Book Reviews

My views about what I read, often programming slanted.

8

FEB
2009

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

I have a new standard by which all future reading material will measured. Any book that casually mentions lock picking and follows it up with a footnote reference to further reading that will improve your lock picking skills when restricted to an improvised toolset is an instant hit. Pragmatic Thinking & Learning does exactly that. While that description may be a bit of hyperbole (I had to look that word up Andy), the book really does deliver, both on the lock picking references and the great content.

If I had to sum up Pragmatic Thinking & Learning in one sentence it would be: it's a book about how to start thinking about thinking, with a moderate computer programmer slant. If that sounds a bit general, well, it is. A construction worker or anyone else could learn new things that would help them in their jobs and just day to day lives from this book. I know I would love for my teenage foreign exchange student to read it, because she could learn a lot from it. I'm pretty sure this book does exist in many other forms targeted at different groups of people. The advantage of this one is that I get the jokes and metaphors. Hooray for geek humor!

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning is very simple in content. It teaches you a lot of the basics about how we think and learn, then gives a boat load of suggestions about how you might use some of this to your advantage. Let's start with the thinking.

A major focus of this book is the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, which classifies the stages we go through as we acquire new skills. The book goes into quite a bit of detail on how to recognize these stages and what individuals need when they are in each stage.

Another major focus of the classification material is on the two primary modes of thinking used by the human brain. There's a lot of detail on the strengths of each mode and how they do and don't work together.

Lesser topics in this area include finding your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and your Multiple Intelligence Inventory, other systems of describing your thought processes.

All of this adds up to make you more aware of how you, and those you interact with, think. It's early Psychology material, but the truth is that it's damn helpful to know even if you're not a shrink. The author makes a joke that if you have a brain, you can probably get something out of knowing how it works. I seriously inclined to agree.

To give an example, I've had multiple programming students over the years. Some lessons with some students went very well, but others went poorly. I could see that some worked and some didn't, but I had no idea why that was. Now I do. I can see which stages of learning my students must have been in at the time and then compare what I was giving them verses what they really needed. In some cases I was way off target. Would you believe those are the lessons that went badly? Shocking, I know. This insight into others is already helping me better understand the people I interact with. I'm trying to understand their needs more and think about how I could adapt to that.

This also makes it much easier to understand what you are going through at times. You know how people always say things like, "I have to do this because it's what works for me." All of these classifications help you understand why it is what works for you. If you are aware of that, you might even be able to make things work better for you. That's the whole point, of course, and that's really what the other half of the book is about.

After you know how we think and learn, you will ask that favored question of mothers and dictators the world over: how can I exploit this knowledge? Pragmatic Thinking & Learning includes 1,264 answers to that question. Yes, I counted.

Really, it gives you tips. A lot of tips. However many tips you have in mind after reading these last two sentences, it's more than that. Are they all great tips? In a way, yes. See, the book really hammers home one major concept: context matters. Given that, in the context of you personally, different things are going to work. Thus, you've got to try a lot of things, shop around a bit as it were, and see what fits you. I'll be shocked if something in the included tips won't. That's why you need so many.

Will drawing a picture upside down help you improve your use of the two separate thinking modes in your brain? I don't think it helped me very much. The jury is also still out on whether or not mind mapping is improving my ability to see relationships and whether or not mediative breathing is improving my concentration throughout the day.

However, the list of changes in me inspired by this book that already seem to be having a positive effect is large. Keeping key pieces of data in my line of sight is definitely helping me maintain focus on concepts that are important to me; a personal wiki has enhanced my brainstorming abilities; I'm getting better at explaining what I'm doing in metaphors to people who have no idea what I'm talking about and I believe that's improving my communication skills; my newly scheduled low distraction times are already my favorite part of the week. The list goes on and on.

I even already had some good habits that are suggestions from this book, like an SQ3R reading strategy and using virtual desktops to minimize context switching. It was neat to read about them and realize I had figured that out for myself.

There's no shortage of things to try here and I think the odds are good that some of them will help your thinking processes. If you need to figure out why some habit aren't working well for you or just figure out what you can do better, this should definitely help.

I said before that I think a lot of this is early Psychology material, but if you are looking to dig deeper this book has a super rich list of references you could use to continue your studies. That said, I think you can stop with this book and still be a wiser person. It stands alone just fine.

So again, if you have a brain, this book has something to offer you. It's not just a joke.

Comments (2)
  1. Eugene
    Eugene July 13th, 2010 Reply Link

    Hello, James!

    Could you tell me, that is really pictured on "upside down" drawing?

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    2. James Edward Gray II
      James Edward Gray II July 13th, 2010 Reply Link

      I can't remember now exactly what the book asks you to draw upside down. It's a simple image, but the orientation works your brain in new ways.

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