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Raising Literacy Part 7:
Reading: An Unnatural Act

by Bill Lauritzen

Billions of years of chance mutations created the biological structures that currently flourish on Earth. One of these structures is called Homo sapiens. This structure is not particularly adept at deciphering relatively tiny markings on paper, in other words, reading. Rather, this model excels in things like walking, running, jumping, looking, thinking, kneeling, touching, manipulating, grasping, throwing, gathering, playing, and reproducing.

It is a remarkable thing that Homo sapiens civilization can force a young boy or girl to sit for five or more hours a day, crowded together with 30 others, in a box-shaped construction. To make all of these youngsters focus their eyes for most of the day on tiny markings on paper is almost unbelievable. (These markings, according to my estimates, are about one thousandths as tall and one millionth as thick as Homo sapiens.)

How is it done? It takes expert educators that are attuned to the mega-year evolutionary background, and who can include field trips, activities, projects, manipulative materials, and visual materials (photos, videos) in their lesson plans.

Some classes (woodshop, cooking, art, metal shop, auto mechanics, etc.) inherently allow for the use of Homo sapiens natural biological structure. For example, chemistry allows the student to mix, weigh, balance, touch, smell, and look. (However, in 95% of chemistry classes, few, if any, experiments are done, and the students work mostly to memorize and manipulate tiny markings.)

In physical education classes, Homo sapiens is allowed to grasp, throw, catch, chase, and kick a ball. These actions come close to mimicking their natural ways.

Unfortunately, students are indoctrinated into thinking that school means studying things that are not there. Learning becomes synonymous with books, rather than with things, events or phenomenon.

Surprisingly, if a thing being studied is present, the average student today starts to feel uncomfortable. I remember one time I told a math class to go outside and measure the approximate volume of cement used in a sidewalk, etc. They resisted at first, having been trained that school had nothing to do with real objects.

In fact, here is a good definition of a teacher: someone who is expert at explaining things that are not there. It is almost an impossible task to educate someone about something that is not present. Yet this is goal of most modern education.

Emily Dickinson said, “There is no frigate (ship) like a book,” when the truth is that there is no book like a frigate. It all starts in elementary school. Students are indoctrinated to read, read, read. I tell these elementary students that reading is important, but so is looking. I ask them if they could learn more from reading or looking, and they sometimes answer “reading.” If so, I tell them to imagine that an flying saucer landed on the White House lawn. Would they rather read about it or look at it? I think you see the point. A good reporter doesn’t just read and listen, he investigates and looks for facts, and then tells or writes. A good scientist doesn’t just read or listen, he does experiments and looks for evidence, then tells or writes.

Reading is possible and can even be enjoyable. Especially if there is a link between the tiny markings and the real things. An exceptionally good teacher attempts to link the words to pictures, events, motions, and experiences. This teacher educates for understanding rather than memorization.

A poor teacher merely requires memorization of the tiny markings in terms of other tiny markings. Learning degrades into just “getting through the class,” “getting through to graduation,” or “finishing the requirements.” This type of learning takes teachers who can discipline heavily while promising “future rewards.” It takes school security and metal detectors. It takes an expert police force and plenty of prisons.

There are definite physiological effects of focusing the eyes on tiny paper markings instead of real things and movements. The eyes may become unable to focus naturally, and a special machine (glasses) are needed for this. Other effects (brought to my attention by Hubbard) are: feeling dead, bored, and exasperated. I might add to this, frustrated. These feelings are created when one is not allowed to use one’s mind and body as it was designed.

However, the advantages of reading for Homo sapiens apparently outweigh the disadvantages. Books, libraries, etc., are a compact storage system that record what the species has learned. Literacy is one of the advantages that complex societies have used in order to displace more primitive societies (see the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond).

An article in the LA Times (Oct. 18, 1998) pointed out that brain researchers have found that there is no area of the brain set aside for reading. Reading was dubbed “an unnatural act.” It uses several different parts of the brain that are normally used by other areas, in a demonstration of the flexibility of the software of the brain. Reading also creates an imbalance between the right and left sides of the brain.

One solution is sports. Sports sort of allow the student to tolerate mere memorization. Sports and beefed-up security are workable, but a better solution is field trips, organic gardens for biology, experiments for science or chemistry or physics, dramatic plays for English, maps and plays and field trips for history, and manipulatives and experiments and real world experiences for mathematics. Having the student make clay models, draw diagrams, draw pictures, and use puppets could all help also. More music and art would help. In other words, linking, grounding, seeing, hearing, and touching.

The way to raise literacy is not to force students to sit squirming in a seat, staring at tiny markings and memorizing them for a test. The way to raise literacy is to “link the ink,” and “ground the sound.” Link those tiny markings to the real thing or motion whenever possible, and, if not possible, at least link them to pictures and models. Raise literacy.

Part 7 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years. He can be reached via his Internet site: www.earth360.com