Since I’m joining the T-SQL community, I thought I’d try my hand at a “T-SQL Tuesday” that I could actually have an opinion about. This week’s question (hosted by Robert Davis, a.k.a. @SQLSoldier on Twitter) is “How do you learn? How do you teach? What are you learning or teaching?” and is very relevant for me because, of course, I just joined the T-SQL team a short while ago and am doing a whole lot of learning at the moment.
How I learn
I was going to say “by doing,” but I don’t think that’s accurate enough because there are lots of kinds of “doing.” I’m reminded of something they said when I was learning to ballroom dance for my wedding reception. They said that when learning anything new, people tend to go through four distinct stages: “unconscious incompetence” (i.e. you don’t know how bad you are), “conscious incompetence” (i.e. you know exactly how bad you are), “conscious competence” (i.e. you’re good but you have to pay attention), and “unconscious competence” (i.e. you’re good and it seems effortless). So when I’m starting something new, I’m doing a lot things but most of what I’m doing is learning just how little I actually know. That’s helpful and necessary, but it’s not exactly what I call “real” learning. The real learning seems to come between the second and third stages-when I’ve discovered just how bad I am and am now working on figuring out how to be less bad. When I get to the fourth stage, the learning starts to taper down and that’s when I really get to enjoy the state of knowing (which I think is also called the state of “flow”) and I get to have a lot of fun.
The interesting implication of this is that when I’m entering a new area, my first attempts are necessarily going to not be that great because I don’t know what I don’t know yet. So the initial doing isn’t really very helpful in learning the area, nor is it likely to look much like what I’m going to end up with if I keep on learning. But it’s only when I’ve got something and I know, at least at some level, how bad it is that I can start learning the area. Ironically, when the true learning starts it mostly looks like anal-retentiveness and neat-freakishness-going over and over and over something I’ve done, trying to make it better and suck less. In other words, to start really learning something I have to take something I’ve already done and go back and start pulling at the loose threads, seeing how it unravels and then figuring out how to reweave it properly. That’s when I really get to figure out how the things are supposed to work.
(I’ll note here that this is the number one mistake that I’ve seen most new programmers make. They’re like the verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
They write their code once and then abandon it, never returning, always moving on to the next thing. Thus, they never actually get the chance to learn how to do things properly and always stay in that state of unconscious incompetence.)
Ironically, the situation I’m stepping into in SQL Server is perfect for “real” learning because I get to largely shortcut through the first stage of unconscious incompetence. That is to say, there’s already this large, mature artifact (i.e. the SQL Server codebase), so I don’t need to go through the trouble of creating something imperfect-someone’s already done that for me. I can spend just a few short weeks realizing just how little I actually know about anything and then jump straight to pulling threads and seeing what starts coming apart. Metaphorically, of course. I’m not gunning to have SQL Server fall apart on me or anything.
I actually think this can be more fun than starting something brand new and blazing the path, which isn’t the way the world sees it, oftentimes.
How I teach
I think I’m actually going to touch on this in more detail soon, but the short answer is: “by writing.” I’m pretty consciously incompetent when it comes to standing up in front of people and teaching them things, but I’ve been practicing writing for a whole lot longer and am better at it than speaking. And writing is just another form of what I was talking about in the previous section-first, I sit down and try to write down an explanation of whatever it is I’m trying to say. Then I realize how pathetically inadequate it is (most of the time) at saying what I want it to say. Or how little I understand what I’m trying to talk about. So I start pulling on the threads again and seeing what I can unravel and rework. And I find myself learning more not only about the process and practice of writing, but also more about whatever it is I’m trying to explain.
I think writing can be a wonderful way to teach people things, but I think it only really works-even technical writing!-if you follow the dictum of “writing what you know (and love).” In the end, I guess any teaching medium works if the teacher is interested enough in the subject, knowledgeable enough about it, and has a real passion for teaching (as opposed to a passion for having people listen to them, which is something entirely different).
Well, that’s about it. Hope this was interesting!
I think you’ve unconsciously hit on the theory that effective learning is most efficient through creative writing; for example synthesising many ideas into an organised short essay – this mirrors the steps involved in learning, vis a vis getting ideas from books for example, and iteratively organising them on paper because our short term memory can’t juggle them enough whilst we attempt to synthesise them into a coherent answer or treatise. The iteration helps us build our thoughts and the writing boosts our creativity by extending our short term memory.