The title might sound a bit outrageous but for all the virtues bandied about reading books, many of us struggle to get through them. Here we are talking about non-fiction books with heavy insightful messages to take away from. Some of us are naturally tuned to absorbing the material quite easily. And for some of us, there are helpful tips from say, such as the good folks from Farnam Street, how to make our reading more effective. But this blog talks about questioning the effectiveness of books as a medium of learning as they are today and see if it can be improved upon.
The author does recognise the magic of books, the medium having survived millenia with this delectable passage by Carl Sagan:
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
The author starts with the analogy to lectures – why they fail as a medium of learning?
“…lectures don’t work because the medium lacks a functioning cognitive model. It’s (implicitly) built on a faulty idea about how people learn—transmissionism—which we can caricaturize as “lecturer says words describing an idea; students hear words; then they understand.” When lectures do work, it’s generally as part of a broader learning context (e.g. projects, problem sets) with a better cognitive model. But the lectures aren’t pulling their weight. If we really wanted to adopt the better model, we’d ditch the lectures, and indeed, that’s what’s been happening in US K–12 education.”
He then posits that like lectures, books are not based on any well thought through cognitive model either.
“Readers can’t just read the words. They have to really think about them. Maybe take some notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response. Like a lecture, a book is a warmup for the thinking that happens later. Great: that’s a better model!”
He also reckons that leaving aside the minority who can naturally do the thinking and evaluating while reading well, these are not easy to acquire skills.
“These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions. People particularly struggle to multitask like this when the content is unfamiliar.
Where is the book in all this? If we believe that successful reading requires engaging in all this complex metacognition, how is that reflected in the medium? What’s it doing to help?”
He does concede that a handful of great authors anticipate these challenges and reflect that in their prose and if need be, with graphical representations of the messages. But majority of authors fail in this regard.
He then offers a solution that might make books better learning tools:
“My collaborator Michael Nielsen and I made an initial attempt with Quantum Country, a “book” on quantum computation. But reading this “book” doesn’t look like reading any other book. The explanatory text is tightly woven with brief interactive review sessions, meant to exploit the ideas we just introduced. Reading Quantum Country means reading a few minutes of text, then quickly testing your memory about everything you’ve just read, then reading for a few more minutes, or perhaps scrolling back to reread certain details, and so on. Reading Quantum Country also means repeating those quick memory tests in expanding intervals over the following days, weeks, and months. If you read the first chapter, then engage with the memory tests in your inbox over the following days, we expect your working memory will be substantially less taxed when reading the second chapter. What’s more, the interleaved review sessions lighten the metacognitive burden normally foisted onto the reader: they help readers see where they’re absorbing the material and where they’re not.
Quantum Country is just one piece of the memory puzzle, which itself is part a larger tapestry. How might we design mediums in which “readers” naturally form rich associations between the ideas being presented? How might we design mediums which “readers” naturally engage creatively with the material? How might we design mediums in which “readers” naturally contend with competing interpretations? If we pile together enough of these questions we’re left with: how might we design mediums in which “reading” is the same as “understanding”? A more detailed treatment of such a research program is beyond the scope of these brief notes, but I believe that the answers to questions like these can transform the pace of human knowledge, echoing the transformation which books themselves sparked so long ago.”
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