Using learning design to make knowledge stick with us.
By inventing the printing press in 1440, Johannes Gutenberg made books scalable. Since then, our means to record, store, and access text information haven’t changed much. The 1993 invention of PDFs and the 2010s commercialization of e-books didn’t innovate the medium itself. Books still consist of words forming paragraphs and chapters.
I love reading. In the past months, I explored evidence-based reading strategies and avid readers’ habits like Bill Gates, Richard Feynman, and Ali Abdaal. It wasn’t until I discovered Andy Matuschak’s blog that I grasped the limited nature of the medium itself.
Andy Matuschak is a software engineer, designer, and researcher who helped build iOS at Apple and led R&D at Khan Academy. He works on technologies that expand what people can think and do. After reading his evergreen note systems and his exploratory ed-tech solutions, you might agree with me on his humble brilliancy. The quotes in this article are from his essay on books.
Why Books Don’t Work
Books are designed on the flawed assumption that people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. Your own experience might show learning doesn’t work that way.
How much can you truly remember from your last read non-fiction book? What can you recall from ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ ‘Sapiens,’ or ‘Good Economics for Hard Times’? Andy describes what we often recognize in conversations about non-fiction books.
“But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment. “
He describes what cognitive scientists call the illusion of knowledge. Often, we feel like we understood something, while in truth, we barely grasped a concept. Many of us fail to connect the dots to facilitate deep understanding. Reflecting on his inability to remember content from non-fiction books, Andy writes:
“All this suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.”
So, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey are wrong when they praise books’ power? Don’t we expand our minds by reading through pearls of wisdom of philosophers, business leaders, and humble geniuses?
We might. But we aren’t as effective as we wish.
When we look at how humans learn, we find books don’t work in our favor. Words on paper build on a concept called transmission — the idea that knowledge can be directly transmitted from pages to the reader’s mind.
No idea could be further from the truth. Our brains don’t work like recording devices, and we barely learn through consumption.
This isn’t the mistake of authors who don’t write great content — it’s the nature of the book medium itself. What helps us better understand and remember what we read?
How to Make Books Work For You
Thinking about thinking helps readers understand and better remember new knowledge. Here’s how meta-cognition while reading would look and sound like according to Andy:
“The process is often invisible. These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…,” “This point conflicts with…,” “I don’t really understand how…,” etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing.”
He describes a truth we often forget. Learning is not visible and works best when it feels slow and difficult.
Non-fiction books don’t have built-in learning mechanisms. Readers need to plan, execute, and monitor how they think and engage with the book’s ideas and principles. They have to do the meta-learning work on their own.
Thinking about thinking is challenging. It tasks time, practice, and effort. And as this peer-reviewed study shows, many people struggle to meta-learn while reading. Adults overestimate their reading comprehension. Andy states:
“When books do work, it’s generally for readers who deploy skillful metacognition to engage effectively with the book’s ideas.”
How Better Books Would Look Like
Books that work for us would build on existing insights from learning theory and cognitive science. How can we design mediums to nudge us into meta-learning habits?
We know that effective learning strategies include retrieval, elaboration, spaced repetition, interleaving, self-testing, and reflection. A better medium would design the user’s journey around it.
Andy’s book “Quantum computing for the very curious” is the first effort towards a better composition. Reading his medium doesn’t feel like reading a book. The explanatory text is tightly woven with brief interactive review sessions to exploit the ideas they introduced.
“Reading it 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.
Here we have self-testing, a tool that helps you overcome the illusion of knowledge. Spaced repetition is also part of the book’s design:
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.
Lastly, Andy’s book also includes the practice of interleaving — a switch of a topic before a completed task. Alternate working on different problems feels more difficult as it facilitates forgetting, a process needed to make information stick to our long-term memories.
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.”
While this is an interesting idea towards improving written information, the future of books is still unresolved. Current books don’t work in favor of human memory and learning. So, how do you change your reading game to make non-fiction books stick?