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Can deep reading help to build empathy and acceptance in our young people?

By Dr Nina Hood

The terrorist attack in Christchurch and its aftermath have given me much pause for reflection – about our society, about how we as a nation have responded to this tragedy, and also about the place and role of education. It has been heartening to see how New Zealanders have come together, led by the compassion and leadership shown by our Prime Minister. However, the attack also is indicative of a more sinister undercurrent in our society. A lack of tolerance and acceptance of “the Other”, something that has been discussed over the past two weeks by Professor Dame Anne SalmondDr Ann Milne and Dr Moana Jackson.

Our education system plays a critical role in the creation a civil, just and moral society. In order to achieve this, education must expose us to new ideas, different perspectives and points of view. Education must challenge our thinking and broaden our worldview. Schools can provide safe spaces for having challenging conversations and grappling with complex and often confronting topics.

By chance, on the day of the terrorist attack I received Professor Maryanne Wolf’s latest book, Reader, Come Home; The reading brain in a digital worldIn the book, Professor Wolf, a neuroscientist at UCLA, explores technology’s effect on our brains and reading habits and the loss of deep reading when engaged in today’s digitally dominated world. She draws on research to argue for the utmost importance of deep reading, of the kind that occurs in effective English classrooms as students engage with texts that tackle complex themes such as racism, otherness, and colonialism. Deep reading is an essential activity for building empathy and perspective taking in our young people (and society more generally). Deep reading enables people to not only encounter but also to inhabit, through their immersive engagement with a written text, different lives, different perspectives and different worlds.

Professor Wolf explains the importance of deep reading:

The act of taking on the perspective and feelings of others is one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions of the deep-reading processes … Reading at the deepest levels may provide one part of the antidote to the noted trend away from empathy. But make no mistake: empathy is not solely about being compassionate toward others; its importance goes further. For it is also about a more in-depth understanding of the Other, an essential skill in a world of increasing connectedness among divergent cultures … developing the deepest forms of reading cannot prevent all such tragedies, but understanding the perspective of other human beings can give ever fresh, varied reasons to find alternative, compassionate ways to deal with the others in our world, whether they are innocent Muslim children crossing treacherous open seas or an innocent Jewish boy …

Professor Wolf’s words carry even more weight when viewed alongside research showing a decline in empathy among young people, and the move away from the deep reading facilitated by engaging with physical books towards ever greater engagement with digital media. This is matched by the rise of a visual culture over a text-based culture, and in our education system the championing of STEM subjects, often at the expense of English, literature and the humanities.

Education is only part of what must be a broader effort to develop a just, moral, tolerant society. However, it is critical that our education system is structured and resourced, and all of the people involved in education are enabled to build towards a fair, equitable and accepting society.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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