Why books don't work

post by lifelonglearner · 2019-05-11T20:40:27.593Z · score: 16 (11 votes) · LW · GW · 20 comments

This is a link post for https://andymatuschak.org/books/

A look at how books are not optimal for conveying information. Analogies to lectures, with an interesting take on cognitive models, i.e. the assumptions you make about how learning happens. Also some interesting citations on average reading time and attention span.

I really like this piece because it ties together lots of thoughts I've previously tried to express, but didn't find the right words for. I think it does a very good job of pointing out how the default mediums are not optimal.

Also interesting to note the author has collaborated with Michael Nielsen (who wrote a fantastic online book on neural networks) on another online book on quantum computing which incorporates spaced repetition, and he has also done prior work for Khan Academy.

20 comments

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comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-05-11T21:28:11.845Z · score: 12 (11 votes) · LW · GW

This post makes some rather sweeping claims, but is light on data and engagement with research. (In fact, it’s not clear to me after reading it whether there is any research on the effectiveness of books; surely there must be, but none seems to be mentioned.)

… ah, no, let me amend that comment. Actually, there is a footnote (it’s easy to miss on a first read) that says:

Unfortunately, my literature reviews have turned up no formal studies of this question, so I can only appeal to your intuition.

Come now! Intuition is a grossly insufficient and tremendously misleading guide to answering questions like this. If the question hasn’t been formally studied, then the fact is that we simply do not know the answer! “We haven’t tried to investigate the matter systematically, so let’s go with our gut” is no good.

Furthermore, some of the claims about books, and their effect, seem to amount to “generalizing from one example” (or, at most, a few examples). This is problematic, especially because, in this case, said claims do not seem to me to be true. For instance—

Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly.

This does not happen to me regularly.

I know I’m not alone here. When I share this observation with others—even others, like myself, who take learning seriously—it seems that everyone has had a similar experience. The conversation often feels confessional: there’s some bashfulness, almost as if these lapses reveal some unusual character flaw. I don’t think it’s a character flaw, but whatever it is, it’s certainly not unusual. In fact, I suspect this is the default experience for most readers.

This is not consistent with my experience.

Some people may have read Thinking, Fast and Slow for entertainment value, but in exchange for their tens of millions of collective hours, I suspect many readers—or maybe even most readers—expected to walk away with more.

Many of the claims in this book have fallen to the replication crisis. Perhaps it is not the best example.

In these brief notes, we’ll explore why books so often don’t work, and why they succeed when they do.

If you don’t have any solid evidence at all (much less enough evidence to warrant such a strong conclusion) for the claim that “books don’t work”, it seems extremely premature to speculate on why they don’t work, or when they do work. Beware of attempting to explain phenomena that are not actually real.

comment by lifelonglearner · 2019-05-12T05:45:08.217Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think I agree that the generalizations you cited were hasty, especially as there is no formal review on those matters. I, too, find that I can get value out of books and can probably do a better job than just giving a brief summary.

Let me try to pick out the parts that I liked and see if you disagree with those:

The main part of the thesis that I found interesting was the analogy between books and lectures. In both cases, there is the potential of transmissionism as one naive way of thinking about how information gets absorbed.

It's clearer, however, that lectures in an educational setting aren't enough. Without problem sets, examples, and other applications, most of the "real learning" doesn't happen. (i.e. "mathematics is not a spectator sport") Good professors seem to recognize this and supplement their teachings accordingly.

Then, the author points out that a similar acknowledgment for books is not the norm. There is still room for improving the medium, and one example he gave was the spaced repetition enhanced online book. There is an undercurrent of "you as the reader need to put in effort to get value out of your reading", which I agree with. It's a different state of mind when I'm reading for insight vs reading for fun. In the first case, I might re-read passages, skip around, stop for a bit, take some notes, etc. etc. whereas in the second case, I'm probably just reading rather quickly from cover to cover.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-05-12T06:09:09.696Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, if an instructor were, for some strange reason, to decide that he will only give lectures, and not assign any problems, projects, etc., then the students will not learn the material. Similarly, if a student were, for some strange reason, to decide that he will only attend lectures and not take notes, put together outlines or study guides, read the text, or do the exercises, he will not learn the material.

