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Saturday, July 11, 2015

Reading is no way to learn

This is a column that attacks reading. No one attacks reading. Let’s just assume I am crazy and push on.

Reading is a pretty recent idea in human history. It hasn’t worked out. It has given us some pretty good things, like literature, for example, or the possibility of communicating with my audience right now. But these things will be going away soon, and good riddance.

For years, I was an advisor to the Chairman of The Board of Encyclopedia Britannica. My job was to eat dinner with him every few months. At each dinner he asked me if there would still be books in five years. I said that there would be except there wouldn’t be his book. “Encyclopedias will disappear” I asserted.

I was thinking about this on a business call the other day. The man I was speaking with was concerned with how training was done at his very large engineering firm. He was rightly worried about “death by Power Point.” He used as an example of what he wanted to build people who learn to change a tire by changing one and then went on to describe quite accurately how we learn in such situations (by practice was the point, something you can’t do in Power Point.) But, he started his explanation by saying the first step in tire changing would be to get out the instruction manual on how to change a tire and read it.

I said that I had never actually read an instruction manual  and that they haven’t actually been around for very long in human history. When a young boy wanted to learn to hunt lions he didn’t read the instruction manual, nor did he take a class. Throughout human history we have learned by watching someone older than ourselves, trying to copy that person, trying to be part of the team, and then trying things for yourself, and asking for help when we have failed. It is not that complicated. This is what learning has always looked like. And then, someone invented instruction manuals and we all forgot what we knew about learning. We replaced human mentors by Power Point lectures and asking by reading.

Great. And we wonder why we have trouble teaching people to do complex skills. There is nothing difficult about it. When you need to try to accomplish something that you want to accomplish, you need to have someone who knows how to do those things watch over you and you need to have someone whose work you can observe and copy. You need to be able to try and fail and you need to be able to practice. Reading doesn’t come up.

When I say things like this it makes people nuts. The other day I had a conversation with a woman in which I asserted that no learning takes place without conversation. She objected and said that she could look up something in Wikipedia any time she wanted and learn something that way.

No I said. You can’t. She was flabbergasted.

First, let’s ask why Wikipedia exists. In part, it exists because Encyclopedia Britannica couldn’t keep up. But also, it exists because we live a in a world where we don’t know whom to ask. I get asked nearly every day what certain words mean or what certain ideas are about. I am asked because the people I am interacting with know I might know and know that I am always happy to teach. But mostly I am asked because people know that I give quick short answers to their questions. When you have someone to ask, you ask. Reading is the alternative when there is no one to ask. 

Let’s assume you always had available at your disposal a panel of experts who could be asked any questions you needed to ask. Would you ever read? (That panel is coming soon.) This morning I had a medical question. There was no one to ask. So I started to read. But this is rarely anyone’s first alternative. 

The second problem with the “I can always look it up” model is simply this: You won’t remember what you read. Now we have had a lot of practice at attempting to remember what we read. That practice is called school. We read. We study. We memorize. We take tests. And we are somehow all convinced that we have remembered what we read.

Every year I would ask my students on the first day of class at Yale and Northwestern if they could pass the tests they took last year, right now. No one ever thought they could. They studied.  They listened. They memorized. And  then they forgot. We don’t learn by reading nor do we learn by listening. 

We do learn by talking. Assuming we are talking with someone who is more or less our equal and has ideas not identical to ours, we learn by challenging them and ourselves to think hard. We mull ideas. We try out ideas. Even after a good conversation, it is hard to remember what we were talking about. If we do remember it, it means we were changed by that conversation in some way. Something we believed we now have a different perspective on. And we have enabled practice. Practicing talking is like practicing any physical skill. You won’t learn to hit a baseball unless you repeatedly hit one over years of practice. The same true of ideas or facts. Students can temporarily memorize facts but if they don't use them again they will forget them. We need to practice what we know until we are barely aware that we know it, until what we know becomes instinct. We don’t know how we talk for example, but we can talk, because we learned how to talk and practice it every day.

Our world has gotten obsessed with reading. Every entrance exam is at least half about reading.  People one up each other by citing what books they have read. If you haven’t read one they think is important they can look down on you. (But, it is actually unlikely they remember much from the actual book. They might remember what they were thinking or talking about after reading the book.) This is the modern era. Things have been like this since the invention of texts. Lecturing followed the invention of texts (so the text could be read to you). But this is all going away soon. Socrates noted this in discussing the invention of reading and writing:

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)

Reading is going away. Books are going away. There are already better ways of disseminating knowledge. But the schools are difficult to change. Training is difficult to change. People who use the internet can’t imagine a life without the tools that are on there now. But there are new tools coming.


The main advantage of reading is that we can skip around. We skim rather than read. It is hard to skim when someone is talking. And then one day, maybe it won’t be.

13 comments:

ER said...

If I want to learn sales, the best way is to have a pro salesman watching me over my shoulder as I am trying to sell something.

Is it not also effective for me to read a book by a master salesman and put the actions and the psychology in the book into practice myself? The book shows me a roadmap on what to do, then I do it, then when I have a question, I try to find someone else (a real person preferably, but a book is sometimes all that I have available) to answer my question.

Using reading in this way, is it not effective?

Roger Schank said...

all I am talking about is the best way to learn; you have made my point for me; you get the book because you don't have a mentor; we need to change our model of education so that we try mentors first and not books

Unknown said...

Thanks for this excellent analysis, Roger. I may have learned something from reading it. I'll let you know if I notice a behavioural change ;) Reading and lecturing originated in a world of information paucity where communication channels were a limiting factor. Mass education demands post-WWII (especially for returning veterans) was, I believe, a major factor that set back effective training. The only tool in the box of educators and bureaucrats was the 'course' - designed and delivered by learning specialists who had been inculcated in content-centric practices. The concept of experience-centric learning was alien to most.

