In a typical paroxysm of brilliant insight, Amber Naslund posted what she called “one of those pensive posts [that needs a lot of thought]” on Sunday evening. The crux of the post was how theory can play a role in such highly action-sequence oriented fields like marketing – especially social media and content marketing.
As Amber says in the post, current social media advice is largely prescriptive; How To and 3 Steps To, and so on. This is beneficial to a point, but is it all we can do to move the work forward?
From her post – Elements of Knowledge and Embracing Social Media:
And in many ways, when you’re starting something new, that’s exactly what you want. The what and the how. Some understanding of what the established and familiar rules are, some guideposts to meter your own activities and behavior, and some reassurance that you’re headed in the “right” direction, or at least one that makes sense to you.
But when it comes to comprehension, there’s more than just the instructive side of the equation. There’s also understanding.
This is an important point, and one that I think needs some more elaboration and consideration.
The Case for Theory Before Practice
If school has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a use for having domain knowledge before practice begins. Just like we teach our kids (or try to), if something’s too hot to touch, there’s an effect from touching it regardless of cautions. Learning anything early that we can apply before negative happenstance can be helpful.
There’s also the possibility for analysis-in-the-moment, for anything we have knowledge of before practice. When something beneficial comes from what we might otherwise perceive as a negative action (for example, breaking up a flame war by making an explosive remark yourself), a theoretical understanding of human motivation and debate habits can be really helpful; with a theoretical knowledge to guide us, we might understand why that explosive comment worked to diffuse the situation, and another one might have made things worse.
The ability to understand the effects our actions might have can be hugely beneficial. The question is not whether theory has a place, but whether or not it should come first.
The Case for Practice Before Theory
In the Karate Kid, when Ralph Macchio is being taught to wax cars and paint fences, he spends a lot of time being annoyed that he’s not really learning karate. His sensei, Mr Miagi, smiles and fails to explain until much later. After weeks of labour and practice, finally the lesson becomes clear; the Kid was building muscle memory for the activities relevant to his required expertise.
Of course once the purpose of the practice is explained, there’s a blossoming of understanding. Having the muscle memory for the work that needs to be done makes the actual doing of the work so much easier. All that needs to be done in each instance is decide which skill to apply in which circumstance. This makes activity of any kind highly strategic – counter follows block follows jab and so forth. Natural progression and rhythm of action becomes easily apparent, for reasons entirely different to the in-the-moment analysis that those who learn theory before practice take advantage of.
But Which Should Come First?
And should it always be that way? Matt Ridings (@techguerilla) almost immediately responded with a question about why linear thought about theory and practice were such a big deal. It’s a good question; not everyone needs the muscle memory that comes from preemptive practice, and not everyone else can apply theory to their initial exploration of a task or domain.
I think there’s a case to be made for both directions, but it’s a case that has to be made on a per-instance basis. Some of us are polymaths, able to learn a huge variety of things easily. Some of us are intuitive learners, others kinesthetic. There is a huge variety of learning style out there – and it’s on the teachers, the instructors… The sensei among us to look for the signs that a student (hello, fellow grasshopper) can benefit better from one style of teaching than they can from another.
Before we can decide which style of teaching to employ, however, we need to define our theory. That, I think, goes far beyond just deciding who learns what better in what form.
Me? I’m going to do some more study. I’ve spent the last year playing karate kid – and I know, from how the year turned out, that I need more of that. My muscle memory isn’t as strong as it should be in some areas. However, I know I can’t survive on practice alone. Part of my work this year, I think, will be building some core theories out of observations of my own habits, and tending to the things that have succeeded.
What do you think? Where are you on the scale of theory vs practice?
Image by Woodley Wonderworks.