Category Archives: Learning

Constructive Discontent

I’ve mentioned Robert Cooper’s book “Get Out of Your Own Way” a few times in my recent blog entries.  I love the title of chapter 13: “Constructive Discontent Drives Growth”.  I don’t think any other chapter title could describe my life so well.  “Constructive discontent” means that you’re not satisfied to simply repeat past successes; instead, you seek out new ways, new paths.  Before I start to sound like a fluffed up motivational speaker, let me pull some real examples from my life.

Twelve years ago I worked for an ad specialty company – as their courier.  The owner found out I had a knack for navigating Adobe Illustrator to create image files for our embroiderers.  (Bear in mind I have zero graphic design talent – this was simple image editing!)  My good friends, Kyle Chowning and Shawn Stewart, were both involved with the burgeoning web/graphic design industry – and, though I wanted to learn about their world, I ruled it out, thinking I was simply too far behind to ever catch up.   But the healthy level of discontent that is constantly with me would not let me settle down into ‘easy’ paths and stick to job skills I knew.  I borrowed an HTML 4.0 book from Kyle, and after a couple of meetings to discuss web development, I dove into learning everything I could.  At my next job, working as a PC repair technician and logistics coordinator, I was quickly frustrated with rampant inefficiencies in data entry & research.  I created a department website internally to help me (and other co-workers) automate tasks and more quickly find answers to common questions.  While I was thankful for the success I’d had, I soon realized that the site needed more capabilities – but to deliver on new features I had to leave my fledging pursuit of web design to learn about web application development.  Each new door opened up more doors of information and exposure.  Within a year, I was developing database-backed applications using Cold Fusion.  Since that time I have consumed 40-50 technical books easily, accumulating far more hours learning about software development than I spent earning my bachelor’s degree.

Constructive discontent helped spur me on in the face of “you’re too far behind, you’ll never catch up to guys who’ve been doing this for years.”  Constructive discontent enabled me – a music major – to lead a team of 7 developers, nearly all who had degrees in Computer Science, a mere 5 years after I switched careers to software development.  Constructive discontent also helped make it clear when it was time to let go of the comfortable leadership position I had, leave working from home for 5 years, and go join a local software team with talent and leadership far exceeding my own.

A healthy discontent helps guard you against complacency and apathy.  It helps you cultivate the habit of asking “Is there a better way to do this?”  It abhors the idea of being a “big fish in a little pond”.  A constructively discontent person would rather serve on the greatest team possible than ‘rule’ in mediocrity.

Ah, but there are catches.  It is difficult to cultivate this kind of healthy discontent across a community.  As Cooper points out in his book, there are centers in the brain that thrive on routine and predictability.  Those parts of the brain will cry out loud to be heard, in an attempt to drown out the parts of you that want to take risks, try something new – take a leap of faith.  Because discontent breeds change, many people resist it.  Not all change is change for the better (pause, and consider that in light of current events!); it’s the right changes that we want to push for.  We must guard against being obsessive in our discontent, and the tempting aspects of making it blindingly personal.

My discontent is driven by a desire to learn more & to be a part of excellence.  Because of it I have learned more than I could’ve ever thought possible and formed some of the most rewarding relationships of my life.  Because of it, I never see the future as dull, but loaded with opportunities to learn more, discover more, and teach more.

The 2 Sigma Problem

thinking_man In my last post I discussed Benjamin Bloom and how Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a guide to helping us determine if we’ve truly learned something, as well as give us objectives in helping others learn concepts in such a way that they can understand, apply, analyze and improvise them.  Throughout Bloom’s career he sought to better understand what factors led to students excelling and achieving the objectives of their curriculums.   In his book “Developing Talent in Young People”, Bloom demonstrated that famous high-achieving adults were rarely considered child prodigies.  The difference “was the kind of attention and support those individuals received at home from their parents…they realized goals born of guidance rather than raw genetic capacity.  Attainment was a product of learning, and learning was influenced by opportunity and effort. It was then, and is now, a powerful and optimistic conception of the possibilities that education provides.”  In other words, Bloom argued that environment and not genetics was the biggest factor in helping a student reach their potential in learning.

The type of environment necessary for reaching full potential matters a lot.  In 1984, Bloom published an article entitled “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring.”  In short, 3 learning environments were compared:

  1. Conventional – roughly 30 students per teacher, periodic tests given.
  2. Mastery Learning – roughly 30 students per teacher learn the material in a classroom setting (like above) .  However, the tests (like those in the Conventional class) are used to give feedback which is immediately followed by corrective procedures and ‘parallel formative tests’.
  3. Tutoring – Usually one (sometimes 2-3) student(s) learned the material from a good tutor.  Tutoring instruction was “followed periodically by formative tests, feedback corrective procedures, and parallel formative tests”.

