Designing media with minds in mind
May 15, 2019 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Why books don’t work talks about how some media (books and lectures) do not, by default, take advantage of what is known in cognitive science, and wonders what media could be designed that would.
posted by Jpfed (45 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hundreds of years of recorded history and teaching across all nations and cultures:
Silicon Valley Bro: "Actually, I have a -"
posted by Damienmce at 10:05 AM on May 15 [29 favorites]


(also tldr, his solution for the book problem is a website with a self quiz after every few paragraphs)
posted by Damienmce at 10:12 AM on May 15 [15 favorites]


(also tldr, his solution for the book problem is a website with a self quiz after every few paragraphs)

aka my worst nightmare.
posted by peacheater at 10:14 AM on May 15 [29 favorites]


Silicon Valley Bro: "Actually, I have a -
can we not, at least not right away?

I think that at least his questions about non-textbook non-fiction are worth considering, and Yes he is selling something (or at least an idea).
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:15 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


He literally wrote 4,708 words instead of "Aye yo, end of chapters quizzes are legit". He also provided a approved reference in case anyone wants to cite him in an academic paper. He references no papers himself. God tier hubris.
posted by Damienmce at 10:22 AM on May 15 [27 favorites]


On quick look, I also come down on the side of "this is a valid question to ask, his particular answers are weak."

This is the kind of stuff I deal with professionally. I've disappointed a lot of professors over the years by having to break it to them that here in the [booming voice] twenty-first century that creating truly high quality multimedia, adaptive, or innovative teaching materials for their courses is still a time-consuming, expensive slog.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:29 AM on May 15 [19 favorites]


My personal method that works for retention and deep understanding is: Read a sentence. Write down, by hand, what that sentence means to me. Repeat to end of reading.

I suspect everyone develops some method that works for them.
posted by cowcowgrasstree at 10:32 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


We’d prioritize activities like interactive discussions and projects; we’d deploy direct instruction only when it’s the best way to enable those activities. I’m not idly speculating: for the last few decades, this has been one of the central evolutionary forces in US K–12 policy and practice.

Oh god no. How well I remember "interactive discussions" and "projects".

Look, the real, fundamental problem with education is not the transmission mode, it's that most people don't want to be doing most of it most of the time. That's why "interactive discussions" were a hideous nightmare in high school but I had a great time at book group last night. There are subsidiary problems of the "I really love math but I struggle to follow the examples" and "I really love this class but that one guy can't read the room and talks all the time so I don't get to participate in discussions the way I'd like to" kind, but those are procedural and the solutions are going to vary by classroom.

In general, if most of the people in the room want to be in the room and the mode isn't "lecture by a person who talks in a monotone while reading off the powerpoints" or "terrible corporate propaganda video", any mode will work fairly well.

Some students will enjoy a good lecture more than a video, some students will prefer online quizzes, but no method is going to be the Best Method for all students and it's good to learn to deal with different ways of learning. I hate online videos with the power of a hundred suns but sometimes I watch them for class.

Some amount of "this sucks I hate it" is probably inherent to any education - learning to read, learning to read fluently, learning basic math - but otherwise a lot of the "problems" of education come from our society's really shitty and half-instrumental approach to school. (It's not even fully instrumental, like "teaching people to be good workers"; most of the time it's about gesturing toward teaching people to be good workers so that we can say that we're doing something, but then not even being interested enough to figure out how to do it properly.)
posted by Frowner at 10:37 AM on May 15 [33 favorites]


He paints a too-broad brush about books and lectures. If an author sets out to "teach" things in the "transmissive" sense -- i.e., "here's a body of knowledge, slurp it up" -- then they'll fail. But a talented lecturer has empathy for their audience, can predict their questions (and where they'll struggle), and build engagement into their presentation with humor, questions, and other provocations.

Last thing I'd want to do is discourage people from innovating with educational technology. But pointing to the medium as the problem is how we end up underfunding public education and devaluing the importance of teachers.
posted by fishhouses at 10:43 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]


He's right, but has picked up the problem by the wrong end. Picked up properly, the problem is that he, and many other people, don't know how to read books or listen to lectures. There is no shame in that. Learning to read and listen well is a life-long project. I'm still working on it.

