It’s been a remarkable week for the science of prediction. A US President was reelected in a manner almost exactly in accordance with the predicted polls yet the major television stations and many pundits claimed it was too close to call the whole way through. Some of those pundits were even predicting a landslide victory for the candidate who actually lost by a significant margin, and others reacted hostilely to anyone who dared suggest the race wasn’t as close as the networks were saying. On the other side of the world an equally (or perhaps even more) significant leadership transfer process got under way in the Great Hall of the People, proceeding as ever according to the tightly scripted and pre-drawn lines of protocol that accompany all such matters in the People’s Republic. This one is easier to predict; who could possibly argue that Xi Jinping will not shortly take the reins? But the events of 2012, and the still recent Bo Xilai case, teach us that even in China the unpredictable can sometimes surface to remind us all of the ubiquity of chaos theory.
If you’re wondering what all this has to do with iPads, or education in general, I learned this summer that I am not the only educator who is fond of quoting Niels Bohr’s (above) famous quip about prediction. At the Fusion Conference keynote in Portland in June, Dylan Wiliam reminded his audience that Bohr had observed prediction is difficult – especially when it concerns the future. This is what passes for humour when you’re a nuclear physicist, but Bohr’s comment goes to the heart of whether prediction is an art or a science. The pundits who failed to spot that a meta-analysis of the polls was actually fairly consistent in pointing to an Obama victory were probably guilty of allowing human emotion to get in the way of a reasonably straightforward mathematical process – albeit not all the mathematicians achieved Drew Linzer’s amazingly accurate call.
It’s obviously easier in China to call Xi’s forthcoming victory but then things are so much simpler when you don’t let democracy and voting get in the way of a decision. The link with technology in all this comes from the recent reading I was doing while laid up in bed after an operation. Ordered to rest for a week I returned to my books and re-read Nicholas Carr’s 2010 opus The Shallows. Researching the history of people’s awareness that the process of reading was undergoing a change Carr unearthed an intriguing magazine article Edward Bellamy contributed to Harpers and which was printed in 1889.
“People will come to read with the eyes shut. They will carry around a tiny audio player called an ‘indispensable’ which will contain all their books newspapers and magazines. Mothers will no longer have to make themselves hoarse telling the children’s stories on rainy days to keep them out of mischief. Children will have their own indispensables”.
Looking at today’s iPods, iPads, Kindles, Nexus tablets and Chromebooks you’d have to say Bellamy did a lot better than the average US election pundit (Drew Linzer aside). I think the prediction deserves kudos, not least because Bellamy was widely mocked for it at the time. The printed book is still thriving, to be sure. But as the rest of The Shallows makes clear, the act of reading is at the beginning of a process of what may prove to be profound change. If this is so – and Carr’s evidence is certainly worth further study, there are serious implications for curriculum content. We will need to ask ourselves if the requirement to read literature meets part of the same need as the requirement to read non-fiction, and if so what is the nature of the information we are expecting students to understand, for what purpose are we requiring them to understand it and how will we evaluate and assess that understanding?
These are questions we should be asking ourselves anyway as designers of curriculum content and as teachers of reading, but the increasing dominance of screen reading in our daily lives is making the matter ever more urgent. In the 2016 and 2022 elections in the USA and China respectively, it may well be that reading education occupies a position of unprecedented importance in the hustings. If so, remember that you read it here first 😉