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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Chapter 6. Construct Your Curriculum

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He’d no longer be a grade-motivated person. He’d be a knowledge-motivated person. He would need no external pushing to learn. His push would come from the inside.... Motivation of this sort, once it catches hold, is a ferocious force.

We live in an age of abundant information. The invention of the printing press ushered in an era that allows even some of the poorest members of society to acquire the knowledge, and therefore the power, to change their circumstances. The ever-expanding World Wide Web and an unending series of technical innovations continue to lower the barriers to virtually any information we could ever want. As our Internet bandwidth increases and our handheld devices store a seemingly limitless amount of data, we can now access high-resolution media in text, audio, and video formats anywhere, at any time. Like any good apprentice, you will likely use the latest and greatest devices and media platforms, but there is certain information that is mainly found in plain old low-tech books. While blogs can provide an excellent stream of reading material, the vast amounts of wisdom captured in the books of experienced practitioners like Jerry Weinberg, Fred Brooks, Steve McConnell, and Kent Beck cannot be replaced, not even with higher-bandwidth information. Even if you’re not a bookworm, a successful apprenticeship needs to include some books as well as time devoted to studying. You’re not in school, though. There is no assigned reading—it’s up to you to find recommendations and construct your own curriculum.

Reading List

No one can learn everything at once, but no principle or rule prevents the apprentice from learning a little of this today, a little of that tomorrow, things in some order no one ever thought of before, or learning to the point where he wants to stop and then switching to something else. He need not, when he wants to learn a certain procedure, wait until it’s time in a prearranged schedule; nor need he learn something he is not ready for, thinks uninteresting, frightening, or unnecessary. The learner makes his own curriculum.

Context

After developing enough competence and skill to become proficient in Your First Language, you’re beginning to look around and see the incredible amount of information you still need to learn.

Problem

The number of books you need to read is increasing faster than you can read them.

Solution

Maintain a Reading List to track the books you plan to read, and remember the books you’ve read.

In the spirit of the Share What You Learn pattern, consider storing your list in a public space. This will allow other people to benefit from the things you learn. We use the wiki at http://bookshelved.org (started by Laurent Bossavit in 2002), but any public list would work just as well. Ideally, your list would allow you to sequence the books, while distinguishing which books you’ve read and when.

This pattern is not just about managing the books you plan to read. It is also a mechanism for reflecting on your past reading habits. With data spanning several years, you can start to see patterns, trends, and gaps in the things you’re choosing to study. This can help you make better decisions about what to read next. If you make this information publicly available, then there is the possibility that other people will contribute suggestions for future reading. This can help you discover hidden connections and obscure gems.

One of the most valuable things you can gain from any book is a list of other books that are worth reading. Over time, you will discover that certain books keep popping up in bibliographies, and you should move those books to the top of your reading list. Other books will drop down. Since your reading list is actually a priority queue, you will eventually realize that certain books have fallen so far in the ranking that you will probably never read them. This is fine. The purpose of this pattern is to give you a way to prioritize and filter the flood of potential knowledge.

The main difficulty with implementing this pattern is that you need a deep understanding of a topic in order to work out which books to read and in which order. One way to resolve this paradox is to initially pick books that give you a broad understanding of the topic in question, and then select books that drill down into the specific aspects that interest you. The other way to resolve this paradox is to depend on your Kindred Spirits and your mentors. Your mentors will be able to recommend must-read books, while discussion with your fellow apprentices can help you work out the order in which to read them. You can also take advantage of the public reading lists provided by other people who are implementing this pattern.

Another difficulty lies figuring out where to start. You can find an excellent list of books to populate your Reading List in Chapter 35 of Code Complete, Microsoft Press, and in the bibliography of The Pragmatic Programmer. You can also take a look at the bibliography for this book to see some of the books that inspired us.

This pattern owes a debt to Ravi Mohan’s idea of a Book Chain[37] and to the Sequential Study pattern from Joshua Kerievsky’s pattern language for study groups.[38] Whereas Book Chain is about asking people to recommend sets of books that will introduce you to a new topic, this pattern is more about managing the continuous stream of books you find interesting. This pattern also differs from Sequential Study because it doesn’t focus on reading books in chronological order to understand the way they influence each other. In this pattern, the book you should read next is the one that takes you can step further on your journey.

It is important to remember that this is your Reading List. It’s great to be influenced by the suggestions of others, but only you truly know your current context. Therefore, you should be the one making the choice about what to study next. That said, it’s also important to read the right book at the right time. Doing so is far more powerful than churning through a bunch of books you don’t have the experience or depth of knowledge to truly understand. Too many people read Design Patterns too early in their studies, when a book like Refactoring would be a much gentler introduction to patterns. Find Mentors and ask them for advice about which book you should read next. Timing has a powerful impact on your experience with a book.

Action

Create a text file, perhaps putting it under source control. Type in all the books you’re currently reading. This is your Reading List, and the simplest possible implementation of this pattern. Now all you have to do is keep this text file up to date.

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