Category Archives: Reading

Stop Fetishising Failure and Success

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Famous ‘failures’ is a slightly ridiculous concept when tied to the idea of ‘success’. The cases above are famous people who have succeeded and have experienced some sort of failure in their lives. I’m not sure it is helpful to fetishise failure in this way. And yet many schools use posters like this one to ‘motivate’ children wanting them to see failure as a step towards worldwide fame and riches.

The inclusion of Marilyn Monroe is an interesting one, considering her death which to many might be a warning as to the type of success that is being promoted by this poster. ‘Success’ might be a mask to many other things. Any child who has even the remotest acquaintance with the genre of tragedy or knowledge of history will know that many famous ‘successes’ ended their lives in failure. The most famous moustachioed dictator for one, Napoleon for another. Contemporary famous ‘successes’ are notable for being tabloid fodder when it comes to dismantling their pretence of success. The thing is we are not one or the other, no one can be pictured as a success or a failure, this very idea is a diminution of their, and indeed our,  humanity.

Most children in an average school will not succeed in the ways the above have ‘succeeded’. Most will not fail to the extent of Napoleon. But if our classroom walls are plastered  with the vision of ‘motivational’ quotes and pictures, our own rather mundane existence, in contrast to theirs, is put into sharp perspective. This is hardly motivational. It is celebrity culture, seeing a race of superhuman people as separate to us then reduced to a headline: a picture and a quote, can only remind us of our lack of talent. Like surrounding yourself with rich people your lack of riches is put into perspective, depression and dissatisfaction can soon follow on.

It is the unknown failures that should worry us. How many blank spaces on our walls represent them? The lack of quotable quotes from the great mass of ‘failed’ lives might be more to the point. These are our lives too and can also be our futures. Like every political career is said to end in failure, it is the sheer ordinariness of failure and success that should be ours to contemplate. It is part and parcel of being human to fail, to succeed and often to just muddle on through.

For a number of people failure is a central part of their school experience. This is not helped with a pretence that this means you might be a prototype Einstein. The thing to do is try to deal with the child in the here and now, not refer them to a quote and some forlorn hope. Addressing the underlying reason for any failure might help more, but so also will reading. Reading stories, reading great literature, listening to great music, looking at great art, performance, and realising that great work can help sustain us and help us to grow. This work is the product of a variety of different people whose lives should never be ‘the thing’, no cod psychology of heroic humanity is needed. They and we are all human beings whose rich and varied lives tend to muddle through and meet triumph and disaster along our merry and miserable ways. We might be jealous of the lives of Marilyn, or Lennon or Elvis one day, the next day we are not. No more heroes anymore.

There might indeed be geniuses and there might be people who have more good or bad luck than others. But every person on the crest of a wave is as worthwhile celebrating as one whose life is down in the dumps, not as failure and success but life as it is lived. Celebrate human beings as we are, not as a race apart.

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Discovery Learning and the Art of Reading

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Mortimer J Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book sets out to assist readers who want to read well.

Our subject, then, is the art of reading good books when understanding is the aim you have in view

In order to help the reader to do this the authors compare teaching to reading. When you are in the presence of a teacher, they write,  you can ask him a question and if you are ‘puzzled’ by the reply: ‘you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself.’

The reader has to do the work of analysis and thinking for themselves.

This is the difference between a present and an absent teacher. For the authors this is summed up by the difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. If you have learned a fact, they argue, you have only exercised your memory and you have not been enlightened, this only occurs when:

in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You need to know what is being said, you need to know the fact, it is the:’prerequisite to being enlightened. The point, however, is not to stop at being informed.’ Instruction by itself is not enough.

Adler and Van Doren illustrate this with the following quote from Montaigne:

an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.

The first is the ignorance of those who can’t or won’t read and the second is the ignorance of those we could refer to as sophomores, those who might seem ‘bookish’ but are in fact ‘poorly read’. The Greek ‘sophos’ meant ‘wise’ and ‘mōros’, ‘fool’. The fact that the Sophists were often accused of being fond of rhetoric more than reasoning or knowledge, might also serve our understanding here. Adler and Van Doren are at pains to point out the difference between being widely read and well read.

If you assume that discovery is better than instruction because it is active, you assume wrongly.

Learning by instruction is being taught by speech or writing, learning by discovery is learning:

by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught… In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning and instruction passive.

They then go further deeming that instruction is, in fact, ‘aided discovery… it is the student… who must do the learning.’ So the difference is between, what they now refer to as ‘aided and unaided’ learning. When discovering with the help of a teacher the learner learns by being taught, either from reading or listening. Unaided discovery is the ‘art of reading nature or the world’.

Reading is therefore allied to ‘instruction, being taught, or aided discovery.’ In order to be an active reader one ‘thinks’. This is where people go wrong. The writers posit that people believe thinking to be an ‘unaided’ process of discovery which, they concede, it probably is when one reads merely for entertainment or information. However, it is not true of more ‘active reading’. This type of reading cannot be done ‘thoughtlessly’. The wise-fool would find the next step a challenge because it asks the reader to be be more involved.

During the activity of reading one also thinks, observes, remembers and constructs ‘imaginatively what cannot be observed’. The authors give us this lovely example:

many people assume that though a poet must use his imagination in writing a poem, they do not have to use their imagination in reading it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They go on to say that all the same skills that are said to be required in ‘unaided discovery’ learning are needed for reading. Reading is discovery learning with ‘help instead of without it’. In order to do this best:

we need to know how to make books teach us well.

This requires effort, observation, imagination, memory, analysis and reflection. Reading is an active process. The rest of the book teaches the reader how one might read, actively and intelligently.