Random Thoughts

The niche of books

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One thing is for sure. When you work with a powerful team like Tara and Kim you have conversations that end up turning into a lot of blog posts. ๐Ÿ™‚

I have a sticky note I keep on my desk with ideas. I have an idea book that I keep in my backpack, and I have thoughts in my head that keep me awake at night. All ideas and thoughts that poor Tara and Kim have to listen to whether they want to or not. ๐Ÿ˜‰

At a team meeting, with the above mentioned, a couple weeks ago we got on the topic of books. Now I’m sure I’m going to get some push back on this one, but I’m hoping it helps me to frame what I’m thinking (and it might be wrong) a little clearer…so please….feel free to push back.

Up until recently books are what we have known. They were the holders of knowledge, they were the all mighty, the all knowing. If you wanted to know something you went to a book. If you wanted to drift off into a fantasy world, you read a book. If you wanted to heart felt story…you could find it in a book. It a book didn’t have the answer you went to a divine power.

Today….we just go to Google

Books are great. I love them on planes, on the beach and by the pool. Yes, I think books have a niche in today’s world. I just think it’s smaller then what we believe it to be.

Simple questions:

When was the last time you read a book?

When was the last time you read a web page?

When was the last time you read a letter addressed to you in the mail? (A real hand written letter)

When was the last time you read an e-mail?

When was the last time you looked up a phone number in the phone book?

When was the last time you looked up a recipe in a recipe book?

When was the last time you used an encyclopedia?

When was the last time you went to a book before the web for non-fiction/relevant information?

When was the last time you used an IM client (chat)?

Now, take these questions and go ask them to your class, to a kid on the street, or the kid sitting next to you. Are the answers the same? Different? Why?

In a world of niche markets I believe that books have a place, but I think we need to take a step back and find where that place is. I’ve been asking these same questions to myself the past couple of weeks. Then I walk into classrooms to see students reading books for hours on end.

Now, I have nothing against this, just that I have a feeling that the skill of reading a book is practiced much more than say the skill of reading a chat or reading a web page. Yet we spend more time in society today reading chats, web pages and e-mails than we do books. Now I don’t have any research to support this (please add links if you find some) but I have read the Long Tail (audiobook version) and understand that newspaper subscriptions have been in a steady decline. That public libraries are seeing less and less book check-outs and more people coming to use the computers. I witnessed this particular one this summer in a 4 hour visit to the local public library because they had free WiFi. Of the 20 people in the library only one (a seven year old) was browsing the books. Everyone else was there for the free WiFi or to use the library computers.

I do believe that books are still important to our society today, although I do see them evolving with devices like the Kindle. But until that becomes mainstream paper is still the way to go. There is something in holding a paper book, the way it bends, smells, and reads on a sandy beach that just can’t be replaced with my Palm.

At the same time I see a growing disconnect between what and how we are teaching students to read and where we spend our time reading. Are our classrooms changing with the times? Should we be allowing forcing students to learn to read a web-page, an e-mail, a chat? Should we force them like we force them to sit and read a book for 30 minutes of SSR a day to do the same with digital print?

Are we doing this in our classrooms?

Is this a priority?

Are we doing our students a disservice?

Is all of this over stated because students will learn these skills in spite of us and our education system?

OK…your turn!

(I have to link to Mark Ahlness’ SSR 2.0 post every time I talk about this. Cause over a year later, I’m still thinking about this!)

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Mike DeNeef Reply

    Your post just made me get up and open a book. Not sure what that means but tonight I’m taking a book to bed (Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops) instead of webbing until my eyelids close.

    There is something to be said for ‘sustained’ reading and your post made me realize that I’ve left that out of my diet lately. Maybe it’s just me, but when I gather my information from the web it is in short bursts as opposed to the deliberate, prolonged reading of a literary work. I’m not saying that’s bad, it just is (for me). For kids this may in fact now be the norm.

    Is this good? I certainly know more ‘things’ than I did when I just had a good library to sustain me (but do I know these things as deeply, that is a question worth examining). I wonder if the new generation’s familiarity with the web and what is there will lead to a reading shift. I could be wrong here, but my sense is that most information that is sought out on the web is of the non-fiction variety. In fact my wife is planning on using the school’s portable mac books in her SSR sessions so that s’s (she’s hoping non-reading boys in particular) will have greater ability to find texts (read: non-fiction) that stimulate/interest them.

    Again, is this good, bad, or just is. English teachers (not my area) will of course need to jump in here. Just what is it that ‘needs to be said’ for sustained reading that s’s may not be getting from the internet life. What comes first; the chicken or the egg. Should we be doing more web based reading to prepare our s’s for the world they will be working in; or should we be doing more literary based reading to accommodate for what they are missing? There are certainly web based reading skills they need to learn; but there are also lessons to be learned from reading prolonged book based pieces of literature. In most language classes all types of reading are taught; should web based reading just be added as another literacy skill in this vein — or does it need to be more.

    One thing I know is that as an international school teacher my students and classes do much more web based reading than is the norm. What is this doing for/to them?

    More questions than answers as usual.

  2. Reading a book is a different experience than reading on a computer screen. I rarely “read” on the computer for enjoyment. I like to look at pictures and video instead. I see the internet as a place to share and be part of a community. It is like watching television with someone and talking about what you are watching.

    On the other hand, the experience I have reading is much more personal and solitary. I can let my imagination rule my brain and not have to spend so much time in comprehension (or for that matter, being careful about my response). It is a very private space for me.

