Maryanne Wolf: Breaking the Wall to Critical Thinking

UCLA cognitive neuroscientist and dyslexia specialist helps mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at the international Falling Walls Conference.

Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, took part in the Falling Walls Conference, an international meeting of scientists from a wide range of fields, held on Nov. 9, 2019 in Berlin. At the conference, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wolf highlighted  the need both to develop global literacy as a basic human right and simultaneously to understand the changes to the reading brain in the digital environment. 

Wolf, whose latest book, “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World,” was published in 2018, noted that the current digital environment has altered the reader’s experience, which holds critical implications for the future of a democratic society. 

Professor Wolf discussed the effects of technology on learning and cognition, especially for the young, stating that only one-third of children in the United States are proficient readers, which means they will not be developing essential critical analytic skills that are pivotal for the future of the next generation. She advocated for a balance between print and screen mediums – but with an early emphasis on reading to children and exposing them to printed texts in early childhood, which she said has shown evidence of promoting better reading processes, particularly comprehension, and more developed language skills. 

“This is an extraordinary moment in time for us to use science; to look squarely in the face of technology and say, “This is a tool that we must understand ever better for our children,” said Wolf. “The critical analytical powers of our young are not what we would assume them to be, in part because our young often think that speed is illumination. I am suggesting, however, that the future should not be conceptualized as a binary choice between print and digital mediums, but rather that we think in terms of building a biliterate [reading] brain for the next generation.” 

Wolf also delineated the effects of the digital world, including the current bombardment of information and the speed with which it is typically distributed and digested by users, whose “continuous partial attention” and boredom when not engaged online are symptomatic of the  growing inability of readers of all ages to process media with a critical and empathic lens. 

“So many of our children are so reliant on external platforms of knowledge that they are not developing their own,” she noted. “The understanding that we now have of the reading brain is that it teaches us how we as a species, learn anything new. Every medium has its costs and its advantages. And the digital medium has threats that we never realized till now. 

“Paraphrasing Los Angeles journalist David Ulin, reading is at its heart, for you and our children, an ‘act of resistance in a landscape of distraction’,” Wolf said.  “The quality of your thinking is influenced by the quality of your reading. It is not simply what you read but how you read as well. If we lose deep reading, we will have less time to grasp both the complexity and the beauty in what we read. We literally do not give ourselves the time to grasp complexity or just as importantly, take on the perspective of others, much less, to perceive the beauty in written language that can uplift and take us outside ourselves. 

“Perhaps most importantly, if there is less critical analysis and empathy and  our readers are only going to the familiar silos of information that they know well and don’t challenge their prior thinking , then we will have a susceptibility, a vulnerability in our citizens to falsely raised hopes, falsely raised fears, fake information, and all the detritus of demagoguery. It is a recipe for a failing democracy.”

Wolf joined the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies in 2018 as a visiting professor. She is the author of the critically acclaimed and best-selling “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain” (HarperCollins), “Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century: The Literary Agenda” (Oxford University Press), and over 160 scientific publications. Wolf lectures around the world, including multiple presentations on global literacy for disenfranchised children at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Before arriving at UCLA, Wolf was the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, and the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Development in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. She is affiliated with the Dyslexia Center in the UCSF Medical School and with Curious Learning: A Global Literacy Initiative, which she co-founded.

Professor Wolf is the recipient of multiple research and teaching honors, including the Fulbright Fellowship, the American Psychological Association Teaching Award, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study for the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the NICHD Innovative Research Award, and the highest awards by the Dyslexia Foundation, the International Dyslexia Association and the Australian Learning Disabilities Association. She is a sought-afterresource for international media, including The Verge, The Hindu, Good E Reader, Free Beacon, NPR, and The San Francisco Chronicle. 

To view Professor Wolf’s talk, “Breaking the Wall to Critical Thinking” at the Falling Walls Conference, visit this link.

Courtesy of Rachel Lewin