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Reblogged:Training vs. Education

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Every once in a while, I bump into a blogger or a columnist whose first-hand thinking rates a holiday reading binge. The latest such writer is computing professional Rachel Kroll, whose tech blog, Rachel by the Bay I recommend, particularly to anyone with an interest in computing.

One of her posts, "Simple-Minded Literalism and Avoiding the Big Picture," both recalls a recent post of my own, about documentation, and should be a good example of why I enjoy the writing.

In my own post, I noted:
As a computer hobbyist/amateur programmer/power user, I am frequently frustrated by software documentation: It seems always to be geared for either the computer illiterate -- using the "mouse," click with the right-hand button on the rectangle labeled "Start" at the bottom left of your screen -- or someone with a PhD in computer science who hacks away at his own operating system every weekend just for the hell of it. So it's either too obvious to be useful -- or too hard to access for the specific weird problem I have.
Back then, I noted valid reasons for this that made sense of the situation for me: Documentation has to be pitched to some audience, and past a certain knowledge point, there may not be enough of an audience in numbers to justify writing something geared towards them. And, on top of that, it is a non-trivial problem to translate knowledge from one's own perspective to that of the user-audience.

But those aren't the only reasons, as Kroll's account of a stultifying course she once took will show.
Image by NeONBRAND, via Unsplash, license.
... I had more than a few classes which were utterly silly and yet couldn't be avoided. The worst ones centered on a single implementation of a certain technology. That is, instead of being about spreadsheets, it was about Excel. Instead of being about word processing, it was about Word.
One can protest that beginners have to start somewhere, but considering how anti-conceptual the American education establishment is, I am sure there was no attempt within those courses to generalize beyond those specific tools. (And I would go so far as to say that even a training course in how to use such a tool should include some material to make the knowledge easier to translate to other circumstances.)

Kroll's conclusion, in which she describes her answer to a "seriously broken assignment," certainly seems to bear this out:
... I even went as far as describing the right-click action on top-of-column label for dates to enable the magic formatting for that kind of data. This way it would know to treat those numbers as dates and not guess as to what it might mean. This repeated for other columns with potentially interesting data - prices are currency, for instance.

Then I laid out how to select the data (dragging, or clicking that weird corner box thing) in order to feed it to the sorting and filtering flow. Everything else followed from that.

It answered everything which had been in the problem description with stupidly simple language and offered absolutely no "outside the box" thinking.

They loved it. I got an A.
It amazes me, though perhaps it shouldn't, that assigning grades is so unfashionable today among egalitarians. They should be happiest of all with grades, as one could argue that they roughly correlate with how much any given student has been held back by such a course -- in the form of spending time on busywork instead of learning new things or being creative.

It is interesting to contemplate how much better documentation might be if more people were trained to think in bigger-picture terms than they are now.

-- CAV

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