Book Review: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

Andy Hunt, Pragmatic Thinking & Learning - Refactor Your Wetware. The Pragmatic Bookshelf: Raleigh, NC. 2008

Wow - a funny self-help book for programmers that is properly footnoted and a good read! And it makes a lot of sense, too.

Hunt begins with a discussion of the stages of knowledge in the Dreyfus model: beginner, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. These different stages are important, because people at different levels learn differently and need different tools to be effective.

In particular, experts are not always good teachers, because they don't always know how or why they make specific decisions - they just do, and they are right. Beginners and advanced beginners have not learned how to see yet - they take in all the possible options and are confused. They long for a rule book: if the situation is thus and such, do this. And they need quick successes.

Experts, however, can react to unforseen situations. This is why the so-called expert systems aren't really experts. They lay down rules for everything, but as soon as the rules are defined for one level, you have to do the next level down, sort of an infinite regression. And the rules do not make good use of context, which is vital for experts.

Hunt goes on to discuss research about the L-mode and the R-mode of your brain, linear and rich mode. Yes, these are approximately the left and the right side of your brain. The L-mode does the logical reasoning and R-mode takes in the whole picture. L-modes focuses on what to do next, R-mode sees relationships, but unfortunately is not really verbal.

The key is getting these two parts of your brain put together. Many agile methods are quite good at appealing to both parts of the brain, that's why they work so well - but not for beginners! I think this is very important for teachers to understand, that we have to teach beginners differently from those who have some competence in programming already.

Hunt has a wealth of suggestions for how to use your "wetware" effectively. Some are kind of bizarre, but maybe worth a try. I went out and got a little moleskin notebook for jotting down random thoughts. It's worth a try, and I've always wanted a reason to have one of those things anyway.

A great book that needs to be read by at least all who teach computing.

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