Learning From the Masters

Recently I joined Sector67, a hacker space in Madison. I have written on here about all of the various things I am interested in doing (robotics, electronics, etc…).

Every time I talk about wanting to learn a new skill, I keep hearing people tell me not to do tutorials but to choose a project and use it as a learning experience. I have written on here before about this, but there was some aspect of this argument that has always bothered me. I didn’t grasp it until I heard it from the organizer of the hacker space.

He told me that buying electronics kits were a waste of time because at the end of the kit you only knew how to construct the kit and nothing more.

That is the crux of the argument.

I feel that people have a fundamental misunderstanding about the learning process. People are under the impression that we are all computers, we can only do what we’re programmed to do. He and others are under the impression that doing a kit or a tutorial teaches you only what the purpose of the tutorial is and you get nothing beyond that.

I don’t feel that is true for me. It may or may not be true for others, but I don’t feel that is the case for me.

One thing that art students do is to recreate the works of the masters. It gives them a perspective of what was in the artist’s mind when they created great works of art. It may feel like you’re not being creative or implementing anything on your own, but getting a perspective on what has already been done and being exposed to various styles helps temper your own talents and perspectives. After you build up a base of skills and experiences you have much better tools to implement your own artistic vision.

You don’t start out making a great piece of art. You don’t start out writing an amazing app. You don’t start out building a nuclear reactor.

I get that a lot of people don’t do well with a formalized learning process. I certainly didn’t. They have memories of sitting through boring lectures about data structures without having any context about how that leads to writing efficient applications. I don’t think that is a fault of the formalized learning process, I think that is a fault of how that particular formalized learning process was applied.

I was speaking yesterday to a kid who wants to be a gaming tester who said that school bores him and he can only learn when he is actively engaged. We all learn better when actively engaged.

I don’t think there needs be a separation of formalized learning process and hacking. I think the two should work together.

I think the MAKE series of books and Ray Wenderlich’s tutorial series are great examples of formalized learning structures that are also interactive and incorporate the hacker mentality of doing useful things and seeing how they work.

When I do tutorials for iOS programming, it fleshes out my understanding of how the applications work. I see and absorb programming style. I also got a lot out of actually taking programming classes. My teacher Eric Knapp went over with us how to detect code smell. He had us write applications that repeated code and were structured badly and showed us how to write good, maintainable applications. I have met people with ten years of experience who don’t understand how to do this because they never had any formalized learning structure.

Having a lot of experience doesn’t necessarily correlate to being good at what you do. Thinking critically about how to approach a problem is necessary as well. Sometimes you can get a jump start on this by learning from other people’s mistakes. It’s important to make your own mistakes as well, but there is a place for building contrived projects that teach you how things work. You learn several building blocks and you infer that if A is true and B is true then C is true as well.

Every programmer starts out writing “Hello world!” You don’t jump from writing “Hello world” to writing a neural network. You have a lot of intermediary steps. You have to spend a lot of time figuring out what problems have already been solved so we can build upon the experience of others rather than reinventing the wheel over and over again.