Monday, 27 September 2010

Learning: A cunning plan...

In the common work scenario you start from ground zero and need to get up to speed with something in super-fast time. You need to pick up a new codebase, a new set of technologies, and a new problem domain. And be effective and productive almost immediately.

This is rarely possible. But you can be effective fairly rapidly as long as you recognise that you are starting out at the novice Dreyfus level (remember our look at the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition?). In order to be effective at this point you must find a good set of rules to follow, since novices rely on rules to get work done.

But you want to progress beyond novice level, don't you?

In order to learn effectively you need to put in place a considered learning plan. Now, if I wanted to get from my home in Cambridge to visit a friend in Inverness, I wouldn’t just jump in the car and set off. I’d need to plan a route first. I wouldn’t even set up my satnav and follow its instructions. Should I really trust a device to know best?Does it know how I prefer to travel, any particularly busy roads at this time of year, which roads the authorities have decided to perform military assaults on today, etc? Similarly, does a teacher know better about how to get me from here to knowledge?

So I'd have to carefully plan a route first. Maybe getting in the car isn’t actually the best way to get to Inverness – perhaps I should instead fly there, and hire a car at the other end.

Put in place a deliberate learning plan.

So how might we apply this practically to our learning? Start by recognising exactly what you do know right now. Determine what you need to know. Weigh up the possible routes to get there: books, courses, web research, podcasts, etc.

Then determine two or three waypoints along the way you can purposefully aim for. Don't aim too far into the future, as once you have learnt more you may need to re-plan your learning route. Work out how to learn enough to get to those first waypoints. Work out exactly how you'll know when you've got there. (Consider this Test Driven Learning – work out some tests (katas, specific tasks, etc) that will prove you know something. You can use these same tests in the future to check for regressions in your learning). Then once you have a specific plan in place, begin learning.

Planning and executing a learning journey will make your work more focussed and directed. It may prevent you from wasting time by browsing for far too general information on the web, or reading all of a book when only two chapters in the middle are relevant.

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