Tech Book Face Off: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning Vs. How the Brain Learns

To work and succeed as a programmer, it is necessary to constantly learn new things. The faster and better you can learn new tools, new technologies, and new techniques, the more effective you can be as a programmer. On a personal level, I also have a fascination with learning. What are the best ways to learn new things? What can I do in a practical sense to learn more efficiently? How does the brain process, store, and recall new experiences, anyway? I've felt like I've always been a fairly adept learner, but I've never done any amount of research into how I could do even better. These are the questions I set out to answer while reading through two books on how to learn: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt and How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa. Let's see what secrets these books reveal about how to learn better… faster… smarter.

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning front coverVS.How the Brain Learns front cover

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

First of all, I love the subtitle of this book, Refactor Your Wetware. It's a nice combination of programming and Sci-Fi terms that greatly appeals to the Sci-Fi geek in me. Andy Hunt is half of the excellent pair of authors that brought us The Pragmatic Programmer, a truly excellent book on how to become a better programmer, and he does not disappoint with this book on how to become a better learner. This book is jam-packed with practical advice on what learning is all about and how to do it more efficiently and effectively. I can't possibly go through all of the things I liked about this book here, or I'll start rambling on incoherently, but I'll try to pick out some of the best things I found. You'll have to get the book to read the rest.

Hunt starts off with a short introduction, where he lays out the expectations for the book:
The essence of pragmatism is to do what works—for you. So before we begin, please bear in mind that every individual is different.
I take that as an invitation to use this book as a salad bar, picking out the stuff I like and passing on the rest. There's plenty in this book for everyone, but not everything in it will apply to you. Be selective.

He then dives into a comparison of novices and experts, noting that novices don't really care about how things work on a deep level—they just want to get done with their immediate task—and experts have been so good at their area of expertise for long enough that they no longer consciously know how to explain what they do. I'm not sure I can agree with not caring about how things work as a novice, because I've always cared about how things work, even when starting out learning a new skill, but the novice and the expert are the extremes of something called the Dreyfus model of skill levels.

The five levels of the Dreyfus model are Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient Practitioner, and Expert. Maybe I tend to start out as an advanced beginner on a new skill, or maybe the novice can still care about how things work, but their initial performance is still relatively low. I don't know. It's still a pretty good model for how learners progress when learning a new skill, and it's informative to know where you are on this scale when you're learning.

It's particularly important to know where you are on the Dreyfus scale when the question comes up of whether to follow a strict set of rules or not when performing a task. One study that looked at airline pilots found that novice pilots improved their performance significantly when the expert pilots wrote a set of rules and procedures for the novices to follow. 
But then they made the experts follow their own rules. It degraded their measured performance significantly. This has ramifications for teamwork as well. Consider any development methodology or corporate culture that dictates iron-clad rules. What impact will that have on the experts in the team? It will drag their performance down to the level of the novice. You lose all competitive advantage of their expertise.
I can imagine a few reasons why the expert pilots were dragged down by their own rules. First, the rules probably didn't fully encompass all of the nuance and subtlety that the experts had learned over the course of years of experience. Second, if they had to think at all about which rules they needed to follow in any given situation instead of relying on their expert instincts, that probably slowed them down way more than it helped prevent mistakes. When experts are required to follow rules that degrade their performance, I wonder if part of what's happening is that their superiors don't trust them enough to let them excel at what they're good at. If the boss doesn't believe that an expert can do high-quality work without enforced procedures, that may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. This situation also brings up the question of how people can graduate from following strict processes to following their expert instincts as they develop. That could either require an especially insightful manager or require the burgeoning expert to switch teams before being fully recognized as an expert.

Moving on to other topics, Hunt goes through a few chapters on describing a CPU model of the brain, the difference between the right and left sides of the brain, how to develop and use more right-side thinking, and recognizing your own biases and affinities of thought. These are all good discussions, and he uses the ideas he has developed about the right and left sides of the brain throughout the book. The right side, or R-mode thinking involves intuition, creativity and pattern matching, while the left side, or L-mode thinking is sequential, logical, verbal, and process-oriented. Both modes of thought are useful in different contexts, and they can be even more effective when used together. However, L-mode thought tends to interrupt and overpower R-mode thought, so we sometimes need to make a conscious effort to encourage R-mode thought. Things like taking a walk or doodling can rev up our R-mode thinking, and Hunt gives plenty of options for how to get in the zone.

