barbershop quartets, antique lovers, lawyers and all kinds of people.
One you join a listserv, you will receive a copy of any e-mail message sent to the list each day. many listservs generate as many as a hundred message a day. While the subject of many of these messages may be unimportant and quickly deleted, others may prove extremely worthwhile and timely.
As with ZINES, The skillful grazer signs up for a half dozen listservs which are relevant to the grazer's essential questions. As the messages start arriving, the grazer employs an e-mail "filter" program (such as Eudora Pro) which can automatically sift through and highlight messages on the most important topics. The trick is to minimize time wasted with trivia and maximize time spent with treasures.
News sources such as the New York Times will allow you to request periodic digests on topics of interest. You can determine the frequency and the content of these digests.
Concerned about censorship on the Internet? Enter that topic and that category in your personal profile and you will be able to count on all the news that's fit to e-mail on that topic as the news breaks.
As a subscriber to The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/ on the Web you can now have a graphical "section front" and links to articles that match the keywords provided in your "personal search" delivered to your e-mail daily.
Products like Pointcast (http://www.pointcast.com) deliver headline news and updates to the desktop as they happen, providing a constant stream which is free and customizable.
Pointcast boasts . . .`
Interested in news in your particular industry? How about your own personalized stock ticker. Receive just the news and information you care about. Or the weather in Cleveland, Santa Fe and New York. Maybe Rio or Rome. What do you want to know? PointCast hands it all to you on a rainbow platter.
Headlines move dynamically across the screen, the colors pop and all you have to do is keep your eyes open. Effortless. No surfing required.
If you are willing to pay for it, you can subscribe to online services such as IBM's infoSage http://www.infosage.ibm.com/ - available at $24.95 per month. For this fee, you receive two news deliveries each business day based upon a personal profile of information needs. infoSage employs that profile to scan a wide range of premium resources every day to find relevant news items and then sends you e-mail digests.
The brain is like a hungry Polar Bear, requiring a good sized chunk of new information from time to time to fuel its deep reading. The skillful grazer scours the information flows just as the Polar Bear ranges across the ice flows in search of seals, but unlike the Polar Bear, the grazer can now delegate and automate much of the hunting. New information technologies allow more time and energy to be devoted to actual thinking, as gathering becomes semi-automatic and the mind can take advantage of parallel processing.
As information accumulates in packets or messages, pages or books . . . as it arrives in our mailboxes or piles up upon our desktops (wooden or computer) and front porches, we must find ways to read our way into deep thinking. This reading is a matter of sorting, sifting, selecting, ingesting and then digesting the most important parcels and morsels.
The mind moves what started as raw material through a series of mental "stomachs" which convert raw data into meaning. The mind reads through the data looking for patterns and connections, extracting the "nutrients," establishing relationships with prior knowledge and building bridges to new perceptions.
Incubation . . .
We are looking for something. Perhaps it is a new idea . . . a new product . . . a new way of approaching an old task. Maybe we are trying to understand something as difficult as the impending death of a parent or a friend. We keep churning through the raw material we have gathered in search of new meanings.
Making our way toward inspiration and illumination - the "Aha!" phenomenon - usually requires much time and a supportive environment, an incubation period during which the elements of the new idea dance and spin around each other in a mental courtship.
This incubation process usually thrives on reverie and musing - mood states within which the subconscious works its best magic. This musing cannot be forced or rushed. But relying upon subconscious incubation will not suffice, in most circumstances, to achieve the most dramatic and significant insights. We must add to our incubation skillful, planned and conscious efforts which might be labelled as "synthesis."
Synthesis - which is the thoughtful and conscious act of rearranging, combining, blending, and harmonizing our information chunks, chips, fragments and bytes until we can "make up our minds" and achieve insight - enables us to think our way into deep meaning, supplementing the incubation mentioned earlier.
More on synthesis.
Synthesis and incubation work in concert almost like parallel processors, twin horses pulling a chariot around and through a maze until finally they can finally dash out into the open, achieving some kind of illumination.
Birkerts maintains that wisdom emerges from the resonance . . .
Resonance -- there is no wisdom without it. Resonance is a natural phenomenon, the shadow of import alongside the bidy of fact, and it cannot flourish except in deep time. (Page 75)
In an earlier article published in 1994, "Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free Range Students," I listed and defined unusual information problem-solving skills our students would need in order to make meaning in this Brave New World of Information. Those original skills are hyper-linked back to their original definitions. Since writing that article, I have added some new ones which are defined below . . .
Posing essential questions
Identifying subsidiary questions
Opening one's mind
Suggesting and testing hypotheses
Building and testing models
Planning a cyberspace voyage
Learning on the run
Screening and compacting garbage
Sorting and sifting data
Seeing and finding what's missing
Navigating in the dark
Navigating in the mud
Scanning from the crow's nest
See the passage in this article.
Is pondering "weighty thought?"
We carry our deepest and most important questions around with us and reflect upon them with the expectation (hope) that we will "make up our minds" and find our way to insight. We must step out of the activities long enough to consider the meaning of what we are finding. Pondering can occur simultaneously with information gathering, but it is more likely to reach its full force during the pauses or "rest stops" which we take between activities.
The human mind, thankfully, can handle multi-tasking quite comfortably, so pondering may be operating in the background even while you are seeking, sorting and sifting information, but the most powerful pondering may happen in the shower, on a long walk or while sitting on a porch.
Socrates worked in the shadow of the temple, leading his charges down twisting pathways in search of meaning. This search for truth, like much popular music today, was "unplugged." We must equip our young ones with powerful questioning skills if we wish to see them prosper.
Masses of information do not, in themselves, create wisdom. Nor do glittering factoids and MTV thought bytes.
Climbing unskilled onto the Information Highway is without merit. Investing in elaborate school networks without a clear commitment to student centered classrooms and investigations is gambling.
We must take our schools and students way past Information to understanding, wisdom and insight.