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Downtime Discussion 5: what are your favorite books on learning?

By Memrise Blog

We’re in the final phase of a series of database migrations and we’re confident that we’ll be back up in hours, no longer days. Our deepest apologies that it’s taken this long to get back up and running- the 240 million rows in our database are a heavy weight to move, but they’ve almost arrived in their new home, and won’t need to be moved again for the foreseeable future.

As we wait for those last corners to the database to migrate across, we thought we might have a final “downtime discussion”, since the last four have been so fruitful and interesting, and our suggestion is to have it on the subject of great books that have to do with learning and education. We love to read at Memrise, and naturally many of the ideas that are finding their way onto the site have their origin in the bits and bobs we’ve been perusing over the years.

So our questions are these: What books have you read that changed the way you saw learning? How did they change your perspective? Why should we read them? What can we all learn?

To get the ball rolling, here are three of our favorite books related in one way or another to learning, with a brief sketch of what they have to say:

Games for Actors and non-actors by Augusto Boal

This book is seriously fun, marvellously creative and deceptively profound. Boal -who has a passing resemblance to me, may I be forgiven for mentioning- brought forward the work begun by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed– a brilliant but slightly humorless work- and expressed it in the most practical yet joyous way possible: in a set of games to be played among friends.

The book helped us see how play and acting and inventing new ways to understand and appreciate the world are all connected, and most of all it showed us that learning is, as the old saying goes, a fire lit up in the mind, not something fed into it. Very fun for parties, as well as schools and bus-stops.

The Craft of Thought, by Mary Carruthers

Mary Carruthers is the world’s leading historian of memory techniques, and this is her finest work. It’s of particular interest for the way in which it articulates how memory, to the medieval mindset, played something like the role that we ascribe to imagination now. It’s shown in this book to be at the heart of invention, understanding and perception- not some tired storehouse, but something to be nurtured, stretched and enjoyed. At times, you realize that Medieval monks might have possessed just as sophisticated psychological theories as the brains at our top Universities today. That might be unsurprising to you, but it came as a surprise to us!

Consciousness in Action, by Susan Hurley

This book’s the kind of masterpiece that you can carry around in your satchel for a decade and not get bored of. It’s half neuroscience, half philosophy, and it’s a bit of a mind-bender. It paints a picture of how perception and action intermesh exquisitely, and how imitation, planning and thought emerge from their union.

What does it tell us about learning? Nothing very directly- it’s mainly composed of arguments about the essential nature of how we see. But in between the amazing anecdotes and astonishingly wide-ranging evidence, a clear sense fo the learning mind pops up.

It’s a mind that’s active, imitative, iterative, and boundlessly intertwined with the real world. Above all, it’s a mind whose consciousness- experience to you and me, and thus learning- is determined equally by the ways in which seeing allows doing and the ways in which doing allows seeing. It’s all about interactivity, in a word.

Ok, that’s it for us. What are your favorite books that have lots or little to do with learning? Anything goes, and no need to provide more than a passing explanation if you’d just like to share one of your favorite titles.

Thanks once again for your patience while the site’s down. We’re cooking up some treats to reward you shortly after the site’s back up!

p.s. special prize for anyone who can tie their recommendation into feature requests!