[EconTalk] Andy Matuschak on Books and Learning

Andy Matuschak on Books and Learning

05/08/2019 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=77683898
Episode: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2019/Matuschaklearning.mp3

Software Engineer Andy Matuschak talks about his essay “Why Books Don’t Work” with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Matuschak argues that most books rely on transmissionism, the idea that an author can share an idea in print and the reader will absorb it. And yet after reading a non-fiction book, most readers will struggle to remember any of the ideas in the book. Matuschak argues for a different approach to transmitting ideas via the web including different ways that authors or teachers can test for understanding that will increase the chances of retention and mastery of complex ideas.

Listen Date: 2019-10-12


  • The original essay is here.
  • The title is deceptive, and this is less a challenge to books, and more properly about the best ways to learn.
  • But here’s the exasperating part. Andy Matuschak seems to be an enthusiastic user or applicator of good learning techniques rather than an expert on them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in principle. But it did mean that the podcast episode (and his essay!) spent more time on his enthusiasm for these techniques (and his rejection of transmissionism from books and lectures) and less on how to reliably apply them. At best, this is a starting point to find a resource that goes into more detail on all the techniques he mentioned:
    • peer discussion and review
    • leading or shaping questions
    • spacing
    • shoeboxes
  • The point about effortful engagement with ideas reminds me of how bullet journalers and handwriting advocates say that it’s the fact that taking handwritten notes isn’t as smooth and easy as typing or recording that makes it leave a larger impression on your brain. But I might be seeing a false similarity.
  • The discussion on how short attention spans are pushing school syllabi to be more interactive made me cast my mind back to different sorts of education I’ve gone through:
    • School – classes would run the gamut from a pure lecture, to practicals, with, in between, lectures on concepts interrupted with exercises.
    • The place that did concepts interrupted with exercises the absolute best was Goethe Institut’s German lessons.
    • I don’t know if I’ve understood Andy Matuschak’s point of spacing correctly, but maybe Duolingo accomplishes that. Maybe.
    • BE: Full lectures, full tutorials, and full labs completely separated. The antithesis of the Goethe Institut approach.
    • MBA: Theoretically only lectures, and practically, each professor would make their lecture as interactive or interspersed with exercises as they had enthusiasm.
  • But on the topic of Goethe Institut – my Chennai batch seemed to be in it for the learning, and far too many of my Delhi batch seemed to be in it for the credential. I don’t know if there’s any cure to that which a teacher or a syllabus can provide.
  • That reminds me of Richard Dawkin’s Sanderson of Oundle essay in A Devil’s Chaplain, where he cribs and bitches about teaching to the test. I’m worried, though, whenever the population becomes too large, is there any option but to have a standardised test? And after that, the pressure to teach to it becomes automatic. And this again links up to the earlier point of whether you want the credential or the education.
  • And that in turn links up with the frustration over multiple choice tests.
  • I liked how Matuschak spoke about an efficient frontier of enjoyableness vs effectiveness of pedagogy.
  • The point about rereading books, especially nonfiction, and how nobody does it enough, engendered a little bit of shame for me.
  • One thing which mystified me a little – if interactive and engaged learning is more effective, and if American school education has gone that way in the recent past, then why is the current stereotype that American students are entering college less educated?


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