He has this part right: "to understand something, you must actively engage with it." Where he goes wrong is in supposing that books and lectures are supposed to be read passively. To read nonfiction properly, one should be at all times looking for what case the author is making and how that case is supported. One should be actively taking issue with the case and at the same time trying to see how it could be right. Reading should be an imaginary argument interspersed with praise, with the reader continually switching sides in the argument.

I don't know how to read fiction properly, because it is so different every time. At very least, though, one should be continually guessing what sort of story this is, gathering evidence for and against the guess, and revising it as you go.

Something similar is the case for lectures, but they are easier in two respects and harder in two others. It is easier to engage in imaginary argument with an actual person standing in front of you, because it is congenial to imagine their character and admire, mock, or denigrate both them and the material together. In some cases, one actually does get to discuss the material, the best of all possible aids to understanding. However, while discussing, one has always to keep the needs of everyone else in the class in mind, and to tolerate people who do not. This is very hard to do.

One effect of reading or listening this way is a head full of voices that hardly ever shut up. Meditation helps.

If I could have a Silicon Valley smartass build me a better book, I would ask for online texts that had social media attached, so that for any passage, you could find a whole Talmud of previous commentary, and perhaps an ongoing discussion. The trick, of course, would be keeping that commentary from being something better than Youtube or Twitter commentary. I have no idea how that could be done.
posted by ckridge at 10:54 AM on May 15 [19 favorites]


My beef is mainly that there is lots of real work done by real educators and psychologists on memory retention and learning outcomes with real tests, hypotheses and replicated results.
But, yet again dear reader, a start uppy white dude called Greg in San Francisco who develops software (although this one is called Alex), has solved it for us by himself. Not for him the slings and arrows of research and peer review just lots of use of random italics.
posted by Damienmce at 11:03 AM on May 15 [15 favorites]


Dammit.

"The trick, of course, would be keeping that commentary from being something better than Youtube or Twitter commentary" should read "The trick, of course, would be keeping that commentary from being *no* better than Youtube or Twitter commentary."

That was careless. Sorry.
posted by ckridge at 11:04 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


He's right, but has picked up the problem by the wrong end. Picked up properly, the problem is that he, and many other people, don't know how to read books or listen to lectures. There is no shame in that. Learning to read and listen well is a life-long project. I'm still working on it.

Since I started writing about what I read - sometimes a summary, sometimes just whatever struck me - my comprehension and retention have skyrocketed, and I find myself actually thinking about what I read long after I've read it. I truly feel that I've learned something when I organize my thoughts to write.

I think a lot of folks on the "reading and lectures are not so good as internet quizzes and projects" side of the debate tend to assume that the ideal book or lecture is one in which you literally retain everything, and that therefore every book or lecture is a failure because this is impossible.

The ideal method that emerges from this reasoning (and I've recently suffered through some business school courses which use cutting edge methods) is to simplify and streamline the content as much as possible so that students can be sure to spit it all back on a quiz or in a presentation. Every student should know every word of your hideous, simple-minded video and prove it on the quiz, so that every student takes away exactly the same thing and you can generate success metrics.

If students read or listen to something complicated with more ideas than they can individually absorb, well, each student might learn something different - perhaps they might best retain and understand the material which is most congenial to them or which relates best to their other work. They might develop different interpretations or responses. They might be able to write an essay which would have to be graded in detail by someone who evaluated their reasoning. It might be difficult to evaluate their success or failure.

One student might hear a lecture about, say, famous Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin and be moved to think about factionalism within governments; another might firm up their mental map of 16th century Korean history. Both students would retain broad outlines of the lecture but each would also retain specific knowledge because the lecture was complex enough to sustain multiple interests.
posted by Frowner at 11:06 AM on May 15 [17 favorites]


The trick, of course, would be keeping that commentary from being *no* better than Youtube or Twitter commentary."


What you need is, a better class of inmate.
posted by thelonius at 11:09 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Very few people pick up every nuance of a book from reading it.

Which is why books are so great. You can read it repeatedly. The best books are the ones that make you WANT to dive back in, to spend hours flipping back and forth between sections, to make notes in the margin, to come back to later when questions or new thoughts pop up, to discuss with others.

He concludes that our inability to learn through osmosis after one reading proves that books "don't work"; however, I believe the burden of proof against the evidence from thousands of years of recorded history is on him and can't be swept neatly under the rug in one brief essay.