This seems very obvious and is almost certainly true for the overwhelming majority of, if not all, academic subjects. It’s also not new. In fact, I have never met anyone who works in education and thinks otherwise.

Then, the author points out that a similar acknowledgment for books is not the norm.

That anything similar is true for books needs to be demonstrated, not just asserted without evidence. “Books”, for one thing, is a much broader category than “lectures”, even if you limit the scope of your claim to non-fiction books.

There is still room for improving the medium

What medium? Books in general? Textbooks in particular? If the former, then I’m not really sure how to intepret it—what does it mean to improve “books”? If the latter, well… textbooks already come with supplementary material, such as media on CD or on the web, workbooks, exercises, etc. (I don’t remember the last time I encountered a textbook that you’re expected to just read as if it were a novel, and somehow learn the material that way.) Is there room for some new sort of enhancement to textbooks? Yeah, maybe. Who knows.

It seems like maybe what’s going on here is that the author of the linked post has come up with (what he considers to be) a fancy new kind of edutech, and in order to hype it up, he’s got this grandiose, sweeping thesis about how “books don’t work”, and his fancy new thing is the answer. Well, shiny modern edutech ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re mostly empty promises based on questionable theories. What makes this one different?

comment by Benquo · 2019-05-12T17:06:17.809Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW
Yes, if an instructor were, for some strange reason, to decide that he will only give lectures, and not assign any problems, projects, etc., then the students will not learn the material. Similarly, if a student were, for some strange reason, to decide that he will only attend lectures and not take notes, put together outlines or study guides, read the text, or do the exercises, he will not learn the material.

I don't disagree, but this seems indicative of preexisting damage to the students or at least a direly impoverished environment. After all, we usually don't give babies problems, projects, etc to teach them to walk and talk, but they learn just fine. Someone invented this stuff, and plenty of people in the past have made efficient use of standardized streams of text (whether delivered visually or aurally) to improve their understanding of a thing.

If someone said CDs don't work because you can't hear the music by looking at them, we'd wonder whether this person knows about CD players.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2019-05-23T05:24:55.742Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

we usually don't give babies problems, projects, etc to teach them to walk and talk, but they learn just fine

We have adaptations for learning to walk and talk, though: the process for learning evolutionarily-novel content could be different.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-05-12T17:16:33.949Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Uh… what? This comment really makes very little sense. I hesitate to try and pick it apart, but literally every sentence of what you wrote there seems to individually be wrong, and also together they seem like a bunch of non sequiturs… I’ve got to be misunderstanding what you’re saying; could you try and rephrase?

comment by Benquo · 2019-05-13T03:50:07.162Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I would expect healthy people who want to learn something found in a book to think of complements to the book, e.g. to take initiative to try something based on what the book says, to think through different cases than the ones discussed in the book to see how the same principles might apply, etc.

If students wouldn't do that, something's gone wrong that isn't easily summarizable as a local failing of pedagogy.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2019-05-13T06:35:49.034Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You’ve switched from talking about lectures (in your earlier comment which confused me) to talking about books. Now I’m even more confused.

I’m going to go ahead and try and pick apart your earlier comment, after all, in the hopes that it will let us disentangle this confusion. Here goes…

Yes, if an instructor were, for some strange reason, to decide that he will only give lectures, and not assign any problems, projects, etc., then the students will not learn the material. Similarly, if a student were, for some strange reason, to decide that he will only attend lectures and not take notes, put together outlines or study guides, read the text, or do the exercises, he will not learn the material.

I don’t disagree, but this seems indicative of preexisting damage to the students or at least a direly impoverished environment.

This seems straightforwardly false, but there’s not much to dissect here without specifics of why you think this. One question does occur to me: by “this” do you refer to the first part of the bit you quoted (about the instructor), or the second (about the student), or both?

After all, we usually don’t give babies problems, projects, etc to teach them to walk and talk, but they learn just fine.

