For our foremothers, learning shorthand as part of a repertoire of secretarial skills was considered a vital attribute in preparing them for a world of work. Women with such skills had an advantage in many realms of the employment market.
The arrival of digital communications has rendered obsolete the conventional skills of shorthand writing. We can now reproduce and store information endlessly and effortlessly. This revolution has ushered in a new form of shorthand, though – the eye-skating glance across pictures and text-bites saturating our visual consciousness and competing for our limited attention.
Information curated for us as a result of algorithmic calculations about us as consumers. Information channelled to fit our political bias and preferences.
The age of shorthand writing has, in other words, given way to an age of shorthand reading. And shorthand reading brings with it the ever-present risk of shorthand thinking.
We say that we know something from scanning a few characters about it on Twitter or an online post. Pictures are used allusively to add narrative force, apparently making redundant the need for actual words to define and refine the meaning or interpretation of the headline.
This is not new. In an age before mass education, the handbills of the print era summarised stories, sensationalised them and offered opinions in a shorthand form, without the need for much text at all, if any.
It is worrying. Just as the handbills of history were linked to outbursts of mass hysteria and the spread of damaging fantasies, such as the witch-crazes of the 17th century, so the digital feeds of today are linked to the rampant circulation of fake news. The widespread credence given to the story that a dead gorilla received 11,000 votes in the last US presidential election illustrates the point.
We all concur but what is harder to agree upon is what to do about it. This is an urgent question for schools, which are, after all, the training grounds for the leaders – as well as voters and employees – of tomorrow. The OECD recently called upon schools to do more to teach young people how to spot fake news. Readers who believe that gorillas can stand for election may end up voting a gorilla into the White House.
This cannot simply become a campaign against the internet – or phones. Though the size of a phone or tablet screen lends itself to bite-sized consumption, it does not always lead to superficial reading. Let’s not forget that digitisation has actually made it much easier to read War and Peace in bed.
It is much more about fostering a disposition – what I would call longhand reading – by initiating a culture shift in schools. We should accept as a first principle that we cannot claim to have an understanding of a topic from a standing start unless we have spent at least 15 minutes reading about it. Even reading for a quarter of an hour from the work of one author gives us the headspace and thinking time to come up with some questions and counterpoints that cause us to question the sufficiency of our understanding – and probably to send us off in search of other sources.
What might this look like in practice?
Courses such as the Girls’ Day School Trust’s career start workshop on understanding the media – which our sixth form students took last term and which unpacked the layers of the dead gorilla story as a case study – approach the issue head-on. Promoting in-depth reading is also vital, though. At a time when many schools are doing away with their libraries and our local public libraries are facing closure, I rejoice in the presence, at the heart of Northampton High School (both literally and metaphorically), of a conventional library, blending books and digital materials.
We take all our students through an ambitious programme of guided reading in key stage 3, challenging them to explore untried genres and persevere with dense prose. A humanities skills course in Years 7 and 8 steers them through the rudiments of cross-referencing and provenance analysis. Championing student journalism means that students come face to face with the realities of curating content for themselves, which teaches valuable lessons in selection, authentication and attribution. This is a work-in-progress but it is, at least, a start.
Longhand reading and the thinking habits that go with it are the key skills for employability. And the challenge of developing them is one that, I believe, schools neglect at their peril.
Helen Stringer is the head teacher at Northampton High School GDST