Some days ago I finished a very interesting book called Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, by Andy Hunt. Among many interesting stories and exercises, this well written book describes some researches about the way our brain seems to work, how the process of learning use to happen and some strategies to make it more efficient. And reading the book was really fun!
In this post I would like to highlight some of the book’s ideas and how I have been observing them happening in my own experiences.
A Model of Skill Acquisition
The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is used as a reference to discuss the journey of becoming an expert at something. The model includes five stages from novice to expert: novices need clear instructions and goals to practice and develop their skills; experts look for context and awareness.
I’m not an expert at skill acquisition, but the model does make sense when I think about myself or the different colleagues I had at work and how we use to behave when facing a problem or a task. When proposing a task to a novice, he usually ask “What should I do?”, he looks for instructions (sounds natural, right). The experts usually ask many different things about the matter, like the past behavior of something, the precise description of an executed procedure or error message, “who said that?”, how did it look like, etc. Sometimes they are apparently disconnect questions, but, after some thought, I realize how important those questions are to really understand the matter; the expert was building the context.
Understanding Our Brain
For simplification, the book basically splits the brain into two parts, which it calls L-mode and R-mode. The L-mode is the part responsible by the logical thought, analytical analyses and language processing; it seems to be usually associated to the consciousness. The R-mode is the rich mode, capable of searching long-term memory and pattern matching, and seems to be associated to some automatic responses, creativity and intuition.
This model of the brain remembers me of another book: Subliminal, by Leonard Mlodinow. The R-mode seems to be the responsible for many of the automatic reactions we have when we master something or internalize it, it is the engine that drives us to play with something without thinking. The L-mode, is the part more familiar to us, it is the part where our conscious thoughts happen, the chatter part.
Again, much of the content is very related to Subliminal, specially when the author talks about memory. It seems that the brain usually only store some key facts about a moment and then, when we try to remember that, it kind of rebuilds the whole situation. Sometimes the process is almost perfect (specially if we keep remembering it over and over); sometimes the brain makes huge mistakes. For me, this phenomenon looks like an image compression algorithm; it makes the storage and information recovery easier and faster, but “small” errors are always inserted. Another useful analogy cited in the book is that “every read is a write”.
The memory is just one of the many bugs we have, like many different kind of biases (what is familiar is better; my side is good, your side is bad…). Although a little counterintuitive, they were crucial from the evolutionary perspective (fuck the other genes, mine is better and should be spread out).
It’s always useful to keep the existence of these bugs in mind before engaging in a serious argumentation (speaking to myself).
Developing a New Skill
There is no magic recipe, only hard work and good strategies. However, this book is all about making the learning process more effective and less painful by given us awareness. The feeling of understanding is great, and understanding why the learning process is the way it is makes me feel comfortable also, less anxious.
Here are some key points that I’m trying to keep in mind now when starting to learn something new:
- play with the matter, ask stupid questions, make mistakes (in a safe environment)…
- … then step back, seat down and review what I have done analytically (what usually I used to call “studying”)
- “write drunk, revise sober”
- take notes (oh boy, this is important!), draw pictures, make diagrams
- stablish objectives, SMART ones (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-boxed)
- try to teach or explain the subject to someone (I really need to try this one)
- imagine how it would be when doing it like a pro (the book makes the same reference Alan Key have done in a 1987 video about learning to play tennis)
- pay attention to what is happening, awareness is more important than memorization
- “pressure kills cognition”, the R-mode doesn’t handle time
I have read many texts about “focus killers” and how bad they are to productivity. The book gathers all that info in a single chapter and is great reference about the subject.
One thing I always observe on myself is the bad effects of multi-tasking. If someone keeps a conversation with me while I’m cooking, I always burn something. And what about an interruption when we are thinking on a recursive call of a function? We are not good at context-switching!
To minimize the effect of unavoidable interruptions, I learned long ago to make a note describing precisely what I was just doing before the interruption, like saving the local variables in a stack. It really helps! It becomes much easier to come back later and just continue where we were.
Emails, news, IMs are very dangerous when done at the wrong moment. The author suggests interesting alternatives to relax, like looking at a blank paper instead of looking for news. Personally, I prefer to stare at something far from my window or, following another author’s suggestion, I try to meditate for a few minutes.
Another interesting thing that I already had noticed many times is the way some ideas come when we are stuck into a problem. We spend hours over it, thinking, trying, and the solution never comes. Then you are tired and need to take a leak, drink a water or simply starts to complain about the problem to someone else. Suddenly, like if a light was coming directly from the sky, the solution comes clear to us! It was great to know that this is a serious stuff, that there are even models about this process.
Pragmatic Thinking and Learning is really a great book and I strongly suggest it to everyone, specially to software developers (because of the book’s examples). It not only gives us some scientific foundations about human behavior but also many moments of fun while reading. It made me feel very capable of learning anything, it helped me understand the process, to have patience with myself, preparing the mindset to bear the frustrations along the way and to be aware of common pitfalls.