Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

by John Turner

Posted on June 10, 2010

Recently, I have taken to reading books concerned more with process of software development than the nuts and bolts of working with one language/framework/methodology or another. The Pragmatic Programmer is one such popular book that inspired a whole range of such books under The Pragmatic Bookshelf label. Another book under this label is “Pragmatic Thinking & Learning” by Andy Hunt.

Chapter Summary

Chapter 1 - Introduction

The context for the book is set and importantly, Andy highlights that while this book discusses the material and techniques with a focus on programming, it is not specific to programming. Indeed, I purchased the book hoping to improve the effectiveness of my studying techniques generally and the techniques covered have wide applicability. Andy also summarises the material and how it will be presented.

Chapter 2 - Journey from Novice to Expert

The five stages of the Dreyfus model of Skill Acquisition are explored. Examples of how the Dreyfus model can be used (and abused) are presented in the section ‘Herding Racehorses and Racing Sheep’. It’s a very useful title in that it invokes a strong image of poor utilisation of specialised resources.

Chapter 3 - This is Your Brain

The nature of human learning is explored and distinctions are made between the ‘left-brain’ (L-mode) and the ‘right-brain’ (R-mode). Andy describes L-mode thinking as the process of linear thinking that provides us with analytic, rational and logical abilities. He describes R-mode thinking as the process of rich thinking that provides us with synthetic and intuitive abilities. Andy describes the importance of both modes of thinking and how to stimulate both, paying particular attention to R-mode given that it provides functions important to the expert practitioner.

Chapter 4 - Get in Your Right Mind

Techniques for engaging the ‘right-brain’ are explored along with which mode is appropriate to which activity. Often, to accomplish a goal both modes are required and this is demonstrated by a story about rock climbing that was particularly appropriate.

Chapter 5 - Debug Your Mind

Further insight is given into how we think, the processes we undertake and the flaws (or features) of our thought process. ‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed’ and so to be aware of the flaws in our thought process is to impart the ability to compensate for such flaws. One such flaw was that of anchoring which was demonstrated during a lecture I recently attended. A group were asked to write down an estimate for a piece of work and then asked to call out the estimate to the group. It was demonstrated that people altered their estimate as others in the group made their own estimate known. The discussion on generational affinity was also very insightful and very easy to relate to my own experience.

Chapter 6 - Learn Deliberately

Applied techniques to learning are described including SMART objectives, Pragmatic Investment Plans, study groups, SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review) and Mind Maps. Andy also describes how he personally uses these techniques and what he feels works well.

Chapter 7 - Gain Experience

The famous catch 22 situation of needing experience to attain a role that provides experience comes to mind. Other methods of gaining experience are discussed along with which experiences are more important than others. Andy then discusses how to approach learning through exploration and the importance of learning through mistakes. This includes the characteristics of an environment that facilitates this type of learning (source control etc.). The advantages and disadvantages of leveraging existing knowledge to attain new knowledge are covered.

Chapter 8 - Manage Focus

The importance of maintaining focus and the cost of switching focus are explored. Practical techniques to reduce interruption are introduced. Techniques range from meditation to simple things like managing desktop and telephone (IM, internet…) interruptions. Project teams rules of engagement are introduced as rules to reduce interruptions within project teams.

Knowledge management techniques such as wiki’s etc are discussed with reference to how Andy uses such techniques to develop his own knowledge and ideas.

Chapter 9 - Beyond Expertise

A parting note from Andy on possible next steps presented as a way to apply the knowledge attained through the book.


The ‘Next Actions’ serve as a very useful prompt to not only read and learn the material but to apply it while it is fresh in your mind (thus reinforcing it). This is very important with this type of material.

The numerous quotations sprinkled throughout the book encapsulated the essence of the material and planted a seed of thought from which to explore the material more thoroughly. Here are some quotes which I found particularly relevant:

John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Mark Twain: “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there; least we be like the cat that sits on a hot stove-lid; he will never sit on a hot stove-lid again - and that is well; but also he will never sit on a cold one anymore.”

James Joyce: “A man’s errors are his portals to discovery.”

John Anthony Ciardi: “A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.”

While these quotes are insightful to me, I can’t help think that for some, nothing short of writing them on a stick and hitting them on the head will have people consider them in the same light.

I found the anecdotes throughout the book particularly useful in explaining sometimes difficult concepts. The tips provide suggestions to apply the techniques and are enumerated at the end of the book in a number of tear out cards.

Overall, the book was a good read, packed with practical suggestions of how to apply the material to enhance one’s thinking and learning capacity.