Don't Sweat the Petty Things ...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

 ... but do take care of them.

Following a "related posts" link from a recent John Cook posting about expertise, I encountered the following interesting example of bad pedagogy:

[T]he computer science department deliberately used a different programming language in nearly every course. The idea was that programming language syntax is unimportant, and constantly changing syntax would cause students to focus on concepts. This had the opposite of the desired effect. Since students were always changing languages, they were always focused on syntax. It would have made more sense to say that since we don't believe programming language syntax is important, we're going to teach all our lower division courses using the same language. That way the syntax can become second nature and students will focus on the concepts.
What this department did is an excellent example of how not to deal with something unimportant, but life abounds with mundane examples. I am astounded by people who, for example, don't seem to keep track of keys very well, and so regularly waste time and energy looking for them that could be put to much better use. As a parent, I have a heightened appreciation for the scraps of time that exist, say, when I'm cooking for the week. (I now either cook two "big things" in parallel or work on some task that lends itself to incremental progress, like folding laundry.) Of course, I wouldn't have even seen the time gaps had I not approached recipes the  way I do, which is to spell out every step and do things the same way every time. Mundane details should be thought about periodically and dealt with procedurally and habitually so that they don't cause one to waste time and effort.

It is also interesting what paying some attention to mundane details can buy in terms of evaluating advice. I have often gotten friendly advice on how to save time cooking, only to see immediately that it would actually cost me time, money, or both, compared to what I usually do. Here's an example I'd hoped would work, but which didn't: There are some really good things out there, like frozen pulled pork, that can make good meals quickly -- but they make just one meal, and even the minimal preparation (starting with defrosting) alone takes far longer than just microwaving the complete meals I make. (I also have some quick meals in my repertoire that take about the same amount of time to prepare -- and yield leftovers). I'd had the pulled pork and liked it, so I tried it anyway. It was tasty, but I was right about it not saving any time.

The basic idea is to not waste focus on the unimportant. That is not the same thing as never focusing, however. Learning, say, a computer language or a recipe well saves time for doing more creative or interesting or urgent work. But unless one is open to changing one's routine, one might miss out on further opportunities to save time as they become apparent. Just yesterday, for example, I switched a couple of steps in my laundry routine because of an unusual time constraint, and then realized that I should always think about which order to use because the reverse order will usually save me time.

I dwelt here on nailing down the unimportant things, but this ties directly in with the earlier Cook post on expertise. Experts have the small things nailed down to the point that it's second nature. They both spend less time fixing errors caused by small things and have more time to spend on truly important matters.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

‘Mundane details should be thought about periodically and dealt with procedurally and habitually so that they don't cause one to waste time and effort.’

Exactly! I’m very absent minded and when I was younger, I used to lose/misplace a lot of stuff; wallets, glasses, watches, keys, ID cards, even my car once, etc. Therefore, I created a simple system to solve this. I check to make sure everything is in its proper place when exiting or entering my home, car, work building, going to bed etc. Wallet and comb in back pocket, keys and change in front pocket, leave my work ID card in my car, flash drive in a designated pocket of my computer case, charging corn in another, everything on the table beside me bed when I sleep, etc. When I get a new toy like a cell phone, it is easy enough to integrate it into my existing system (front left pocket). This system works well and I don’t waste time searching for stuff. The downside? Momentary panic can ensue on those rare occasions that something gets accidently put in the wrong place (i.e. Wallet in front pocket).

‘This had the opposite of the desired effect.’

There is another point to be made here. Five minutes of thought should have convinced any intelligent person that constantly changing syntax would not cause students to focus on concepts but the opposite. The fact that adults actually believed this, so contrary to logic and human nature is mystifying and frightening. It’s not rocket science, not even close. Of course, this is the same argument used by people who oppose phonics as the method to teach children to read with far more devastating consequences.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! Your comment about momentary panic reminded me of something I once noticed about my wife. We're both absent-minded like you, but I cope using an approach like yours and she is okay with lots of "Easter-egg hunting" as I call it, and with rushing/showing up a little late.

So we once ended up, through a rare lapse of mine, being in danger of missing a flight. I was amazed at matter-of-factly she dealt with it, not to mention the fact that we actually made the flight. I concluded (and put it to her this way): "You're better at rushing than I am."

That episode has made me less apt (though not unable) to be annoyed with the fact that she is not the most organized person in the world.