Providing narrative is what's important

25th September 2009 at 01:00

Can video games, the internet and other ICT applications help young people engage with literature?

In Proust and the Squid, a wonderfully clever but very readable book about the development of the reading brain, American professor Maryanne Wolf tells the story of how Socrates, in 5BC, called on all his rhetorical skills to fight against the acquisition of literacy and the introduction of the Greek alphabet, believing passionately that the written word posed a serious threat to society.

His concerns had three aspects. First, he contended that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual's intellectual life. Second, he regarded the fact that the written word reduced the importance of memory as nothing short of catastrophic; and finally, he warned that oral language had a unique role in the development of morality and virtue in society.

It should be remembered, of course, that we wouldn't know any of this, but for the fact that Socrates's words were being recorded in writing by that young rascal Plato, who obviously knew a thing or two about the future.

Professor Wolf sees clear parallels between Socrates's resistance to that transition, from an oral to a written culture, and the shift we are currently witnessing, from a written tradition to one increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information, where the verb "to Google" is so second-nature that it feels as if we have always done it.

The one certainty in all of this is that the nature of literacy is forever changing. Reading in particular is no longer simply about reading words and sentences, or even books: it's about reading other codes as well, particularly those of still and moving images. And of course, it's about reading and creating multi-modal texts, which combine words and pictures and sound.

In attempting to redefine literacy for the new century, the literacy and English framework in A Curriculum for Excellence describes it very broadly as "the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful".

So can video games, the internet and other applications help young people engage with literature? In some respects it is the wrong question, since it is really our understanding of "literature" which needs to be re- examined, before we begin to look at the relationship between literature and literacy.

However, taken at face value, the answer to the question is almost certainly yes. Games like Myst, Samorost and Neverwinter Nights, which are story and character-based, provide exciting, stimulating, and imaginative contexts in which young people learn to use logic, solve problems, work collaboratively and think creatively. The contexts can transport young people into the kinds of worlds which they might also encounter in traditional or classical literature - think of the world of Narnia or the Harry Potter stories.

More than that, many of the games are interactive, so instead of simply being passive observers, the learners are often invited to collaborate in creating the imaginary world and the narrative for themselves and, in doing so, to explore the meaning and the rules of genre.

So not only do the games offer comparisons with literature and provide, in the words of Howard Gardner, an "entry point" to learning and to more traditional written texts, they are perfectly valid texts in themselves. The more valid question, and one which needs far greater investigation, is what we are hoping to achieve by using the text at all.

Marc Prensky, the American learning and technology guru, says the role of technology in our classrooms is "to support the new teaching paradigm", which he describes as the shift from the old pedagogy of teachers "telling" or "talking" or "lecturing", to the new pedagogy of young people "teaching themselves with the guidance of the teacher".

He says: "If we can agree that the role of technology in our classrooms is to support the new pedagogy, then we can all move much more quickly down the road of reaching that goal. But if every person continues to talk about the role of technology in a different way, it will take us a whole lot longer."

Prensky acknowledges the fact that many teachers will baulk at this notion, and that every teacher is currently at a different point in "the continuum between the old and the new paradigms". In order to accept that definition, of course, the teacher has to see himself or herself primarily as a co-learner in the learning process, but when examined carefully his words should be more of a reassurance than a threat. The key message is clear - technology is a means of supporting learning rather than an end in itself.

Far from being in opposition, technology and literacy are mutually supportive, and the reason literature matters so much in the first place lies in the importance of narrative. It's through constructing our own and reading other people's that we come to understand who we are in the world and how we relate to everyone else. It's the reason we tell stories.

Video games, the internet and new Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs, wikis, podcasts and social networking tools, make it easier to find the right texts, share ideas and opinions, and fire an enthusiasm in young people for traditional literature. But sometimes it is the computer game, or the film or the graphic novel which provides the narrative and which is every bit as valid a text as the book.

This is adapted from a presentation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last month

Bill Boyd is a former depute head and curriculum adviser. He now runs his own learning consultancy, The Literacy Adviser.

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