Next up on his list of topics is how to learn deliberately, and to do that requires practice:
Deliberate practice … requires four conditions:
  • You need a well-defined task.
  • The task needs to be appropriately difficult—challenging but doable.
  • The environment needs to supply informative feedback that you can act on.
  • It should also provide opportunities for repetition and correction of errors.
I think this is a great, concise description of what it means to practice well. Any old kind of practice is not enough. To get good at something, you need to do all of these things. The benefit is, deliberate practice will develop your skill level much more quickly than informal practice or no practice at all, and once you have gained the mechanical and mental dexterity through deliberate practice, you have freed your mental capacity to think about higher-level problems. You no longer have to waste brain cycles on the fundamentals because you have ingrained them into your subconscious, leaving the rest of your thought processes available for more difficult tasks.

Like practice, learning in general needs to be deliberate to be most effective. It's good to remember that,
Learning isn't done to you; it's something you do. Mastering knowledge alone, without experience, isn't effective. A random approach, without goals and feedback, tends to give random results.
Hunt gives a good set of objectives that you can use to reach the goals you're after with learning and practice. He calls them the SMART objectives, and that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-boxed objectives. He goes into more detail, but these are all reasonably clear descriptions of what you should want to aim for when setting out to learn something new. If you can set goals that meet these objectives, then it will be easy to see the progress you make and the results will spur further goal-setting and progress.

Along with SMART objectives, he advises that you figure out your primary learning style, and he offers up three classic styles:
  • Visual learners need to see the material—and the instructor. Pictures and graphs all work well for the visual learners, and they will be sensitive to body language and facial expressions as well.
  • Auditory learners have to hear the material. Lectures, seminars, and podcasts work for these folks. Tone of voice, speed , and other nuances can make the difference. 
  • Kinesthetic learners learn by moving and touching; they need to physically experience the material. This is especially appropriate for sports or arts and crafts, where you really need to do it to learn it.
I, probably like most people, don't fit neatly into any of these categories. I would say that I'm a combination of a visual and a kinesthetic learner. I learn well from pictures and graphs, and also from the written word. I can understand and remember things from books really well, but I don't find that I need to see an instructor or watch videos. I actually find most instructional videos and lectures boring and not nearly as useful to me as reading a good book on the subject. I also learn well by doing. Practicing a skill, whether it's programming, playing golf, or playing the guitar, definitely helps me learn it faster. I can often quickly figure out better ways to do things and correct mistakes when I practice something as opposed to just reading about it. My preferences will certainly be different than yours, and we each have to find the way that we learn best.

I mentioned reading books (something I obviously do a lot), and Hunt has plenty to say on that subject as well. He recommends not just reading through books passively, but being more deliberate, using a process he describes as SQ3R. Briefly, this process consists of surveying the book, coming up with some initial questions, reading the book, reciting the main points through notes or summaries, and reviewing through rereading and discussion. Overall, this is a good process to follow to get a deeper understanding and firmer memory of any book you read.

For the actual reading he says, "Next comes the reading itself—in large doses when I can, in small doses if needed." Both large and small doses have trade-offs. Large doses are nice when you can get them, but you have to be careful to not plow through a book for hours at a time because of how the brain works. As we'll see in the next book, you'll tend to forget most of the stuff that you read in the middle of the session, unless you take breaks every twenty minutes or so to let the material settle and absorb in your mind. Small doses don't suffer from that issue, but if they are too short or too far apart, then the material becomes fragmented and difficult to keep straight in your head. As with anything in life, we need to find a way to balance these trade-offs.

