Two ways of thinking

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Every time I begin studying for a Launch School assessment, this Albert Einstein quote comes to mind. The saying acknowledges the deep complexity that any given topic might have, while also simultaneously warning that if you can’t reduce your explanation of the concept to the duration of a 4-floor elevator ride, then you probably need to keep studying.

While the importance of fine-grained, detailed technical knowledge about a given programming concept can’t be overstated, it is equally important to be able to communicate your understanding of that topic at a high level. If you can’t, you probably don’t understand it deeply enough to convince someone else that you can solve a meaningful problem in that domain. Given the importance of both of these ways of thinking about or knowing something, I’m always looking for tools to better understand both the technical aspects and the bigger conceptual picture of a new topic.

Using an example from the most recent course I’ve passed at Launch School — Ruby Foundations — let’s look at two ways to approach knowing about the concept of closures in Ruby.

First way of knowing: Paradigmatic

I love a good table. Not only does it help you to organize stray bits of information you have about a topic, but also because it inflates the perceived importance of the thing due to the grid structure and all the extra space that it takes up on a screen or piece of paper. This trick commands your memory to sit up straight and pay attention. Below is a basic table that I created for myself to organize bits of information about different types of Ruby closures. It isn’t comprehensive — just a few important points. A formal, categorical system of description such as this table is an example of paradigmatic thinking.

Second way of knowing: Narrative

But really, what good is a table telling you the rules of engagement for the different types of closures if you can’t simply answer: what is a closure? It’s this kind of high-level conceptual understanding that requires a different approach to studying, maybe something a little less structured.

To start, how about an audio-visual? For this, I landed on Steve Martin in The Jerk —specifically, the scene where he “binds” to the objects in his living room and then “drags” them out to the street where he will have “all he needs” to execute later. This mnemonic is an example of narrative thinking, which is concerned with making meaning and organizing information into the structure of human experience.

OK, well pants-less Steve Martin is an analogy that I won’t soon forget, but I still need to be able to concisely — precisely — articulate this concept on the assessment, so perhaps I need a tool to help me practice summing it up. For that, I recommend a technique called cyclic writing, which also engages one in a more narrative mode of thinking. Use a pen and paper for this activity, if possible, as it may offer some benefit to learning over typing. Here are the steps:

Cyclic Writing

Step 1:

For 3 minutes (set a timer to alert you), without stopping or picking up your pen, write your answer to the question: What is a closure and how does it work? Don’t stop writing for the entire 3 minutes. After time is up, you can take 1 minute or less to read over and reflect on what you’ve written.

Step 2:

Repeat answering the same question all over again, but this time give yourself only 1 minute. Stop when the time is up! Again, you can take 1 minute to reflect on what you’ve written.

Step 3:

Repeat answering the same question again, but this time give yourself only 30 seconds. This round is difficult! Now take time to reflect on how your responses have evolved over these iterations. Repeat the entire process as many times as you want.

One great thing about this simple method is that you can see progress on your understanding or articulation of a concept in less than 7 minutes. I am not suggesting that you will write your finished product on the last round — you may even run out of time and end mid-sentence — but I do believe that this method helps to expose the weak points in one’s understanding rapidly, so that improvements can be made quickly. Tip: You may want to adjust the time limit at each step, depending on your specific question or context, but keep it short. The key is to “fail forward” quickly.

These are just a few possible examples of tools for learning using these two complementary modes of thought: the paradigmatic and the narrative. Do you have your own study techniques that incorporate both ways of thinking?

Please leave a comment if you try cyclic writing — I would love to know how it goes for you.