Aaron S. Hawley (aaronhawley) wrote,
Aaron S. Hawley

Refusing to learn

An essay called The psychology of learning from 2003 by Robert Strandh, director of the Département d'Informatique at Université Bordeaux, France, describes a trend in computing where close-mindedness (my phrase) risks opportunities for learning and effectiveness.

The bad-mouthing of competing technologies by adherents of another technology is well known.  The practice goes back to early days of hacker culture when arguments would abound in choice of programming languages (or assembly), mainframe manufacturer or model (consider also "PC versus Mac" over the last two recent decades).  These divisions can partition customers, industries and educators into islands with different customs and ideas.  Strandh doesn't visit this in the essay.  No, according to Strandh, opinions like these arise in young students in more subtle but still worrisome ways.
[...] I have often observed that students are very inefficient in their work. They frequently use methods of working that are unproductive and slow. Some examples:
  • Students do not know how to touch-type. Instead of taking the relatively limited time to learn to do it, they waste many hours per week on slow typing and typing errors.
  • Students frequently do not know how to use advanced features in the text editor such as the interface to the version-control system, the interface to the Lisp system, etc. Again instead of taking a short time to learn, they waste much more time.
  • Students do not know how to use a debugger. Instead, they waste time debugging programs with trace output. [...]
Strandh suggests this could simply be "reluctance to learning new tools and methods", but can also become "a kind of reaction orders of magnitude stronger". He attributes the reaction to "a need to achieve performance immediately" (original emphasis). Continuing:
Such performance leaves no time for intellectual curiosity. Instead, techniques already known to them must be applied to solve problems. To these people, failure is a disaster whose sole feature is to harm instant performance. Similarly, learning represents the possibility of failure and must thus be avoided if possible. To the people in this category, knowledge in other people also represents a threat. As long as everybody around them use tools, techniques, and methods that they themselves know, they can count on outperforming these other people. But when the people around them start learning different, perhaps better, ways, they must defend themselves. [...]
Strandh attributes these behaviors to a description given to him personally by Boston College psychology professor, Lisa Feldman Barrett, who in turn cites the work of well-known psychologist Carol Dweck. The research which posits a duality of perfection-oriented and performance-oriented is worth looking into as an explanation.

The best part of the essay are not about the psychology theory, but his personal anecdotes on computing inspired by the psychology researcher's works.
[...] I talked to a student of computer science who told me why a particular programming language was bad. In fact he told me it was so bad that he had moved to a different university in order to avoid courses that used that particular language. When asked, he admitted he had never written a single program in that language. He simply did not know what he was talking about. And he was willing to fight for it. [...]

[...] I have seen professors in mathematics who were obviously perfection-oriented with respect to mathematics, be firmly in the performance-oriented category with respect to the efficient use of (say) word processors. It is almost a surrealistic experience to see a person in one situation full of intellectual curiosity and wanting to know everything about everything, and in another situation argue why you should not use a particular method that he himself does not know anything about, for reasons that are obviously totally artificial. [...]

[...] I have observed that people ignorant in a particular domain, or not knowing a particular tool or technique, would go to great trouble to explain why knowing this domain, tool, or technique, would be a complete waste of time. Usually these explanations were based on erroneous ideas of what it represented. To make things worse, they were perfectly willing to present their erroneous arguments to the very experts in the field in question. [...]
In this anecode, Strandh likely admits his membership in the Church of Emacs.
[...] I have heard people argue against a tool that they ignore based on the fact that it can do too much. Too much functionality in a tools is a problem only if unneeded or unwanted functionality somehow makes it harder to use the needed and wanted parts. I have heard people argue about the amount of memory a particular tool requires, whereas the additional memory required might represent a cost equivalent to a few hours of work at most. A favorite idea is to label a particular tool with a name suggesting what it ought to be doing, and then arguing that it is doing more than that. For instance, a text editor that is capable of automatic indentation would be accused of being a "kitchen-sink" tool because after all it does much more than allowing the user to just edit text. (original emphasis) [...]
Strandh ends by revealing his own transgressions of this same type.
[...] I myself recently discovered a marvelous feature in a programming language that I had purposely avoided for the past 10 years, simply because 10 years ago, a colleague (who did not know the feature) explained to me that it was no good. We were both victims of our own minds. My colleague because he obviously needed to defend that he had made a different choice, and myself because I subconsciously found it very appealing to be able to brush off the feature as useless and thus not having to learn it. It is hard to overestimate the wasted time I have put in during the past 10 years due to considerably lower productivity than I could have had, had I realized at the time what I now know about human psychology. [...]
I would add another possible explanation for these reactions is another one rooted in "human psychology":  It is a defense mechanism.  Computing possesses a great diversity and many ways to do things.  Barring a few mighty monopolies in hardware and software, there still exists much complexity and specialization in the field of computing.  As regressive overt opinions are, the instinct may be a method for people to manage and focus on their work.  This would especially be the case for budding students.  Avoiding potentially labor-saving tools and knowledge in the rush to finish a task is unfortunate, but investigating alternatives has to be limited or else a task is never started.  It's like the lumberjack (or jill) in the metaphor who sharpens their saw or axe but never cut the tree down since they never got around to swinging the axe.

Despite my sympathy, people who let this close-minded instinct take over and influence themselves and others is indefensible.  People should simply answer "I don't know" rather than than making "complete fools of themselves" by expressing what are only hunches.  A couple famous quotes about "ignorance" and "fear" are probably worth inserting here.  I'll leave it as an exercise.  The point is stop being cavalier and just admit you don't know rather than trying to prove knowing everything.
Tags: emacs, programming, software

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