When is the moment of delight for you in learning?
In my childhood and early adult life, I felt that delight when I learned something and used it to overcome a hardship or create something new. There are many delightful moments where that has come to fruition: getting my first political cartoon published in a newspaper, writing my first textbook, solving a mathematical proof, hewing lumber into my first piece of furniture, writing my first deployed app.
As I improved at my crafts, the moments and quality of delight changed for me. They now occurred when I could do something well and quickly. They happened when I created something or solved a problem in a novel, elegant, or unexpected way. I found that I needed to have deep and immediate knowledge of the tools and context to get to this new level of satisfaction. I needed to have learned well to really feel sated.
Lots of us think that learning goes best when you sit down and really apply yourself. Want to learn a new front-end framework? Go through its tutorial. Want to learn a new programming language? Sit and struggle through the syntax and built-in libraries. This is the “Practice! Practice! Practice!” school of learning believed to somehow etch into your brain the knowledge you need in the same way that ancient Egyptians carved their hieroglyphs into stone. You may have also encountered it as repeating the same steps over and over to build “muscle memory”. People who design learning call this “massed practice” and know that it is not the best way to learn. The idea that “focused practice leads to learning” puts the cart before the horse because it leads to impermanent knowledge. You get the short-term gain of rapid gains followed by rapid forgetting.
Unfortunately, massed practice feels good. It feels like you’ve accomplished something. That feeling is so strong that it persists in the face of evidence to the contrary. Other methods of practice often show better results in building long-term knowledge; however, we don’t perceive it that way because most of our perception is based on short-term gains. Good learning should emphasize long-term gains though it may feel like you’re not making much progress.
Long-term gains in learning are called “durable knowledge”. Durable knowledge allows you to have access to the information when you need it. I have found myself performing mass practice to learn a new framework so that I can use it, only to find myself constantly referring to documentation later when writing new features or removing bugs. The knowledge I had built wasn’t durable. I forgot the APIs. The lack of durable knowledge decreased my velocity. The lack of durable knowledge prevented me from applying my skills in the best way possible.
Figuring out all of this happened long before I studied the science of learning. It was a process of trial and error; many studies that counter the commonly-held beliefs were only published within the last couple of decades. I devised regiments that allowed me to learn more than one thing at once, to provide me with as many of the proven techniques for the most efficient learning possible. These methods included abandoning the hubris that I knew something, using active recollection, interleaving and spacing practice, and embracing difficulty. This is a hard and lonely path because most tutorials, blog posts, and educational materials are based on massed learning.
In the Hack Reactor Professional Development programs that I’m helping to create at Galvanize, we’re designing the courses to embody this philosophy of building durable knowledge. Each course presents two different but related subjects so that you can have the opportunity to build real durable knowledge. You get to experience different facets of the knowledge domain so that you can learn how to apply them in widely varied circumstances. They interleave with one another to get the information into the area of your brain that involves complex reasoning. You can see how we’re putting things together to bring you the best learning journey over at the Professional Development catalog.
More about Curtis Schlak, VP, Professional Development Curriculum
Curtis Schlak’s software development career spans more than two decades in software, energy, finance, legal, and education. He has worked as an individual contributor and has led teams of nearly 200 people. He has worked or consulted at Barclays Capital, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, British Petroleum, CITGO Petroleum, Ernst & Young, and Microsoft. He has led software teams at startups like KickFire and DataCert. His consulting firm leads the training and adoption of Feature-Driven Development in the US. He has created and delivered consumer and enterprise training for hundreds of people through The Iron Yard, Hack Reactor, App Academy, and Galvanize. He has a BS in Mathematics, BA in English, and MS in Computer Science. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Computer Science.