Discovery Fiction

2020-11-08 ~800 words

I recently discovered and binged the Ben, Ben and Blue podcast. The hosts all work in STEM education to some degree, and while that topic isn’t explicitly the focus of the show, it comes up a lot.

In one episode, Grant Sanderson (one of the hosts) talks about how it’s tempting to teach new ideas by recapping the actual discovery of the concept as it happened. For example, I don’t know the exact details of the creation of the internet, but you could imagine an explanation that walks through the journey of universities wanting some kind of decentralized communication protocol, and how that effort was funded by government money with the justification that it could be useful for national defense. Then introduce Tim Berners-Lee and HTTP, and then how that evolved to support more complexity. And throughout, pepper in the relevant innovations in security and compression as they happened chronologically.

Unfortunately, the actual history of how a technology or concept came to be is full of rabbit holes and distractions for learners. In understanding the modern internet, knowing the funding model, the early implementations, the evolution of security protocols, etc. just isn’t necessary. These things are interesting to people who already have some knowledge, sure, but aren’t helpful in conveying the essence of the internet.

Grant brings up the term discovery fiction to describe a simpler way of explaining a concept; a story that isn’t actually what occurred in the creation or discovery of an idea, but a more curated set of questions and problems that lead you to the solution more quickly.

In the case of the internet, a much more elegant framing might be something like the following: Say we want to build a computer network. How can we connect together computers of different types in different places in a way that they’ll be able to send and receive text? That can lead naturally to the essence of something like internet protocol and HTTP. And then with that established, how might we use such a system to send visual things, like the layout of web pages? Well, a text language for defining such layouts would be great, and that brings us to HTML.

The point is that, as a teacher, you can curate the questions students tackle in their path to discovery. Those questions don’t need to be the same questions the originators of the idea tackled, and in fact they probably shouldn’t be. Part of your role in technical education is to simplify what you can without losing the important parts of the concept. As someone who already understands, you have the ability to make the distinction between what can be omitted and what’s crucial.

So that’s discovery fiction: a “story” of questioning that leads to incremental understanding, but not following the actual path of inquiry historically. At least that’s how I understand it.

This idea really struck a chord with me, because I recently read Code, which sets the bar for (what I now recognize as) discovery fiction. The author starts by posing a simple question: how might you communicate with a friend who lives across the street using nothing but a flashlight? From that launching point, he walks you through the invention of Morse code – and, importantly, through the reasoning for its design decisions. Then armed with Morse code, he asks how you’d communicate with your friend if you didn’t have a line-of-sight connection but instead could run a wire between your houses. With that, he helps you “invent” a telegraph-like device, and eventually the telegraph itself.

The reason this book about computer hardware is compelling is because at every step, there is a problem at hand that inspires curiosity. And this provides motivation to think through conceptual ideas that might otherwise feel dense.

I do a fair amount of teaching and education myself, and this idea isn’t totally new to me; having empathy with students means trying to walk through their thought process and inspire interest at each step in the process. But having a term for “discovery fiction” seems helpful to me mainly because consistently maintaining focus on that idea is hard – in my experience, the temptation as an expert is always to start with the theory and the historical trivia instead of spending time formulating the right sequence of questions. Spilling your thoughts to paper (or slideshow) is surprisingly easy and feels natural; reframing the importance of a concept you already know well feels awkward and challenging. But I think it’s also what many students need.