Learning Through Hacking

“That hacking produces better comprehension than passive, linear reading fits with what we know about learning. Barbara Oakley, Herbert Simon, Cal Newport, and Anders Ericsson all describe how solid understanding emerges from active exploration, critical examination, repetition, and synthesis. Hacking beats passive reading on three out of four of these criteria:

  1. Active exploration: When you hack, you want to eventually produce a change in the codebase. This desire guides your path through the code. When you read passively you let the code’s linear flow guide you.
  2. Critical examination: When you hack, you evaluate existing code in light of the change you want to make. Deciding what to use and remove keeps you from accepting the existing system as canon. When you read linearly, you lack a goal against which you can critically examine the existing code.
  3. Synthesis: To change the program as you desire, you synthesize existing code with new code.
  4. Repetition: Neither hacking nor linear reading involve useful repetition, unless you treat your change to make like a kata and mindfully re-implement it multiple times.

Learning through hacking also leverages the natural structure of a codebase. Good books guide their readers through series of questions and their answers, but codebases are inherently non-linear, like a map. You can ask an infinite number of questions of a map. How far is it from A to B? Which is the nearest town to C? But you can’t expect a map to tell you what questions to ask, and it makes no sense to read a map linearly from top to bottom, left to right.

Reframing reading as ‘navigation’ suggests that our conventional discussions of clean code and interfaces ignore the things that actually make unfamiliar code accessible to outsiders. Clean, solidified abstractions are like well-marked, easy-to-follow paths through a forest — very useful if they lead in the direction we need to go, but less useful when we want to blaze arbitrary new paths through the forest.”

(From http://akkartik.name/post/comprehension)