Learning is hard work. It's not something that comes easily, and the mind can get distracted by anything that promises to take less effort. Hunt wraps up his book with some advice on how to stay in the game:
…the overabundance of information has resulted in a poverty of knowledge and attention. With so much available distraction, it's easy to lose focus. Rather than wandering around in the middle of the information highway, you need to take deliberate steps to manage what you're thinking about.
If you don't have a plan, then you'll get distracted by every shiny thing that passes by. It's hard to stay focused when so much information is just a mouse click away, even if the vast majority of it is useless crap. That's one reason I love reading good books, like this one. It's much easier to focus and go deep, and I highly recommend doing that with Pragmatic Thinking and Learning.

How the Brain Learns

I expected this book to be very similar to Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, and in many ways it was. David A. Sousa described a different model of the brain, discussed the best ways to learn, and brought up numerous ways that learning can be hindered. The big difference was that Hunt's book was geared towards programmers looking for ways to improve their learning abilities, while Sousa's book was geared towards teachers looking for ways to improve their teaching abilities. Even though I'm not a teacher (other than for my own children), I found this book full of valuable information on, well, how the brain learns. It's not just applicable to teachers; it's worthwhile information for everyone to know.

I found this book fascinating, and I ended up highlighting it like crazy as I read through it. After a short introduction, Sousa gives a detailed tour of the brain, going from the brain stem up to the cerebral cortex, and relates all kinds of interesting facts about the inner workings of the brain from current research. For instance, today we know that:
  • the hippocampus is central to our ability to connect related facts and experiences together and attach meaning to them. 
  • the cerebellum plays a key role in complex motor tasks and even the mental rehearsal of those motor tasks to improve performance.
  • people in professions that require more complex skills have more dendrites on their neurons that increase connections between neurons and improve memory.
  • we have mirror neurons that help us understand others' emotions and empathize with them.
He also covers how the brain develops from birth to adulthood, and how we learn to control our emotions, use language, and develop abilities throughout childhood. This development is an important part of being human, and that ability to learn comes with some interesting quirks:
Part of our success as a species can be attributed to the brain’s persistent interest in novelty, that is, changes occurring in the environment. The brain is constantly scanning its environment for stimuli. When an unexpected stimulus arises—such as a loud noise from an empty room—a rush of adrenaline closes down all unnecessary activity and focuses the brain’s attention so it can spring into action. Conversely, an environment that contains mainly predictable or repeated stimuli (like some classrooms?) lowers the brain’s interest in the outside world and tempts it to turn within for novel sensations.
So there's a reason why we are so easily distracted, and it comes from our brain's propensity to seek out novelty. In some situations it's helpful in learning new things, but when what you're learning is long and involved, the brain's desire for newness can work against you.

Your brain and body also have a number of prerequisites for being able to learn at peak performance. There is no substitute for a healthy diet, regular exercise, and good sleep to put your brain in the best state for learning. Sleep is also important after learning, and if you get a good night's sleep after studying, you're much more likely to retain the information you just learned. It's easy to forget this fact, but it is so true. No amount of caffeine and candy will compensate for deficiencies in diet, exercise, or sleep, even if they can give you a short-term boost. In the long run, the imbalance is going to catch up to you.

Beyond physical needs, emotional needs play a very real role in our ability to learn. If you are stressed or feel threatened, then it's going to be quite difficult to concentrate on learning anything substantial. It's best to be relaxed and comfortable, but other emotions can also help with the learning process. Happiness and joy actually make it easier to remember the things that are connected with those emotions, and humor works really well as a catalyst for cementing things in your memory.

So many factors are involved in learning that it's kind of amazing how good we are at it as children, but then again, we are wired for learning and much of it happens automatically. Chunking is another trick that enables higher-level learning, and though we do it naturally, we can consciously get better at it. Our working memory can only hold a few things at a time, and working memory is where we actively play with ideas, creating new thoughts and drawing conclusions. Even though there is limited space in working memory, the size of each individual thing doesn't seem to be limited as much. If you can group multiple related things together into a larger clump of ideas, they will count as one larger thing and then you can hold more thoughts at once. This is what chunking is, and purposely working on this skill to be able to hold the same number of thoughts, but more complex thoughts, will greatly improve your learning ability.

