The font of all knowledge is really ugly

Research claims we don’t remember writing that's too easy to read and learning should be struggle. So is clear writing the enemy of discovery?

Most educators work hard to make things clear. But new research from America suggests this may be a bad idea.

Here is a widely held belief in education: a typeface (or ‘font’) that is easy for the student to read must improve learning. Yet some Princeton psychologists disagree, and have evidence to prove their case.

Recent classroom experiments revealed that students learned better when the material was printed in fonts that were ‘ugly’ or difficult to read.

‘If a student has a relatively easy time learning a new concept,’ say the psychologists, ‘both the instructor and student are likely to label the session successful.’ But this evidence suggests that if the reading has been difficult, the information is processed more deeply and better understood, both of which are key to effective learning.

Why is this so? Some believe that ‘pretty’ fonts make people lazy, and liable to skim read; ugly fonts require more attention.

The idea that ‘hard learning is best’ is not new. Gurdjieff, the Armenian mystic, made it very difficult for his followers. He would tell them he was giving a talk, but give them the wrong time or the wrong venue. By the time they heard him speak they were desperate to hear. ‘I wanted to make them work for the truth,’ he said. ‘If they had worked for it, they would appreciate it, remember it.’

‘The brain doesn’t process all things equally,’ says Jonah Lehrer, a neuro-science blogger. ‘The visual cortex in the brain has to make an extra effort with ugly fonts. This should make us think about graphic design.’

Beautiful ugly
So can a change of typeface improve student performance?
In one way, this new evidence is compelling. There were improvements in student learning across a wide range of subjects when the reading material was harder to read.

Others, however, believe it’s not about the fonts being difficult, but about them being different and therefore challenging. Six months on, we’d be used to the new look and our learning would become lazy again.

Evidence from experiments like this is not always straightforward. One factory experiment showed that an increase in light improved productivity. This suggested more light was a good thing. But another experiment revealed that reducing light also improved productivity. It was the change that mattered, not the light.

And as one student said of obscure fonts: ‘You’re forced to pay attention, yes – until you get sick of having to try.’

You Decide

  1. Do you take things that look good more seriously - or less seriously?
  2. ‘Only the brave learn anything new, because only the brave will change their minds.’ Do you think learning is an act of bravery?

Activities

  1. What makes things memorable for you? Imagine you’re teacher and plan a really memorable lesson.
  2. Write a song lyric, poem or story about someone learning a hard lesson; but learning it well.

Some People Say...

“Make it easy for me or I won’t bother with it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the harder it is to learn something, the more we remember it?
That’s what these psychologists are saying, and in many ways it’s counter-intuitive.
How do you mean?
It goes against what we’d naturally think to be true. On the face of it, making things easy to read for students seems better. But perhaps it isn’t. Is it possible that to learn, we need to be challenged in some way?
But why?
Maybe it’s like food. The hungrier we are, the better it tastes. And in the same way, our learning tastes best and lingers longest when we’ve had to struggle to get there.
Perhaps we should use handwriting more. I can never read that.
Good point. Computers have almost killed handwriting; we never use it because it’s a struggle to read. But I remember post-it notes better than I remember e mails.

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