Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shu-ha-ri and the art of learning

I have waited too long to write this entry.
I thought that I needed time for ideas to sink in, and since I'd posted a question on the GOOS board, I thought it would be a good idea to give time for other people to answer. Then, looking over what I've written as a summary of GOOS so far, I felt I had not done a good job of summarizing the GOOS approach, but possibly lacked the background to understand what they were after. This is always an issue with getting into something new, of course: where there is a community, there is a community language and assumed background which is not always easy for the outsider to pick up on.

To get some background, I've started reading "Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game" (CG) by Alistair Cockburn. I've always like Cockburn's stuff -- it was his view of the human side of software development that drew me to Agile methods in the first place. I was initially going to look at a different book of his, referenced in GOOS, but I think CG is a book that I need to read. In short, it is a discussion of theories of programming, and more broadly of epistemology and communication in a programming setting.

Cockburn begins with a familiar couple of epistemic problems. Can we know what we are experiencing? And (taking other minds for granted), can we express what we know? Cockburn answers both questions in the negative. I found his discussion interesting, but not always coherent. At some level, if it is not possible to know what we experience, it is hard to see how we can then express it to ourselves. And if we cannot express it to ourselves, and cannot express it to others, then why write a book about it? The method employed is not that of philosophical discussion, building cases from axioms, or syllogisms, for example, but rather attempting to convince through stories and reflections on what he takes from those stories.

In his first story, for example, the author turns up at a party with a bottle of red wine, which the hostess insists is white, even though the label clearly says it is red. Later on, when he points out the mistake, the hostess again insists the wine is white and even points to the label, finding out only when she reads it out loud that it says "red." From this, Cockburn argues that we are subject to making mistakes when we think we know something that we don't know, and therefore we can end up producing requirements that contain observational errors. Fair enough. But this does not really address whether we can express what we know, or whether we can know what we experience. Rather, it argues that we may be mistaken about what we think we know, and may therefore end up conveying mistakes to others. One could argue that, on the contrary, it is precisely the fact that we can communicate and can understand our experiences that allows the hostess to realize a mistake has been made, and to laugh together with the author about it.

I don't think that Cockburn had a epistemological treatise in mind, though, when he drafted this book. His audience is programmers, and pragmatic ones at that. He encourages those who do not like "abstract" discussion to skip the first chapter altogether. His advice, then, should probably be seen as practical rather than theoretical, even in "abstract" chapters. Looked at this way, there is a lot to like.

Practically, our communication suffers from a lot of problems.
1) Our comprehension of our own experiences is limited by our ability to interpret those experiences.
2) Our ability to interpret is limited by many factors including language, presuppositions, eager interpretation (judging too early), and level of mastery.
3) In communicating with others, we need to establish a common vocabulary. This is impossible to do perfectly since understanding is layered in terms of learning and experience and everyone is unique in that regard. At best, we look for sufficiently similar experiences, which might involve the equivalent of an experience English speaker adopting a very simple vocabulary to talk to a child.

Expanding on point 3, Cockburn brings in an idea of learning mastery built on Aikido's concept Shu-Ha-Ri. Mastery occurs in three stages. In Shu (learn), we start from the beginning and learn one particular path or technique. Trying to learn different techniques at this stage of mastery leads only to confusion. In Ha (detach), we come to see that our technique does not always work well, and that there are other techniques that work better in certain circumstances. We look for boundaries that define when to use one technique rather than another. In Ri (transcend), we come to see techniques as means to an end, not an end in themselves, and roll our own ways of getting there specific to the task, using the knowledge of the techniques without being restricted to them.

According to Cockburn, this causes problems with a level 3 (Ri) person talks to a newbie. Ri people say things like "do what works," by which they mean something like "there's no perfect answer, but there is a multiplicity of good ones so there's no need to be prescriptive." What a newbie might hear, though, is "it doesn't matter how you code, so long as it works," or "I'm not going to help you figure out how to do it" (I'm interpolating here -- these are my words, not Cockburn's). Beginners need to know that they are getting something right.

There's an obvious parallel to my experience with GOOS and TDD so far. I may (or may not) have written this explicitly in a previous post, but what I'm looking for is ONE way to get into TDD. Looking around the web, there are plenty of people arguing for their interpretations of TDD. That's fine, but I need context first. I recognize the danger of seeing GOOS as "the one, authentic, right method." I think I have enough experience to avoid making that mistake. But I do want to understand GOOS at a deep level, deeper than just "make a slice, code a test, code the initial behavior then fill out from there." I sense that there is more to GOOS than this -- assumptions that are more or less tacit that make GOOS a good fit for Mocks rather than Mocks simply being one technology the authors have decided to employ.

Clearly, what I was doing in my post to the GOOS message board was an attempt to draw on common background, to phrase GOOS ideas in terminology I have seen before. This is good. The first step towards communication is trying to find what is in common, like two modems negotiating a baud rate. But unlike a modem, whose limitations are inherent in the hardware, I can work my way up from my current 300baud state to 56k, and who knows, maybe to T1 some day.

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