These studies found that the average student in the tutoring group  was two standard deviations (or 2 sigma) above the average student in the conventional group – meaning that they were above 98% of the  conventional students.  (The average student in the mastery learning group was 1 sigma above the average student in the conventional group – or above 84% of the conventional group.)


In light of these findings, Bloom wrote:

“The tutoring process demonstrates that most of the students do have the potential to reach this high level of learning.  I believe an important task of research and instruction is to seek ways of accomplishing this under more practical and realistic conditions than the one-to-one tutoring, which is too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale.  This is the ‘2 sigma’ problem.”

I had three immediate reactions to Bloom’s statement.  First, I am more determined than ever to be heavily involved in tutoring my children regardless of whether we go with a home school, private school or public school approach.  Second, what does it say about our society that even the home cannot be a “safe bet” for one-to-one tutoring?  Regardless of the reasons, I am troubled that an entire value system has been built that deems it “too costly” for us to bear.  I wonder what the general attitude and level of education in our nation would be if families didn’t assume that education was something to be outsourced to an already overburdened and complicated public school system?  Third, it struck me in the context of workplace mentoring.  How often do I make myself available to be a mentor for junior software developers?  How often am I seeking out other senior developers or managers to mentor me?

What about you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Do you seek out mentors in the workplace?  Have you been a mentor?  How did that work?  What helped it happen?  What undermined it?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Bloom

How do we learn?  What constitutes comprehension of a particular subject?  What about mastery and the ability to improvise?  These kinds of questions trail about behind me constantly like the wake of a high speed boat.  I love to learn, and I discover more every day about how I best acquire certain types of skills.  Early on in life, I developed ‘tricks’ to memorize facts, and even entire pages of words.  My tactics were nothing more than brute force memorization, and I quickly abandoned them as I matured and became convinced that the real test of my knowledge and comprehension lie in whether or not I could extrapolate and improvise based on prior knowledge, and not simply repeat facts.

In a recent discussion with my sister (a school teacher with her Masters in Education) on this very subject, I learned about Benjamin Bloom.  In 1956, Bloom – an educational psychologist – proposed a structure to help identify the process of learning and assist teachers in formulating objectives to help guide students through each phase of learning, and not inadvertently mire them in the early stages of the process.  This structure became known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy” (of the cognitive domain).  In short, he theorized that learning moves through the following processes:

  1. Knowledge – ability to recall data from memory.
  2. Comprehension – ability to construct meaning from learned data, understand & interpret the facts.
  3. Application – solving new problems by using the acquired knowledge in new ways.
  4. Analysis – ability to examine and break down information into parts, identify causes & find evidence to support new conclusions.
  5. Synthesis – compile information together in different ways to create new patterns & solutions.
  6. Evaluation – defend conclusions and make judgments on the validity of ideas or quality of work.

In the 1990’s, Lorin Anderson – a student of Blooms’, came up with a “revised” taxonomy, which can be seen on the right below:

Bloom’s Taxonomy Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy
blooms_taxonomy1 image


So – how does this apply to us in our daily lives?  Two experiences from my work as a software developer come to mind.  Several years ago, the company I worked for hired a mid-level developer for the team I ran.  This person held two degrees in IT, had a good resume and a good attitude.  However, it became apparent early on that they were simply repeating steps they had learned in school, but didn’t understand development at a conceptual level – at least not enough to improvise and create without immediate supervision.  In a different instance, the company hired a junior developer.  It’s expected in these circumstances to have a lot of close supervision, but over the first year on the job this developer didn’t progress past the basic steps of following pre-determined instructions.  In both cases, the most damaging fact was that neither truly grasped that they weren’t strong enough on concepts; they thought reproducing someone else’s steps was sufficient.

Whether I’ve been in an official leadership position or not, I’ve tried to better understand how I can help people in those positions grow past “rote-based” work ethic into what I believe is not only a higher standard of excellence and quality of work, but also a much more fulfilling career.  I admit it’s difficult for me to relate at times.  For me, the first criteria I hold myself to on whether or not I truly understand a concept is if I can create something original using that knowledge.  In one of the cases mentioned above, the developer was motivated when they moved into an even more demanding consulting job.  In the other case, the developer was motivated when their job was a stake.  Their reactions are understandable, since motivational sources are as unique as personalities.  The members of the team I am currently part of are motivated by a love for learning (as am I).  I think this pays the highest dividends both for the individual employee and the company.  Employees who love to learn are rarely ever the kind of employees who need to be closely supervised (for wasted time or productivity), and they’re very likely to truly love what they do – which results in higher morale, greater productivity and cutting edge innovation.