Real activities on real projects, real work, or real results are more effective than substitution or preparation work.

Some examples include:

  • Advancing your career by doing projects at work outside your current abilities.
  • Pairing study with real-world use through apprenticeship programs.
  • Focus on training relevant to you rather than an unrelated activity that strengthens your mental muscles.
  • Speaking a language rather than doing language exercises.

However, there are arguments against doing the real thing.

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What are the Best Arguments Against Doing the Real Thing? | Scott H Young

scotthyoung.com

Discovery learning doesn't work that well

Discovery learning is the idea of not giving any instructions - simply present the problem to the pupil and let them figure it out for themselves.

But, discovery learning is less efficient than telling people what they ought to do and then letting them do it. What counts is practising the right skills often and early. You don't get a bonus for figuring it out for yourself.

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Cognitive load makes problem solving inefficient

Cognitive load theory states that problem-solving is often not enough. We need to keep the details of our goal in our working memory, adding extra load that can interfere with schema acquisition.

  • Students can solve problems faster when they are told how to solve the problem rather than trying to figure it out on their own.
  • Exploratory style practice may work better for solving complex problems.

But, replacing all problem solving with worked-out examples is based on the assumption that we already understand what skills we need to solve a problem.

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Deliberate practice require more than doing your job

Deliberate practise and doing the real thing address different problems.

  • Deliberate practise: World-class performers get good by focused, and intensive practise sessions with the intention to improve, not by just doing the skill.
  • Doing the real thing: However, for someone trying to advance in a big organisation, it isn't about getting better at a skill they have been doing for twenty years, but developing new skills. The programmer becomes a manager.

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Theories are useful, but invisible

Direct practise cannot be a substitute for studying theory. Doing the real thing should be combined with studying theory.

If you keep getting stuck on a problem, practising more is unlikely to solve the problem. But exposing yourself to the broader theory behind the problem is more valuable even if it does not directly answer your particular problem.

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  • When choosing an approach to learning, there is a trade-off between cost and convenience, and doing the real thing.
  • Ill-defined goals can make it harder to improve your practice. Dabbling may be useful to gauge your interest in a subject.
  • Credentials may be necessary to signal your commitment.

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