chairs reflecting in the sun

It’s not hard to find books, websites, or videos that will help you learn just about any technical skill you’d like, from making animated GIFs to X. But even with the most hands-on approach, it can be hard to get that knowledge to stick, or to figure out why you’d want to keep with it.

Steven Ovadia, a professor and web services librarian at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY), found himself confronting this problem while drafting his forthcoming book, Learn Linux in a Month of Lunches. Faced with the nigh-on infinite customizability of Linux, and the importance of tying that customizability to the equally innumerable ways people might want to use their computers productively, Ovaida found himself less and less comfortable simply pronouncing step-wise series of instructions.

Instead, he realized, there’s an important aspect missing from many technical books: explicit opportunity for reflection.

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People learn by doing, but they also learn by reflecting. Technical books tend to focus on the former, but not necessarily on the latter. Reflection is an important part of learning any technical framework, but it’s especially important with desktop Linux which might be used in a much more personal way than a programming language (plus, desktop Linux doesn’t have a compiler to tell you if what you’re doing is correct).

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The tension of writing a technical book is making it specific enough so that the reader learns a skill (my worst nightmare was writing the equivalent of Bittman Haikus), but open enough so that the reader learns how to think about and deploy the skills learned in a way that feels natural and self-directed.

Ovaida’s post ties together the familiar Freirean critique of the “banking” concept of education with Richard Stallman’s pedagogical interest in open software licenses, and uses it to demonstrate why learning a new skill is also a process of reflection and becoming more explicit about one’s goals. It’s definitely worth a read!

How do you provide opportunities for students to reflect as they learn new technical skills? Let us know in comments!

Photo “Ferry-Sun-Flower” by Flickr user S.H. / Creative Commons licensed BY-ND-2.0