Lectures are the same. Yes, lectures can be a poor way to deliver knowledge, which is why in college no class should ever consist of lectures alone. Every class I taught (or took, for that matter) included assigned reading, to provide background and raw information; lectures, in which the raw information was explained, put into context, and examples were provided; and Q/A sessions, where discussions were held, further examples were explored, and questions were answered. Many of the classes included labs, where concepts were demonstrated first-hand through interactive group or solo work.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:25 AM on May 15 [6 favorites]


Where he goes wrong is in supposing that books and lectures are supposed to be read passively.

My read of him was not that they're supposed to be read passively- merely that, in practice, they often are. He mentions a couple times that we all have the freedom to opt-in to interacting with a book or a lecture, but that does require a conscious choice- that often we don't end up taking. Hence the desire for a medium in which it doesn't take as much effort or intention to opt-in to interaction.
posted by Jpfed at 11:37 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I mean the first hurdle is to get someone to learn something they have to first care about the thing enough to want to learn and invest themselves into whatever it is. Most attempts at teaching pretty much fail at that juncture. Once people care, learning becomes something they actually work at and they will make associations, ask questions, and put forth hypotheses. Just look at how readily people dig in to Taylor Swift videos, reading them for hints of about her life and feuds she may be having. Or check out people arguing at great length about what genres different music belongs to or the history of the Star Wars universe. Those are, roughly, the same kinds of skills one would need to approach most learning, but people simply aren't that interested in things they have to learn instead of what they want to learn.

The method suggested in the piece more or less corresponds to videos they use to try and teach people for entry level jobs, like housekeeping, food handling, and basic safety regulations. They show the idea in writing, provide a dramatization demonstrating the idea in practice, repeat the idea verbally word for word, and then repeat it all again in short test quiz they correct you on after taking and then after a couple more examples they provide a final test to check if you've remembered what they said a few minutes ago. Those videos are fucking hell to sit through for anyone who picked up the info the first time it was presented. That can be as lousy a learning situation as any book or lecture for some.

One size doesn't fit all but even if it did lord help us all if someone did actually find a way to transmit information that people would pick up automatically, we're close enough to that nightmare already. Sometimes having to make an effort can actually be a good thing.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:40 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]


All this article really demonstrates is that as a medium, articles are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge.
posted by webmutant at 11:50 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]


I had a professor in college who said you had to read everything three times: once to get exposed to what the hell it is even trying to do, once to focus on its internal transitions ( I think this was supposed to be the focus of the second reading, but it's been 30 years), and once to question it (the context was difficult philosophy books, like maybe The Phenomenology Of Spirit) . By questioning it, he meant trying to enter into a dialog with the book on its own terms, not coming at it with a critique from the point of view of some other philosopher - like "Hegel says this, but, for Heigedgger, that isn't even a genuine philosophical issue, so wtf Hegel".
posted by thelonius at 12:16 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]


He loses sight of the idea that books are often written to communicate concepts, rather than have the reader replicate the entire chain of thought/scientific process/etc. that lead to those concepts as conclusions. Often, (many of) the links in the chain are described and evaluated, but the reader isn't supposed to memorize them but determine that they are more or less trustworthy and move further toward the conclusion. The task of the reader isn't, upon finishing a book, to be able to rewrite it from memory; it's to understand the concepts in it.
posted by sensate at 12:21 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]


> but that does require a conscious choice- that often we don't end up taking. Hence the desire for a medium in which it doesn't take as much effort or intention to opt-in to interaction.

People who have an internal desire to engage with the material do so. People who are just going through the motions because that's what's expected by society are already immersed in a culture of opting out of that interaction. I think most people fall into the second category. The desire for this medium that makes opting in easy is really a desire for those people to desire the same things we desire. What will actually happen is that such a medium would be discarded because people don't want to engage in challenging intellectual pursuits. What needs to change is not the medium used, it is the values of the culture people grow up in.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 12:29 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


He has no idea how good codices are unless he's tried to learn information from what came before them: SCROLLS.

It was a good thing that when scrolls were common, there were only a few books to read, because those things are so bloody inefficient! You want to refer quickly back to a passage at the centre of the scroll? Too bad! You'll be rolling and rolling and rolling ...

Codices are amazing information storage technology: easily stacked/shelved, easily labelled, and easily indexed and accessed.