But of course we do. Parents talk to their kids, and read to them, including children’s books and alphabet books and nursery rhymes and “say ‘ma-ma’! go on… ‘ma-ma’!” and so on; and parents play with their kids, and build or buy playpens, etc., etc. What is that, but “problems” and “projects”?

Someone invented this stuff, and plenty of people in the past have made efficient use of standardized streams of text (whether delivered visually or aurally) to improve their understanding of a thing.

This is a perplexing sentence and I’m not sure how to interpret it; do you simply mean “people have been giving lectures and writing books for a long time”? If so, then of course that is true, but do you claim that “in the past” (when?), lectures didn’t come with exercises or problems or any form of practice, but nonetheless were as effective, or more effective, than modern instruction?

(And I really have no clue what “Someone invented this stuff” refers to.)

If someone said CDs don’t work because you can’t hear the music by looking at them, we’d wonder whether this person knows about CD players.

I’m having a hard time applying this analogy/metaphor to the case of lectures. In this metaphor, it seems to me, I said “if you’re handed only a CD and no player, you will not be able to hear the music on it”, and you’re saying “the inability to hear the music on a CD without having a player is a sign of pre-existing damage”. Or, something like that?

Anyway, if you find yourself motivated to explain further, please stick with the topic of lectures; it seems to me that I need to understand what you’re saying about that, before you can talk about whether the same applies to books, etc.

comment by Benquo · 2019-05-13T13:39:28.742Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Lectures were literally invented as a method of text distribution, when printing was unavailable and paper expensive. I don't mean that in the past they were more effective than integrated instruction - I mean that an academic context in which the main formal service provided was delivery of lectures did not prevent students from thinking about the content of lectures on their own.

Here's what I meant by the CD metaphor. It seems like there's an old practice of doing the equivalent of handing students CDs. We can now see that this practice is broken, in the sense that students, lacking CD players, don't appreciate the music or other audio. One plausible interpretation is that the practice of handing students CDs has always been a poor fit for the audio formats compatible with students' ears. But another plausible interpretation - the one I'm proposing - is that the students used to have CD players, and no longer do.

Likewise, it's not as though learning didn't go on in highly lecture-centric (or book-centric) contexts. So if students aren't learning from lectures (and books), we might expect that some interpretive faculty they used to have is now absent. This seems to me like it ought to be a higher priority to get to students (or stop taking away from them), than the content of almost any particular lecture course.

comment by Benquo · 2019-05-13T13:42:35.550Z · score: 8 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Parents talk to their kids, and read to them, including children’s books and alphabet books and nursery rhymes and “say ‘ma-ma’! go on… ‘ma-ma’!” and so on; and parents play with their kids, and build or buy playpens, etc., etc. What is that, but “problems” and “projects”?

It's play. In extremely rare cases like A Mathematician's Lament, people do propose that teachers play with their students about the subject matter, but mostly problem sets and projects are not assigned by the same methods by which language is introduced to children. If the OP were proposing that professors play with their students, I'd be more sympathetic, and have brought up the babies as a confirming rather than disconfirming example!

comment by MrAKaDeus · 2019-06-25T20:50:31.913Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
It seems like maybe what’s going on here is that the author of the linked post has come up with (what he considers to be) a fancy new kind of edutech, and in order to hype it up, he’s got this grandiose, sweeping thesis about how “books don’t work”, and his fancy new thing is the answer. Well, shiny modern edutech ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re mostly empty promises based on questionable theories. What makes this one different?

I don't want make any general statements. But in this particular case the spaced repetition algorithm is mentioned by the author. And there is pretty solid evidence that it works. Many studies show that it raises long-term retention.

comment by quanticle · 2019-05-11T21:39:37.325Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The author seems to spend almost no time engaging with or thinking critically about the books that he's read, and then claims that "books don't work". Has the author tried writing an outline? Or writing a review?

Simply reading a book, and letting its contents wash over you won't magically make you retain the contents of that book. There is no royal road to knowledge. One has to engage with a book in order to retain not just the conclusions of the book, but also the reasoning that led to the conclusions.

comment by lifelonglearner · 2019-05-12T05:47:10.095Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think the author disagrees all that much with you. I'm reading his claim as something more like "the default attitude (some) people have towards reading does not set them up for good learning".

