The New York Times and The Sticky Platform

I’ve recently started reading the New York Times. It turns out that there is a place at BYU where I can pick up a copy each day for free!

Tangent: I know about this because Justin used to pick one up every morning. He'd read a few things, but for the most part he'd just carry it around wherever he went. He told me that it made him look smart and sophisticated, to "impress the ladies." Of course.

Anyways, after reading it for a few days, I came to a conclusion: The New York Times is boring.

Wait a minute. If this is true, then why is the New York Times so incredibly popular. It is the largest local metropolitan newspaper in the United States, and the third largest newspaper overall (behind The Wall Street Journal and USA Today). Collectively it has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes… more than any other newspaper. Its website gets over 50 million hits a day, making it a top 100 website and the most popular American online newspaper website.¹

Clearly, the problem lies with me, not the New York Times. To be honest, I had a hard time understanding it. I mean, seriously. What is a hedge fund? Where on earth is Yemen? And what does the word “subpoenaed” even mean? Heck, I’m used to reading The Daily Universe where every other article is about dating etiquette, or Jimmer Fredette. It’s great, but it’s not exactly the most intellectually stimulating reading material out there. When you don’t understand what you’re reading, it is difficult to remember (or enjoy) because it doesn’t “stick” (I am suddenly reminded of late nights as a freshman, chugging through my chemistry textbook).

It was once explained to me that the mind is like a “sticky platform”:


The platform is comprised of everything you already know and understand, whereas new concepts are like little boxes floating above the platform. The problem is, if you cannot connect the new concept to what you already know, it will float away and be forgotten.

On the other hand, if it is closely related to something you know, it will float close enough to “stick” to the platform. Congratulations! You just learned something new! This concept is pretty intuitive. Consider the way we learn math. We could start teaching calculus to 1st graders, but that box is floating way up there, and there’s no way it will stick. Instead, we start with numbers, counting, arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry. Only then, will we be able to give calculus something to stick to. Maybe. (Calculus can be elusive…)

Others would call this learning “line upon line, and precept upon precept” (Does that ring a bell? Cue that “Saturday’s Warrior” Music).

Effective teachers always consider the sticky platform when teaching a subject (although they may not call it that… scholars will connect it to a branch of psychology called schema theory). A perfect example of teaching with the sticky platform is in a neat little video called The Crisis of Credit. It is an 11 minute lesson on what caused the most recent financial crisis. In it, the narrator breaks down a complicated subject and connects it to things you already know (like what a mortgage is). Then, building off of that, he explains new concepts like sub-prime mortgages. One box at a time, he builds up your sticky platform until the 11 minutes is up and you say, “Wow, I can’t believe I understood that”. What’s more, he uses animated illustrations to make it highly entertaining (I nearly burst out laughing when I saw his illustration of the stereotypical sub-prime family). If you have 11 minutes, then take a look below… it’s a must see.

Thinking about learning in terms of the sticky platform brings several valuable insights.

  1. Difficult and complex things (eg. rocket science or brain surgery) aren’t beyond anybody’s learning unless they do not build up their platform.
  2. It is easiest to learn something when you know its context (this is why we learn geography best when using maps and why Wikipedia is so easy to understand!)
  3. Skipping steps in your learning will not get you ahead.

So although the New York Times is floating up above my platform, I’ve decided to keep picking them up (and no, not for the purpose of impressing the ladies—I’m finished with that business). I figure, if I read enough of these newspapers, I’ll build up my platform and get the context I need in order to make sense of them. And if you happen to know where Yemen is, then let me know.