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Book Review: Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

This is your brain in R-mode.

By Joyce Carpenter
October 22, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Andy Hunt, co-author of several titles in the Pragmatic Programmers series, has turned his pragmatic prism on our brains. His new book, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactoring Your Wetware, is a delight to read, provided you understand the vocabulary of agile development. It could be a perfect gift for your favorite geek this holiday season.

The point of this story is to help you become an expert. To reach that level, you need to develop some mental skills that are not specific to any particular subject area. What experts have in common, according to Hunt, is not a problem domain but a set of cognitive traits that can be cultivated.

Hunt wants to persuade you to undergo the process of refactoring your wetware. That is, you should rewire your brain. In order to get started on this project, you need to do mental exercises and find tools that help you cut down on clutter and information overload. In typical pragmatic fashion, the book comes loaded with tips, tricks and how-tos. It's not just theory.

The book is organized by the journey most us make toward expertise in our fields, but the real focus is on research into how and why certain activities stimulate creativity while others sap our mental strength.

Hunt uses the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition to describe the transition from beginner to expert. The source document is "A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition" (download PDF), by Stuart E. Dreyfus and Hubert L. Dreyfus, professors of industrial engineering and philosophy, respectively, at the University of California, Berkeley.

When we start to practice a new skill, we follow orders without understanding how all of the pieces fit together. By the time we become experts, we can't even see the pieces without the world they live in. Thus, the novice works in a context-free zone, attacking discreet tasks without a good understanding of the whole. The expert, on the other hand, works in a rich environment where the big picture is always present to inform decisions, although it may be well below the level of consciousness. It's not that experts are inarticulate (when they are). Rather, they don't realize how much more they know than the rest of us.

The continuum from novice to expert looks like this:

  • Novice: Has little experience with the skill under examination; must follow the rules to be effective.
  • Advanced Beginner: Has no conceptual understanding of the problem domain, but can start to break away from scripted behavior.
  • Competent: Has the big picture and can start troubleshooting
  • Proficient: Can predict what's likely to happen and can reflect on practices to self-correct.
  • Expert: Has such a thorough understanding that she works from intuition rather than rules.

"Sadly, studies seem to indicate that most people, for most skills, for most of their lives, never get any higher than the second stage, advanced beginner," Hunt says.

He distinguishes two cognitive styles: rich, R-mode, and linear, L-mode. He recommends that we stop using "left-brain/right-brain" terminology, and one of the hardest parts of this book is remembering that R-mode means rich rather than right.

If your brain were a computer, it would have a "dual-CPU, single-master-bus design." CPU No. 1, a.k.a. L-mode, is the linear, logical, language-processing unit (L3). CPU No. 2 is the processor that doesn't get enough good press among technologists. It's the messy side, but it's where the creativity is. It's harder to explain, harder to use and harder for some of us to respect. It's where dreams come from. It's about images and feelings and human stuff that's hard to engineer. It's the search engine that returns results days after the query, when you're busy doing something else.

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