Efficient and Accelerated Learning


Have you ever purchased a book or a course on a subject you wanted to learn out of curiousity? Suppose you digested all the content, tried out some examples and moved on. A couple of months later, a problem may arise where the topic you learned about may come handy. Sure enough, you set up an application and you are ready to code… but your mind is not. You have to look up even the most simplistic examples to see how to get started. What happened to the skills you were supposed to acquire?

Conscious Incompetence

The good news is, you are already on the right track. At least you exactly know what you don’t know. This state is called Conscious Incompetence, and it is the second stage in the four stages of competence.

Four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: you are not aware of lacking skills and knowledge to solve a problem. For instance, when your friend offers you his help in mounting your freshly ordered bed and it collapses after two days, you know that you got help from an unconsciously incompetent person, assuming that your friend had no bad intentions.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: same as stage 1, except that you are aware of what skills and knowledge have to be acquired to become competent in a field. When a new Javascript library becomes viral, most likely you become consciously incompetent by the time you want to use it for the first time.
  3. Conscious Competence: this is the state where professional solutions can be delivered. The only problem is that you need to actively concentrate and pay attention during the process. This stage is still sufficient most of the time. In fact, some people never reach step 4. I recall an old-fashioned shop I visited during my holidays. I purchased 3 products, each costing 1 Euro. I saw the cashier guy reached for his calculator and entered 1 times 3. Then he asked for 3 Euros. The process is fully bulletproof. It is in fact anchored into him. Yet, he has to think about it, while most people would just ask for the 3 Euros, without even consciously thinking.
  4. Unconscious competence: this is where your skills shine. You solve problems without making a conscious effort. In fact, this state of competence is required in emergency situations. You may know everything about traffic rules, but it takes a lot more to successfully avoid an accident or detect aquaplaning on time.

Learning resources come handy as they can give you a boost in leveling up your level of competence. Worst case you learn that you will never deal with a subject due to lack of motivation. Alternatively, you can develop points of reference so that there will be resources to turn to once a skill will be needed. The very best resources may even give you conscious or unconscious competence in a given field, but many of them are hardly enough on their own for reaching conscious incompetence. Why?

Knowledge is not power

Our parents and especially our grandparents lived in a different age. Back in the days, it was a lot harder to access information than now. My grandmother always told me that I should learn history and literature so that I would be the star of Jeopardy or Who wants to be a millionaire one day. While I do respect people with amazing lexical knowledge, I rather took my own path: the path of problem solving.

The act of problem solving in practice is the exact area where most teaching materials fail. Reading a book on isomorphic applications gives you knowledge. In software development related topics, this knowledge is not even sufficient for conscious competence. This is why I am amazed when people tell me that the reason why they prefer printed books to ebooks is that they can read it on their way home or in bed. Then the same people go to forums in a stressed out state saying that they cannot keep up with the latest technologies because there is too much stuff to learn. If you have the impression that Javascript related topics are evolving too quickly for you to keep up, maybe the right approach is not to speed up, but to slow down. Being competent in some areas is a lot better than being consciously incompetent in everything that comes up.

In addition, being competent in some areas makes it easier for you to reach conscious or even unconscious competence in others. For instance, my best programming teacher at high school decided on teaching us C instead of Pascal. Then I learned Pascal at the university. Needless to say, years of practice in C made it a piece of cake for me to write Pascal programs, I just had to look up the proper syntax. The same is happening now with EcmaScript 6. You may have met similar features in CoffeeScript, while knowing Lambda Calculus and lazy evaluation comes handy in others.

We can conclude that theoretical knowledge is not power: it is just potential power. Applied knowledge is power. Think about this when reading a programming book away from your computer, without the plan of applying what you learned.

Books are not bad

A good tech book can do miracles in the right hands. Suppose that you are fed up with hours of manual testing before deployment and you want to learn test driven development. You read a lot and then you find an excellent book about the subject. Even though the book is the best you could find, all examples are in Java, while your team is using Javascript. In addition, the book makes the server render all pages while we tend to shift logic to the client side. Some people find these hurdles discouraging, while others become excited and take the differences in technology as an opportunity. All concepts still apply, therefore translating the whole problem domain including all examples in the book into Javascript is the perfect challenge for you to increase your competence in the subject. If you don’t know about Java, maybe it’s time to learn just enough to be able to read the code. While one person goes the extra mile and applies the concepts of the book, another may just read the concepts and place the book on his shelf thinking that he did everything that was reasonable to learn test driven development. The second approach is not bad either. In fact, it is significantly better than buying a book and never going past the first chapter. What is the difference between these approaches? The answer lies inside the learner: motivation.

Entertainment + education

If you would rate all your learning experiences lately from 0 to 10, 0 meaning that you feel physical pain even when thinking about the topic and 10 meaning ultimate pleasure, where would you rate your subjects? The closer you are to 10, the less motivation you need to keep going without taking shortcuts. Sometimes it takes a miracle to link any form of pleasure with a subject. This is when entertainment kicks in.

For instance, I was not a big fan of information theory at the university. I mean, there is not too much fun in learning about theorems and proofs like this, especially if your specialization is software. It was still something I had to pass. I soon realized that the topic was so far with how my brain organized itself that targeting the “barely passed” grade would have taken more time than going for the best one. The why was there, I just had to figure out the how. Whenever I got bored or demotivated, I started entertaining myself with the most hilarious things possible. I took the challenge and came up with jokes related to the subject. You may not laugh about hasseling the huff(man tree) or coming up with the name Shannon Stone, but in case of emergency, every little helps. The key point is building neuro associations with things you can relate to. What is easier? Relating to things or people like David Hasselhoff or relating to an abstract concept you have absolutely no connections with? Once momentum is achieved, associations come easier. I could relate to probability and coinflips back then. The same holds for lossless compression techniques. Of course the first day was the hardest one, but after 3 days, everything just made sense. It took me significantly less time to complete the course than I initially estimated and more importantly, my problem solving skills were also challenged, as I managed to construct many of the proofs myself, just by learning some hints. In fact, when the professor saw that I was making up the proofs myself instead of writing something down I had memorized, he immediately started thinking with me for the purpose of helping me. This is when I realized that most people went for the minimum and they did not figure out why they failed the exam 3 times after investing 5 times as much time in the subject than for example me.

Believe me, it is not hard to learn anything if you have the right approach and the motivation. If I want to learn something badly, I will find a way no matter how hard the subject is. For the rest of the topics, even I need to keep my motivation level high with artificial techniques. This is why I sometimes pay money to someone who can keep me entertained and focused while I learn something new. There is a huge and continuously growing market for education bundled with entertainment, so it is not hard for you to find entertaining education in case you need help.