Passive vs. active reading and personalization

As you can probably tell, dear reader, recently I have been spending too much time reading and not enough time writing. The blog has been silent. What better way to break this silence than to write a defense of reading? Well, sort of. It would not be much of an eye-opener for you — nor a challenge for me — to simply argue for reading. Given how you are consuming this content, you probably already think that the written word is a worthwhile medium. Given how I am presenting myself, I probably think the same. But are our actions really an endorsement of reading or just the form of communication we begrudgingly resort to because of a lack of better alternatives?

Ostensibly this post will be a qualified defense against an attack on reading by Roger Schank at Education Outrage. Although it is probably best to read it as just a series of reflections on my own experience.[1]

I will focus on the medium-independent aspects of learning that I think give weight to Schank’s argument: the distinction between passive and active learning, and the level of personalization. This will be followed next week by a tangent discussion on the importance of emotional aspects of the text, and close with some reflections on the role of literary value, historic context, and fiction in philosophical arguments. This last point is prompted more by my recent readings of Plato than by Schank. In other words, much like last year, I will rely on Socrates to help get me out of a writing slump.

If you are interested in this topic then I recommend that you read Schank’s original “Reading is no way to learn”. It is full of entertaining and authority affirming anecdotes and is — contrary to its message? — a pleasure to read. To make this post self contained, and to make sure I understood Schank, I will summarize his main points. In the order that he brings them up:

  1. Death by PowerPoint: we learn by doing, not from seeing PowerPoints or reading manuals on how to do. To learn, you need “someone whose work you can observe and copy”. You need to practice through trial and failure while “someone who knows how to do those things” watches over you.
  2. You learn by having experts answer your questions. Resources like Wikipedia and books exist only because we do not know an expert to ask. If we had a panel at experts at our disposal then asking them a question would be our first choice. In time, we will all have access to such a panel of experts[2] and will not need to resort to reading.
  3. Most students do not remember the content of their books and lectures[3] from the year before. Practice is needed, not memorization for a final exam.
  4. We learn by thinking hard while talking to “someone who is more or less our equal and has ideas not identical to ours”.

Hopefully, I haven’t missed anything. Let me know in the comments if I did.

Passive versus Active

It seems to me that points 1, 3, and 4 are actually the same argument thrice repeated: (i) reading is a passive activity, (ii) passive learning is ineffective – especially in comparison to learning by doing or other forms of direct engagement –; thus, (iii) reading is an ineffective way to learn. I’ve dissected these points in this way because I think there is a true kernel. I completely agree with premise (ii); it is the truth that powers Schank’s post. I isolated it from (i) because I think it is not specific to reading. Passive consumption in any medium — be it through reading, viewing, listening, repeating – is surpassed or made much more effective when it is supplemented by active and creative engagement – writing, showing, discussing, trying. It is one thing to see somebody solve a puzzle, and it is a completely different thing to struggle with the puzzle yourself, hit all the dead ends and then finally arrive at a solution.

If reading is defined as moving your eyes across the page until they glaze over then it is surely ineffective. It is simply far too passive. But is this the way we read? We all have different styles which we adopt to different texts[4]. When you are rushing through a whodunit at the beach[5] you engage your mind completely different from when you are reading through a math text and trying to prove every theorem or lemma statement for yourself before looking at the approach the author takes. Both are reading, but one supplements the consumption with a more active engagement. There is a continuum of activity compatible with reading.

If we are going to contrast the written word with other media then we must do so fairly. We need to pick examples at corresponding levels in the passive-active continuum. You can’t compare running your eyes through a weekly shopping list to an emotional discussion with Socrates on the day of his execution. Just like you can’t compare writing a new exegesis of Plato’s Phaedo – including catching up on the existing interpretations – with listening to your mother drone on about those chores you keep forgetting to do.

In other words, I either reject premise (i) or think it to carry no weight. If we define reading as the most passive form – no reflection, no writing of notes, no summarizing – then premise (i) is true but not exceptional: the same applies to the ‘discussion’ where you just hear someone drone, or having TV infomercials playing while you sit on the couch, or somebody guiding your limbs through the actions of some gestures while you sleep or day dream. On the other hand, if we consider a typical level of engagement, some magical average point on the continuum, then it is not clear to me that reading is all that passive. Reading certainly takes more energy than turning on the TV, and only the most introverted would find email easier than a quick chat with the coworker one desk over. If the TV example is too dated then think about how much easier it is to watch a CollegeHumour skit on YouTube than it is to read this post.

