Friday, 17 September 2010

Learning: Some How-Tos

Continuing my blog series on software developers learning, I'm going to look at some of the tools available to help us learn most effectively.

Using tools

So what tools are available? When I ask at conferences what the best learning tool is, without fail someone immediately says "The Brain". However, that is not the right answer.

As strange as it sounds, the most potent and powerful tool we can employ is the entire human body. A human being is a large interconnected system, the brain is important, it's our CPU, but it's connected and influenced heavily by the rest of our fleshy substance.

We'll see how the whole body is important and can be exploited to help us learn more effectively.

The little grey cells

But let's start by focussing on the brain. Sadly, we’re not really ever given a user’s manual for the brain. (And even if we were, most men wouldn’t read it anyway...)

Firstly, we must keep this thing well prepared mechanically. Use the correct fuel: enjoy a healthy diet and make sure you keep well hydrated. It is said that the best brain foods are protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and cheese; these are good sources of amino acids. Also ensure you give yourself a good supply of the appropriate vitamins and minerals (vitamin B, sodium, potassium, and omega-3 are all said to be important for brain function). To keep your brain working at it's top condition (and let's be clear – to be an effective developer you really should consider how to keep your brain working as well as you can) you should pay attention to this kind of thing.

Other very obvious basic brain mechanics are to get plenty of sleep and avoid as much stress as possible to enable you to be less distracted and better able to think. It sounds glib advice, but how often do you consider how continual stress or burning the candle at both ends affects your effectiveness?

Using all of the brain

In a previous blog entry we investigated the left/right brain modes. Most developers lean towards left-brain modes of thinking, so to maximise use of our potential brain power we need to learn to dial down the left side of our brain to give the right side a fighting chance. Otherwise we'll only exploit half of our potential learning power.

Do remember, though, that both modes of thought are essential. We really need to work out how to get both brain modes to work in concert. In order to think and learn effectively we must be able to bring both “sides” of our brain into use.

There are some very basic documented ways to stimulate the right side of your brain. Cross-sensory feedback will stimulate parts of the brain that we don't normally exercise. Consider trying some of these actions whilst learning:

  • listening to music whilst you work,

  • doodling whilst you think (yes I am paying attention in your meeting, look at how many doodles I've made...),

  • fiddling with something (a pen or a paperclip, perhaps),

  • talking whilst you work (vocalising what you're doing or learning, it really does help you retain more knowledge),

  • making thought processes concrete rather than purely intellectual – like modelling things with building blocks or CRC cards,

  • meditative practices (many help you attain greater focus and cut out distractions)

These actions can help to invoke the right brain whilst performing activities that you might naturally focus more on left-brain operation. Each of these expand sensory input and serve to activate more neural pathways than normal.

Multiple input, maximal output

Different personality types learn in different ways. I can’t prescribe the best method of learning for everyone. However, try to learn a topic by absorbing information from many different information sources. In this modern connected world we're presented with many media forms:

  • The written: e.g. books, magazines, blogs.

  • The spoken: e.g. audio books, presentations, user groups, podcasts, courses

  • The visual: e.g. video podcasts, tv shows, performances

Some people will respond better to particular media. What works best for you? For the best results mix several of these sources. Use podcasts on a topic to reinforce what you're reading in a book. Attend a training course and read a book on the topic, too.

Use as many input types as possible to maximise your learning potential.

Take note

Whilst learning grab a notepad and capture information as you uncover it, rather than let it wash over you.

This serves two purposes. Firstly, it keeps you focussed and helps you to maintain concentration on the topic. It's a basic idea, but remarkably helpful. Secondly, even if you throw those notes away immediately afterwards, the cross-sensory stimulation will aid your recall of facts.

Takes notes as you learn. Even if you throw them away.

The practice of learning

Our key to learning is to pay attention to the practice of learning. Here I'm not using the noun practice. No, learning is an activity; unless you remain consciously and actively involved you will not learn effectively. Learning without practice, without applying the new knowledge, will not lead to deep understanding or long-term recall. We need to perform what is known as deliberate practice (Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development (1999) Carol S Dweck. ISBN-10: 1841690244)

It is perfectly possible to perform pointless practice; to not pay full attention and waste your own time and effort. I'm reminded of some high-school recorder lessons that I was subjected to (ooh, many years ago now). This class was dumped into a room, each given a “learn the recorder” book, and expected to get on with it. It's true that that teaching method does leave a lot to be desired. And it's obvious that a group of kids that don't care at all about playing recorder will never learn to play the recorder. There was no motivation, a failing attitude.

But more importantly, a thirty minute lesson where no one is paying attention or trying to deliberately learn will never lead to learning. At the next lesson all the kids started back at page one again; they'd forgotten everything they'd read previously. There was no actual learning taking place in those lessons. A whole term saw very few people progress beyond the first half-hour of the teaching plan. The lessons were literally a load of hot air. And raucous screeching sounds.

Learning without doing is a fruitless task.

Ensure that your learning regimen involves mindful practice. Powerful techniques to consider here are Coding Katas and Coding Dojos. Katas were introduced into the development worlds by Dave Thomas of pragmatic programmer fame. A kata, like its martial arts synonym, is a small task or process that a student can repeat deliberately in order to learn a skill. Perhaps a simple coding exercise or refactoring task. Coding Dojos are meetings where programmers gather to perform katas together. Specific, deliberate learning meetings.

Dojos are becoming increasingly popular. Jon Jagger and Olve Maudal ran an excellent Dojo at this year's ACCU conference, for example. Follow the link for the software system they developed to run it.

If the brain is the CPU of our learning machine, then we should consider other uses of the machine that will aid learning. In the modern world, few computers are an island. Networking is an essential learning aid. The social context enhances our learning, and adds accountability (aiding attitude) and greater interactivity (aiding deliberate practice and cross-sensory feedback).

These are all invaluable social learning practices:

  • pair programming

  • study groups

  • mentoring and teaching (by teaching others you solidify your knowledge, you are forced to learn more yourself, and as you see a newbie begin to gain a wider picture you will realise flaws in your own knowledge, or see foundational knowledge in a fresh light that will be really beneficial)

  • writing articles (for magazines, for the web, for blogs)

  • discussion (perhaps in the pub)

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