Approaches to Teaching Something
There are two approaches one can take when trying to teach someone something complicated. One is to try to directly teach the complicated subject. Most people find this overwhelming and end up understanding little. Another approach is to acknowledge the truth of the maxim that “you can only teach someone something that they already almost know.”
The question, of course, is “what do they already almost know?” To discover this requires understanding what makes one person more competent than another. We often talk about one person having more experience, but that’s akin to saying “birds migrate because of instinct.” Notice that that doesn’t really tell you anything, however. Although it does sound like it does, “instinct” is still a black box.
I have found a useful way to look at the problem of competence is not by what people do but by what people look at. I call these distinctions – that is, the noted difference between two things. For example, an expert carpenter notices things like the size and direction of the grain in the wood whereas an amateur likely only notices the grain. There are other aspect to grain that they will see that, again, the amateur does not.
How you solve problems if related to how you see the problems. But you see the problems through a set of distinctions that you’ve learned are important to attend to, and a set to not attend to.
The Pickup Stick Model of Teaching a Concept
When I was a kid, my brothers always beat me at the game of pickup sticks. I was always tempted to go after the high scoring sticks that were buried in the pile because I could get more points. This is like going after the concept you want to teach directly before all of the distinctions on which it is based are stated. A better strategy is to remove the stick on top (the distinction already almost known). And then to focus on the next new stick “on top” (a new distinction is now already almost known).
Consider a concept you want to teach to someone. Think of the distinctions you use to understand this concept. Now, instead of talking about the concept itself, consider which distinctions from this set the person you are talking to already knows. Review them, confirm that they do. Now, consider a step-by-step path from what they know, to the concept you want to teach by presenting these distinctions.
Take this approach when teaching difficult concepts. If there is disagreement about any one distinction it is much easier to discuss one by itself than the entire set. This approach makes a daunting task manageable.
Many people have admired and been inspired by R. Buckminster Fuller, author of the ground-breaking book “Critical Path.” He was the person who created the term “Spaceship Earth” and invented the geodesic dome among many other things. One of his most powerful concepts was when he reflected on trim tabs. Trim tabs are used in aviation and shipping. Literally, they are attached to a large control surface which would otherwise be difficult to move – like the flaps on the flaps of airplanes.
Bucky once said:
Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary. The whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.
It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.
So I said, “call me Trim Tab.”
Bucky points to trim tabs being more than just highly leverage-able things. Part of how a trim tab works is that it changes the environment in which it is operating. This change to the environment is why trim tabs are so important. In the example above, the rudder works better because the trim tab has changed the environment it is in (the water) so that it can work better.
Trim Tabs and coaching
Coaching is not simply a matter of going after low hanging fruit, improving what is obvious and easy; you have to attend to how one thing sets up another. As people learn some practices, it sets them up to learn others. It is also important to pay attention to the leverage that a practice can exert on the environment. A simple practice can massively improve the way in which people work. In software development, Acceptance Test-Driven Development is a relatively simple example that dramatically impacts the way people work.
Taken together – coaching simple things that set up more lessons, teaching them “what they almost already know” and focusing on practices that can greatly improve the environment – can greatly improve how you coach a transition.
Trim Tabs in software development
Following are some of the some significant trim tabs for software development. These include:
- Agile Product Management (free but must register)
- Having explicit policies of your workflow
- Managing Work-in-Process
- Acceptance Test Drive Development
- Testability and The Define Tests Up-Front chapter from Essential Skills for the Agile Developer