Pre-knowledge and reading

This morning I’ve been reading, slowly, through Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies and I’m reminded of something: pre-knowledge impacts how you read. I can hear you say, ‘Duh!’, but here’s why this matters to me. Every year I wrestle with what type of reading to assign to my students in class and as homework. Every year I reform both sets of reading banking on the ‘less-is-more’ approach. In other words, I’d rather lower the page count and keep wrestling with ways to make the shorter reading more meaningful. My rationale is pretty simple: for my students much of what I teach them is brand new. Even when students take my Bible-related classes, they may come knowing basic stories and characters, but it’s rare that they think of reading the Bible in ways that is academic in nature (rather than liturgical, devotional, etc.). Since almost everything they are learning is brand new it would be a mistake to try to introduce a ton of content.

Why do I argue this? Well, because of experiences like the one I’m having today. I know almost nothing about AI other than what I’ve seen in YouTube videos or heard on podcasts. Every page is filled with a ton of new information. Since I lack pre-knowledge, this means that there are many times when I have to stop and look up things I don’t know. Now, while this makes for great learning, if I had to read large chunks of the book every day I wouldn’t be retaining much.

In fact, when I try to speed read through books like this (where I’m unfamiliar with the content) I catch my eyes glazing over and moving without purpose. I’ll have ‘read’ a paragraph without actually having read the paragraph. If I do this as a teacher with years of academic training and experience doing research…then I’m guessing my teenage students are doing it too. Therefore, my own experience reminds me that while it may be easy for me to read ten or twenty pages on religion or Biblical Literature because I’ve been swimming in these thought-worlds for years, for my students it’s all new, and therefore they need more time to digest what they’re reading.

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