Reactive and Reflective Thinking: Multimedia Books and Phonics

Reactive and Reflective Thinking: Multimedia Books and Phonics

Multimedia books and phonics lessons are everywhere! These computer programs are designed to teach children to read. Phonics programs feature letters that say their names; multimedia books put a book page on the computer screen and highlight the letters as the text is read out loud.

What’s wrong with these? Very little — as long as you put them in the same category as video games and television. These programs are entertainment, not education. Multimedia books and computer phonics programs do NOT teach children skills that translate easily to the written page.

David Gelertner, professor of computer science at Yale, says, “By offering children candy- coated books, multimedia is guaranteed to sour them on unsweetened reading. It makes the printed page look even more boring than it used to.” In other words, that phonics program may be training your child’s mind to pay attention to words only when they turn colors and talk out loud. This is “reactive thinking” — the mind learns that it needs to work only when something leaps up and seizes its attention.

Classical education, though, is designed to promote “reflective thinking.” David Gelertner’s quote is found in Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (Doubleday, 1995). Stoll’s book is an uneven and sometimes downright alarmist take on the information revolution, but he summarizes well the difference between “reactive” and “reflective” thinking:

One way of thinking is simply to react to what’s happening. It’s how our minds work in traffic: that car’s too close, I’d better slow down. A ball rolls into the street and I skid to a halt. I’m part of the action.

This kind of reactive thought is trained by experience. Pilots are great at it, as are pinball wizards and Nintendo addicts. It’s what makes computer games fun; computers are great at teaching this kind of thinking.

But there’s another kind of thinking, call it “headscratching” or “reflection” or “cogitation.” It’s where we get new ideas, create hypotheses, figure out solutions. This is hard and slower — we don’t get the zowie feedback that Nintendo provides. Computers don’t help us much with this kind of thinking — at their best, they can give us a playing field for thought, but they lack insight. Reading helps, as does writing. Analytical criticism helps. Teachers help a lot.

Our culture is saturated with “reactive thinking”; “reflective thinking” is becoming more and more rare. Reflective thinking is what produces real insight, valid opinions, and original ideas. A child that can master both kinds of thinking will be way ahead of the game.

So we encourage you to use a book for phonics, to read “regular” (paper!) books with your children, and to talk with your children about what you’re reading. Paper books don’t require immediate response, or demand that the child react in a certain way. Put multimedia books and TV time in the same category, and limit both to a reasonable percentage of your child’s day. By doing so, you’ll be paving the way for reflective thinking.

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