Monday, December 12, 2005

Head First and Zig-Zag Learning

While in college, I had a job as a teaching assistant for freshman writing courses. Going in, many students struggled with writing because they didn’t get the process. They assumed that a good writer just wrote, as if taking dictation from an inner voice. Problem was, their inner dictators would never appear, leaving the students like frustrated wads of crumpled paper.

Because they were never taught to think, these students expected to be told what to write, if not by their mysterious inner dictator, then by me. My job was to change their perspective from seeking dictatorship to seeking their inner democracy—learning to consider many points of view, asking critical questions, and thinking for themselves.

For many, the big revelation was that thinking for yourself, and expressing it in writing, is messy. The result might look neat and tidy, but you don’t get there in one clean pass. It is a zig-zaggy process of discovery, where writing and thinking—and rewriting, rethinking, and talking to others—lead somewhere you can find only by taking the journey. It is a different type of learning from what most first-year students know, but when it clicks, you can feel a door opening inside.

I tell this story as background to my thoughts on an innovative series of technical how-to books, O’Reilly’s “Head First” series. The series presents subjects in terms of how people learn, which is more like the aforementioned zig-zaggy process of discovery than the orderly, linear approach of the traditional tech how-to book.

Accordingly, in the Head First series, redundancy is a feature, not a bug. The authors present key concepts in multiple ways, from different angles. You might get a relatively conventional explanation of an idea in one place. Later, it may reoccur within a dialog, a story, or a visual—or all of the above.

In Head First, visuals are big, especially pictures of people who act out key ideas, raise questions, and otherwise proxy for you, the reader. If the traditional tech how-to book is like the command line, then all these people pictures are like Microsoft Bob, but without Bob’s lobotomized version of user friendliness. Head First uses people as props for illustrating ideas, providing more immediacy and emotion than an abstract description can. It’s the social interface, on paper. And it’s not the only way things are presented, just another form of zig-zagging.

Finally, Head First’s writing style is conversational, not didactic—the books talk with you, not at you. And in the name of keeping you engaged, they employ humor and cleverness liberally. Mix it up. Zig and zag.

Although some tech types will regard these titles as O’Reilly’s answer to the “...for Dummies” series, Head First’s mission is more profound. The point is not to dumb-down a topic but rather to make it more learnable without sacrificing the substance of a high-quality intro text. So if the Microsoft Bob analogy brought negative connotations with it, let me restate the point more generally: The typical tech how-to book is the command line; Head First is the GUI, or at least a notable step toward it. Discuss.

Remember, the lesson about teaching writing was that writers learn what they’re saying zig-zaggedly. For complex topics, readers learn the same way. The question is whether the media they learn from helps or hinders that.

For more on Head First, see the series’ home page. Plus, for non-technical but business-relevant Head First commentary, I recommend the blog Creating Passionate Users  by authors of Head First books. That’s where I saw the announcement of the latest book in the series, “Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML,” which reminded me I had a blog entry waiting to get out on this subject.

So, to the people behind the Head First series, congratulations and thanks for moving the ball forward.


  1. Wow, Steve, thanks so much for these comments. You both captured our goals *and* gave me a few new ways to think about what we're doing. I'm going to send this to all our co-authors (and future co-authors) because it highlights some of the most important characteristics in ways I haven't always been able to... and you bring up some key things I haven't considered. In other words, you gave us a little more credit than we deserved -- while most of what works about the format is what we do by design, some of the most effective aspects were more or less accidental artifacts of the approach. Thanks to this post, I have a little more insight into some of that.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Kathy, and keep up the great work!