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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Lifting Up? Dumbing Down? Both?

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After listening to one of Alex Epstein's Human Flourishing Project podcasts, I found myself intrigued by the title of a blog post he mentioned and I subsequently read, "Why Books Don't Work." This is a very thought-provoking and clearly-written essay of about 4,600 words, and considers the problem, common even among the educated, of people realizing how little information they actually retain from reading books. More important the author, Andy Matuschak, also offers some thoughts on what to do about it.

Image by ASTERISK, via Unsplash, license.
To illustrate his problem and begin offering his solution, Matuschak starts with the commonplace problems of people leaving books and lectures (a simpler case) with much less than they realize in the moment. This problem, he holds, is due to the fact that any such medium is based (at least implicitly) on a similar theory, or "cognitive model" of how learning takes place. The theories occur on several levels and at varying degrees of faithful implementation. But we can learn about learning by considering these theories seriously and by looking at what people do to compensate for their deficiencies. There are lessons for us, then coming from what the raw media seem to assume, through what educators who use the media (and attempt to make up for their deficiencies) believe, all the way to what successful end-users are doing. The end-users can teach us the most, the author holds, because they are actively engaging in the material, paying attention to how they absorb information, and self-monitoring themselves. These end-user activities Matuschak calls metacognition, or "thinking about thinking." Effective authors, he contends, are such because they do things to lighten their reader's metacognitive load.

But if you think Matuschak is hoping to "build a better book," he isn't necessarily urging that (or ruling it out). He's willing to consider completely novel media, such as we see in his Quantum Country:
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. [format edits]
There is more, but many university students will recognize the repeated review of smaller "chunks" at intervals, the quizzing, and the monitoring.

As revolutionary as this sounds, I admit finding myself being nagged by the memory of a dismissive term some of the nuns from my Catholic education used regarding some of the newer teaching methods, almost certainly "progressive," they deemed inferior: spoonfeeding. I am not dismissing this author's approach, but I see a need for caution in applying it, particularly in the creation of novel media. (I will note that I have not attempted Quantum Country, but I don't think my cautions suffer as a result.)

For example, the author notes that lecturing has been "ditched" "in US K-12 education." That development is not necessarily an improvement. There can be good or bad reasons for uniting a lesson plan around a "theme, for example, and doing so at the expense of teaching deeply in a given discipline is definitely the wrong approach. That said, I am not necessarily defending how the nuns taught me. Perhaps those who did well could under almost any circumstances. What I strongly suspect, given the poor general state of education in the United States, is that in addition to the cognitive models in books leaving something to be desired, people are generally worse at metacognition now. In other words, I think "fixing" books or devising new media can only help so much. It's not a waste of time: They can make it easier for the well-prepared and perhaps make up for some of the deficiencies of our educational system. But we should temper our enthusiasm.

-- CAV

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