Einstein famously said that information is not knowledge.
I was reflecting on this earlier in the week after watching some of our youngest students enjoying a story. They were sitting on the carpet focused on their teacher. The rhythm of the teacher’s voice, the intonation of her phrases, and the words themselves seemed to captivate the kids. I thought to myself that they had to be creating rich images in their minds (I know I was) and, for some, those images will likely be linked to that story for a lifetime. When children enjoy a story, especially one of quality literature, the images and feelings they experience can become real possessions. With time, these possessions can become knowledge. And sometimes – if the story is worthy – even wisdom.
The sharing of quality literature has been a central task of elementary school teachers for generations. They have introduced students to the works of E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, R.L. Stevenson, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dr. Seuss, and Aesop to name a few. Each of us could add our own favourites to the list, but they would all likely share one thing in common – the best examples from our childhoods would all stand the test of time.
If we think back to the books we remember, I hope that each of us would be able to share a list from our own days in school. Some of the characters and plot lines may have become blurry, but hopefully the images, lessons, and memories of “how the stories made us feel” would endure. As a teacher, I always felt that sharing my favourite books with my students was a duty. I remember thinking, “Time passes so quickly. If I fail to share some of my favourites, my students might never hear them! What if Billy never personally meets Aslan?! What if Suzie never reads a single poem by Robert Louis Stevenson or imagines playing with toy soldiers in the land of counterpane?!” Can you imagine?
In our information-flooded culture, “noisy facts”, overly-certain opinions, and disparate information can compete for the landscape of our children’s minds. These same minds are bombarded with sound bites and flashing screens, sometimes beginning in the cradle. For many, these “techie readers” are increasingly taking the place of books and stories. From prams pushed by texting parents to tablets in highchairs, many of today’s children have never been more exposed to “language”, yet less likely to master it.
The emerging research on the impact of young children’s screen time should concern everyone. Canada’s Hospital for Sick Children found that toddlers who were exposed to more handheld screen time were more likely to have delayed expressive language skills (i.e., the child’s ability to say words and sentences was delayed). They also found that for every 30-minute increase in daily handheld screen time, there was a 49% increased risk of expressive language delay!
So, while the benefits of the information age cannot be denied, we must still work to build the foundational skills needed so that children can make the most of the never-ending volume of information. The paradox of “more information, less knowledge” is becoming a startling reality. One need only listen to the passion and prattle in an average day’s newsfeed and the inane speeches promulgated at the highest levels.
Reading, sharing, and discussing the very best stories with children is one important way to help get their thinking right. Our children certainly need to be proficient using the technology of today, but not at the expense of learning how to think and communicate. From nursery rhymes to novels, the things that matter most to human beings have been captured in books and shared with kids from time immemorial. If in doubt, visit a flea market sometime and pick up a basal reader from the 1920s or 1930s. You will see what kind of solid food children like our grandparents used to be fed before BuzzFeed and blogs.
Children need to be fed in a variety ways to keep them healthy. Along with the Canada Food Guide and Daily Physical Activity, a rich syllabus of literature is important to their diet. More important in some ways.
The skills of thinking, analyzing, and synthesizing have never gone out of fashion, but must be developed, in part, through good literature to ensure that children are not steamrolled along the information superhighway.
Ric Anderson, Head of School