As teaching technology, they have some drawbacks, but (like lectures) they can be effective if you are acting as an active learner. If you are taking notes, you will recall more. But most of us know don't need or want to retain that much. I read Guns, Germs and Steel to get a) the basic hypothesis, and b) enough information to support that hypothesis. It didn't need a detailed analysis or memorization, unlike other books which I have cited heavily.

There are also, of course, personal preferences when it comes to teaching technology/learning styles. I am someone who much prefers lectures to books when it comes to learning new information, so much so that I actively seek out audio-lecture courses in preference to reading or listening to someone read a written book. But there are other people who prefer to read, and yet more who would rather watch a video (my nightmare). There's just something about having someone talk to me less formally with a fair bit of repetition that I find easier to follow and recall than if it's more formally expressed in written language.
posted by jb at 12:35 PM on May 15


thelonius: I had a professor in college who said you had to read everything three times...

My high school AP Lit teacher had us read everything three times (maybe he was also taught by your professor?) Once for the plot, once again for the characters, once more to see how the author constructed the work. We did not read many books that year, but the ones we did, we really did.
posted by basalganglia at 1:13 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]


In one of Gene Wolfe's essays from Castle of Days, he said something similar about his approach to revision: he wrote his stories 4 times, starting from scratch each time. This let him take the end into consideration when writing the beginning, and it really showed in rereading his books. Innocuous statements on the first page took on a whole new meaning after having read the last page.

And it is common advice in learning higher mathematics that the way to read a math textbook is not to jump into the proofs immediately, but to gloss over the entire book to get a thousand-foot view of the material before doing a deep read on the second pass. I have taken to watching youtube lectures many times for the same reason. I'll watch an entire semester class and then go through it again, or even three times, before I'm satisfied. Each time I'll get something new out of it.

I am a nonlinear learner, and I don't like the linear nature of academic courses, but the problem is not books as a technology, but instead the structure of the classes. They give you assignments to Read The Chapter and the expectation is that after the day you've covered that part of the book, you're Done With It, so you need to get as much out of it as possible in a single pass.

The structure of these courses is what teaches people to use books incorrectly, as something to be consumed, rather than as something with which to have a conversation.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 1:28 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


My high school AP Lit teacher had us read everything three times (maybe he was also taught by your professor?)

It was probably an old-school thing that they both were taught.....
posted by thelonius at 1:35 PM on May 15


The death of the author is also the death of the reader. As such there is no “right” way to read or respond to a work. Post-modernism rules y’all.
posted by Middlemarch at 1:51 PM on May 15


I thought I'd disagree but in the I think the author is basically right. Books and lectures privilege the author, and for complex reasons mentioned by the author, work against the reader. Society has normalized this which makes any discussion very difficult. The other issue is technological limitations as we don't have anything better than book-like learning media. The author's problem is that books are inferior, so disagreement needs to show that books are not inferior. Explaining how to use a book properly is a way to deflect because knowing how to use an inferior tool well is beside the point.

A real example of what works better than books in many learning domains is one-on-one instruction. That is incredibly expensive, but is what elite universities can afford. But it is also evidence that book reading is a slow and error prone substitute. A way to close this gap would do a lot of good in society.
posted by polymodus at 2:51 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Damienmce: "He literally wrote 4,708 words instead of "Aye yo, end of chapters quizzes are legit"."

There's a weird kind of mismatch between medium and message in the case of this post. Like, he seems to be saying that long-form prose is a poor way to communicate information, and then he went ahead and did just that to spread this message. You'll note that we are discussing this article even though he didn't actually provide any brief review exercises in it.

He also seems to think he's reinvented the idea of reading actively, which people have been training people to do for literally thousands of years.

Overall, I would give this piece a double thumbs-down.
posted by crazy with stars at 2:51 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


He also seems to think he's reinvented the idea of reading actively, which people have been training people to do for literally thousands of years.

So in the article be actually disagrees because active reading should be viewed sociologically as a privileged skill and learned technique that excludes everyone outside the academic bubble. From a social argument I'd say knowledge work as it exists in civilization has always and remains built on such classism. Also see for example Piketty's paper on intellectual stratification.
posted by polymodus at 2:56 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Final thought--the claim that I've seen is that the "mindshare" afforded by direct interaction between teacher and student working together has no equivalent substitute. This a premise in some education cultures.

