How Do We Learn?

Vikas Hazrati filed a fascinating report recently over at InfoQ, in which he discusses an experiment conducted by agilist Steve Bockman. In the experiment, Bockman tasked eight subjects to build a particular kind of paper airplane within a five-minute time box. He then provided three different ways to learn how to construct the airplane: written instructions (i.e. documentation); a completed airplane (i.e. reverse engineering); and step-by-step demonstration (i.e. mentoring). The results showed that a mere 12.5 percent of the test subjects could successfully replicate the airplane design using only documentation, while 25 percent could build it once they had a completed plane to study. However, 100 percent of the test subjects were able to successfully build the airplane when Bockman walked them through every step of the process.

This is especially interesting to me because of its relevance to agile methodologies. For example, in software development, there is a name for step-by-step demonstration: Pair programming. Agile organizations will often pair an experienced developer with a relative newbie so that the less experienced developer can “drive” while the veteran developer observes and provides guiding feedback when necessary. Many traditional project managers regard pair programming as a waste of resources (the common criticism is that it’s using two people to do the work of one), but Bockman’s experiment suggests that such an investment in teaching through demonstration or mentoring is infinitely more effective than other means.

What are the most effective teaching methods your organization uses? Have you had experiences that contradict BockmanÂ’s study? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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