Our pro-book bias makes it less likely we’ll learn anything

"Carrying Books" By garryknight on Flickr

I’m a reader. I love books and I love words. I’ve spent countless hours in book stores and libraries, and I’ll continue to do so for a long, long time.

But (bet you saw that coming), there’s something I love even more than reading: learning. I love living at a time when almost everything I could ever want to know is available to me, and a lot of it is available for free. And increasingly, due to the low cost of bandwidth and increased ease of accessing and using communication technology, much of that information is now available in non-book form.

Having compared the two, I’ve become convinced of a couple things:

  • Learning via video or audio is usually as good, and often superior to, learning by reading*, and
  • We think books are better because we’re biased. We’re conditioned to believe that books are “smarter” than audio and video.

There’s a good reason why books seem superior: for centuries, they provided the best opportunities for learning. The written word was our best learning tool because it was our only learning tool. Today, though, the truth is that reading is tremendously inefficient compared to other ways of learning. Consider:

    • Reading requires a least relative quiet, whereas with audio and video tools can shut out other noises when quiet isn’t possible
    • Reading requires you to be still/stationary, whereas you can interact with audio tools while you’re on the move: walking, exercising, driving, etc.
    • Reading requires at least one hand and usually two, whereas video/audio tools free your hands, allowing you to multitask^–fold some laundry or iron a few shirts, for example
    • Reading is a solitary activity, whereas video and audio tools allow you to learn in sync with others

Again, I’m not saying we should give up on books. However, I think in many cases books should be considered the learning tool of last resort. If they’re our default learning medium, their inefficiency means we may end up not accessing information at all for fear of accessing it in the “wrong” way. That means our pro-book bias may actually be one of the greatest barriers to learning that we face.

*One exception: if you want to write well, reading is a must. But that still doesn’t mean you need to learn only by reading.
^I’m not a big fan of multitasking when it involves competing tasks that need even a little of your mental attention. But when it comes to tasks that are more physical than cerebral, your brain’s on hiatus anyway. You may as well use that time efficiently.
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2 Responses to Our pro-book bias makes it less likely we’ll learn anything

  1. Jim DeBenedictis says:

    As a high school history teacher and a life long reader, I see a lot of truth in this post. However, I would advise that depth of learning comes with reading. I could learn about a topic such as the American revolution in a documentary or online exhibits. But for depth in a topic that would come with investigating real scholarship and primary sources still far outpaces the multitude of audio visual platforms that can be found online. Now there is a ton of primary documents online, but I still feel the published and academic historian is a better source at guiding the learner through the volumes of online content, which does not all come with the fact checking of a 3rd party editor. It makes me think of web md sites. They provide a ton of medical information but we still need family doctors and specialists to bring us back from the hypocondriac ledge. Sorry for any confusion or errors on this post, my first iPhone post and I couldn’t find the book of directions.

  2. Nancy McCammon-Hansen says:

    Recent commentary has noted that we retain information better if we read that information in a book vs. reading it on-line. While I like my Nook for its convenience, I can’t underline in it and referencing more than one page at a time in it is nigh on to impossible. Thus I use the Nook for “junk” reading and books for the stuff I want to reference. I also get newsletters (which you, by the way, cautioned me to pare down to make my email more efficient) but find they are best for quick updates on the news but not for analysis. You still can’t beat a newspaper or newsmagazine for a good read about the issues. Some people are auditory learners–my spouse and a former boss for two–but listening to a book does not work for me if I really need to retain the information since I am a visual learner.

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