Mike boastfully reads 100 books per year. He listens to audiobooks at 3x speed whenever he drives and swears he can remember it all. His browser has a plugin that lets him speed up YouTube videos, and for a while, he listened to podcasts on a special app because of its unique “Smart Speed” feature. All around, his strategy for learning is simple: shove as much information into the mind as possible.
He’s one of those white-collar workers who’s always on the brink of quitting his job. He listens to podcasts while making pivot tables in Excel and stopped taking the subway to work because the train noise made it impossible to hear the audiobook narrators. During coffee breaks, he avoids conversation because he doesn’t like living life at “1x speed.” With a sped-up voice in his ear instead, he looks out of the 32nd floor of his company’s office and dreams of the day when he can finally quit his job and have the time to consume even more information.
200 books per year, he hopes.
Despite all the information he’s sped through his ear, he’s never actually built anything. “Someday,” he insists.
“Right now, I’m still learning.”
I’m not constructing a strawman here. I know many people like Mike, and I used to be just like him.
Mike is so busy preparing for the future that he never steps into it. The satisfaction of binge consumption brings instant gratification, so why try anything else? The problem is that shoving information into your mind can create the illusion of knowledge, especially when you rush it. True learning requires contemplation. And implementation. And a commitment to reflecting on great ideas over and over again.
Measuring your learning with a scorecard of consumption is anxiety-inducing. If you ground your identity in how much you’ve read, you’re always going to feel like a fraud because you’ll never be able to check every book off your want-to-read list. Plus, you can’t take action if you think you need to know everything about a topic before you step into the arena.
Listening to audiobooks at 3x speed is born out of a flawed model of learning — and it’s the same one that underpins our modern education system. The assumption is that people can acquire knowledge as if it’s a substance they can pour into their minds. I call it the Water in a Cup method—and anybody with a lick of common sense or the initiative to read a few research papers will see how misguided it is.
What’s happened with Mike is this: he’s taken a flawed assumption of how learning happens, which he picked up in grade school, and without questioning it, brought it into his adult life. Only now, he’s turned it up a notch. Faster is better, so he no longer consumes ideas at human speed. Instead, he figures that if he can pour information into his mind 3x faster, he’ll learn 3x faster than he did growing up.
To which, Mike replies: “I mean, obviously — the math checks out, bro.”
The core assumption is that delivering more information is the best way to help people learn more. In school, most of that information is delivered through lectures, which focus on cleanly packaged ideas that are, ideally, easy to memorize and regurgitate. But thinking you know something because you can repeat what the teacher said is like calling yourself a chef because you’re good at following Blue Apron recipes. Only when you remove the scaffolding of sliced carrots and pre-packaged portions do you confront the limits of your knowledge.
Reflecting on his classroom experience, the philosopher Mortimer Adler once said: “A lecture has been well described as the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either.”
In accordance with Adler’s assertion, two researchers from Indiana University studied the ebbs and flows of students’ focus during a typical class period. They found that attention spans started to lapse after 10-18 minutes, no matter how good the teacher or how compelling the subject matter. After that, students’ attention would eventually return, but in briefer intervals each time. By the end of class, students could only stay focused for 3-4 minutes. Though this finding hasn’t been refuted, the implication of it — that long lectures aren’t an effective way to teach students — has been ignored by an educational establishment which still relies on lectures.
If we embraced the benefits of active learning, our classrooms would look nothing like they do today. The average classroom is set up for passive listening. It’s geared towards consuming knowledge, not integrating it. Desks are lined up in punitive rows that are designed to limit interaction between students. Subliminally, they say: “Shut up and listen to your teacher.”
In my experience, lectures are most effective when they’re only a component of the classroom experience. In fact, two of the sharpest 15-year-olds I know, who attend one of the best K-12 schools in the country, haven’t had a formal teacher since the 4th grade. My favorite college professor, Mrs. Cahill, saw how classrooms limited the integration of knowledge and rebelled against their architecture. We rearranged the entire classroom at the beginning of every class. That way, we could have the kinds of small group conversations that traditional classroom arrangements prevent. Her class was also less about consumption and more about conversation. Before arriving, we were responsible for reading 10 pages and writing a 750-word reflection on them. Class always began with small group conversations, in which we discussed the reading from the night before. By ungrouping and regrouping into different groups, we gained different perspectives on the reading.
In other classes, I slouched in my chair and watched the seconds tick for 90 minutes. In Professor Cahill’s, we were always on the move. Time was precious because each conversation was so short. Only at the end of class, when we came together for a group discussion and a short lecture to fill in our gaps in understanding, did we do anything that resembled a traditional approach. I may not have consumed the most knowledge in Professor Cahill’s class, but I certainly retained the most.
Why do classrooms revolve around the water in a cup method?
Because the water in a cup method is easy to deliver and scale.
