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What Should Come First? The Theory or the Practice

10 Jan 2013

Sometimes a simple statement can lead to some interesting questions.

Yesterday I heard someone give a great talk about the journey of learning. He related the journey of software craftsmanship to the hero's journey. He is an author and talked about teaching a beginner. He said something that really got me thinking. Basically, he said that when starting with teaching, you want to get started with practical and then move to theory. At fist I was just going with it thinking "yeah" but then I was going over my personal experiences and my wheels started turning. This has been the way that I have been learning how to create software. However, my training for my previous career, hairstyling, in class we worked in quite the opposite fashion. We had some lesson in theory, a demonstration, and then a practical hands on portion to get the feel for what we should be doing. I always found myself enjoying this format because by the time I hit the practical phase, when it was time to observe my work if something was not working out, I was armed with some sense of why and felt I had a clear path to digging deeper if I needed or wanted to. I also always enjoyed having the mental memory of the demonstration to refer to. You actually got to see the theory in action to have something to model when you got started. We worked this pattern with small concepts until they built up to something big. When I went on to get my instructors license, this methodology was further used and taught to me as the way to teach.

After realizing this, it brought me to two more observations and two more questions. The first observation, that also led to another question was that as a little girl, I spent a lot of time playing with my hair. (practical) This was pure play and there was no instruction involved. This continued until I actually started professional training. Was this backstory the practical experience that made the theory click so easily for me when I started professional training? I have no answer, just the question. I can not fairly conclude from that as I, as a student and a teacher, have seen success in the theory to practical format from students who previously had no practical experience and and with myself in areas besides styling where I had no experience.

The other observation and question has to do with gender. In general, if you open something from ikea to put together, most men will just get going and they pretty much just discard the manual with the box. They are happy to figure it out as they go, even if they have to take the thing apart halfway through to start over. Most women, will take out the manual, get the lay of the land, gather the supplies, and then get started, usually using the instructions. (I said most for both genders so please do not freak out if you do not fit the mold. I understand that there are exceptions.) The question I then had was this. Were these differing teaching styles a reflection of the gender that clearly dominates each industry or is the domination of each industry due to the teaching styles that they have been using? Again, I have no real answer, but find this question interesting.

I am really not saying that one way is better than the other. I have learned from both methods and think both can be valuable and are valid. I find it important to be able to use many learning styles and am continually trying to learn how I learn so that I can do it more effectively. The experience of seeing that talk was great for stirring up observation and reflection and I really had a great time.

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