Dec 4, 2017

New reading and note taking practices

Teaching Machines and programmed instruction

Depending on what definition of technology one uses, technology has always been part of education. In the 1920's Sidney Pressy invented the teaching machine, a device used to teach and assess students' knowledge via multiple choice questions.1 These devices, not necessarily electronic, presented information in an audio and visual format and asked the students to choose the right answer by pressing a button. Fragments of information were presented and tested in a logical sequential manner, this was part of an educational practice known as programmed learning or programmed instruction.2 This type of instruction was and still is present at many different levels of education and training, including medical education.3,4

B. F. Skinner's viewed the traditional use of lectures, textbooks, and audio/visual material in education as inefficient and passive, instead, he wanted the student's learning to be more interactive and efficient, so he recommended using teaching machines as tutors.1 Skinner wanted to apply teaching machines differently from that of Pressey's approach. According to him, an important feature of his approach to teaching machines is that,

The student must compose his response rather than select it from a set of alternatives, as in a multiple-choice self-rater. One reason for this is that we want him to recall rather than recognize -to make a response as well as see that it is right. Another reason is that effective multiple-choice material must contain plausible wrong responses, which are out of place in the delicate process of "shaping" behavior because they strengthen unwanted forms. Although it is much easier to build a machine to score multiple-choice answers than to evaluate a composed response, the technical advantage is outweighed by these and other considerations.1

Skinner viewed teaching machines as programmed-tutors which ask students to perform progressively difficult tasks (behaviors) until the students can perform them effectively and independently. Ultimately, the goal was "more than the acquisition of facts and terms"1 via practice and self-instruction, not rote memorization. B. F. Skinner called the people who write the material for teaching machines programmers. In order to wean students from the teaching machine, programmers had to progressively write less helpful hints while at the same time increase the difficulty of each task.

Computers and programming

Another educator interested in student learning was computer scientist Seymour Papert. Unlike B. F. Skinner, Papert envisioned computers not just for providing questions and answers to the students, but as a tool students could use to learn how to think and solve problems. He developed the learning theory constructionism where students take into account their prior knowledge, contextual factors, and "construct mental models to understand the world around them."5

Papert recognized the distinction between teaching and learning, like Skinner, he also viewed the traditional lecture-driven classroom as an "artificial and inefficient learning environment."6 He envisioned the process of learning how to think and problem-solving facilitated by computer programming. In his 1980 book Mindstorms, he wrote,

In many schools today, the phrase "computer-aided instruction" means making the computer teach the child. One might say the computer is being used to program the child. In my vision, the child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.6

Papert's approach to learning how the mind thinks via construction of mental models is not strange to cognitive science and philosophy of mind where the brain is viewed as an information processing organ that creates representations. Our mental models have helped us in using tools more effectively since before the invention of fire, the wheel, and definitely sliced bread. The problem is that education is not keeping up, and instead, it's only teaching the findings of science without its critical method and/or using technology only to impart more lectures (now TED-talk lectures) and answer a greater number of multiple-choice questions.

Coding personal wikis

Getting an education where we mainly use paper notebooks and textbooks, pencils and pens, or computers to point and click is a thing of the early twentieth century. Education should start teaching how students can harness computers for their own lifelong learning. Computers can help with our cognitive limitations just as any other piece of technology or tool has helped advance the human race in history when used correctly. Relying on technology only as a tool for information delivery and MCQ exams, a la Khan Academy, is to perpetuate the inefficiency and ineffective practices B. F. Skinner warned us about decades ago. Education should reflect what science has been telling us since its invention: that knowledge changes all the time and we are deep in error.

Our habits of reading and writing with the help of computers, the Internet, and the WWW are different from those of the twentieth century. The WWW makes it possible for us to have more access to information thanks to the Open Access and Open Educational Resources movements. We can learn more from experts when they post their thoughts and links on social media websites. It is important to note that all information (re)sources, on the Internet or off the Internet, are prone to errors, this is what science has taught us.

The free and open movement on the Internet also provides tools that are freely licensed and for anyone to copy and add modifications as they see fit. This aligns with what Seymour Papert envisioned as the person programs the computer instead of the computer programming the person. One of this tools is TiddlyWiki which I have been exploring lately. (I don't have the expertise to recommend this product so consult an expert if you are interested in using it.) Unlike paper notebooks, the wiki format of notetaking, linking, and editing information are some of the most attractive features of using wikis. Printed and online textbooks are sources of information that have a linear and narrow format that does not reflect real-world practice. A personal wiki can be used to integrate information not only from textbooks but also from other sources to give a better picture of what a personal practice looks like. Another great advantage of wikis is that they can be written collaboratively and fact-checked by its authors, see Wikipedia.

The concept of reading for notetaking on a wiki is quite different from that on paper notetaking and printed textbooks. It also requires knowledge of wikitext and other languages in some instances. Wikis can help us to better organize and identify knowledge gaps, and with the help of hypertext and tagging get a better picture of our semantic knowledge (see Information can also be presented in quiz format ( One of the TiddlyWiki's that has impressed me the most is by Alberto Molina Perez. He has modified the code several times to fit his own needs for notetaking (see image above) and also used it to post his thesis.

No one can do the reading or note taking for us

In 1940 Mortimer Adler wrote How to read a book which I think it's still relevant these days. He emphasizes the practice of reading comprehension in which a person reads for deep understanding and connects concepts from various disciplines where possible. He also added,

But, after all, we still have to read the periodicals which accomplish these extraordinary digests of current news and information. If we wish to be informed, we cannot avoid the task of reading, no matter how good the digests are. And the task of reading the digests is, in the last analysis, the same task as that which is performed by the editors of these magazines on the original materials they make available in more compact form. They have saved us labor, so far as the extent of our reading is concerned, but they have not and cannot entirely save us the trouble of reading. In a sense, the function they perform profits us only if we can read their digests of information as well as they have done the prior reading in order to give us the digests.7

No one can do the reading or notetaking for us, especially when science and knowledge are constantly undermined. There are practices that give an illusion of understanding or security when in reality what we are getting is only superficial knowledge at best. It is important to keep track of our thoughts and their sources in a reliable place where we can go back and make appropriate modifications if necessary.


  1. Skinner, B.F., Teaching Machines., Science, Vol. 128, Number 3330, October 24, 1958., DOI: 10.1126/science.128.3330.969
  2. "Programmed learning." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Nov. 2017., Accessed 2 Dec. 2017.
  3. Owen SG, Hall R, Anderson J, Smart GA. Programmed learning in medical education. An experimental comparison of programmed instruction by teaching machine with conventional lecturing in the teaching of electrocardiography to final year medical students. Postgraduate Medical Journal. 1965;41(474):201-205.
  4. Owen SG, Hall R, Waller IB. Use of a Teaching Machine in Medical Education; Preliminary Experience with a Programme in Electrocardiography. Postgraduate Medical Journal. 1964;40(460):59-65.
  5. Constructionism (learning theory). (2017, September 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed December 4, 2017,
  6. Papert, S., Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas., 1980
  7. Adler, M., and Van Doren, C., How to read a book: the art of getting a liberal education., 1972

Image 1 source: Skinner, B.F., Teaching Machines., Science, Vol. 128, Number 3330, October 24, 1958., DOI: 10.1126/science.128.3330.969

Image 2 source:

Image 3 source:

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan