Thursday, 11 February 2010

Developers Learning: The Facts of Life

Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back.

Chinese proverb

Continuing my exploration of the ways we (software developers) can improve our learning, here are a few facts that provide some useful context. None of them are at all specific to the software development but, as ever, I'm writing from the perspective of the software developer, and addressing the development world.

Learning is a basic human skill.

We all do it. We just do it in different amounts. Small children are constantly learning and amassing new skills. Language, cause-and-effect, and social skills are picked up rapidly from birth. As are basic physiological capabilities like eating, walking, and continence. (Although continence might also be considered a social skill of sorts.)

When it arrives freshly formatted, the human brain rapidly absorbs information and develops skills across a wide range of experiences. It's a remarkable device, both intricate and powerful, and we need to learn how to best use it. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with a User's Manual. (Even if it did, most men wouldn't read it, anyway).

Our learning is often too narrowly focused.

Infants absorb information in many disciplines rapidly. And simultaneously. They don't know that they're simply not supposed to. But all too soon, our training starts; we're introduced to the thought police.

Or, rather, at school we hop on board the academic train and our incredible generalised learning capability is slowly frittered away. At primary school we are taught a range of topics. At secondary school these topics are formalised and compartmentalised somewhat. As we progress through the academic system we cut out certain topics and concentrate on those that suit us best (because of interest or aptitude). At (UK) GCSE level, we narrow the focus to about 8 subjects. We progress to A-Level and narrow that focus to 3 or 4 subjects. Then we progress to university level where we focus on a single subject.

This increasing focus in learning is useful in that it allows us time to become highly proficient in one area, and to devote time to practice the specific skills required to master that subject. It also allows us to chose a single topic that excites and interests us: surely a prerequisite for effective learning.

But often such high specialisation is detrimental to your ability to learn in general. It ingrains a lack of curiosity for other disciplines or any appreciation of the wider human experience. However, it is when disciplines collide that we often see the the most exquisite insights (consider, for example, how Alexander's architectural work illuminated the field of software design [1]).

Learning is hard.

When an infant learns, the world is new and exciting; as they coast through it they just absorb stuff. After a certain point, the things you have to learn become less interesting. Adults force you to learn stuff. It involves effort. Effort which you could expend on other tasks, like playing with your friends, or your toys. Then you're given homework and learning starts to take over your precious “free time”. It feels like hard work. It is hard work.

Learning is hard.

That hard work will, though, be rewarded. But it's easy to resent learning as a tedious chore that stands between us and “fun” or “ability”. Many people's early school experience of learning still colours their adult life approach to learning, even if they don't realise it. How often have you balanced the reward of learning something against the effort involved? How often has the initial learning effort put you off learning something new? Are you now automatically programmed to avoid areas you know nothing about because it is uncomfortable to appear ignorant?

Have your past experiences coloured the way you approach learning?

We must learn how to learn.

Many people were spoon-fed information in school, and told not to criticise. This instils a bad attitude to learning; where it is something someone gives you, or that a teacher does to you. Learning is actually a personal process that you have to take individual responsibility for.

Do you take personal responsibility for your own learning?

Don't blithely accept what you're told. Keep your brain engaged. It's dangerously easy to fall into the trap of believing what you're reading or being told is the gospel truth, rather than something that should be evaluated.

  • How many people read things on the internet and presume that they are true? Wikipedia has a genuine air of authority, yet contains many remarkable mis-truths. Some of the tubes of the internet are rather grimy.

  • How many people read things in their newspaper and unquestioningly presume that they are correct? True, there are lunatics out there on the web, but paid journalists wouldn't make things up, would they? Wrong: there are plenty of lunatics in the media, too. If you believed everything you read in the newspaper then you wouldn't eat or drink anything for fear that it would given you an incurable disease.

  • If it's in a textbook, written by an academic, peer reviewed, and recommended by a prestigious university then it must be correct. But consider who paid to write the book, or who funded the research. What are their motives driven by? Many things presented as fact in the most prestigious journals are, in fact, opinion and conjecture backed up by slim arguments. For example, 70% of everything I've written up to this point was made up. Including that statistic.

Be aware that you can learn the wrong thing and believe it's the right thing. This can be at best embarrassing, and at worst dangerous. This is illustrated by the Four Stages of Competence (a classification posited in the by 1940s by psychologist Abraham Maslow). You may have:

  • Conscious incompetence. You don't know something. But you know that you're ignorant. This is a relatively safe position to be in. You probably don't care – it's not something you need to know. Or you know that you're ignorant and it is a source of frustration.

  • Conscious competence. This is also a good state to be in. You know something. And you know that you know it. To use this skill you have to make a conscious effort, and concentrate.

  • Unconscious competence. This is when your knowledge of a topic is so great that it has become second nature. You are no longer aware that you are using your expertise. Most adults, for example, can consider walking and balance as an unconscious competence – we just do it without a second thought.

  • Unconscious incompetence. This is the dangerous place to be. You don't know that you don't know something. You are ignorant of your ignorance. Indeed, it is very possible that you think you understand the subject but don't appreciate how very wrong you are. It is a blind spot in your knowledge.

So be very careful when claiming competence in any subject, let alone any level of expertise.

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