A similar connection is Flusser who argued in the 90s that society has moved from dialogic to discursive mode of communication, "talking with" to "talking at" or "telling". It is arguable that this social change influences how people learn and think at a very basic level, etc. So books being one directional communication is an interesting example of that.
posted by polymodus at 3:07 PM on May 15


Books are not one-directional communication; the discussion occurs with the reader performing both sides of the conversation. However, a culture oriented around consuming Content, instead of engaging critically with it, could cause people to forget that.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 3:14 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I found this very annoying. His argument is "Hey, I'll confess this is true about me, which is an embarrassing admission, so therefore it must be a universal truth."

I read Guns, Germs, and Steel once and I remember a fair amount. Lectures are not one-sided affairs and it's easy to involve the students in interactive and applied learning.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:36 PM on May 15


> I read Guns, Germs, and Steel once and I remember a fair amount.

Oh, have I got a 2-semester course in World History for you! This professor has quite a lot to say about Jared Diamond and our preoccupation with the history of grain farming.

"In this course I am not asking you to learn or remember any of the material in the book. I am asking you to do something much harder: to think about and be prepared to discuss it."
posted by I-Write-Essays at 3:53 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


I worked at a dental school. No I am not a dentist. At least once a year, they would have a day set aside for all the faculty (that is all who would bother to come) and they would address the issues surrounding how to teach. Someone would talk about how there are different modes of learning, visual, audible, kinesthetic, and how you had to use all three to effectively communicate. And multi-media was invented to do that. (This is the educational myth of learning modes.) Then someone would go on about how the younger folks can multitask like crazy and all were computer literate so technology was the way. (Multitasking is also a myth.) Then there would be someone to talk about student-centered learning and how having a “sage on the stage” was elitist (or something) and thus lectures were bad. The students didn’t read their textbooks which cost a fortune, so they switched to ebook versions of the textbooks which cost the same. After these talks, the faculty would go back to reading their horribly designed PowerPoint slides in the class to the students. There were a few faculty that were good educators, but the majority were examples of the fallacy of high education - if you know how to do something then you know how to teach it. They were dentists, so... QED.

Education is both an art and a science. It is also a complex skill that can be taught and learned. It requires insight, empathy, and flexibility. It also requires having concrete, measurable objectives and the way to measure how well the students are doing meeting those objectives. From my experience in higher ed, education is more a seat-of-the-pants tell them what you know combined with whatever current fad is hot in education land. More of the former, and less of the latter.
posted by njohnson23 at 4:01 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Matuschak. the article's author, writes, "Like lectures, books have no carefully-considered cognitive model at their foundation, but the medium does have an implicit model. And like lectures, that model is transmissionism."

This is false. The carefully-considered cognitive model that books are based on is called hermeneutics, and it has been around for a very long time. It starts out as a method for interpreting the Bible, but at least as early as Dante it is being used to compose books. Most of what I know about the subject comes from Gadamer's Truth and Method, a very thick, dense book I have read only once, so what follows will be at best incomplete. The internet being what it is, someone will be along shortly to correct my deficiencies, for which I offer thanks in advance.

Gadamer is hunting bigger game than books. His larger project is arguing that we make sense of the world the same way we make sense of books, thereby displacing science from its throne as knowledge par excellence and putting the humanities in its place. That gives context, but you don't have to agree with it, because most of what he says about interpreting books is based on earlier scholarship on how on earth to use cultural context to make sense of ancient books that were themselves the chief sources of information about their cultures.

This sort of interpretation, and by extension all reading, is fundamentally circular in nature, Gadamer argues. One starts with a hypothesis about what the book is about, checks how much of the text makes sense under that hypothesis, modifies the hypothesis accordingly, and reads again, till one has made as much of the book as possible make sense. He goes to some length to argue that this circularity is not vicious, because it is exploration, not proof.

He also takes pains to argue that one's first hypotheses are always colored by one's prejudices, most particularly and necessarily interest in what this book can do for one and how it pertains to one's situation. This is not a problem with reading, he argues; it just is reading. It follows from this that each time one comes back to a sufficiently rich book one will get a slightly different meaning from it, because each time one's initial hypothesis and initial prejudices will have changed, if only by having read the book.

I hope that all this sounds like common sense with a fancy name, because it should. Everyone who reads a lot knows this by practice already, and writers know it and write their books to be read this way. They give you material for your first hypothesis and a clean path for the first reading, and tuck away material for later deeper readings where it won't interfere with the first. We have been writing and reading books for a long time. It isn't always easy, but that isn't for lack of a good cognitive model, and that good cognitive model is not transmissionism.

