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Review: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

28 January 2009

I had a chance to read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware when the office was not exactly closed, but brought to a standstill by heavy snowfall. I work right upside the Front Range in Golden, and we were getting inches of snow in an hour, and people were genuinely concerned about being able to get out of the parking lot if the snow continued much longer.

The book brings some of the latest cognitive science to software engineers. Andy Hunt begins by explaining the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, which marks the transformation people make when acquiring a skill in five stages: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. He applies the model to learning, explaining what people at each stage need to continue learning, and what traits they must acquire to proceed. For example, it explains why the mandatory training at work is so ineffective for me: the corporate videos assume that I am a novice, whereas I am at least competent at skills like navigating ethical dilemmas and security consciousness.

Next, the book offers a model of the mind as a computer. As a professional in the computing industry, I found the model compelling and elegant. If you gravitate towards this analogy as I do, you would love this book. He talks about L-mode (linear) and R-mode (rich), and how to get the most out of R-mode. These used to be labeled left-brain and right-brain thinking, but researchers know now that both modes of thinking can occur in both hemispheres. L-mode is single-threaded and plods along linearly and literally. R-mode is like Google, a pattern matching dynamo, but that can’t communicate verbally. The techniques to invite R-mode to play are well-presented.

The book moves on to talk about the “bugs” inherent in the wetware (cognitive biases) and ways to overcome them. Most of this section was good refresher for me, but I found the section on generational bias the most interesting.

Finally, the book delves into techniques to facilitate the journey. I already use quite a few of these techniques, such as GTD (David Allen’s “getting things done”) and maintaining an “exocortex”. I would be lost without my notebooks! I certainly intend to use a Moleskin for my next notebook. I also use FreeMind, a mind-mapping tool. In fact, the notes I took while reading this book are in that tool.

I wish that Mr. Hunt would have gone into more detail in some areas. I found myself saying, “Thank goodness I already knew about that.” But, then again, I didn’t find the need to research much further, except extended learning about the Dreyfus Model, so perhaps this is a testament to Mr. Hunt knowing his audience.

I recommend this book heartily!

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