In the essay, he acknowledges the role that effort and metacognition play in making the actual learning happen. The actionable parts I found useful were at the end where he was hypothesizing about improved mediums, e.g. an online textbook with spaced repetition built in to facilitate recall.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-05-12T00:15:46.401Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW · GW
There is no royal road to knowledge. One has to engage with a book in order to retain not just the conclusions of the book, but also the reasoning that led to the conclusions.

But what if there was? Certainly with hard work and deep reading, you can learn a good amount from books. However, the central point of the piece is that this is not the optimal way to learn. What if with other mediums you can have a lot of this work done for you, learning more material in less time?

comment by quanticle · 2019-05-12T04:20:20.063Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If wishes were horses, all men would ride.

More seriously, I would love for there to be a better way to learn than books, but in practice, books inhabit a sweet spot at the intersection of information density, ease of searching, and portability that's hard for other forms of media to match.

comment by Pausecafe · 2019-05-12T03:41:02.848Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think that "books don't work" isn't a precise enough statement.Take Thinking Fast and Slow, personally I found the book difficult to read because while the content is interesting the writing itself isn't compatible[1] . Maybe because of the genre or intended audience but the book in itself isn't a good choice to learn about it's content (Judgment under uncertainty, biases ...)

I see it this way, to learn about a specific subject I select and skim several textbooks choose the smaller one in number of pages (more on this later) and work trough it on the span of weeks (note taking, trying to understand every part and reflect on where it comes from and so on...) Books like Thinking Fast and Slow I read on a casual basis (commute/coffee/meals) my goal isn't necessarily to understand everything but more like high-lighting passages of interests, important statements etc...

Michael Nielsen text for example about Neural Networks I worked trough it in textbook fashion it has interactive mediums to give an intuitive feel but still it required a bit of thinking and reflexion.

I don't think the medium is the issue here.

[1] I'd describe it as heavy on the prose or writing I don't have the exact words :(

comment by Elo · 2019-05-11T23:30:44.171Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You might like to read "peak" by anders Ericsson on learning and expertise.

Personally I read a lot of books. I then grow, change, adapt and think differently because of the ~70 I've read each year for the past 3 years (and less each year before that). I often encounter people saying that they don't learn from books. And asking me if I do learn from them. I can quote a lot of the books, I can describe how they fit in with the other books I know, I can teach people what was in the books.

I don't believe I am an anomaly. I agree that in-person information transmission is more effective, but the transmitter needs to be good enough. And available. Many books I've read, I could not book the authors time to chat and teach me what they know.

Words point to the non-conceptual reality. In-person transmission enables embodiment of language as well. In short - potentially more transmits.

With books, the writing has to be careful to transmit well. Or the reader has to make assumptions. I tend to think, "who would I have to be to believe what the author has said." at the same time as considering the truth claims and relevance to myself and my perception of reality.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2019-05-12T19:44:11.194Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Still reading, but I certainly got off the bus a bit with this paragraph (which seems largely false to me).

Let’s begin by looking at textbooks in practice. It’s striking that academic courses are often structured around textbooks, but lots of people spend the extra time and money to enroll in those courses—rather than just studying the textbooks independently. Indeed, I suspect that textbooks are mostly purchased for course syllabi, not for self-study. Sure: some people take courses because they want a credential. But plenty of students genuinely feel they’ll learn more by taking courses than they would by studying those courses’ textbooks. Assuming students’ feelings aren’t completely misplaced, courses must be offering something extra that’s important to how people learn.
comment by ChristianKl · 2019-05-13T13:04:55.164Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Courses seem to provide people a way to motivate themselves to study that most people wouldn't have in the same way for reading a textbook (even when in the LW space there are more people who like reading textbooks).

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-05-12T11:25:10.862Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A good book non-fiction book not only helps people to learn a new subject but it also provides evidence that what's supposed to be learned is true.

I have the impression that the author of the article doesn't see that as an important part of the job of a book and would be very willing to replace the book with edtech that only focuses on transmitting ideas so that they are in the head of the student without going through the trouble of providing a case for them.