Thus, in typical settings, I think that the written word is more demanding and active than many other mediums. This becomes even more the case if we don’t divorce the consumption and generation of text. A careful discussion with a peer might be more enlightening than a reading, but I seldom find it more enlightening than an email correspondence where each person is forced to elaborate and present their ideas clearly. In fact, I find writing to be one of the best ways to sort out and compartmentalize my thoughts. Writing is not simply a chore of committing well-formed ideas to paper. Writing is an exercise in organization, filling out, and finding and hopefully fixing holes in my arguments or thinking. This is why I blog.

Personalization and solving problems

The second major argument in Schank’s post is the one in point 2: personalization.[6] As before, this goes across mediums. A textbook, a speech, or a work out video are in three different mediums, but they are all made once to be consumed by many different people. Due to the vast amounts of media available for consumption, and due to authors being mindful of their target audience, there is still some personalization, but none of those examples can adapt to your unique concerns or road blocks. On the other hand, a StackExchange question, a conversation, or a personal trainer all aim to interact with you individually and can thus adapt to your particular circumstances. As before, the degree of personalization will vary on a continuum. And if you are seeking to solve a problem then the more personalized option is a usually a better resource.

However, I don’t think we are only seeing to solve problems. Unlike the passive-active continuum, the personalization continuum does not have one end as clearly better. The two dimensions are also not independent of each other, and often anti-correlated. A solution which is handed to you ready to use by a panel of experts requires much less engagement than figuring out how to adopt a general method from a textbook to your particular case.[7]

When we read, we are not always looking to solve problems. Or, at least, when we read to solve problems we often get more from our engagement than just solutions. As an example, a good philosophy book for me raises more questions than it answers. More importantly, it raises questions that I didn’t think to ask. Before I can approach Schank, or a panel of experts, to ask what a certain word means or what certain ideas are about, I need to encounter them. The (slight) misalignment between my problems (and knowledge-base) and those that the writer is addressing (and assuming), forces me to refine my questions or focus in on aspects that I didn’t think were worth questioning before. Not having my question answered is sometimes more rewarding than being given the answer.

Further, the static and less personalized nature of a fixed text allows it to act as a point around which culture develops. No discussion is possible if the interlocutors do not share at least some common starting premises, experiences, or characters. Texts can provide this for many people, and serve as a context for future discussion. The real Socrates was able to serve as a teacher and an agenda setter for dozens or maybe even hundreds of Athenians, but Plato’s Socrates set the context for a whole tradition of philosophy — hundreds of thousands of subsequent scholars. As Whitehead noted: “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Without Plato’s texts,[8] European philosophy would have been much less coherent, and less capable of incremental progress.

I agree with the spirit of Schank’s post. We need to encourage more active engagement in learning. I also agree that more personalized content can usually help us solve specific problems, or learn specific well-structured skills. However, I don’t think that learning is always about solving problems. It is just as often about posing problems and absorbing a common culture. Neither of these benefits from highly personalized content, and sometimes it is hurt or made impossible by too much personalization. There are roadblocks to improving our learning and education, but — contrary to Schank — reading is not one of them. The real issues can crop up in any medium and are not more likely to be encountered in print. Addressing them will require an analysis that goes beyond blaming the written word.


  1. This post was also written in piecemeal fragments over three months, so I apologize for the length and lack of single coherent narrative. I have tried to contain most of the tangents in footnotes. It has also swollen in length, so a second post will follow in a week’s time.
  2. I am not certain how Schank imagines this future panel of experts, but I assume that he is referring to some personalized and (artificially) intelligent question-answer system running on an easily accessible device. I will not engage too much with this utopian vision beyond this footnote, but wanted to make a few quick points. We have already had steps on this road before: library-catalogs, internet directories, dumb search, Google search, and we are now seeing the development of ‘personal assistants’ like Siri. None of these eliminated our need to read or engage with the medium actively or adopt general solutions to specific cases. At each step, we simply shifted what we were reading and adjusted the goal-post for what a future ‘panel of experts’ would look like. It is not clear why Schank imagines the latest step to become the last, or in some fundamental way different from past steps. Sure, search and question answering will continue to improve in small steps, as it always have, and we might adapt different interfaces for them like voice in the case of Siri. But even these slight shifts from thumbs to voice doesn’t seem to be motivated by an urge to replace reading rather than the the physical constraints of interfacing with our devices.
  3. I don’t know where exactly the boundaries of reading are for Schank. He seems to count lectures as reading, since it is the professor reading notes to the student. Now, if lectures were just audiobooks — or MOOC style recordings — then I could understand the boundary of ‘reading’: primarily passive consumption of static, mostly linear language-based content independent of modality. This boundary would also include things like movies and TV shows; would it also extend to music, either recorded or live? However, it is not clear that even the worst lectures fall in this boundary. There is always an element of interaction: questions from the class and changes in pacing by the prof in response. If we allow for interactions then it is no longer clear to me what isn’t reading. Dancing would still not be reading, but would watching a dance video or taking a lesson?

