Imagine you’re taking a group of ten year olds to the cinema. The film is eighty minutes long, and you've promised them it’ll be good.
Because it’s a special occasion you buy cartons of popcorn and other forms of mind altering confection. Now your ten year olds are ready to be entertained.
However, now let’s imagine it’s not an eighty minute film that awaits them but something else.
“Kids,” you announce, “I hope you won’t kill me when I tell you, but this isn’t actually a cinema. It’s a brand new entertainment centre, and you are the first lucky visitors!”
Mouths spill with sticky-sweet gunk, eyes are wide in sugar-fuelled readiness.
“What is it?” they squeal and spit. They imagine some form of multi-dimensional kaleidoscopic virtual reality.
“Kids,” you say, hardly able to contain your excitement. “This is the world’s first Audio Book Entertainment Centre!”
There is silence. A peanut M and M can be heard hitting the carpet.
“What?” says the first child. “Audio book?”
“Yes!” you exclaim, “a whole book! Don't worry, it's the same length as a movie!”
“We’re just going to listen?” says a second.
The notion is preposterous, isn’t it? That any child, or any human being, would wish to sit in an audience and listen to an audio book for close to an hour and a half. This difference shouldn’t astonish any of us. But it demonstrates the supremacy of what we look at over what we listen to.
Could it be that since the advent of cinema and TV many of us have lost the ability to sustain listening with attention? And does it get worse with each generation? Is listening attentively that much more demanding than watching a DVD?
Here’s a bit of science: auditory nerves develop in human beings around the sixth prenatal month. The equivalent visual nerves are not fully developed until the sixth postnatal month. Our brains want us to listen first.
Maryanne Wood, in her excellent study of reading “Proust and the Squid”, states that by the age of five children from ‘impoverished-language environments’ have heard ‘32 million fewer words spoken to them than the average middle class child.’
Something needs to be done to plug the gap. Teachers could do it, but they are encouraged to use whiteboards and other wizardy pyrotechnics and visual magic. No one is allowed to just talk to children anymore.
I believe listening is fundamental to children’s development, and as I am the sort of person who likes to believe serious, scientific things, I’ve decided I’m on a mission to create a form of listening that closes the gap between the dominance of looking over listening.
I’m not going to open the world’s first Audio Book Entertainment Center (TM), but I am in the middle of developing a project that hopes to make listening as instinctively enjoyable as watching. It’s as much for myself as for the participants, who at this stage will be schoolchildren. We, the storytellers, must reclaim aural storytelling over visual.
But because I’m a full time headteacher, and with very limited time during the school term, and because I want to see what school life is like elsewhere, I thought I’d start in Scotland, where the term begins earlier, and use some of my summer holiday to trial the project. To begin with I’m offering it free to primary schools in or around Edinburgh.
I may be wrong, and am yet to find out, but the Scottish curriculum seems more enlightened than Wales or England. It hasn’t become the straightjacket of testing and assessment.
I’ve already received several very interested replies - and as soon as complete this blog, I’m going to get on with noodling, creating weird bleeps and bloops, a soundscape for a storyworld. I will make it happen! And I may sell a few books on the back of it, too.