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You have learned something.
That always feels at first as if
you had lost something. 

                                H. G. Wells, 
                                English Author 1866-1946


ACM DL Author-ize serviceThe learning edge

Phillip G. Armour
Communications of the ACM - Hacking and innovation, 2006


We only learn when we are incompetent                       

It is an odd fact that as adults we really only learn something when we are incompetent and we really only learn when we make mistakes.  It's an odd fact, but quite logical:

  1.  If I am already competent at something, I don't need to learn a new skill, I am already competent

  2.  If I am able to perform something well, it is either through blind luck, or I am already competent (so see 1.)

So this means that, as adults, we must put ourselves in a position of feeling incompetent and in a situation where we will likely fail if we really want to learn.  For many (though not all) adults this is a difficult thing to do.

Difficulty, capability, and the Competency Zone         

If we graph difficulty of a task versus our capability, we see that our abilities fall into what I call "The Competency Zone".



If a task is "too hard" for us at our current level of competency, we end up in an area where we experience anxiety.  If this anxiety  is too great, people will shut down and will not learn due to a feeling of being overwhelmed.

If we do not completely shut down, we learn.  As we learn our competency increases (along the x-axis on the graph). Assuming that the task difficulty stays the same, at some point we learn enough to become competent--we enter the "Competency Zone".

As our competence increases, again assuming the difficulty of the task does not increase, the activity becomes easy.  This requires little energy from us and we become effortlessly expert.

Too Easy
Finally, we become so facile at the task that it becomes too easy for us.  At this point our effectiveness actually decreases since it's rather boring to do the same thing over and over.

Competency and the Comfort Zone                               

We actually like to hang out in the lower part of the Competency Zone.  I call this "The Comfort Zone".  While it might be a little uneventful in the Comfort Zone, the reason we like it is that it is the low energy state--we can effortlessly display our command of this skill. 

Businesses and society colludes in this since both admire and reward people who are clearly expert, especially if they don't even have to break into a sweat to display their compentence.

Where we learn                                                           

While the Comfort Zone is, well, comfortable we don't learn much there.  In fact the learning we do in the Competency Zone is more to do with fine-tuning the skill for the purpose of reducing energy (and so moving us further into the Comfort Zone) than it is with actually learning something new.

We only learn along "The Learning Edge"

The Learning Edge operates along the outside edge of the Competency Zone.  Note that it must be outside the Competency Zone.

The further we can push people and the Learning Edge into the area of anxiety, the faster they will learn provided they do not shut down due to anxiety.  So the trick of learning is to stress people as much as you can but monitor their reactions to ensure they are still engaged.  This is where Accelerated Learning takes place.  Accelerated Learning is on the outside edge of the Learning Edge.

Since software development is first and foremost a learning activity, we would expect companies involved in software development to do whatever they can to get their people on to the Accelerated Learning portion of the Learning Edge

They do not. 

Outward Bound and the US Marines                       

Are two different organizations who have mastered this skill (see for details on the first).  There are ways we could structure our software development environments to do the same and the benefits would be huge. 

Why would the benefits be "huge" you ask?  There are several reasons.  The primary one is that this directly addresses the business of software, which is cooperative learning.  There are other reasons too.  Given the right situation, most of us love to be challenged and most of us love to learn.  Done properly, it allows people to enter a state of "Flow"1 where our capability is enormously increased.

This is what we should be doing in the business of software.

1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Harper and Row, 1990.



The Learning Edge