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Pragmatic Thinking: You Can Learn How to Learn 06/01/2009

Posted by Managing Editor in Featured Article.
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Pragmatic_Thinking_CoverPragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware

Author: Andy Hunt
O’Reilly Books, 2008
Pages: 271
ISBN 10: 1-934356-05-0/

ISBN 13: 978-1-934356-05-0
MSRP: $34.95
http://oreilly.com/catalog/9781934356050/

Book Review by Robert Delwood,
Senior Programmer Writer

Let’s take a moment to stop learning about something and start learning about learning. That is, let’s try to understand how we acquire new information in order to retain it in a practical way. Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware focuses on the brain itself, helping us to understand how it processes information with the goal being for us to adapt more efficiently.

Hunt is a programmer who noticed that in forty years of computer design, the industry’s defect density remained constant. If everything else was changing, the only other factor was people. Perhaps, he thought, we are addressing the wrong questions, and that we aren’t learning correctly. This book isn’t about whether we learn best by doing or being taught, although there is that aspect, it’s about redesigning and rewiring our brains.

First we must understand how learning works. The brain processes information in two modes. The first mode processes the conscious, language, and logical thought, what we commonly view as “thinking”. This is the mode we can explicitly control and is called linear or L-mode. The other mode is very different and processes information in our subconscious. It’s always searching for relationships among memories, finding patterns, and storing data. This is called rich or R-mode. This mode explains why a Jeopardy answer comes to you a week later. It also processes information that can’t be verbalized. Each one of us knows hundreds or thousands of people. We can’t describe their faces yet we recognize them by sight instantly, even twenty years later. Some actions don’t even require conscious thinking. A piano player doesn’t think about each note, it just happens, albeit through practice.

Working against us is that the brain processes so much information that it must make assumptions. Have you ever driven to work and realized you don’t recall anything from the last ten minutes? Chances are your brain decided nothing significant occurred and therefore didn’t index anything. In addition, we forget. Brain chemicals stop working, or older information gets replaced. We think of memories as “read-only” operations (remember, Hunt’s a programmer) but actually, they are “read-write” operations. In other words, the very act of recalling a memory risks changing it. It seems haphazard, but the trick is to make the two modes cooperate.

The traditional approach, the passive act of being taught, doesn’t work. In that regard, no one can “teach” us. We can be lectured all day about rock climbing but it doesn’t make us rock climbers. We have to “learn” and that is tied to experience. That’s why dreams seem so ethereal to describe: There is no experience. Facilitating cooperation between the two modes begins with Hunt’s maxim, “Lead with R-mode; follow with L-mode.” R-mode only needs the most meager of information. Even doodling is helpful since it ties information to an experience. For producing results, take the writer’s adage “write drunk, edit sober.” Not to be taken literally, this stresses letting the creativity flow at first, then use logical processes to refine the work. For learning, gain some experience first, learn more about it, and then dive into the experience.

As an example, he points out a rock climbing course (mentioned earlier). The instructor suited them up, let them practice climbing for 20 minutes, then lectured. As a result, the class gained context for the lecture and could better understand the discussion. This example also included some other fundamentals. They were provided a safe environment to learn (suiting up with supervision); failing was critical to their success (understanding right and wrong footwork); they had a goal in mind (an outdoor climb later in the course), and they were given the opportunity to play (practice climbing). The last point has taken on unfortunate meanings in the workplace, but play is anything that makes problem-solving fun. Finally, they were given a legitimate way to solve a problem, seemingly “doing nothing” by taking a break (“defocus to refocus”).

Many examples may seem familiar and this book attempts to consolidate these into a coherent process. The 271-page book goes into more details, most with concrete and practical examples. In nine chapters, his easy-to-read style takes the journey from being a novice to expert in steps, including understanding the brain, thinking in new ways, the process of learning, how to handle experiences, and redirecting learning processes. In a field with new age nuisances, and almost absurd theories, his approach is grounded and practical.

Managing Your Distractions

As if learning weren’t hard enough, we also have to deal with distractions. A distraction is any event that causes us to lose our train of thought from a deep involvement. Unlike a computer which is designed to switch contexts, the human brain is not. Research shows it takes twenty minutes to recover from a distraction. Ignoring the researchers, just ask any Sudoku player who had to stop to reboot the kid’s computer. Obviously, it doesn’t take much to fragment a work day. Academically, this is known as “cognitive overload,” – but we know it as multitasking, and put simply: It doesn’t work. We can’t concentrate on many things at once and do them all well. Therefore, manage your distractions such as by closing the office door, planning time for those tasks, or simply turning off your email. In a controversial English study, researchers found that bad email habits were more counterproductive than smoking cannabis. Some distractions just require personal fortitude such as avoiding Google, YouTube, Digg, or, perhaps, smoking cannabis.

Walking Problems Through

There are ways to encourage the R-Mode to reveal clues to solving a problem. One easy way is by walking. But you have to do it correctly. Do you know the difference between mazes and labyrinths? A maze has multiple entrances, exits, and presents choices along the way. High walls prevent you from seeing the goal. A maze is meant to be a thinking puzzle. In contrast, a modern labyrinth is meant for mediation. There is only one path and no decisions. Today, you’ll find them near churches, hospitals, and hospices by no accident. These are all places meant for healing and reflection. In our terms, they are meant to minimize L-Mode processes and let the R-Mode take over with a stream of consciousness. A walk on a solitary beach or a quiet woods has the same affect. Ironically, the key on these walks is to not actually think about the problem.

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