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The Charisma of 14% vs. the Difficulty of Responsibility

If you don’t believe that the difference between excellent and good is the difference between 90% and 89%, you probably have the power of resisting a certain kind of specious quantitatively based argument. Let’s test that power on another argument, this one appearing, or at least implied, in a recent BBC article. Beyond the percentages, I also want to consider the possibility that rightness of attitude matters more in learning than convenience of mechanism.

The article reports research showing that people who study material in harder-to-read fonts learn more of it than those who study the material in easier-to-read fonts. The participants who learned the material when it was presented in 12-point Comic Sans grayscale font did 14% better than those who studied it in 16-point Arial pure black. When the authors of the study retested in classroom conditions, a difference in success remained, though the article does not say whether the classroom learners were also 14% better.

One of the authors of the study says that the “disfluency” (I don’t know if this is Edspeak or its cousin Psychobabble, but it means  “laboriousness”) of a task of learning impels the student to try harder in order to get it, which leaves the task better learned. He then argues that students’ reading-matter should be routinely set in Comic Sans type because in time of recession people must spend their educational money wisely on “cost-effective teaching strategies.”

I will not get involved in the Font Wars[1], including the F*** Comic Sans movement, except to say that some fonts are more pleasing to the eye than others and that in general a variety of fonts in reading-matter makes for an agreeable diversity of print and is a sign of a nicely inclusive generosity. On these grounds alone, a font monoculture seems inadvisable. The picture is further complicated, as it usually is, by experimental evidence that Comic Sans is easier for dyslexic students to read than many other fonts, which seems to undercut the findings of the study reported in the article.

So will we see another Revolution, this one in Typesetting for Success? Will we watch the expenditure of millions on Learning-friendly Fonts? One hopes instead that the advice of Professor Dylan William, quoted in the same article, will prevail. It focuses (as did one of my postings) not on teaching but on learning for the answer. “What really matters most when reading is mindfulness,” he said.  “It’s not printing things badly that’s needed, but more thoughtful reading.”

The two techniques (not “strategies”) Professor William recommends are reading in groups and following along with a finger. Those of us who have been exposed to teachers of “speed reading” know that most of them advocate using a finger to aid in reading. I have saved my own students the hundreds of dollars they might have paid “speed reading” people by showing them how to read using their fingers. Some adopt the method; some don’t. Those who do, report that it works. It certainly did for me when I learned it in university by watching over a classmate’s shoulder as he used it with his own work. If I gave it up later, it was more for ease of life than for lack of results. Reading in groups can be effective, whether it be listening in a group to someone read aloud or forming study groups for studious reading.

(Who knows that the students might not even be influenced to take up these techniques by seeing snippets of movies in which they are used? I refer to Good Will Hunting and The Paper Chase. Students are unlikely to end up reading as well as the Matt Damon Character in GWH, and they may not feel the same urgency of need as students at the Harvard Law School in TPC to master their material, but they might at least be intrigued by the possibilities that clips from these movies suggest.)

The point is that the intrigue, the interest, the responsibility would devolve on the students, which is where they belong. A properly motivated student will study whether the material is in Comic Sans or Arial, Times New Roman or Bookman Antique. A student with a motivated finger, a notebook, and a pen in hand stands a decent chance of learning; a shtik fleish mit tzvei eigen—a piece of meat with two eyes—will fail to learn, no matter what automatic mechanisms are chosen and bought for its edification.


[1] They are vicious, complete with fulminations and anathemas, as in the days when the homoousians and the homoiosians duked it out in the early Church; and they don’t even have the debatable justification that salvation depends on the outcome. Or I don’t think so. Maybe someone has argued that Comic Sans will cause the Collapse of the West. My own view is that CS is not a nice font, but that seeing it doesn’t cause seizures and moral degeneration.

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