Another key ability for learning is called transfer. Being able to take something you learned in one situation, whether that be the classroom, at a conference, or studying on your own, and applying it in a different situation is an important skill that differentiates those who can effectively use what they've learned when it's necessary from those that may learn in the classroom but never use any of that knowledge outside of the classroom. This skill is not only limited to where knowledge is learned, but also the subject of the knowledge. People that have learned to recognize when knowledge from one domain is applicable to seemingly unrelated domains have discovered breakthroughs in science and technology and created incredible works of art, music, and literature. Souza describes this idea succinctly when talking about human inventiveness:
Transfer is one process that allows this amazing inventiveness to unfold. It encompasses the ability to learn in one situation and then use that learning, possibly in a modified or generalized form, in other situations. Transfer is the core of problem solving, creative thinking, and all other higher mental processes, inventions, and artistic products. It is also one of the ultimate goals of teaching and learning.
Without transfer, learning wouldn't serve a purpose because you would never use anything you learned.

Beyond the physical needs and mental skills required for effective learning, how learning time is scheduled can have a big effect on how much is learned and how well it is retained. When we are learning something, we have periods of high attention and periods of essentially dead time. These time periods are referred to as prime-time and down-time, respectively. Prime-time happens at the beginning of a lesson or study period as well as at the end, and down-time happens in the middle. As the learning session gets longer, the prime-times will increase, but not as quickly as the total time, so less of a percentage of the lesson is happening when the learner is at their most receptive. A 40-minute lesson will have about 18 minutes of prime-time followed by 10 minutes of down-time and finishing up with 12 more minutes of prime-time. If this lesson were broken up into two 20-minute lessons with a little break in between, each lesson would only have a couple minutes of down-time. Breaking up lessons and study periods into smaller blocks ends up being more effective for learning and retaining material in long-term memory.

It turns out that all of these ideas about learning more effectively can be all for naught if the learner can't make any sense of the material or can't relate to it in a meaningful way. Souza talks about sense and meaning repeatedly throughout the book:
Brain scans and other studies have shown that when new learning is readily comprehensible (sense) and can be connected to past experiences (meaning), there is substantially more cerebral activity followed by dramatically improved retention.
It also appears that the more related experiences the learner has for any given piece of new knowledge, the better that new knowledge will fit into their memories:
There is also evidence that the brain stores an extended experience in more than one network. Which storage sites to select could be determined by the number of associations that the brain makes between new and past learnings. The more connections that are made, the more understanding and meaning the learner can attach to the new learning, and the more likely it is that it will be stored in different networks.
The more you know about something, the easier it is to learn more about it because any related knowledge already has somewhere to go. It is, of course, possible to learn entirely new things, but it's much more difficult because you have to bootstrap your brain with continued exposure to the new material. Eventually it starts to stick, and finding ways to relate it to things you already know through analogies and metaphors can also help immensely.

Near the end of the book, Souza brings most of the concepts he's been talking about together into one model of the levels of thought used in learning: Bloom's Taxonomy. This model he presents is somewhat modified from the original, and he stresses that it is a loose hierarchy of six levels. You may move between them fluidly when learning a new concept, and any given learning activity could invoke more than one level. The levels are as follows, from lowest to highest:
  1. Remember - memorize a concept
  2. Understand - explain a concept in your own words
  3. Apply - use a concept to solve a similar problem in the same domain
  4. Analyze - compare and contrast elements within a concept
  5. Evaluate - make judgments and critiques on elements within a concept
  6. Create - use knowledge of  a concept to create new things
I could really keep going. This book has so many great ideas in it. From the importance of the arts and physical education for brain development to how poor we are at context switching, and everything I've already touched on, Souza has packed a huge amount of great knowledge on how to learn into this book. I highly recommend it.

Expand Your Mind

When I set out to read these books and learn a little more about learning, I thought I would pick up a few tips and tweak my learning practices a bit. What I found instead was that I could make some dramatic improvements to how I went about learning new things. Both Pragmatic Thinking and Learning and How the Brain Learns showed me that I was relying on my inherent abilities without maximizing my potential. If I changed some of my eating, exercise, and sleeping habits, focused on my preferred learning style, and broke up my study sessions (among many other improvements), I could become a much better learner. They are both fairly quick, but eye-opening reads, greatly exceeding my expectations. I couldn't ask more from a couple of books about ways to learn better.

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