DJ said...

I think the headline has a kernel of truth. It just goes too far. Reading is a last-resort way to learn; however, it is a lot better than nothing. I work in academic research, not education. Most of the information here is implicitly present in the way the research community goes about their work. We attend seminars, organize workshops and conferences, and meet face to face to discuss breakthroughs. We also publish articles to document our progress, but active learning in our field does not take place primarily through written articles. Beginners, graduate students, and outsiders sometimes have difficulty understanding the role of social activities, because they think articles are the main repository of knowledge. In truth, we write articles because articles have some advantages over oral communication, most notably reach and permanence. What they do not have is efficiency, immediacy, depth, and feedback. Mature researchers understand how to balance the two approaches. I agree that reading is overrated. Nevertheless, it is still valuable. Even in this hyper connected era, mentorship and personal connection are in short supply.

Rob said...

I suspect that the more complex the task, the more that you can only learn properly by doing with a mentor or copying. Think of flying a plane. As Roger knows, I am venturing into the world of chickens. I have all the books. But nothing can replace my working directly with them and seeing what behaviours I need to assume to get the best result from them. When I have a specific problem, I call my Chicken mentor. BTW bribery works very well. We have a local rugby team. In a rugby game there are 30 players on the field making up a very complex situation. It is amazing to see the adaptive process in action where the teams flow faster than conscious thought will allow as the situation changes all the time.

I enjoy reading. But nothing that I have learned that is useful or complex has come from a book.

But our entire education system is based on the book and often on teachers who have all but a surface knowledge of the topic. So if challenged, they usually have to revert to power and control.

My own advice to my own children who have their own small children now is to find out what their kids like the most and find a way to have them learn more practically. For the chances of changing the school system are I think zero. It's up to each of us to add this ancient and proven method into our lives.

Paul Miller said...

Are there enough mentor qualified to take the place of the traditional teacher role? Why is it so difficult to find a mentor, maybe because I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up?

Homo Minimus said...

Hi, Roger. Great article.
I have been following you and reading your books over the last three or four months. I am still reflecting on your ideas and I am beginning to distrust myself a bit because I agree almost completely with you...
I wonder if you would let me translate this article into spanish and publish it in my blog (refering to your blog, of course).
It would be an honour to do so, but please feel free to say no.
Thank you very much and best regards.


Tina Bessias said...

What if we read, and then we engage with the author in writing? I think it helps us remember and internalize what we read. Conversely, talk can be hard to hard to retain. At the end of a conversation, there's nothing to review except whatever was caught in the brain's sieve.
I think you know these things and are being delightfully provocative. Thank you!

Tim McClung said...

Provocateur indeed. I love it. Just like the academic researcher commented, reading is great if you "do" research-read, write, publish, read, write, publish. As you have said numerous times, the way we do learning now is a great if you want to be an academic, which is why I have such a hard time negotiating, improvising, connecting, compromising, creating, etc. love to read, am a literacy volunteer and build Little Free Libraries in my community. Reading beats TV I think, simply because I hope. The good news is that there is so little reading going on nowadays, that we don't have much to lose. The bad news is we haven't embraced what you have been writing about for quite some time. I am anxious to see how it unfolds and why because I don't know what it is going to take, other than just flat out turning your back on what is..and there are very few back-turners out there.

Tim McClung said...

Provocateur indeed. I love it. Just like the academic researcher commented, reading is great if you "do" research-read, write, publish, read, write, publish. As you have said numerous times, the way we do learning now is a great if you want to be an academic, which is why I have such a hard time negotiating, improvising, connecting, compromising, creating, etc. love to read, am a literacy volunteer and build Little Free Libraries in my community. Reading beats TV I think, simply because I hope. The good news is that there is so little reading going on nowadays, that we don't have much to lose. The bad news is we haven't embraced what you have been writing about for quite some time. I am anxious to see how it unfolds and why because I don't know what it is going to take, other than just flat out turning your back on what is..and there are very few back-turners out there.

Steve said...

English is ambiguous. When we say learning, we could mean a LOT of different things. Reading is something we do for many purposes. Using both in the same headline makes my logic circuits buzz:) English is ambiguous. When we say learning, we could mean a LOT of different things. Reading is something we do for many purposes. Using both in the same headline makes my logic circuits buzz:) xI see where you're leaning but there are a slew of problems whenever we talk about learning and reading as binary absolutes.

Reading for _________.
When we say learning, we mean _________.

Neither of these has an on or off state. No surprises. Reading can be helpfully associated with a variety of contexts. There are some cases where textual artifacts are a pretty darn good tradeoff. Scaleability, durability, persistence. On the other hand, this high efficiency can be extremely ineffective for anything beyond surface exposure. Deep connections and real perspective shifts come from conversation, feedback, and long term relationships with people, challenges, and context. Reading gives us things to talk about and shifts the detail load, in some cases, from having to talk about everything to having things to talk about when we show up. I would even go so far as asserting that a reading experience can be a conversation in itself.

Figuring out where we balance the efficiency and effectiveness of text-based communication is a huge challenge. Rather than an extreme X doesn't help with Y, maybe we need a better lexicon or pattern library to help folks make decisions on what works where?

Jon Barber said...

I could not help but be bemused that you wrote this article for us to read about how reading is no way to learn.

Mark S said...

Very interesting read, thanks for sharing.

Why do you think highest achievers like Elon Musk etc are voracious readers and also recommend people to read books?

Here's Elon Musk on the importance of reading:
https://youtu.be/NG0ZjUfOBUs?t=38m20s