When I work with teams to help them learn something new, I try to pay attention to a few things. Firstly, I pay attention to how people are learning, and secondly how I am teaching.

When I used to teach Physics and Chemistry in high school, one validation of 'success' often came from how the students left the classroom. Generally, teenagers often came into one of those classes the same way (at least at the start of the year): I don't want to be here, this isn't important to me, I'm not going to learn anything useful.

Okay. Gauntlet down. Let's begin.

I knew I had a good class when students left the room smiling and/or talking about the ideas covered in the lesson. The real learning happens when they talk about the subjects among themselves. We need time to absorb ideas and make them a part of us. Talking about them with others is a good first step in the learning process.

Putting ideas into practice is an important next step in the learning process. Practice makes the knowledge concrete, more permanent. Through practice we also begin to understand the limits of success under different conditions. In a classroom, practice might happen through assigned questions/exercises, experiments or projects of some sort.

Once someone groks an idea through practice, we can engage in the next level of discussion -- what next? Applicability, adaptation, extending the ideas, and so on. How can we be more successful? To paraphrase Newton, how can we stand on the shoulders of giants?

There are many learning models and ideas that apply for both learning and teaching material, and I don't mean to fill this space with them.

In recent years, my teaching (coaching, consulting) has focussed on Agile and Testing (rather than Physics and Chemistry). When I am approached for help or advice on Agile, Scrum, Exploratory Testing, or something else, I often think about the term Shuhari. (In English, pronounced: shoe - ha - ree)

Shuhari is a Japanese term from martial arts that describes the learning path to mastery. It roughly translates to "first learn, then detach, and finally transcend." From the Wikipedia page, here's the breakdown:
  • shu -- "protect", "obey" - traditional wisdom - learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs
  • ha -- "detach", "digress" - breaking with tradition - detachment from the illusions of self
  • ri -- "leave", "separate" - transcendence - all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms

Shuhari reminds me that rules and rituals are in place for beginners and that we learn to go beyond them as we mature in a particular discipline.

When I teach people about Scrum or Exploratory Testing, I often see people want to start improvising or adjusting practices right from the beginning. When you do that, you jump to "ha" but without the solid foundation or appreciation of "shu". In a martial arts class, the sensei (instructor) might smack you on the head for doing something like that. (If you're lucky.)

As we explore new ways of doing things, it's important to start at the beginning and practice the forms as described. Become comfortable with the practices. Become bored with them. Make them a part of your muscle memory so that you don't have to consciously think about them anymore. Keep practising.

*Then* one day you may ask "how about if we change this [step] a little? What do you think?" That is an excellent question. A question that drives an experiment. An experiment that drives learning and helps us to enter "ha".

Timing is the difference. Asking to vary a practice at the beginning doesn't help. Asking after you understand it makes sense.

There are different concepts and models to describe the paths to mastery. What do you think of this one?

I have three other models floating around in my head on Mastery and plan to cover them in future posts. I offered to talk about "Mastery" at the Test Coach Camp last year but there wasn't enough interest at the time. I wonder who the target audience is for this topic. People sometimes fall into careers. I actively sought mine, so these models meant something to me at the time. I reflect upon the value that each one offered and look to new insights still waiting for me.

When I think of Shuhari, I think "Practice before Change." And that reminds me of the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?


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  2. That's an excellent blog post, Adam. Thanks for sharing the link here. I certainly would have linked to it if I had known about it.

    I too studied Japanese and I know that the best way to learn a language is to understand the culture. I studied a few different martial arts for a few years, including Kendo, but it wasn't until I took a conversational Japanese course and immersed myself in their community for several months that I began to learn the culture.

    If I choose a word from another language it's because I think it may explain something better than I can in English. Shuhari doesn't describe everything I think about Mastery. It does reflect a part of the journey that I think is important - the need for practice. Lots of practice.

    I particularly like when you said: "I have observed that westerners tend to have a mindset of ‘make me understand, then I will do.’ In Japan there is frequently a pattern of ‘do and eventually you will understand.’"

    Well said. As a coach I find I have to switch approaches depending on the person/people/topic I am working with. I don't know how to reconcile the opposing approaches in my mind. When teaching something new to someone, I try one or the other based on my impression of the needs of the individual. I observe the effects and think about the success of the outcomes. It helps me to learn and continue to improve myself to better help those I work with.

    A related proverb might be: "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life."

    That one has always bugged me. Always. And yet I think about it. And I see that not everyone I work with wants to learn how to fish. Sometimes they're just hungry and want to move on. Here, do this .. take this fish. There's a McDonalds down the road that might help you next. Come back if you want another fish.