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Learning Styles -- The Astonishment Response

04.14.2010
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We're not really talking about "Learning Styles" as much as "Denial Styles". This is a list of responses to "Astonishment" I've seen.

We're not talking about the Kübler-Ross model of grief, although this is similar.However, the response to astonishment isn't a "progression" toward acceptance. Some folks simply don't like to learn and are perfectly capable of arguing down the facts because they don't fit with assumptions and preconceived notions.

When faced with new information, some folks seem to have a consistent response to astonishment. Other folks seem to jump around among a few preferred responses. Additionally there are people who seem to prefer to escalate things to a crisis level because learning seems to require adrenaline.

Oh. Classic acceptance. Many folks start here; which is pleasant. It saves a lot of email traffic. When astonished, they assimilate the information without really fighting against it.

That Can't Be True. Classic denial. It's surprising how often this happens. Even when confronted with facts supplied by the learner themself.

Example. The DBA says stored procedures are a maintenance problem. You say, "Correct, perhaps they shouldn't be used to heavily".

The DBA asks "Why reduce dependence on stored procedures?" You say that, amongst other things, "they're a maintenance nightmare."

And the DBA says, "That can't be true; it's just a management problem." WTF -- Wasn't That Funny -- the DBA is going to deny their own facts in order to avoid learning something knew.

I Wasn't Told. This is a kind of grudging, negotiated acceptance. "What you say about bubble sort being inefficient may be true, but I wasn't told." Okay. You weren't told. Does that mean that I have to email all of Don Knuth to you so that you will have been "told"?

I'll have to see it. This is really just a basic denial wrapped in the terms of settlement. In short, the learner is saying, "I still disagree with all your facts." I'm not sure what "I'll have to see it" means when we have working implementations of something "new" or "different".

Example. A: "RESTful web services are simpler." B: "No." A: "No SOAP, no WSDL; seems simpler." B: "Perhaps, but I'll have to see it." See what? How can you "see" the absence of complex WSDL?

This project is out of control. This is a somewhere near grudging acceptance. It might also be a form of reneging or repudiation of acceptance. It's hard to say.

Example. Manager: "The Ontology has thousands of objects with dozens of properties and the SPARQL processing is slow." Architect. "Replace it with a relational database derived from the ontology." Manager: "Okay".

Four Weeks Later. Manager: "This Project is Out of Control."

Right. We're making a disruptive change to the architecture. What did you expect? Non-disruptive change? How is it change if it doesn't disrupt something?

Does Everyone Know This? This is a form of "I wasn't told". It's my favorite because it projects one's own knowledge-gathering onto a mysterious "everyone". I'm not sure why some folks say this. To me, it seems a pretty bold statement about the mental states of other folks on the team.

That's Non-Standard. More properly this should be "That's atypical" or "That's unconventional". This is another negotiated, grudging acceptance. But it's a pretty complex deal. The first part is to establish a convention. Sometimes a legacy usage needs to be elevated to "typical" or "conventional"; other times legacy usage already is conventional. The second part is to realize that the new thing is different from the convention. The third part -- which is subtle -- is to deprecate something new because it is unconventional.

Example. Architect: "You should use a HashMap for those dimensional conformance lookups." Programmer: "Not everyone understands those fancy collection classes, so we use primitive arrays." Architect: "That's amazingly slow. It's less code to build and lookup a HashMap, and it runs faster."

Programmer: "That would be non-standard". Architect: "There's no applicable ISO standard. Perhaps you mean 'unconventional'." Programmer: "Right, unconventional. And we can't change now because it would disrupt the established code base."

Architect: "It will be less code and run faster." Programmer: "I'll have to see it."

Doesn't That Contradict Something? This is best nit-picky form of denial ever. Step one is to analyze each word of the suggested change; in some cases, using the level of care appropriate to studying the Talmud. Step two is to locate something that could be construed as contradictory. The third step is to deprecate the new thing because it can be linked to something that can be seen as contradictory.

Architect: "Can we add some formal assert statements in the tricky actuarial scoring algorithm. It involves non-obvious assumptions about NULL's and ranges of values." Programmer: "No. That contradicts your earlier advice to unit test all those corner and edge cases."

Architect: "Contradict? Perhaps you mean it's redundant." Programmer: "No, it's clearly contradictory; one never needs both assertions and unit tests. You demanded unit tests, that means that assertions are a contradiction."

Summary

Other than patience, it's hard to provide any other advice on how to work through these things. Mostly, these are fact-free positions. In some cases, even facts don't help the learning process.

I think the only way to cope with a fundamental refusal to learn is to ask what it takes to convince them. In many cases, the answer amounts to "Do the entire implementation two ways and then micro-examine each nuance of performance, maintainability, adaptability and cost to the organization over a period of a decade before I'll consider your worthless opinion."

I remember once being asked -- seriously -- how I can possibly claim one implementation is higher performance than another. The question was asked as if "measurement" didn't apply to software performance. At the time, I couldn't figure out why "measurement" wasn't the obvious fact gathering technique. Now I realize that they were simply refusing to learn and didn't care about evidence; they simply didn't want to change to a more efficient implementation.
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Comments

Endre Varga replied on Wed, 2010/04/14 - 9:49am

I strongly disagree with your "I'll have to see it" category. Lot of times happen that a solution looks simpler _theoretically_ than an older one, yet, in practice the simplicity does not materialize, or you even end up with a more complex solution. I work with academics, so I know what I'm talking about.

Joerg Wassmer replied on Wed, 2010/04/14 - 1:42pm

Like Endre, I also disagree with your statements about "I'll have to see it". Implicitely it says, "I will try it, than I will tell you". For example, part of my job is to choose the 3rd party APIs we are using in our projects. My biggest fault was to recommend Java Server Faces without ever trying it. By first trying (seeing) it, my recommendation would have been another.

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