Reading to Learn

“…in our society we have reading and math tests. And then, we have more reading and math tests. We all agree that math is important for reasons that have eluded me…  So, now, I will make an even more ridiculous argument which will be ignored by most of the population. Reading doesn’t matter either.”  Those words appeared in the blog Education Outrage by Roger Schank on Thursday, August 6, 2015.  This followed a post on July 11, 2015 titled Reading is no way to learn.  I have been following that blog—I have it on my RSS feed—for some time, and I have known Roger Schank for an even longer time (which is why I follow his blog), so I wasn’t really too taken aback.  Roger sometimes seems to go out of his way to be inflammatory, I suppose to get people to take notice and be motivated to take action.  (The efficacy of that approach could be the topic of a later post?) Nonetheless, the statements “reading doesn’t matter” and “reading is no way to learn” did get me thinking.

I first met Dr Schank in the late 80’s at a conference on Artificial Intelligence.  I had just started a new job with a new company and we were interested in exploring how this new computer technology could be harnessed to create value for our customers.   I walked away from that initial conversation thinking “what an arrogant s-o-b”; Roger still comes across that way sometimes, but I believe he has a right to because he has demonstrated the most insight and expertise into how people learn of anyone I have ever met.  Sometimes his frustration with the education system just overshadows his patience.  A case in point:

Sometime after that initial meeting, the local chapter of a professional organization invited Roger to speak.  The company I worked for offered to host the event in its new 300 seat auditorium in Boulder, CO.  I was nominated to introduce the speaker, which I did to a full house of tech workers early afternoon on a mid week work day.  Roger took the stage, scanned the audience with a puzzled look, then proceeded to ask: “Why are you all here?  What…To hear a lecture?  Everyone knows you don’t learn a damn thing from a lecture.  Why are you here?”  He then spent the next hour belying his statement with the story of a computer system his company was working on to engage kids in learning.  That learning encompassed no lectures, but did have the kids fighting over who got to use the resource and when, volunteering to spend their free time showing others how to use it, and drawing some conclusions that were valid but not programmed into the system.  But being an academic, and given the constraints of the situation, Roger had to resort to the standard approach to get his message across, albeit in a fashion that many academics there, myself included, wished they could emulate.

If you scan prior posts on Roger’s blog (, you can quickly find other outrageous posts: Stop teaching “science”; Teach rigorous thinkingWhy it makes no sense to teach history.   I particularly enjoy it when the New York Times does an editorial on education since they invariably get it wrong and that lights Roger’s fuse. (The post on October 27, 2014 is a good example.)  To a lesser extent this is also true of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

But back to reading and learning.  The argument for reading being no way to learn is based on the observation that if there were someone available with the knowledge we sought, we’d opt for conversation and verbal instruction.  Maybe.  I can actually recall times as an undergraduate, for example, when I had heard the material presented by a teacher, had discussed it with colleagues in the class, but really didn’t completely grasp it until I had some time to mull over the written description in the textbook and think about it.  Okay, I don’t want to argue by anecdote (although my son who does financial analytics facetiously says that the plural of anecdote is data); I merely want to trigger a thought process about what really is going on when we learn, as well as when we read.

Learning is defined in many ways, but most encompass something ultimately about rewiring in the brain.  We make synaptic connections that weren’t there before which enable us to act differently when presented with certain stimuli.  That’s a pretty crude rendition of what is really going on, but simple enough to readily grasp.  If we accept that, at least for cognitive learning—dealing with concepts as opposed to behavioral or affective learning—then the question becomes can the act of reading trigger new synaptic connections.  Can we really say we learned something by reading?

If we look at reading carefully, we realize that what we are doing is visually scanning symbols arranged on a page (smartphone, tablet, computer screen) which based on prior learning (strong synaptic connections already in place) we trigger ideas related to the symbols but far more robust.  The symbols a-p-p-l-e-p-i-e bring to mind thoughts of mom’s home cooking, a delicious desert we had at some restaurant, etc.  So the process of reading is already dependent on prior learning, and indeed takes a great deal of learning to really master.  Since we tend to lay that foundation in our early years in and before school, we might lose sight of all the effort that went into it and that supports the opportunity for us to continue to scan these symbols, generate concrete or even abstract ideas, and create the synaptic connections that these symbols convey.  Now is that real learning?  Can I really say I know something just because I read it and was able to interpret the symbols I saw?  That is more of a philosophical question: when do we really know something, but I would be inclined to say that more often I now believe something based on the authority of the source of the symbols I scanned than that I really know it.   And if I only believe it, did I really learn something?

I don’t think the same is true of something that I have experienced directly and therefore claim to have learned.  Some physical facts I think I know because I have experienced them repeatedly—if you put water in a place where the temperature is below 32 degrees F for some time, it turns to ice.  If you get a single sheet of paper too close to an open flame, it bursts into flame.  But then I don’t have the luxury or time to directly experiment with everything I want to learn.  I take on faith or authority that what is propelling my car forward on the highway is a succession of thousands of small controlled explosions in the engine; I have never witnessed that directly, but it makes sense, I’ve seen simple demonstrations, I can convincing argue for what is transpiring, so I claim I know or have learned how an internal combustion engine works.

I feel at this point that I have backed myself into a corner where what I have said is true enough but possibly not relevant to anything beyond what I’ve said.  So what kind of a framework do we need to construct to get a better grasp on learning in all its varied and wonderful manifestations?  For that we can turn to the literature, and yes read and interpret it, to see if we can add to our learning about reading and learning?

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