"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Reading Is Fun, Reading Is Essential, Reading Is Personal

At third grade, students are now expected to read in order to learn. It is hoped that the earlier grades and preschool had instilled a love for reading. Reading requires not only vocabulary but also motivation since reading demands both effort and time. Stories cultivate a young mind. From fairy tales to super heroes, from playschool drama to animal characters, a child is exposed to situations, plots and relationships. Some of these are entirely new while some may strike a resemblance to what a child may have already experienced, potentially providing personal connections to what a book unfolds. Reading during the early years therefore emphasizes a very active stance. Children are encouraged to make predictions by just looking at the title or cover page of a book. Children are trained to read aloud with appropriate expression, after all, the reading must take into account the mood underlying each passage in the story. A monotone does not convey the story at all if emotions are not taken into account. Young minds are also asked to draw images in their minds while they read. Reading during the early grades seems indeed focused on reading fiction. One therefore wonders how all of the above preparation comes into play when reading a book that is not fiction, but a textbook in General Chemistry for example.

Could a student really predict what the book is all about by simply looking at the cover? Should a reader be preoccupied in finding connections to one's personal life while reading the book? Should a reader be looking for emotions while going through each passage in such a textbook? In college, it seems that students do find learning from textbooks on their own extremely challenging. Willingham and coworkers have found that "some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility". The following table summarizes which learning techniques have been found to be of low utility:

Above table copied from Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1), 4-58

Ineffectiveness in reading is not only apparent in academic settings. People seem to have difficulty getting informed in general. Take for instance the following survey that shows that the US has the lowest percentage agreeing with the notion that climate change is man-made:

Above figure copied from Ipsos MORI
What is further disconcerting is that people seem to have a tendency to cling on misinformation. People seem to learn only those that agree with their preconceived notions. Both social and mainstream media illustrate what it takes to be popular. Post something on Facebook that simply validates your friends' beliefs and you will get many "likes". Post something that is challenging and threatening, prepare to be ignored. A study by Nyhan and Reifler showcases the observation that preconceived notions, beliefs, or political leaning prevent Americans from seeing facts especially when the data are presented in text. There is a slight improvement, however, if the data conflicting with one's political stand are presented in a simple graphical fashion, as illustrated by the following data:

Above figure copied from Nyhan and Reifler
Even in this particular case, the figure used to convey the information must only include pertinent features. Perhaps, even less would affirm the false information that global temperatures have decreased or stayed the same, if a graph simpler than the one shown below was used:

Above figure copied from Nyhan and Reifler
A paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology specifically points out the deleterious effects of too many colors, too many pictures, or too many extraneous information on how children learn math as shown by the following data:

Above figure copied from Kaminski and Sloutsky
Based on the above data, children perform best when figures on a textbook are monochromatic and are free of extraneous ("No Extr" condition) materials.

Reading scientific literature can be challenging. As children grow up, they learn and accumulate knowledge. Information turns into beliefs. Reading scientific reports that challenge these beliefs then becomes a personal matter. And as Nyhan and Reifler show in their work, many people can embrace correct information if they find the new information not psychologically threatening.

At the Ateneo de Manila University, I was required to take several philosophy courses. In one of these courses, phenomenology was extensively discussed. This discipline must start with a state as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions. Let nature unfold. Let the book unfold....

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