Schools assume that learning is inevitable if students read enough books and spend enough time in the classroom. Systems are easy to scale when they use this reductive, cookie-cutter mindset. That’s why dates and key terms are bolded in textbooks and also the subject of exams at the end of the semester. But knowing the name of something without also understanding the context behind it isn’t knowledge. It’s trivia — and trivia is an ignorant person’s idea of what knowledge looks like.1
Sal Khan shows the limits of rote trivia in his book, “The One World Schoolhouse.” He offers the example of the Louisiana Purchase. When I studied it, I was forced to memorize the year (1803), the amount of land required (828,000 square miles), or the amount all the land was purchased for ($15 million). But without knowledge of the geopolitics of the time, these facts are nothing more than trivia.
Khan writes: “Louisiana was offered at a fire-sale price only because Napoleon was desperate to finance his land wars in Europe and had had his navy destroyed at Trafalgar (so he couldn’t protect Louisiana even if he wanted to keep it).” You understand the Louisiana Purchase not when you can memorize the trivia, but when you understand the relationships between Napoleon, his ongoing war, the destruction of his Navy, and in turn, the negotiating leverage that Americans had over Napoleon.
Differences between classrooms were much greater before the invention of textbooks. Teachers taught through lectures and sometimes even apprenticeships that students couldn’t find anywhere else. But the invention of textbooks standardized direct instruction, moved it into the classroom, and downplayed individualistic teaching styles. For the first time, authors had more legitimacy than the teachers who taught their textbooks. No longer were teachers the ultimate authorities on a subject who taught whatever they wanted. Instead, they served as informational middlemen who transferred ideas from authoritative writings to student minds. Every student could now study the same material, no matter where they lived. In tune with this post-industrial mindset, fuzzy and hard to quantify educational methods like apprenticeships and the singular teachings of local sages were overtaken by national benchmarks and one-size-fits-all curriculums.2 Individuality was removed from the system and replaced with the rote monotony of a trip to the DMV. Like the factories they aimed to prepare students for, schools acted like a conveyor belt where every pupil moved at the same speed.
The quest for American standardization began in 1892, when the “National Education Association” gathered a “committee of ten” to standardize primary and secondary education in the United States. The group was led by Harvard president Charles Elliot, and those ten men decided that every American should learn the same things at the same age and often, in the same way. These men determined that America should have eight years of elementary education followed by four years of high school — where students would initially focus on English, math, and reading before learning chemistry and physics toward the end of high school.
A lecture-based class is predictable because you can prepare what you’re going to say in advance. As long as students remain in their seats, the teacher will feel like they’ve accomplished something, even if the students are just passing notes or picking their nose the entire time. Projects or Socratic discussions aren’t so simple. Since anything can happen when the students are in charge, the system doesn’t have the copy & paste repetition that industrial scale systems demand. Plus, the establishment says, if you’re a teacher, isn’t it your job to deliver information? No. Your job is to make sure they learn. That process is accelerated when you move beyond the “Water in a Cup” theory of learning.
The smartest people I’ve met reject the “Water in a Cup” theory. They focus less on consuming as much information as possible and more on cultivating the deepest possible understanding of the ideas that resonate with them most.
Their neverending springtime harvest reminds me of the way my approach to travel changed after some trial and error. I once went on a month-long Euro Trip during which I tried to visit as many cities as possible. In four weeks, I visited Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Interlaken, Innsbruck, and Salzburg. My goal of visiting as many cities as possible was the “Water in a Cup” theory applied to travel. Though I got to survey these cities, my international game of hopscotch made it hard to cultivate meaningful experiences. By the time I’d build an emotional attachment to a city or somebody who lived there, it was time to pack my bags. Upon returning home, I vowed to avoid trips like that in the future. Instead, I vowed to spend more time in the cities I visited.
The meaningful parts of a culture, like books, only show up when you give them time. They hide parts of their personality and only reveal themselves once you stop, slow down, and commit to them for a little while.
I noticed this recently when I spent a month in Oaxaca, a small town in southern Mexico. This time, I tried to behave less like a tourist. Only after a few weeks did I discover the kinds of local rituals that fly-in tourists rarely participate in. Most memorably, a local recommended a Temazcal ceremony—we sat in a clay sweat lodge for 75 minutes where, in pitch black, we listened a shamanic lectures and rubbed local foods like mezcal and cacao and oranges and some kind of THC-heavy substance all over our bodies. Each day also brought us closer to a woman named Petra, who prepared a new Oaxacan dish for us every day and explained the history behind each one. On my flight home, I realized that places can be as complicated as people are. Though you can pick up the gist pretty fast, relationships need time to blossom. Just when you think you know them, they’ll reveal something that adds a new dimension to their being. In travel and learning alike, you can’t rush your way to a relationship.
In school, writing essays was the closest I got to that deeper experience. If going 3x speed is like country-hopping, writing an essay is like being an expat. When you write your essay, you’re effectively saying: “This is my intellectual home for the next little while.” It’s the opposite of the intellectual nomading that’s become so popular. To that end, schools are right to see essay writing as one of the most effective methods of learning. Syllabuses, too, are useful because they force you to focus on a single topic for longer than you naturally would.
Come to think of it, writing and careful reading are like spaced repetition for the mind.
The research on spaced repetition shows that listening to audiobooks at 3x speed is a terrible way to retain information. In fact, it’s the opposite of what you should do. If you want to retain information, you should review the stuff you’ve already read.
