Bootcamp Mastery: The Danger of So-Called ‘Conceptual Understanding’

This article is part of a series about getting the most value out of an immersive programming bootcamp after I attended Fullstack Academy in NYC. See my stories for more!

I often hear people say they’re focusing on ‘conceptual understanding’ while they study. There’s some superficial truth to this. You don’t want to know a jumble of random commands or syntax and have no idea how it all hangs together.

But focusing on ‘conceptual understanding’ is deceptive and dangerous. Here’s why.

First, ‘conceptual understanding’ is often used as an excuse to avoid the hard but high-value work of deliberate practice.

Good practice is hard because it strains you. Anyone who has spent three hours (or three days) working through a single Codewars problem knows how this feels! The earlier you are in your learning curve, the harder this is.

It’s too easy to say “Screw that! I’ll watch a video to focus on my conceptual understanding instead.” This leads to a plague of YouTube tutorials and articles. While reading about programming might feel like learning, often it’s just consumption — a little bit better than browsing the news or Facebook.

The only person doing the deep learning is the person who made the tutorial (after all, they’re writing code) or the person who wrote the article (after all, they had to understand and synthesize the material to explain it back to you).

Second, ‘conceptual understanding’ often evaporates shortly after it occurs. What seems crystal clear when the lecturer explained it turns to mental mud even just an hour later. This is because ‘conceptual understanding’ often serves as an illusion of competence.

In the moment, when an instructor explains the idea it all seems fine. Riding a bike is easy with the training wheels attached. But you haven’t developed the deep understanding necessary to put the knowledge into use.

Third, ‘conceptual understanding’ is presented as something separate from fluency in the languages and procedures of your code. It isn’t. To understand how the pieces hold together as a conceptual system, it really, really helps to understand the chunks that make up the system.

By ‘chunking’ through the language and getting procedural fluency in it, you’re internalizing the pieces of the bigger system. That’s how you arrive at conceptual understanding.

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