I like learning and I am a perpetual learner. I also love teaching so I spend a good deal of time at my work signing up to run training sessions. My favourite subjects to teach are hard to teach ones like Extreme programming, Test Driven Development, Team building etc. For a long time I used to either learn from classroom sessions or from books, which I started developing a liking towards those formats. I thought I was old school and did not like the new age video formats in bite sized chapters peppered with quizzes to test our understanding between the chapters. I retained a lot of learnings when there was a discomfort for my brain to finish the chapter which I observed that many of the new video formats did not have.

A lot of training programs I observe, tend to concentrate on immediate recall and score really well in that area. Lots of cues, easy to process and understand sentences, narrow scope of learning etc make it a joy for learners and it easily gets into short term memory. So when the trainers immediately evaluate, the learners do really well on retention. This type of retention is volatile, as there was no hard work done by the brain to etch the learning into it.

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For our brain, every read or thinking about a problem/solution is a write as well. It is not like in computers where read and write are different operations. The more you think about something the more connections get established in the neuron mesh which strengthens retention. This has been pointed out in the book Range. That is one of the reason I prefer socratic method of teaching where the learners have to undergo a difficulty to learn a concept.

An example from an eight grade school book

How are cyclones formed?

Direct ineffective teaching answer: Cyclones are formed when warm air from a hot region raises up, creating a low pressure area into which wind blows from high pressure area and the cycle continues.

Majority of lessons just concentrate on memorising the statement above but look at the following Socratic method (There will be a lot of answers, some may be wrong but teacher never attempts to answer and let the answer emerge)

Q: What happens if you heat air?

A1. Hot air expands, I read it in physics class

A2. Hot air is also less dense so it will raise up

Q: If it raises up what will happen?

A1. Cold air from above falls down

A2. Cold air from the sides enter inside

Q: Why should cold air take that place?

A1. Because hot air has gone up

Q: What will happen if you heat water?

A1. It boils

A2. It turns to water vapour

Q: Is water vapour also air?

This keeps going on for a few minutes, I had attended this class 25+ years ago and I still vividly remember how the class went. I kept thinking various answers because the teacher did not conclude how cyclones are formed, we had to go back and read up to conclude. The trouble I see with many of the online courses is a result of instant gratification and the urge to put a checkmark in our list. The content creators also are incentivised for immediate recall which translates to 5 stars for them.

Barring first principles and fundamentals, factual transfer of knowledge is a shallow learning/teaching mode which gives a false illusion because of immediate recollection but fails in long term memory. An element of difficulty is desirable, this may even look bad for the trainer who is evaluated on the spot but helps in long term retention as the learner keeps ruminating about the session. By going for a 5 star driven course design we are creating content consumers, not learners.

The aphorism “All models are wrong, some are useful” is applicable for analogies as well. Analogies are never one to one replacement but should help to bootstrap a new concept through a known concept. Use of analogy should stop there and from there on knowledge has to be built on first principles. Why use analogies instead of first principles? Many people will have less time and effort to understand a new concept especially during business discussions, it is better to help them learn a new concept using the right analogy.

A good example is learning about resistance, current and potential difference in electricity using flow of water. Once a student gets an idea then building the knowledge should be on electrical concepts alone. It is hard to continue the analogy trying to explain electro magnetism.

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I have majorly seen this problem coming up in software development where techies explain technical debt to managers and convince them to allow work to happen on that front. The debt analogy is an infamous example, managers love debts in business which helps them with a lot of working capital with less incentive to repay principal but keep paying interest. There is no interest repayment analogy in technical debt, rather it is not even a debt it is a deficiency. Deficiencies have to be addressed for growing well.

Choosing wrong analogies are much worse than using no argument at all. An example that surfaced was when we were discussing about team building and how sports teams are built; someone then took the analogy to the extreme and said programmers are like sports people and they would not be productive beyond a physical age limit. The conversation ended abruptly as the story went in a wrong direction.

As a listener we also should try to do our part to not stretch the analogies for deep understanding, instead use it as a way to quickly get onboard to a new concept.

During my college days I stumbled on a short story in a local magazine which changed my attitude towards work.

A wealthy person employs a few people for housekeeping. Of the staff two of them are of similar experience but one of them is the head of the staff and other is just part of the staff. This results in the senior staff member sulking about not given the right position and salary for the same years of experience as the head. So one fine day this person goes and confronts the boss and asks the reason for difference in positioning. At the same time they hear some noise and conversation from the street, so the boss sends that person to check what is happening. The person returns back saying someone is selling tomatoes for very cheap price, so the commotion.

The boss calls the head of staff and asks to check what is happening, after a while the head of staff returns back with a crate full of tomatoes saying this is too good a deal to miss it, we will make some ketchup for the season. Also the head of staff has struck a deal with the seller for bulk buying of vegetables during the surplus seasons so they can prepare a variety of food for lesser expense.

Why this story stuck in mind was, until that point I felt only technical skills matter and as an aspiring programmer I will be seen as the magician who can make the computer do what a business owner wants to do. It turned out that business and product owners are looking for options to keep reducing their need to make decisions and push that to people executing the work.

Many people have a wrong idea about optionality and will still place the burden of decision making on someone else by just exploring various options and presenting back for decisions. Optionality does not mean giving a lot of choices and asking to choose one, it is about keeping the end result in mind and getting into action so a lot of decisions can be deferred until it really matters. This may result in minor setback if the option does not work out but leads to major gains when it works.