    I understand your idea that non-fiction is being replaced with information on the net, but I won’t be reading Asimov or Heinlein on my computer anytime soon.

  3. Reading a book and reading a digitized screen still involve the same skill — reading. Whether we teach the kids on paper or on the screen is probably irrelevant. Some students may have an easier time reading print than pixels, however, so there should always be both involved in their learning.

    There is also a difference in the “why” of our choice of reading material. Yes, I spend more time reading the screen than I do a page, but that is because most of my day involves a need for quick grasping of knowlege, a speedy retrieval of research, or a stolen networking moment or two. A book requires more time invested and there is a longer-term gain in the investment.

    Your statement about reading letters that arrive in the mail hit another note — I never, ever receive handwritten letters anymore. I miss that. It is a sign of the times we live in. But if we say that because nobody is writing anymore, we need to move away from bothering to teach children handwriting and move towards keyboarding, we’ve missed the point. There is room in the world for old and new technology. I’ll always love the feel and smell of ink on paper, no matter how many hours I spend in front of a computer screen, and I’ll continue to check my mailbox daily in eager anticipation of receiving just one more handwritten letter.

    • You know….I always wondered who is the person that said “Look we’re not going to teach kids to read scrolls or write scrolls anymore. We’re going to teach them to write on paper and read books.”

      Who was that person?

      How did they get a society to move and progress with the times?

      I love the What If video by Karl Fisch. I think it brings this point home nicely.


  4. Steve Yurkiw Reply

    Hi Jeff,

    Always look forward to reading your posts. Not sure if this is a push back but just an observation that the general tone in ed tech blogs these days seems to have gotten more strident…the ideas presented seem to focus on or/or solutions instead of and/and. E.g., schools can focus on using books and other “old skool” methodologies (connotation – very bad) OR they can get with the program and fully prepare their students for life in the present and future world by using technology exclusively (very GOOD!)…

    Maybe it’s just my shades of grey view of the world, but I don’t see how these approaches will really help students out in the long run – and I LOVE seeing technology incorporated into teaching and am a huge supporter of this – it’s also a big part of my job…but I also have an expectation that it provides a clear and present benefit to the learner. I think it all boils down to the whole “context, context, context” matra that George Siemens keeps chanting.

    From my personal experience, I never was much of a letter writer, before the Internet came into play or after…guess what – don’t write many letters, you also don’t get many letters…it’s a trade off that I’m more than happy to live with because of my particular laziness in this area…whereas others I know do devote themselves to this pursuit even to this day. Decades ago, I also read loads of magazines to get the type of information that books couldn’t provide….do less of this these days because there is more info readily available online, but when it comes to things like picking out new recipes, I would much rather look through a book or magazine that has established a solid reputation with me than to trust one-off recipes from the Internet as I have been burned way too many times using that particular source. I still pick up and read a newspaper, and I don’t seem to be the only one around these parts as the Winnipeg Free Press subscriptions have been on an upswing for years.

    Those are my experiences…that is the context in which I’ve formed these ideas and beliefs…however, the key is that I am able to transfer my reading skills from one medium to another…and my age group was around long before computers came on the scene and most people I know have been able to make the leap without being formally taught. I think we need to continue to help our students become strong readers…regardless of the medium…because they will doubtlessly be placed in similar situations where future media they will be working with have yet to be thought up, which is really hard to specifically teach towards… ๐Ÿ™‚ We also need to help expose students to a number of different things to help them discover their individual strengths, preferences, and interests…from other comments, there seem to be a lot of enamoured letter-writers out there and who knows if that won’t be something that continues despite whatever technological advances are made in the future.

    Whew..maybe that was more of a push back than I expected…sorry! Hope there is a kernel of useful thought somewhere in this rant…and if not, thanks for putting up with me! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Jeff, thanks once again for putting this out there.

    I’ve gotta say the non-motion, and now push back, on this just flabbergasts me. People absolutely must get over teaching what feels good to THEM, and start trying to envision – and maybe even teach – what means something to their STUDENTS – and their futures. – Mark

  6. I think Will Richardson has a post about how reading online and reading printed materials are two completely different skill sets… with which I agree wholeheartedly. I’m afraid that kids spend an inordinate amount of time in the classroom learning and practicing only printed material reading.

    I taught a class this evening for adults and had them read an online article that was about 6 screens long… and the first question I asked them afterward was how many of them fought the urge to print and then read it. We discussed that reading online is often Top-Left to Top-Right and then Top-Down with pauses for a glance a this ad or that ad. That wasn’t the focus of our class, but it was a big eye-opener to all of them.

    I’ll always love books, but I agree that kids need both skills… and that perhaps the online material literacy skills should be the larger percentage of classroom focus.

  7. Colin Becker Reply

    Hi Jeff,
    At the start of your post you mention your team of Tara and Kim, do they have specialist roles in ICT or are they purely motivated and interested classroom teachers?
    If the firmer, it must be great to have a ‘team’.
    It has me thinking that I need to get a team so that we can have a greater impact on the staff at my school.

    Now, as to books. They are still very much relevant. Reading via a web page is not as cosy as reading with a book. For your other tasks, it depends on which is quicker and more efficient – usually the technology wins out of paper.
    I still see many teachers so reliant (not just on books) on having students present work by writing it (or using a wp) – why can’t they see the power and excitement with using a web2 tool? Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they just try?

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