Baby Steps and Novice Love


I am currently reading a book from the JumpstartLab reading list called Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor your Wetware. The author, Andy Hunt, dives into how our brains are wired, and how to apply ourselves in learning new skills. It is written with programming in mind, but uses examples and analogies that span other professional and artistic disciplines. Andy claims:

In this book you'll learn how to:

+ Use the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition to become more expert
+ Leverage the architecture of the brain to strengthen different thinking modes
+ Avoid common "known bugs" in your mind
+ Learn more deliberately and more effectively
+ Manage knowledge more efficiently

Yes please. Sign me up.

I am only on chapter three, but actually feeling like there might be hope for me yet. He talks at length about the Dreyfus model of Skill Acquistion in the first three chapters. I won't go into detail on the model, but it's worth investigating further if you are so inclined.

I will, however, provide you with Katrina's succinct and apt summation of the scale, with the following excerpt from her talk on Hacking Passion:

+ Novice: where you know nothing
+ Advanced beginner: where you still suck, but you start seeing what this might be about
+ Competent: where you can start getting shit done
+ Proficient: where you get shit done really well
+ Expert: where the shit you get done seems like magic to pretty much everyone else.

I am a novice. And according to Andy Hunt, those who are of the novice persuasion require a specific kind of teaching love. Here are a couple high-level themes from the book that spoke to me personally:

First: Crawl, Walk, Run

In that order. Focus on small conceptual chunks to practice repeatedly. Inserting appropriate variations that challenge, but are still closely related to the same concept. This is about building a foundation through practice, but doing it with baby steps. And, as with toddlers, create an environment that makes lots of small wins accessible and celebrate them to create the confidence to move through the stages of crawl, walk, run.

Second: Pressure Kills Cognition.

This notion was actually detailed in chapter seven, but referenced in chapter three. Simply put, pressure stifles creativity, it shuts down the areas of our brain we should be accessing religiously while we learn, in favor of a fight or flight instinct resulting from the terror of failing to deliver. I especially had a lot of that going on for the first three weeks of gSchool.

These chapters really got me thinking about the particular needs and state of mind of the novice. Mind you, it is never a one-size-fits-all declaration, but I can attest that some of us in school are of the particular novice persuasion who would respond better, and grow faster, with just a few extras bolted onto the first few weeks of school. Ideas include:

+ Study Hall. An hour or so, 2-3 times per week, before or after class to focus on the fundamentals. To revisit again and again the concepts and problems presented in class that are escaping us.

+ Mentors at the Start. If it were possible to introduce a few mentors at the start of the program, this would be amazing. Sometimes, we masochistic novices struggle too long and too hard, to the point of total breakdown, and having additional resources who were available more frequently, especially in the off-hours, could really make the difference in our ability to jump the big hurdles and gain much needed confidence.

+ Baby Step Tutorials. Smaller chunks of learning exercises that force us to repeat the little things and apply them progressively, in a building block format.

+ Invitation to Pace. This, for me, is critical. While it is true we don't receive traditional grades in gSchool, I spent the first three weeks beating myself up because I couldn't finish everything, and the first project, I can't even say I really started. And I was beginning to lose faith in the process, and even worse, myself. And I found the messages around the importance of finishing the first few projects to be rather inconsistent. And it was hard to prioritize what I should be focused on in order to avoid being left behind, or miss something critical to my success. Might seem trivial in hindsight, but as a noob, I don't know what I don't know, and even the little things get overwhelming.

+ More Pictures. The diagrams and the whiteboards help a lot. Even when its just writing code on the wall with markers, it is wonderful. I think this is because it forces everyone to slow down. For the novice crew, sometimes we find ourselves struggling to just keep up with all the window hopping and fast code typing on the screen during class instruction and that often causes unintended consequences of not really listening (because we are panicked about keeping up), or just checking out because we miss one step and suddenly find ourselves in no-man's land without a clue as to what question to even ask.

That's all I got for right now. I only read three chapters, however Katrina contributed a very thorough analysis on the Jumpstart Blog Jumpstart Blog, so you should definitely check it out. There will be more to come as we finish the book over the next couple weeks.

And the best part about reading this book, is that JumpstartLab is reading it with me. And most importantly, they are switching gears in some of the areas listed above in order to make me successful. There is no question this is the right place for learning to program and they are the best at what they do (and because they listen and care, my desire to punch them in the nose on a couple early occasions was only fleeting).