Monday, April 4

Books: The new white bread?

White bread is wonderful. Our parents and their parents swore by it as key to our diet. It is part of our culture, depicted in oil paintings, discussed in epic poetry. Preparing bread is a cultural milestone from our own Paleolithic history. Just mentioning a great baguette, brioche, or even peasant bread makes my mouth water. It is the base of our current prescribed food pyramid.

And yet we are learning that it might not be the perfect food. The process of preparing white flour might take out much of what was good in it. The results is something that tricks our body into thinking it is getting nourishment, while spiking and upsetting parts of our own internal chemical balance.

White bread is still a fabulous treat, and it fits nicely into a healthy diet. But to go overboard with it results in bloat rather than health.

That brings me to books. We are very proud of books. Many have a religious zeal about them, especially those old enough to remember when they were very scarce. We all have books that transformed us, that helped make us who we are today. There is no better way of transferring someone else’s internal monologue than a good book. They teach us empathy and respect. We also get facts, allowing us to make more informed decisions.

And yet, as we try to take what we have read and apply it to real situations in an attempt to get a desired result, we are starting to have our own Atkins “aha’s.” We become increasingly aware of what they don’t contain, as much as what they do contain. We love the buzz of a good book, like a good vacation, but hate the transition back to our world.

And, we start to look at computer games and simulations, not as whole wheat bread necessarily, but something with elements that we know we need.

Enough. I am off to read the morning paper and get a bagel.


Richard Clark said...

While you and I agree on the basic premise that games and simulations are among the most effective teaching tools we have, I believe your analogy is basically flawed.

Let's take the comparison between games, simulations, and Atkins. They all work by creating a deliberately restricted environment where the options for success (and survival) are extremely limited; Atkins basically uses an emergency metabolic pathway meant for serious famine conditions. Both can have a problem in transitioning from the initial environment into the real world unless there's a fair bit of coaching or other assistance. Both also entice many people to adopt only the surface attributes (e.g. compare forced-path "application simulations" to the induction phase of Atkins -- easy to describe, not so hard to implement, and not a sustainable strategy in the long run.) Both are being spun heavily by marketeers who see great opportunities for upselling in prepackaged "convenience" items for those who want to ride the bandwagon but who are far from mastering its challenges.

How about the comparison between books and "white" bread? Are books overly refined and lacking in essential elements? If you subsided on a diet of them alone, you would be lacking something essential, but this applies to any one of our tools taken in isolation. Books range in value from soul-satifyingly nutritious to the lightest of confections; we can't really dismiss the lot out of hand.

The books-to-bread comparison has some interesting resonances. White bread was favored by royalty in large part due to the extreme effort required to produce fine white flour. (Every culture has a preferred form of conspicuous consumption.) In time, with mechanization, this "luxury" became widely available, and actually lost quality as bakers began using dough conditioners and other tricks to produce it ever more quickly. Thus did a rare hand-crafted product become a cheap, bland commodity product.

Desktop publishing and print-on-demand solutions are doing the same thing for books -- lowering the barrier to entry an dthe cost of produciton, but also lowering the overall quality.

Based on that definition, I'd say a fair bit of classroom instruction is akin to early white bread (valued for the personal effort required to create it), and most e-*cough*-learning is the commoditized version, built more for the convenience of the producers than the health of the consumers.

I would treat books more as an ingredient; in fact, I'd compare them to the "secret ingredient" on Iron Chef. Used with skill and imagination, the ideas from a book can combine with other ideas to form surprising and delicious combinations (or leave the reviewers lamenting the lack of taste.) Give that same ingredient to a novice, and nothing much may result.

My experience is that most companies are still looking for the cheap-and-familiar: books, powerpoint, and simple web pages as "e-learning", and Google for informal learning. There's not enough of a culture (yet) around games, simulations, mentoring, and communities-of-practice to entice most people there, as delicious and wholesome as these things are.

Clark Aldrich said...

Richard, it is clear to me that you know more than I about both bread and Atkins!

My main point was of over-refining. The point about bread was not that it was incomplete (which any one thing is), but that the process of making white bread takes out so much of what was good in the raw ingredients. The linear content of books and classes is much less complete than most people think, even about the topic area the material portends to cover.

Richard Clark said...

But, aren't games and simulations even more focused ("refined")?

Here's an interesting tidbit: Melville Dewey, who designed the Dewey Decimal System used to categorize most books, was an advocate of just turning children loose into a field and letting them discover as they went through their day. Talk about access to rich and raw experiences!

If we talk about modern instruction, my favorite tools are close to simulations -- taking a real-world system (with just enough constraints to make it manageable) and instrumenting it, then turning the learner loose with a little guidance. MIT has been doing it for their electrical engineering classes, wrapping expensive components with instrumentation and making the system available via the web. I built one of these in software while I was at Apple (instrumenting a block of memory to show how the Macintosh managed memory), and it was quite the hit.

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