This circular, interrogative reading is not the property of an educated elite. I have met very high-functioning people who are substantially smarter and better-educated than me who can't do it at all, because one characteristic of high-functioning people is efficient minds that don't waste energy. They do precisely enough to get the A and stop. They don't play. This is play. On the other hand, show me any fan forum, for comics, sf, fantasy, or what you will, and I will find you people who read like this, spinning out wild hypotheses on the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical meaning of Doctor Who or Star Wars books. You learn to read like this by talking with or reading people who read like this.

What Matuschak seems to want is a device that will do this kind of thinking for you. I can't imagine how that would go.
posted by ckridge at 5:54 PM on May 15 [14 favorites]


I-write-essays: maybe your professor didn't remember much about Guns, Germs and no Oxford commas. It was about grains, geographical and climatological barriers, domesticable animals, means of transport, etc.

I don't think his argument is the be-all, end-all, but it was memorable.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:03 PM on May 15


This circular, interrogative reading is not the property of an educated elite.

It is true that the wealthy and powerful (and other privileged groups) are largely not sophisticated readers. But it is materially true that having the time to do reading for play that amounts to non-trivial social impact—the idea that you play in order to do your work—is something that requires an immense amount of privilege in the form of time and support networks that enable that. This is what artists and scientists at the highest levels get to do. And that is the privilege of the creative classes.
posted by polymodus at 6:30 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


The creative classes who play in order to do their work are surrounded by a layer of froth and scum who play in order to play, till the ones who work get rich and move somewhere nicer. I know. I'm part of the froth and scum. There's no money in it, trust me.
posted by ckridge at 7:27 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Also, as I say above, the basic skills of playful, speculative, experimental reading can be developed in many of the fan communities that the web brings together so well. Granted, extending that kind of reading to hard books requires ambition, effort, lucking into learning how to find books, and somehow avoiding getting too speculative and becoming a crank. Even as little as a year of college and lucking into the right friends can make it a lot easier, though.
posted by ckridge at 7:37 PM on May 15


Back in the days of scribes, reading at all required extreme preperation and specialization. Fewer than 1% could read, but reading was the conduit of all human knowledge. Whole societies depended on the skill of their literate minorities. Even now, some people are better than other people at reading books. This is not surprising and also is not an indictment of books.

In order to truly engage with a book, one will need sufficient vocabulary and background knowledge, which is often outside the scope of the book and has to be acquired elsewhere. Quizzes and interval priming won't impart it. This project is hopeless.
posted by sensate at 7:40 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


When I first started reading textbooks they were walls o' text. They were solid and they were small print, and the paragraphs were long. If there were any illustrations or diagrams they were labeled Fig. 1, Fig. 2 and so on, and the captions for the figures often contained complex information themselves that were did not have self-evident meaning such as "Fig.1 Caracute plough" or "Fig.7 Covalent bond." You had to read the text to understand what the figure was illustrating, so the text in the middle of the second of only two paragraphs on a page with 312 words might say, "To deal with the denser clay soils in the north, Germanic tribes developed a heavy wheeled plough which is known as the caracute plough.(Fig. 1)" It took sharp eyes to find the (Fig. 1) in the text. You likely ended up reading the whole page to find it. The back of the book had a reference section, footnotes, an index and a glossary. If I encountered a word I didn't remember it was automatic to flip to the glossary. These text books may have been densely packed with information but the books themselves were conveniently small. It was not unreasonable to carry six of them to school in the morning.

And then text books began to change so they had side bars with information and boxes with other types of information. You had to read the guide at the beginning of the text book so that you knew that double banded boxes were sets of questions to trigger reflexive thought, and grey shaded boxes were for 'how do we know?' and the rectangular boxes with a portrait at the top were the ones to introduce you to individuals were were important for the lesson. The glossary was no longer in the back of the book, but at the end of every chapter was a short glossary of the terms you were introduce to in that chapter.

The trouble with those glossaries was if they introduced a term to you in chapter three and you were in chapter five when you realised you did not fully understand the term you had to flip around a bit before you could figure out where exactly the term had been introduced and which chapter had the definition.

