Monday, May 21, 2007

Novel Reading and Science Education

I have a confession to make. I'm a read-a-holic. I read all kinds of things - science fiction novels (natch), murder mysteries, chick lit, biographies, science and history, newspapers, magazines, gardening guides, cereal boxes, et cetera, et cetera. Who is to blame for this addiction? My parents, of course. Regular trips to the library were a fixture of my childhood and I was given pretty free reign to read whatever interested me. There were also lots of books around the house that I gobbled up, sometimes in "secret" if I thought the folks wouldn't approve (it turns out The Naked Ape is not nearly as titillating as the title lead me to believe).

A lot of kids aren't as lucky as I was, though. Their parents might not be readers themselves or may not have the time or means to bring their kids to the public library. Many kids may not even be introduced to the wonderful world of reading until they enter school. That's why it's dismaying to read this opinion post by law professor Ann Althouse:
And why does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours.
I'm going to speculate that Ms. Althouse's childhood was not too different than mine - she grew up in a household where her parents were readers and she was both encouraged to read and had access to books. She may find it hard to imagine that there are lots of folks out there that don't have that luxury.

As I commented on Dawno's blog:
I personally believe that it's important to do all we can to turn kids on to reading - any kind of reading. There are lots of kids who get to high school with poor reading skills and that not only hurts their ability to read novels for pleasure, but also for them to read and comprehend serious texts in history and science. Kids who don't have parents who read for pleasure may not be exposed to "fun" reading anywhere but the classroom. Reading exclusively from textbooks is likely to turn them off from reading for fun. I think that once kids catch the reading bug, education becomes a life-long experience, not just a bunch of facts that they memorize in the short term.
And that's what Althouse just doesn't get. Reading is an essential skill in and of itself - one that is necessary for all other subjects, including history, science and math - remember those word problems? Story books are great tools to both teach kids how to read and to get them critically think about their reading, as Dawno nicely explains.

Not surprisingly, I think science fiction is very useful in that regard. Embedded in the entertaining stories are juicy tidbits of science that can be used as jumping-off point for science education. And it's not just about learning science facts, it's about instilling an interest in and passion for science itself.

As NancyP, a commenter at Pandagon so nicely put it:
Where does Althouse think all the science geeks come from? I guarantee you that if you ask scientists/ maths/ engineers of all ages, 95% or more will have read either science fiction or popular natural history narratives (Ring of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell, comes to mind; also Born Free, etc). The rest were too glued to the tinkertoys and build-your-own kits to read much - these are mostly the engineers.

Our GDP is tied to CREATIVITY. Not natural resources, not cheap labor. The Japanese have long ignored the creativity of children, and do an excellent job of producing high level technicians, but true scientific advances don’t come from Japan very often.
Science-filled fiction not only can inspire kids (and adults) to find out more about the science on their own, but also get them think about the possible effects, both positive and negative, of scientific discoveries on society. That's an important skill in a world in which the biological sciences - DNA testing, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning, to name a few* - are having an increasing impact on our daily lives. I would like my fellow citizens to be able to read about and understand these issues on their own and not rely on sound bites from pundits and politicians for their information. Reading - of any kind - is fundamental for the development of such critical thinking skills.

* Not to mention the modern-day snake oil salesmen who count on people's ignorance of science to make a quick buck.
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  1. Great response. It was my early reading (second grade, Lost Race of Mars by Robert Silverberg) that started my life long interest in science. I'm glad I had a reading teacher that challenged me to read books like that. I wouldn't have had a science teacher until 5th grade - by then, who knows if I'd have had any interest? Thank you as well for the lovely references to my humble blog.

  2. Anonymous11:35 PM

    I started reading when I was 4. My father and brother were both big SciFi fans so I would steal books from their library. Admittedly, there were some bad parts. Like when I couldn't sleep for three days after reading The Puppet Masters. However, that reading habits provided me with a lifelong interest in science. It also led me to learn English by age 6 (I was born and raised in Israel) since most Sci Fi books back then were not available in Hebrew.

    If I ever have kids, I fully intend to get reading early, and make sure fiction and science fiction are big parts of their education.


  3. 'Bravo!' is what I can say! It is posts like these that reassure me that reading is not as 'dead' as it is made out to be sometimes. Far from it. I came across your blog the other day while looking for sf related blogs. Good stuff!

  4. Anonymous9:01 PM

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  6. Anonymous7:44 AM

    I think reading, and especially fiction are vital tools for developing as a human being. Fiction is not just far off stories that have no connection to reality.

    They comment on reality whether purposeful or not and help us to understand the world around us.

    Maybe if the government would give more funding to education, then this could be possible and not just something better paid workers (and overpaid bosses) can afford.

  7. I think you are right Benjamin, fiction does comment on the world around us. It can also help us understand the perspective of people who have had different experiences.

    It seems like many in government see reading fiction as mere entertainment. Back in my youth California voters approved Proposition 13 which cut local property taxes. With a substantial decrease in income, cuts had to be made and two of the big losers were public schools and libraries. If the local library is rarely open, how are kids from less-than-well-off families supposed to access books?

  8. Ah, Prop 13 - what a mess that made of our state. Instead of rational property tax reform we get lost jobs, poorer education and crazy budget battles yearly. I graduated from college the year it passed and was convinced to give up on the idea of going back for a teaching credential because of what it did to funding for teacher education programs.

  9. Bravo - I don't think children read enough these days. We are so wrapped up in technology these days, we tend to forget the basic enjoyment of reading a book - or even a cereal box.


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