The Vital Role of Inefficiency in Learning

The Long Room

How do we define “learning?”  Is learning the harvest of a creative endeavor that requires a genuine investment of effort and sacrifice on our part or merely a transactional act focused on how rapidly we can access and ingest information and data?  We live in an era where obtaining information has become astonishingly efficient on an unprecedented scale.  More information can be accessed through a device that can fit into our pants pocket than the sum total of information held in the estimated 164 million books housed in the Library of Congress.  iPads and smartboards threaten to outnumber books in classrooms.  This digital revolution has shifted our perceptions and ideas about how we learn.  Lately, I’ve been pondering that question as I consider my approach to language learning and really, learning in general. 

I have an incredibly talented friend named Greg whom I greatly admire who has enjoyed success in a number of diverse areas of life.  One of the things I always marveled at was how incredibly well read Greg is. He often has reported reading what I know to be very intellectually dense books that are fairly long in his free time over the course of a long weekend. One day we were talking about a book I had just recommended to him and he said he had received it the day before and read the entire book that same night. I was incredulous. I asked him how on earth he accomplished such a feat because I had been carefully reading through it over the course of a week and found the writing to be deeply fascinating and rich, something meriting a slower more deliberate pace much like a glass of fine wine or cognac would be enjoyed. As we continued to talk, he revealed that his reading technique is to quickly scan and speed read through a book to rapidly acquire the information that is most important in each chapter. He would quickly summarize and reduce entire chapters down to what he interpreted as being the primary salient points. He doesn’t see the need to read every word. He extracts the essentials with surgical precision and in doing so, saves himself an immense amount of time. His productive and efficient approach to reading enables him to allocate the time otherwise lost to other activities. I jokingly told him that doesn’t really qualify as actually having “read the book.” He said of course it does. He challenged me to ask him anything about the book and he could summarize the main points the author was trying to make.


For my friend, reading appears to be a transactional activity where the goal is to efficiently and expediently identify and cull information. If a reader’s goal is simply to obtain information, I can appreciate the argument for this approach. I think for certain types of books, like those designed for instructional or informational purposes, I could see this practice being useful. But for the type of reading I deeply enjoy, books rich with metaphor, philosophical arguments, critical analysis, authentic storytelling and poetic prose, this approach tragically reduces a book to being merely a territory to be fracked for its data resources. In doing so, we abandon the vital role of having a “relationship with the land”—the territory that a reading piece guides us through.  That relationship is only accessible through a pilgrimage through the terrain of the book.  If I were to visit Yellowstone, I could choose to see the sites like Grand Prismatic Springs, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone Canyon and Mammoth Hot Springs via a flyover by helicopter.  I would certainly have a grand sense of the place but I could never know it intimately in the way that only a foot pilgrimage affords.  


In this particular story, I’m referring to reading but this preoccupation with efficiency is something I also observe happening with learning in general.  When our goal is speed and efficiency, words and learning experiences are reduced to superficial consumable objects of which we have the illusion of there being an infinite supply of, perhaps feeling a compulsive and competitive urge to stockpile. The learning exchange is reduced to being a mere transaction of information that we don’t savor, digest and deeply consider but binge and bloat ourselves on. There is a lack of vitality in such exchanges that contribute to a kind of mental obesity. A recent statistic I read says we waste 40% of our food here in America. I would speculate it is one of the unintended consequences of overabundance and easy access to food. Our portion sizes at restaurants are famously enormous compared to other parts of the world—to the point that a large meal for a single adult might constitute the daily consumption quantity of an entire family in other parts of the world. As a result of over abundant access, perhaps we don’t feel the need to decide (from Latin “dēcīdere”—to cut off) so we just order everything with the knowledge we won’t eat it all and can just throw it away. Has the internet and digital technology created a similar phenomenon with information? We feel it is always instantaneously accessible so we don’t need to curate what we want to know. Perhaps we think we can “know it all.” In reality, as with our oversized restaurant portions, perhaps most information goes undigested and wasted. Perhaps the speed at which we devour information results in “indigestion?” Knowledge is no longer regarded as precious but rather as disposable. Has knowledge been reduced to being nothing more than “throw-away” information? In pre-modern times, monasteries were pilgrimage destinations not merely because of religious reasons but because they were rare places of learning. They were the original universities. To get to these sacred sites, one had to undergo a pilgrimage that required sacrifice and the suffering of ordeals. One had to possess a tolerance for mystery and not knowing what lies ahead versus today, where we will research a planned journey in almost painstaking detail so as to avoid any surprises.

It may be that, in our increasingly gadget-driven society, we have lost a certain sense of why we travel. Robert Louis Stevenson famously declared, ‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.' He was speaking to an audience for whom travel had a destination, and also a home to which the traveler might safely return to profit from the experience. Today’s travel has no destination. Its purpose is not to move but to stand still, to remain in the here and now or, what amounts to the same thing, to move almost instantaneously from site to site, so that there is no passage from one point to another, either in space or in time, much as in our new reading habits. Unfortunately, such methods affect not only travel and reading. They affect our thoughts as well, our reflective capacities, our intellectual muscles. Our thinking functions require not only awareness of ourselves but also awareness of our passage through the world, and awareness of our passage through the pages of a book.
-The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm

Alberto Manguel

more than containers for information

If we reduce humans to being no more than containers for information, we will approach learning from a perspective that champions and elevates efficiency as the centrally informing value. Human beings are not merely warehouses for inert bits of information.  We have a unique facility for taking arid bits of data and hydrating it into something living and vital that forms the basis for how we connect to others and our world.  This is precisely what happens with learning.  Perhaps it’s more useful to look at a book as a living organism of knowledge where its paragraphs function as living tissue comprised of a network of dynamically interconnected words that each perform a vitally important function. These word cells of information work in concert with others to animate and breathe a book to life. This is knowledge—our ability to organize and shape information into meaning by means of relationships rather than transactions. We are meaning makers. We are creators. If information is reduced to being nothing more than lifeless data that needs to be retrieved, we will be concerned with valuing it for quantity—how much of it we can hoard and regurgitate mindlessly on command. Knowledge, however, is vital, dynamic and relational. Human beings have a natural instinct to seek connection and relationships.  This is one of the main reasons I have been such a huge believer in the power of extraordinary teachers to steward deeply engaging learning experiences.  Great teachers create a wonder charged atmosphere in their classrooms by bringing their own curiosity to the learning container which cultivates a genuine sense of movement rather than the stasis that occurs with an information acquisition mindset.  They are “travel guides” that encourage learners to venture out into the labyrinth of learning with an adventurous spirit that prizes relationship to the terrain traversed to the efficiency of crossing it, reminding us of Robert Louis Stevenson’s sage admonition, that the “great affair is to move.”

All photos © Chris Franek

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