01 May 2012

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

Andy Hunt's exuberant Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your "Wetware" is useful collection of tips to increase creativity, exercises for improving learning performance, and ways to think about thinking.

Along the way, he debunks certain received wisdom about continuing education and professional development: he calls the traditional four days in a remote classroom cramming the latest technology "sheep-dip" training; in his words, it's an "intensive, alien, and largely toxic experience" that wears off quickly.

The book is part of Thomas and Hunt's Pragmatic Bookshelf series (of which The Pragmatic Programmer is the flagship title), so the emphasis is on just-do-it practices. For taking notes, a cheap notebook and plain text files good enough; you don't need to invest in an expensive Moleskine or complicated note-taking app if that gets in the way of taking notes. (But if something works for you, go ahead.) The underlying principle: "Capture all ideas to get more of them."

Similarly, Hunt uses a good-enough approach to modeling how human cognition works, at least so far as we understand it today. Some might find his "dual CPU" model of the brain oversimplified and off-putting, but it's in the service of illustrating the neurological dichotomy that researchers are beginning to understand. Rather than the right brain/left brain terminology that has become popular, Hunt calls the two sides ℛ-mode and 𝖫-mode (I've attempted to capture Hunt's typography with Unicode). ℛ-mode, also called rich mode, is critical for intuition and creative problem solving, while 𝖫-mode (linear mode) "gives you the power to work through the details and make it happen." A personal example from ornithology: if rich mode is like using jizz for fast identification of a flying bird, linear mode is like walking through the plumage of the bird from top to toe, worrying about the difference between "rusty" and "rufous," in order to do a subspecies ID from field marks.

Hunt's approach to illustrations aligns with his pragmatism: his graphs and figures are hand drawn, and the more effective for it.

The book's strength is also its weakness, as several ideas (Myers-Briggs typology for all us INTJs, Vipassana meditation) that warrant an entire chapter are skimmed over in a page or two. However, the references are good, and as Hunt admits,

I've barely scratched the surface on a variety of really interesting topics, and researchers are discovering new things and disproving old ideas all the time. If anything I've suggested here doesn't work out for you, don't worry about it, and move on. There's plenty more to try. (p. 248)
I found the book's heavy reliance on sidebars a smidge distracting, but that's probably just me: I feel like I don't know what to read next.

Hunt is a fan of mind maps, but I have found them to be less useful. A mind map to me is just writing your presentation's outline in a circle. On the other hand, I really like Hunt's idea of employer-facilitated study groups.

A final quibble with the graphic design: I like the readable, cushiony Bookman font that is used for body text. However, while the severely sans serif Avant Garde works well for headings and pull quotes, it's a legibility disaster to use it for URLs, as this book does in the footnotes.

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