    Since I try to focus more on the medium-independent aspects of the discussion, knowing this boundary exactly is not essential to proceed. So I will follow Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” approach.

  4. Differences in engagement aren’t limited to the text, but also vary with the way the text is delivered to you. Chomsky has a nice reflection on this with respect to reading in the digital age:

    I think it’s a double-edged sword, in other words. The new technology does offer the possibility of achieving greater thought and understanding, but it also can reduce it. I don’t know about you, but if I read something on say, Kindle, it’s very different from reading it in a book. You read it in a book, you think about it; you go back to the earlier page, pay attention to it. If you’re reading it on Kindle you’re just trying to get it to go through your head, so fast you don’t remember what was in there. I think that’s kind of a dangerous phenomenon.

    Of course, this variance in engagement is not be the same for all. I don’t have much experience with Kindle, but I don’t engage less with articles when reading on the iPad, but I do struggle to engage actively with audiobooks. Podcasts, although also audio, are somewhere in between for me. Here form comes in, with the dialogue style of most podcast making it easier for me to feel part of the conversation and to engage actively with the arguments.

  5. Even the beach novel is not completely passive. First, you often take more than one day to finish such books, and thus keep state and reflect on the book between reading sessions. Second, there is a component of emotional engagement in literature which I will focus on next week. If you need a truly passive example, consider reading through a phone book.
  6. Schank’s point 1 also brings in the idea of apprenticeship, and in that respect is relevant to the idea of personalization. This is especially true when we hold apprenticeship and tutoring in contrast to mass lecture halls or MOOCs. However, it makes more sense to discuss this in the context of mentors versus teachers, which I will save for next week.
  7. Of course, anti-correlation is not always the case. For example, it takes a lot of effort to ask a good StackExchange question. I’ve often found that the act of asking has at times been more rewarding than the answers. In addition, since writing isn’t going away anytime soon, I think writing questions (and answers) on StackExchange is one of the best ways to train technical writing.
  8. In reality, Plato’s texts might not be the best example of a direct textual influence of the European tradition, mostly because they were absent from European Latindom for a millennium. This millennium is often discounted as a Dark Age of little consequence to philosophy, but that — in my opinion — is a miscategorization forced on us by an overly zealous revisionist history of the Renaissance. However, for a direct influence, Aristotle might be a better example; or if that is unsatisfactory then a less philosophical example can be found in the Bible, and other holy texts. Depending on which definition of reading we take — see footnote 3: is listening to an epic poem a form of reading for Schank? — we could also include Homer and other oral traditions of myth.

About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

6 Responses to Passive vs. active reading and personalization

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    This came to mind —

    Wolf, Maryanne (2007), Proust and the Squid : The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Harper Collins, New York. Paperback edition, Harper Perennial, New York, 2008.

    No time now, here’s a link to some excerpts I posted a few years back —

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    Here is one of the passages that struck me at the time:

    When all is said and done, of course, Socrates’ worries were not so much about literacy as about what might happen to knowledge if the young had unguided, uncritical access to information. For Socrates, the search for real knowledge did not revolve around information. Rather, it was about finding the essence and purpose of life. Such a search required a lifelong commitment to developing the deepest critical and analytical skills, and to internalizing personal knowledge through the prodigious use of memory, and long effort. Only these conditions assured Socrates that a student was capable of moving from exploring knowledge in dialogue with a teacher to a path of principles that lead to action, virtue, and ultimately to a “friendship with his god.” Socrates saw knowledge as a force for the higher good; anything — such as literacy — that might endanger it was anathema. (Wolf, p. 220).

    Wolf, Maryanne (2007), Proust and the Squid : The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Harper Collins, New York. Paperback edition, Harper Perennial, New York, 2008.

  3. Abel Molina says:

    On the tangent side, I’ve experienced the opposite with Kindle – the extra ease of taking notes (if reading in a place away from paper, which for me is most of the time) makes me think more critically about what I’m reading, in case something comes up worth writing down.

  4. Pingback: Emotional contagion and rational argument in philosophical texts | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  5. Pingback: Cataloging a year of blogging | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  6. Pingback: Computational kindness and the revelation principle | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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