TITLE: Change Happens When People Talk to People AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 08, 2013 11:48 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I finally got around to reading Atul Gawande's Slow Ideas this morning. It's a New Yorker piece from last summer about how some good ideas seem to resist widespread adoption, despite ample evidence in their favor, and ways that one might help accelerate their spread. As I read, I couldn't help but think of parallels to teaching students to write programs and helping professionals develop software more reliably. We know that development practices such as version control, short iterations, and pervasive testing lead to better software and more reliable process. Yet they are hard habits for many programmers to develop, especially when they have conflicting habits in place. Other development practices seem counterintuitive. "Pair programming can't work, right?" In these cases, we have to help people overcome both habits of practice and habits of thought. That's a tall order. Gawande's article is about medical practice, from surgeons to home practitioners, but his conclusions apply to software development as well. For instance: People have an easier time changing habits when the benefit is personal, immediate, and visceral. When the benefit is not so obvious, a whole new way of thinking is needed. That requires time and education.
The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist.
This is certainly true for software developers. (If you replace "germs" with "bugs", it's an even better fit!) Much of the time, developers have to think about evidence the ways scientists do. This lesson is true not just for surgeons and software developers. It is true for most people, in most ways of life. Sometimes, we all have to be able to think and act like a scientist. I can think of no better argument for treating science as important for all students, just as we do reading and writing. Other lessons from Gawande's article are more down-to-earth:
Many of the changes took practice for her, she said. She had to learn, for instance, how to have all the critical supplies -- blood-pressure cuff, thermometer, soap, clean gloves, baby respiratory mask, medications -- lined up and ready for when she needed them; how to fit the use of them into her routine; how to convince mothers and their relatives that the best thing for a child was to be bundled against the mother's skin. ...
So many good ideas in one paragraph! Many software development teams could improve by putting them in action: Finally, the human touch is essential. People who understand must help others to see and understand. But when we order, judge, or hector people, they tend to close down the paths of communication, precisely when we need them to be most open. Gawande's colleagues have been most successful when they built personal relationships:
"It wasn't like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes," she said. "It was like talking to a friend."
Good teachers know this. Some have to learn it the hard way, in the trenches with their students. But then, that is how Gawande's colleagues learned it, too. "Slow Hands" is good news for teachers all around. It teaches ways to do our job better. But also, in many ways, it tells us that teaching will continue to matter in an age dominated by technological success:
People talking to people is still how the world's standards change.