I found those books rather distracting. I'd be halfway down the page reading when my eye would be caught by the portrait, and I'd skip to reading the caption under it and then I would have lost both my place and the direction of what I was reading so I would have to go back again to either the beginning of the paragraph, or maybe the section and repeat what I had been reading. Of course with the shorter paragraphs and the larger print it wasn't as much of a challenge as it would have been with the earlier textbooks.

And then almost a decade passed before I saw another new textbook and when I did they were the textbooks that my kids were using. They had a lot of illustrations. Each chapter began with an enormous photograph that was an attractive photograph but even if you found the matching small print caption "Bull Lake Dam, Wyoming; Photo credit Constantine Pultney, Media Images International" You were entirely on your own figuring out why that particular chapter had a picture of a dam in Wyoming as the first piece of information they were giving you. The placement of that full page picture seemed to indicate it was the most important piece of information in the chapter, or perhaps it was what you needed to know to continue reading, but damned if I could figure out why the photograph was of that particular dam, or those particular frogs, or what a photo-microscope picture of those mitochondria had to do with Leeuwenhoek who may have invented the microscope, but didn't have one high powered enough to see the mitochondria inside those cells that he named.

And those books were heavy. If you wanted a doorstop they would do, easy. But heaven help the student who had to carry six of them to class.

Being inquisitive I asked why the textbooks were made the way they were, and I had it explained to me that students learned better from them as the layout, structure and design were less fatiguing on the eyes ( if not the back!) and students were less distracted with all the pictures and information boxes and colours. That made good sense to me. I had gone to school with a lot of people who clearly seldom managed to plough through all our required reading. And reading books like that had put me into glasses before my age was double-digit.

What I figured is that they were trying to make the text books accessible for more students than just the students like me who were a minority who found a densely spaced small print a good escape from the white noise, voices, movement and colour in the classroom.

Textbooks and the people who write them have struggled to find ways to convey information since the first cave-woman drew a bison on a cave wall in red ochre and told her students, "Stick your spear in here."

I'm not going to say that one method is better or worse than another, but I will say that no one method of conveying written information is going to work, and moreover, it is evident that what was effective in one generation is ineffective in the next. Students ability to absorb information continually changes as the culture changes. One generation seems to thrive on reading out loud, another generation gets better marks when the information text is written almost entirely in the form of questions, still another generation seems to concentrate best when the information is closely linked to anecdotes about people.

As far as I can see if I book takes advantage of what is currently understood in cognitive science as the Best Pedagogical Method, it will work for some of the students or readers, and not others. So if students are not absorbing the material, the question of why might be linked to the why one generation learns better with as specific method of instruction than another generation. Of course that's not at all a new thought. Most new textbook styles found favour with the teachers who used them. "My students are much more engaged with this book!"

It's a well known fact and source of much lamenting that each generation is scholastically dumber than the last - In the late 1800's to graduate from grade three you need to be able to calculate compound interest on a mortgage. But what we have is partially a matter of academic creep. Grade three was what you required to be considered a basic, educated adult, capable of managing your own business, probably agricultural, but possibly retail, or industrial. But there were students who went further than grade three, and those students tended to be of a higher economic and social class, so despite the mathematical improbability that sending all those students to school for an additional three years would result in them all becoming members of the higher social classes, leaving nobody left to be basic educated adults, everyone who could afford to was urged to stay in school and get a higher diploma.

Enough of those students who stayed in school did indeed end up in a higher social class to convince everyone that education was the key, despite the fact that the majority still ended up being basic educated adults after spending more time in classrooms and taking more tests. And so as the decades went on, grade three became the level of achievement expected of the kids who had previously dropped out and failed to achieve literacy, and the successful students were the ones who made it to basic, educated adult by staying in school until they completed grade seven... until they completed high school... until they had completed university... Long gone are the days when completing grade seven was sufficient credentials to teach school up to the level of grade three. And we still have a minority who are in that higher social class, and that minority is perhaps an even smaller percentage of the population than it was.

Meanwhile being able to calculate compound interest on a mortgage is what someone with post secondary education can do, but if all you have is high school you probably don't understand those numbers...

Those walls 'o text that I cut my educational teeth on, were the books they used when a grade six education was ample education for any successful adult. (Not that I am that old, they were the textbooks that came from my parents' and grandparents' generations) Now they use many different learning strategies as suggested by Andy Matuschak, as if it were an original idea, and it takes twelve years of formal schooling, if not more, to get the education required for a successful adult.

