Environmental Givens: Researching reading and Growth Mindset

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When I was growing up I was taught to look for the explanation of all human qualities, actions and phenomena in the environment in which they originated

A Man in Love Karl Ove Knausgaard

I am currently reading, which is actually a quite inadequate verb to describe the experience, Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I have been wandering why I have embarked on this – it is 6 volumes, each of around 400 pages, and currently only the first three have been translated from Norwegian into English. Why do I feel compelled to grapple with a text of such length and density? Is it the full page ads in The Guardian, the ecstatic reviews from the likes of Zadie Smith or my vague interest in all things Northern European? A bit of each I guess, though Knausgaard’s visceral honesty and stylistic finesse, which enables him to engage the reader throughout a 50 page description of a child’s birthday party, obviously has a lot to do with it. It is like reading a Jonathan Franzen novel with the added frison of knowing that this is even more real than the dizzyingly believable worlds he created in The Corrections and Freedom..

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A couple of weeks ago now I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Jeremy Frith (@jeremy00) and Rachel Sharp (@rachelsharp71) who have been working to increase knowledge and understanding of Growth Mindset within schools and other organisations on Guernsey. Their research has looked at the extent to which learners and teachers have a Growth Mindset attitude towards the various subjects taught in school. Unsurprisingly this has got me thinking about how these ideas might apply to reading.

Why, I wonder, do some young people have a seemingly insatiable need to read while others would apparently rather do anything than read, as we laughingly suggest, for pleasure? Is this difference of outlook really only down to environmental factors, as Growth Mindset would suggest, or are there any genetic factors at work here?

My feeling is that it could be important to find out more about this, about why some are motivated to read for pleasure while others are not. We know, from lots of previous research, that increasing the amount of reading for pleasure that young people engage in can have wide ranging academic, educational, social and creative benefits. Therefore, if we can find out more about what exactly it is that encourages some to immerse themselves in this positive activity we may just be able to use these findings to develop increased levels of motivation in others previously less inclined to pick up a book.

With these thoughts in mind I have constructed a simple survey that can be used with young readers to find out more about their motivation. I will be using this with both keen and less enthusiastic readers after half term. I will also be giving the same survey to the students’ parents and to their teachers so that I can triangulate what they say about their own motivation with what parents and teachers think motivates them. If colleagues are interested in carrying out the same research within their schools I will be happy to share the survey – just DM me your email address. It will be useful to compare findings.

So how might all this research help us, I hear you ask? Well, I don’t want to predict what we might find out but I am hopeful that knowing more about exactly what it is that encourages some children to read a lot may help schools to create the circumstances which will foster the spread of the reading bug. Also, if we can find out why reluctant readers do occasionally pick up a book then, hopefully, we will be able to ensure that these factors are maximised. My plan is to share the findings of the research , in so far as ethical considerations allow, and I hope readers will share with me their ideas on how to improve the survey or interpret the data more appropriately. In the meantime, I’m going to carry on wallowing in Knausgaard’s epic, discovering more about the human qualities, actions and phenomena that created him and reflecting, through the power of the reading experience, on those that shaped me too.

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