Deliberate reading – How to read technical content

In his book Five Minds for the Future Howard Gardner identifies one mind as the Synthesising Mind. He describes this as the mind that takes informationfrom disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesiser and also to other persons.

We live in an age where knowledge is not hard to find, just Google something and you will find no shortage of information on any subject. The skill or mind that you need to develop is to be better able to filter information focusing only on what is important and ignoring what is not. 

But there is just too much!

As a student at some point you will find yourself having to read a book that contains masses of information that you need to learn but given the volume probably not able to absorb. You will need to filter the information, reduce it down into manageable chunks that can be understood and made sense.

As Gardner suggests, this understanding is initially for your benefit but eventually you will have to explain it to others, so the understanding needs to be deeper than simply knowing.

So we need a way in which you can both read and learn at a deep level. Children read instinctively using their finger, putting it under the words they are trying to say. Of course when they go to school using your finger to learn is not encouraged, so they stop. But there is good reason that children do this, you need to focus your attention and pointing or underlining is one way of doing it. Below is a step by step guide as to how to read technical stuff or in fact anything that you need to have a far better understanding than a few random facts.

How to read with your synthesising mind

1. Find the content page in your book and very loosely mind map or write out the chapter headings; see my previous blog on mind mapping. Do this IN THE BOOK, okay you will have to write on the book and that might feel uncomfortable, but you need the information all together and the book is the best place to store it. This will help you gain an overview of what is to come. Your brain will already begin to put some shape to what you are about to learn and begin to make linkages.

2. Read each chapter, but underline the key points, try to underline key words and not huge paragraphs. This in itself will help you start to focus on what is important. Yes it will slow you down but you are not just reading you are learning. Knowing what the key points are is not easy so you will have to concentrate, however don’t spend forever, often your gut instinct is the right one.

3. Write in the margin your understanding of the key points or even just copy out what is in the book. The purpose of this is to reinforce the knowledge and to make it stand out even more. It is better if you have to think about what is said in the context of what you are trying to learn and write it out in your own words. However you don’t always have time, so never be afraid to simply copy.

4. Mind map or summarise all the key points that you have written in the margin within the chapter at the front of that chapter. This is your chance to show how it all fits together. Double check your summary with the one that is in the back of the chapter, this will make sure you don’t miss anything. Now of course what you could do is just read the summaries at the end of each chapter and if you are really short of time this can be very effective, however you will not learn from this, but it can be a better way of getting a more detailed overview than you would from the contents page.

5. Look at each of the chapter summaries and add to your initial overview of the book or simply re write the whole thing. This final summary or mind map will help consolidate your thoughts on what the really important points were, the key messages and aid your understanding.

Also in a few years if you pick this book off your shelf, or when you come to revise, it will be this summary that will bring everything flooding back.

And just in case your curious – the other four minds are

The Disciplined Mind

The disciplined mind has mastered at least one way of thinking – a distinctive mode of cognition that characterizes a specific scholarly discipline, craft or profession.

The Creating Mind

The creating mind breaks new ground. It puts forth new ideas, poses unfamiliar questions, conjures up fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers.

The Respectful Mind

The respectful mind notes and welcomes differences between human individuals and between human groups, tries to understand these “others,” and seeks to work effectively with them.

The Ethical Mind

The ethical mind ponders the nature of one’s work and the needs and desires of the society in which he lives. This mind conceptualizes how workers can serve purposes beyond self-interest and how citizens can work unselfishly to improve the lot of all.


6 thoughts on “Deliberate reading – How to read technical content

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  5. I think these are excellent tools to ensure we actively read content rather then passively read it. Seeing as the trend is going towards reading books on electronic devices such as the kindle, tablets and smartphones. I wonder if these devices incoporate functionality to use the above tools?


    • Ali you ask an interesting question. Remember it’s the actual writing that is important from a learning perspective and some of the new technologies do allow you to annotate.

      In fact I came across some research only today that supports writing by hand rather than using a key board. According to researchers Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay, writing by hand uses different parts of the brain than typing and may strengthen the learning process. It’s also much easier to tune out a lecture if you type rather than hand-write your notes. A keyboard allows you to blindly record every word your teacher says, while a pen requires you to pay attention and pick and choose what to write.

      So in summary Ali, by all means use the new technologies but make sure you are actively involved, that means writing and thinking and not just reading.


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