Monday, September 29, 2014

Reading Comprehension, Online Learning, and a Plastic Brain

Pinky and the Brain was a show in the late 1990s about mutant laboratory mice.  To be honest, I remember two things:  1) it had a rocking theme song; 2) it inspired a young woman at a rural Iowa school to start asking questions about the brain, which led her on a journey to becoming a psychiatrist and a Fulbright scholar.  Let's call this person 'Julie.' 

Huh?  What does that have to do with reading comprehension?  Well, it is about helping my students learn effectively in a digital environment.  And while a Google Search is by no means authoritative, I do find that there is wealth of opinion, from Mindshift to Wired to Scholastic to Scientific American.  But honestly, a great deal of this work is just anecdotal; action research, if you will, on small groups of learners who have encounters with text.

It's a puzzle we need to figure out, and just for a moment, let's imagine it from the perspective of Julie. (If you don't want to hear the whole story, just skip to the colored parts )

Julie was able to take information that was just becoming available on an Internet powered by Windows 95 (material that went beyond the scope of our small library) and translate that into her own understandings about what the brain could do.  And as I reflect on her experience and compare it to today, I do realize that there is something to be learned from her practices in reading comprehension, and what I have been reading this week.

1. Passion-directed learning
Because this young lady really wanted to learn about a topic, it was fascinating, and she absorbed all modalities of information, from the biology book to the Internet articles to cat dissections to morning cartoon shows.  And to distill this, she was organized and wrote notes along the way.

Transferable online reading skill:  Writing it along the way (reading with a pencil in hand) to summarize and reflect still matters, but it is easy to forget to do this while reading online texts, even though well supported by online reading research. The article "Screenreading Poses Learning Challenges" includes common efforts to deal with the complexity of print: prediction and previewing, tracking thinking, and making inferences (Herold, 2014)
Takeaway: We have to realize that students are not dealing with EITHER text OR digital but rather text AND digital as an adaptation.  Graphic organizers, Cornell notetaking, summary statements are all modalities that can help.

2. Relevance
In Julie's family, there was a relative who struggled with neurological condition known as Tourette Syndrome.  Understanding how the brain worked and how this condition reflected the individual's life gave an immediate relevance to the material Julie studied in her spare time.  It also allowed her to have the confidence to ask questions of her peers and the adults with whom she interacted.

Transferable online reading skill:  Opportunities for relevance in the form of reflection can be built in with conversations or an app like Curriculet .   Alternatively, relevance may be created in a class discussion and questions may pre-load the ideas, with in-page distractions eliminated with an app like Readability. The advantage of such add-ons as Curriculet " provides easy opportunities to "scaffold" students' by letting teachers embed annotations, checkpoint questions, and formal assessments that can prompt students to consider key points." (Herold, "Digital Learning Poses Reading Problems for Students")
Takeaway:  If there is not a framework/scaffold/purpose to help the reader understand 'why this matters,' then the online distractions that can make navigation away from the topic at hand will be more of a problem to manage. 

3. Effort and Reward
The world we live in has never been all work and no play. We can speak longingly of our childhood reading, but seriously, I am inclined to remember Julie, who juggled grades, extracurricular activities, family pressures, and a boyfriend along with the reading and reflecting she did.  Thinking of our students being 'a lot like us' is a strategy that has helped me develop positive and appropriate relationships with students.  In that vein of thinking, there are many articles that talk about the distractions of online reading (scrolling on the page, for example, when you have to reorient the entire page you are reading to understand the last paragraph, or skimming instead of close reading).
Transferable online reading skill:  Opportunities for reading online should be short work-play combinations to motivate learners.   Suggestions include a Pomodoro approach, possibly paired with an app like StayFocusd or an alternative.  Consider a gradual release of responsibility where the work times get longer but the play time stays the same. For example, start with 10 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of play and over time, work up to the 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of play time suggested. 

Takeaway:  Distractions abound in our world, and it's not the goal to eliminate them, just as we can't block all websites.  Instead, consider 'managing' the distractions through a series of motivational techniques that combine reading with reward to move towards an intrinsically motivated strategy.

4. Design and Create
This really is a two-part stage to consider, and Pinky and the Brain were in evidence when Julie developed a clickable website back in the days where image maps were created using pixel coordinates. There were no coding textbooks for <html>, but there was the opportunity for research and something called NCSA "A Beginner's Guide to HMTL".  What an amazing experience and outreach as Julie created meaning and reached out to the world around her, reflecting her understandings of the text. In the process, Julie was using the plasticity of her brain to develop new connections.

One of the reasons students like the print text is because the pages are designed so the brain can orient them.  Connections to the past can be held in place with a bookmark or a finger, the lighting is controlled by the reader's location choice, the eye can adjust to the top of the page for mental and spatial orientations. The book is oriented at a preferred angle relative to the eye, something not all tablets or screens can do. To mimic this on the digital page is difficult, but it requires easily navigable hyperlinks, adjustable lighting, pages designed so no scrolling is required, and a reading surface that can adjust by angle.  Teachers, then, should pick online resources carefully, choosing with design in mind.

Secondly, the value of a digital text is the opportunity for additional interaction, whether it is an additional video to explore, connections to real life using social media, fanfic, or a online community like 29 Clues or Pottermore.  Students do not view text only as a 'printed medium' but as something more complex, even on preschool terms.  Knowing that means that our discussions are not about 'the printed word' but also about the creation of meaning.  That is the point of Rachel Levy's work (2009) and directly relates to brain plasticity.

Transferable online reading skill:  Opportunities for reading online are not always about the text, even though we haven't figured out the nuances yet; Levy refers to this as multi-modal cues.  As educators, we need to make certain that the online reading is well-designed, but we also need to allows students to create their own meaning through a variety of sources, including writing as a part of reading and literacy, as well as cosplay, video, and perspective. 

Takeaway: What used to be considered reading would now be considered a combination of many activities and requires good web design and complex creation...all of those higher order thinking skills that people  design for to create 21st century lessons.  Additionally, online communities and add-on websites can develop complex communications skills that provide new opportunities for action research.

Pinky and the Brain aren't the experts.  But then again, neither are we.

=====Works Cited====

HEROLD, BENJAMIN. "Digital Reading Poses Learning Challenges For Students." Education Digest 80.1 (2014): 44. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.

HEROLD, BENJAMIN.  "Screen Reading Poses Learning Challenges. (Cover Story)." Education Week 33.30 (2014): 1. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. 

KASMAN VALENZA, JOYCE and WENDY STEPHENSs. "Reading Remixed." Educational Leadership 69.6 (2012): 75. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.

LEVY, RACHEL.  "‘You Have To Understand Words ... But Not Read Them’: Young Children Becoming Readers In A Digital Age." Journal Of Research In Reading 32.1 (2009): 75-91. Academic Search Elite. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.