Spaced repetition yields exponential benefits for increased effort. So, at least at first, you gain more from a piece of information every time you return to it. Your ability to remember something improves every time you review it, and the more you do it, the less time it takes to do so. Taken all together, racing through ideas at 3x speed is precisely the opposite of what the research says you should do.
At the risk of oversimplification, humans have two kinds of memory: short-term and long-term. When you read books at 3x speed, you make it hard for your mind to transfer knowledge to long-term memory, which is more stable and lasting than short-term memory. Though brain scientists are still learning how this process of consolidation happens, researchers like Eric Kandel have written: “For a memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed.”
The science of memory reveals why writing is such an effective way to learn. Putting ideas into your own words forces you to internalize them. Rather than memorizing disparate pieces of information, writing helps you deduce their logic and bring them together into a coherent whole. Moreover, the process of brainstorming, typing, and editing our words acts like spaced repetition. Taken all together, a systematic implementation of spaced repetition may be the lowest hanging fruit in education right now — and it’s the opposite of the “Water in a Cup” method of learning.
But if spaced repetition is so effective, why don’t people embrace it?
It’s boring. Since humans crave novelty, returning to the same ideas can be a painful experience. And besides, all the information available to us on the Internet makes us feel insecure about the thing we haven’t read, which heightens our instinct to race through ideas. Though I realize the effectiveness of spaced repetition, I have no interest in returning to the same flashcards over and over again, maybe because it reminds me so much of school.
Our intuitions for effective learning sometimes deceive us. Just because you feel like you’re learning something doesn’t mean you actually are. One study found that active learning makes students think they’re learning less even when they’re actually learning more. That’s one reason why, even though they’re less effective, lectures have persisted for so long.
Learning is most effective when we implement spaced repetition, sometimes without even realizing it. The benefits don’t necessarily come from seeing the same exact piece of information multiple times. They can also come from returning to similar states of consciousness over time. Like writing, direct experience makes that inevitable.
There’s a whole level of knowledge, most of which is hard to define, that only reveals itself once you step outside the classroom and actually do the thing. I’ve always liked the idea that in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is. That’s why, even when it’s logically sound, academic knowledge often falls short when people try to implement it.
If you want to learn, you can’t just take things in. You have to figure things out for yourself. It’s like riding a bike. The classroom can give you instructions and training wheels, but at the end of the day, you’re only going to learn by putting your butt on the seat, pushing the pedals yourself, and falling off a few times before you eventually learn. Otherwise, you’ll be like the archetypal academic who’s read every book on their subject of expertise but doesn’t have the three-dimensional knowledge that comes with taking real-world action.
Language learning provides another example. You can pick up trivial knowledge by banging your head against a classroom wall for 10 years. Or, you can immerse yourself for a year and walk away fluent. Conversations with native speakers are far more effective than learning in a classroom.
Lectures shouldn’t be the main event. Same goes for anything that resembles a lecture, like an audiobook. When it comes to language learning, you aren’t fluent when your grammar is perfect. You’re fluent when you can joke around using slang and other colloquialisms. Usually, that means you’re no longer translating words from your native language before you say them. You’re not thinking about grammar or pronunciation either. Everything flows together. The vast majority of language speakers can only reach this kind of fluency once they’ve immersed themselves in the day-to-day realities of a foreign culture.
An Alternative to 3x Speed
Look, I’m not saying Mike should stop listening to audiobooks. They’re a savior because he lives an active lifestyle and struggles to sit down for long periods of time. Though he originally listened to audiobooks at their standard speed, he caved to the urge to listen to each one faster once his stack of unread books grew to an anxiety-inducing length. First, it was 1.25x speed. Then 1.5. And now, 3x.
But if he’s doing 3x speed now, where does it end? Should he crank it up to 5x? How about 7x? At some point, the quest for speed breaks.
Audiobook sprinters sometimes defend their habit by citing the research showing that some languages are spoken faster than others. Maybe, just maybe, that implies that we can crank up audiobook speeds without harming recall. But even though some languages are spoken faster than others in terms of syllables per second, the amount of information communicated per second is roughly equal, no matter what language you’re speaking. There’s a tradeoff between complexity and speed. The higher the information density of a language, the slower it is spoken.3
If Mike wants to retain information, he can speed up the audio for less information dense books. But no matter the book, he shouldn’t come close to 3x speed.
It’s okay to not know everything. The world rewards people who develop expertise in a specific subject. When that expertise is unique, it’s developed through direct experience and deliberate reflection. Mike should study the meta-practice of learning itself and embrace a model of learning that respects the limitations of the human mind. The water in a cup theory is a false, robotic assumption that was instilled in us, wrongly, by an archaic education system.
Newsflash: Mike is a human, not a computer. He needs time to synthesize what he reads and transfer knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. He should think more strategically about what he wants to learn and why. By learning at a more human speed, he can spend more time integrating knowledge. Racing through audiobooks isn’t helping Mike as fast as he thinks. He’ll serve himself far better by slowing down and embracing the triad of writing, spaced repetition, and direct experience.
Thanks to Ellen Fishbein for helping me write this essay.