Challenges to learning new things


What is the first thing that pops into your head when you see the picture? I hope the title did not already prime you towards the answer.

To me, the first thing that jumps at me is – as soon as the girl pulls out the book, the whole stack above the book is about to fall on her head, and she is gonna be inundated with books. And, is that a huge stack!! But then, as you realize the metaphorical reference with books being proxies for pieces of knowledge, the allegorical significance may stun you with its relevance and familiarity.

A lot of us need to learn and deal with new pieces of information very often and often take recourse in libraries and, increasingly, web based resources. When you are faced with an authoritative text on an unfamiliar subject, there would often be alien concepts and terminology that is a pre-requisite to understand and appreciate it. This conundrum leads us to seek out explanations to those alien concepts and terminology, which in turn may need another set of unfamiliar concepts to appreciate fully, ad infinitum. This leads us down a rabbit hole, and then we finally have a hang of something that we have a full appreciation of. But, alas, what we understood is many levels removed from what we started out intending to understand. Then we try and roll the understanding back up, and piece together the nuggets of information, to the point when –hopefully—we finally understand some part of the original problem. This rapid, tree-like, exponential explosion that is required to fully understand any given isolated topic of concern is what jumped out at me when I looked at the picture in the post.

As content creators, can we do something to ease the pain of our readers?

I quote an excellent response to a related question from one of the Q&A sites I frequent(Slightly Paraphrased).

I find that the choice of how much explanation to give is generally a three-way negotiation between three factors:

Your estimate of the audience: different communities will need radically different levels of explanation for the same concept.

  • Adjustment based on the opinions of the reviewers about what needs more or less details
  • Any length constraints on the paper.
  • Of this #1 is really the important thing: you really need to understand your audience in order to decide how in-depth to go with your concepts.

For example, I recently published a paper which spent several pages explaining a mathematical formulation in depth for its target cross-disciplinary audience. The reviewers requested further expansion of the mathematical explanation (which I was happy to provide). Were I writing for the community from which the mathematics came, however, I would instead spend several pages explaining the context of the problem, but then the math itself would be covered in just a few sentences.

The answer points to three things, the most important is of which is— “knowing your audience”. We, as content creators must strive to make the piece of writing as self-contained as possible, with at least basic introductions to all concepts that your readers might have a difficulty with. Although, this flies against the conventional SEO wisdom of backlinks and forward links and what-not; but-in my experience; good and understandable content always does well irrespective of what the snake oil salesmen of SEO consultancy firms might want to sell you. Some of the most sane voices in the business have now said so.

The flip side to this quandary is that innovation often comes when you assimilate ideas from other fields into your own. The assumptions that an author makes regarding the prerequisites and their familiarity thereof are no longer true if the reader is from a different field. I guess, that’s why innovation is not a very common thing. Also, our education system does not make us ready for cross functional exposure, and leaves us with a lopsided understanding of the symphonies of nature and the universe, to which we cannot, therefore, tune our mental radios to.

Keep learning.

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