I think the basic issue with comprehension is really one of motivation. Most people will do as well as the average. If everyone in their class is doing homework, they do homework. If everyone in their class is spending the evening demonstrating to try to get the politicians to pay attention to the issue of climate change they will do that instead of homework. If everyone in their class is desperately trying to get top marks because the lowest 10% of the class is expected to not be able to achieve a factory job and will likely end up seeing their children die of preventable diseases as a result, everyone is going to study like crazy. If everybody in their class is more interesting in rock and roll and the getting a date to go to the sock hop, they will be doing that instead of studying. You learn the way your cohort learns, and roughly the same amount your cohort learns.

So why do we not remember what we learned when we read "Guns Germs and Steel?" Maybe because the experience of reading books is neither something we desperately thirst for, nor vivid enough to capture our attention, nor is there anything riding on our paying attention to the text. Maybe because there are so many things competing to fill our needs for ideas that Diamond's book is no more than two or three evenings' passive entertainment, and something we can mention at a party in a week or two that will elicit nods of agreement and some enthusiasm from other people. Maybe the stuff we read just isn't vital enough to us to capture our attention and trigger our memory.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:35 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]


In order to understand something technical, I need to visualize it, conceive of it spatially. I usually figure out how to paint a visual in my mind after a number of hours learning about a subject, but if the communicator does the heavy lifting and provides an intuitive visualization up front (bonus points for animation), understanding comes so much faster.

Books couldn’t even include nice charts or color images until recently, so that’s coming along, but obviously video is king. I like Coursera’s method: popping up quizzes somewhere in the middle of a video lecture, to encourage you to pay continuous attention.
posted by mantecol at 10:38 PM on May 15


Also, as I say above, the basic skills of playful, speculative, experimental reading can be developed in many of the fan communities that the web brings together so well. Granted, extending that kind of reading to hard books requires ambition, effort, lucking into learning how to find books, and somehow avoiding getting too speculative and becoming a crank. Even as little as a year of college and lucking into the right friends can make it a lot easier, though.

I disagree. A little as a year of college for a white person in a first world country, sure. But I am talking about privilege. What I'm also talking about is people like Einstein and how they work in the context of Vygotsky's theory of play, if that clarifies any point of disagreement here.

The topic of the article is media for the purpose of learning. As in learning quantum mechanics. That's why the driving examples have to be super serious grownup texts, and not manga, etc. See for example Knuth's work on literate programming. The author doesn't write like he's heard of that even as he casually appeals to syntax and structure of mathematical proofs.
posted by polymodus at 11:13 PM on May 15


The part about playful, exploratory, interrogative reading not being the property of the wealthy is the weakest and least pertinent part of my argument. After all, what Matuschak is proposing as an alternative is some combination of computers and applications which doesn't actually exist but which would presumably be more expensive than books, time, and energy. Come to think of it, what Matuschak is proposing sounds rather like a way of force-feeding information to well-to-do dullards.

What I am primarily interested in saying is that we do, in fact, have a well-developed theory and practice for de-coding books and that it is not transmissionism. An actually existing practice is always easier to use than something that a programmer would like to invent but hasn't yet.

However, it is worth noting what books gives Matuschak as examples: The Selfish Gene, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Guns, Germs, and Steel. Those are works of philosophy, psychology, and history respectively. The first tries to explain, or explain away, altruism in evolutionary terms. The second classifies modes of thought. The third discusses why some societies are richer than others. These are not technical or mathematical works. The books are themselves forms of intellectual play. These does not mean that they are insconsequential, trivial, or safe to ignore. They are the sorts of books that can have sweeping social effects, both good and bad. Nevertheless, they are serious, rigorous, dangerous play, and should be read actively, speculatively, and playfully.

I have no idea at all how to go about reading technical or mathematical works. It has been years since I read a science text, and I was bad at it. It may be a completely different procedure.
posted by ckridge at 5:20 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


Come to think of it, what Matuschak is proposing sounds rather like a way of force-feeding information to well-to-do dullards.

The kind of thing Matuschak seems to be proposing could as easily be used to "teach" The Bell Curve as anything else, which is why there is a need to maintain an ideal of "readers" working against the text rather than just absorbing it. Making ease the ideal is a seductive step in the wrong direction.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:31 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


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