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Fluent Learning: An Interview with Rebecca M. Riordan

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C# compiler developer Eric Lippert interviews Rebecca M. Riordan, author of the new book Fluent C#..
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Eric Lippert: The first thing that struck me about your book is that its “look” is very different from every one of the hundred other technical books on my shelf. It has a strong “steampunk” design aesthetic, it uses large display fonts, and so on. What motivated these design choices?

Rebecca M. Riordan: Firstly, and most importantly, there are pedagogical reasons for the heavy emphasis on graphics. Most of us are familiar with the idea that most people favor one sense over another, and appealing to a person’s favorite sense helps them learn. Demographically, most people respond best to visual input, but research has shown that in fact everyone learns better when information is presented to as many senses as possible, partly because our brains simply enjoy the complexity of multiple forms of input, and the more fun our brain is having, the more likely we are to remember whatever it is we are doing. Also, information is more likely to be recalled if it is accessed using the same pathway that was used to store it. It turns out that there’s a great deal of variation in how people think about problems, and we can’t simply say “this is this kind of information, so I need to teach it in this way.” By presenting information in multiple ways, it’s just statistically more likely that it will be available along the pathway the user is using to “look” for it.

Secondly, the Fluent books really are very different than anything else on the market, and I wanted them to look very different to emphasize that fact.

As for the steampunk design aesthetic, that was a combination of personal preference and practicality. I personally like steampunk very much, and it seemed to me to be a fun (and slightly whimsical) fit for presenting technical information. From a practical viewpoint, the Victorian images are widely available and old enough to be in the public domain, which made sourcing the raw images reasonably straightforward.

Eric Lippert: What challenges did you face, having chosen an unusual form factor for a modern technical book?

Rebecca M. Riordan: The biggest challenge was on the production side. Particularly since this was the first book in the series; we stumbled a lot over simple logistical issues like getting Mac versions of the fonts and how to handle the technical review and copyediting when the manuscript was in InDesign rather than Word. The second book was easier. I’m hoping/praying/wishing really hard that the process will continue to get easier as we go along.

Eric Lippert: I’ve edited a number of “beginner level” programming books; in doing so I’ve often noticed that authors have a difficult time choosing in what order to present complex material. Some authors concentrate on getting the reader to create working code right away even if the reader might not understand it all. Some concentrate on getting the fundamental concepts down first. Some simply present the material in the order they learned it themselves. Did you have some sort of high-level policy for deciding how to order the presentation of various concepts?

Rebecca M. Riordan: There’s most definitely a policy for how the information is presented. It’s the result of the couple of years I spent researching cognitive theory and instructional design, before designing the Fluent series. It turns out we actually know quite a lot about how the brain learns and how to teach, but it just hasn’t filtered through to the technical writing community.

One of the things I learned is that we think in patterns. It’s almost impossible to remember, much less recall, anything unless it’s attached to something else. I think the greatest failing of technical literature—including many of the books I’ve written myself—is that we do such a rotten job of presenting the pattern of the information, how all the bits fit together. Our collective failure to do so makes learning so much harder than it needs to be, and that seems like such a shame to me, and such a waste. So the Fluent books, on both the macro and micro level, start with the overall pattern, and then present details in that context.

Once the patterning is in place, I don’t think the specific order in which information is presented matters quite so much. If I’ve done my job well, the reader should always know how this bit of new information fits with what they’ve already learned; in other words, they always know its context, so the issue is simply one of making sure that they know everything they need to know in order to understand this new bit. Of course, I say “simply”, and it’s not simple at all. Thinking through issues like “can they understand control templates if they haven’t learned about resource libraries yet?” is non-trivial, at least for me.

Eric Lippert: C# is now a quite large, fully-featured general-purpose programming language. Were there aspects of the language that you felt were particularly difficult for beginners?

Rebecca M. Riordan: Concepts like lambdas and delegates are complex and can be scary, but in my experience, beginners seem to stumble most often over programming syntax that is almost-but-not-quite like natural language. Boolean operations are a prime example—the logical “or” and the natural language “or” are polar opposites—and I spend a lot of time in the book on those sorts of issues. But some very smart people have devoted their careers to making programming languages in general and C# in particular clean and logical. I think it’s just a matter of finding and presenting the underlying structure of the language in a meaningful way.

Eric Lippert: Indeed, we do try hard to make C# both clean and logical, though that is not always easy as a language evolves. When you were working on the book, did you learn new things about the language yourself?

Rebecca M. Riordan: I always learn things when I write. It’s one of the things I love about what I do for a living. With this particular book, I spent a lot of time winnowing out the underlying structure of the WPF class library, which I’ve been using for years but never really thought about clearly. I also had to do some careful research for the patterns and practices sections. Prior to writing the book, I’d really only explored the patterns that I’d used in various applications, and that kind of ad hoc knowledge isn’t nearly good enough when you’re taking responsibility for providing other people with the overview they need to explore on their own.

Eric Lippert: You’ve written a number of books about databases; what led you to switch gears to write about programming languages instead? 

Rebecca M. Riordan: Funny, it doesn’t really feel like switching gears to me. My first few books were database books, but recently I’ve written on a number of subjects from interface design (Seeing Data) to web development (Head First Ajax). I think of myself as a writer and software designer, not a database person. There’s a wide range of subjects that interest me personally and professionally, and when a subject interests me, my first instinct is to start thinking about how to teach it to somebody else. It’s part of how I learn.

Eric Lippert: How did your earlier experiences writing books influence how you approached writing this book?

Rebecca M. Riordan: The Fluent series is a direct result of my dissatisfaction with my earlier books. They’re not bad books, mind you. I’m a competent technical writer. But it all seemed so much harder than it ought to be, both to write and to learn. Like so many of us in this industry, I spend a lot of my time on the bleeding edge, studying and learning just to stand still. I decided there just had to be a better way. So I went down to the local Borders and found a wonderful book aimed at elementary school teachers, What Every Teacher Should Know about Effective Teaching Strategies by Donna Walker Tileston and discovered that there is a better way.

It turns out that there are people who know an awful lot about how we learn and how to teach effectively; they’re just not the people writing technical tutorials. (And I don’t mean to cast aspersions on my colleagues. Nobody gets to know everything.) So, a couple of years, several hundred books, papers and studies of cognitive science and instructional design (and information design and graphic design and book layout...) and several false starts later, Fluent Learning is the result of my research into what these amazing folks in the teaching profession have figured out.

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