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Insight density: Testing your information diet for quality

One of the mistakes I've made time and time again in my life is emphasizing quantity over quality.One notable example of this is when I first started writing Tools for Teachers. When I really wanted to ramp up my productivity, I set myself a word target each day, I strove to get 1000 words on the page no matter what!The result? I was writing just to write. Interesting ideas were padded out with a whole heap of filler that helped me to reach my writing goal on a daily basis. I eventually ended up having to throw out over 100,000 words and needing to completely rewrite the book, all because of this one decision to emphasize quantity over quality.

This can also happen with page reading goals. I've found that if I tell myself I'll get through 30 pages, much of my cognitive capacity ends up becoming focused upon checking how close I am to my reading goal, rather than deeply processing the content.*

It's been a hard won lesson for me, but I now focus far more on what I call insight density. Insight density is the frequency of ‘aha' moments per unit text read read or written. Put more simply, if I can write a book that has readers thinking ‘aha!' multiple times a page, that is vastly more valuable than writing a book that contains one valuable idea per chapter.

I've found that insight density is also the best proxy for whether what I'm reading is valuable to me or not. As I read a book, blog, or paper, I take notes in a systematic way, then periodically check back to see how many notes I've made in relation to the amount of text that I've covered.

If I find myself at the end of a significant portion of a book and I haven't taken any notes, I know that it's probably time to move on to a different source. The insight density is too low.

A great example of an insight dense source is Siegfried Engelmann's Theory of Instruction. I would estimate that I have dedicated around 10-15 hours reading this book since the start of this year, and I'm currently only up to page 17! This is because each page I read is packed full of new concepts and ideas, each of which send my mind into a flurry of activity and inspiration. I've found that to take Engelmann in, I need to take copious notes as I go, to the point of writing a full summary of the book!

Now that's some serious insight density!

Are you finding yourself saying ‘aha', stimulated by insights, and compelled to record what you're learning as you work your way through your information diet? If not, it might be time to change it up.

As Dylan Wiliam says, teachers must stop doing good things to make space for even better things. Stopping a low insight density book to make space for a higher density insight book is a key way to do this!

*Targets are still good though as a way to drive the kind of consistent engagement and ‘Stamina' (see this week's quote) that leads to long-term knowledge gains. My idea of 1000 words a day was good, but slightly misguided. Since then, I've moved from word targets to time targets. Currently, I spend 55 minutes each morning working on my next book, from 6:05 – 7:00am. I don't put any pressure on myself regarding the quantity of work I do during that time, but I know that as long as I'm in the rhythm of consistent time allocated to the work, it will get done, and it'll be of the best quality that I can produce.

You are reading an instalment 143 of Teacher Ollie's Takeaways, an (aspirationally) weekly email in which I share some personal thoughts on teaching and learning, as well as great resources from others.

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This week in Ollie's Learning (Takeaways)

Quote:‘In a knowledge economy the returns to stamina can be extremely high' – Tyler Cowen on the EconTalk podcast

Tyler is emphasizing that in domains in which knowledge is crucial to improvement and success, long-term and consistent engagement in quality information streams (stamina of engagement) leads to great success

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