Stages in the Learning Journey

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Speaking with friends who are educators of the young one, thing has become apparent. The idea that learning is achieved by building foundations or layers of knowledge is passe. The MTV generation want their learning pre-packaged and easily digested. No more learning the basics and practising them to become expert and then moving on to the next stage. The idea that one commences by becoming an apprentice and then progressing to journeyman and on to a master is no longer in favour.

In fact, our educational institutions are loathe to say that some people are cleverer or more highly skilled than others. Heaven forbid we should damage a fragile ego by telling a person the truth about their capabilities! Students are no longer assessed objectively against their peers. Instead, all students are held to be equal, in spite of manifest differences in outcomes and abilities. This reduction of all to the level of mediocrity means that it is harder than ever to find people who excel in technical areas.

One friend who teaches computer science in high school noted recently that students think that just because they know how to build a web page or load some photos on a web site that they know a lot about technology. But he argues, they do not know how a computer works, they do not know how to write programs, they do not understand the fundamentals of computing. In effect, they are users of a utility in the same way I am when I turn on a light. I do not know how it happens, the light just works when I flick the switch. Now this is not a bad thing. Not everyone in the world needs to know about how the utility of electrical lighting is made and delivered. It is just important that one understands the limits of one’s own knowledge and capabilities.

To attain mastery in technical domains requires many years of learning the craft, not just book knowledge but also hands on experience. As noted recently in a computer magazine:

“Here is the message to all aspiring security experts out there: You must first master the craft in the area that inspires you, whether that’s networks, operating systems, databases, languages, whatever. Do your apprenticeship, get to journeyman level, and be excellent. This may take a few years. Along the way, read the security books, grasp the concepts. But there are no shortcuts if you want the credibility that is so necessary to make a positive difference in this world.”

(Peter H. Gregory, Computerworld 22 Sep 2004)

This advice is not only appropriate for security practitioners, but for all technologists. You need to live and breathe the technology for quite a while to attain the kind of tacit knowledge required to become expert.

In my experience, during times of crisis the gut feeling of of an ‘expert’ is worth 100-times the book learning of the less experienced. We need to respect the wisdom and knowledge of those technologists who have invested the effort (not just time served) to master their knowledge domain.

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