Making Your Learner Think, Part II: The Value Of Linear Prose

What makes traditional, pre-1990s books so different from today’s popular books and e-books? To generalise somewhat, the presentation differs in almost every way: Paragraph structure, bulleted lists, visual elements, boxed islands of information, and so forth.

At the risk of sounding obsolete, I’ll make the case for linear flow. The bland presentation of words, paragraph following paragraph, with no intervening illustrations — organised only into sections and chapters — is worthy because it makes the reader think. 

The counter-case comes from a 2002 article by Jay Cross of the Internet Time Group, called Envisioning Learning. The article itself is roughly about “visual literacy,” but here I’m focusing on Cross’ comparison of old and modern books and bookstores.

“What really gripes  me about books,” Cross says, “is that they could be so much better than they are. Give me pictures, photos, charts... Reinforce the words with images... Don’t make me...(decode) text to get the picture.” 

Cross’ gripe here is that lines of type are linear, which is “not the way we think. Our brains operate by matching patterns and making connections. ... Thinking resembles freeform conversation, hopping from one subject to another, changing in emphasis, delivered with emotion, dynamically adapting to the now, forever an engaging assortment of choices and surprise. The written word conveys but one of the options. The author makes the choices. Imagery is to a wriggling puppy as text is to a stuffed dog.”

To me, that’s exactly the point. Our thoughts go from topic to idea, from this concept to that word-image, from the book to reality and back — while the book remains static. If the book’s contents were to resemble our thoughts, which Cross suggests it ideally should, chaos would result. 

As a digression: If the author were not to make the choice of what the reader should think, there would be no need to read him/her. {{Insert your own thoughts in this space and complete this blog post...}}

But seriously, I should note that our minds — wandering, inferring, and deducing — compensate for what the book lacks. If the book were to give the appearance of completeness, we would absorb passively. 

There’s an inversion of sorts here. From a pedagogical point of view, bland lines of prose by an unseen writer give the impression of authority, but leave the discovery to the learner. Text peppered with graphics and illustrations — made user-friendly by means of multiple fonts and colours — tether control to the author.

What we’re talking about here is control versus discovery. 

Jay Cross compares public libraries with bookstores: In the latter, “books are arranged so that it’s easy for me to see them. ... I can see the covers! ... Why don’t libraries look more like Borders?”

Making serendipitous discoveries in libraries has often been noted in positive terms. It is also a very inefficient way of getting at information. That aside, I’m pointing to the notion that a learner will , generally speaking, find what he is looking for. 

You’ve probably heard of this party game: You ask a friend to look around the room for red objects and memorise them for a quiz. You then ask about the blue objects he noticed. People don’t usually recall many.

Likewise, when your learner is presented with a linear-format “boring book,” he/she will — within a given time frame — find the knowledge he set out to find. (It’s not possible to recall all those words!) On the other hand, with a less linear, more “user-friendly” presentation, your learner’s goals will necessarily conflict with the intent of the presenter. Discovery and selection is replaced by passive comprehension. 

Cross does make the point that he doesn’t suggest “(converting) all training programs into pictograms, charts, and cartoons — it wouldn’t be very effective. The role of graphics is to supplement written presentation, not to eradicate it.”

To that, I’d add: Visuals convey; prose evokes.