Working at learning, or, pluggin’ for results

When I read about the Organize Series plugin for WordPress (a focus of Monday’s post), I thought, “This could do it.”

No I didn’t.  I don’t know about you, but I rarely think to myself in complete sentences.  Phrasing like this is how we capsulize a more complex experience.  What I believe was going on at the time was something like this: I had a situation I wanted to change (the way I used to manage a series of posts here on my blog no longer worked). And the Organize Series plugin at first glance looked like it could accomplish at least two things:

  • Provide automatic navigation between posts in a series (so I wouldn’t have to hard-wire the links).
  • Display a list of all the posts in a given series (for me to use as a summary or as a table of contents for the series).

If I’d thought about it longer, I might have articulated another goal: have some way to list all the different series I have.  But I’m not usually that strategic.  Still, what I came up with (provide navigation, display a list) acted as my critical-to-quality elements.  CTQs were widely used at GE when I worked there; I use that acronym partly tongue-in-cheek and partly to highlight informal criteria.

So, I put Organize Series to work, and within 10 minutes I had automatic next/previous navigation for posts in a series, along with an indication that they were part of a series:

No, this isn't the entire post.
(You can click the image to see the entire post.)

When I was still considering whether to use the plugin, I said to my wife, “Wouldn’t it be great to know how to write a plugin?”  On reflection, I realize this statement was another capsulization–a series of them, nested inside each other.  “Know how to write a plugin” really means:

  • “Know how to write a plugin” really means “write a plugin that works….”
  • Which in turn means “write one that produces results…”
  • Which means “write one that people use to accomplish things that matter to them.”

To me, this is an important distinction for workplace learning: You can learn on your own for your personal satisfaction, and if you’re satisfied, then that’s a sufficient result.  In the workplace, though, you’re part of a larger group (even if that group is you and one individual client), and so the result has to matter within that context.

What’s this got to do with my plugin tinkering?

Think of it as my own workplace learning.  At this point, I was still some distance from my (loosely articulated) end state.  I hadn’t moved much toward my other CTQ of displaying a list of all the posts in a series. In fact, I didn’t yet grasp all the options in the plugin, let alone know how to make them work in a way useful to me.

I only put this here to scare you a little.
About 5% of the info from the plugin's page of options

But…In my first 15 minutes with the plugin, I’d achieved a result that I found valuable.  That left me more willing to experiment–which, put another way, says I was somewhat more willing to spend time trying to achieve the next valuable result.

To me, this is a core principle for any type of workplace learning: formal or informal, face-to-face or virtual.  I need to be able to accomplish something that looks to me like real work–produce something that I see has having on-the-job value.  And I need to do that sooner rather than later, which is why twenty minutes on introductions, half an hour on expectations for this workshop, and twenty minutes on learning objectives will invariably drive me to teeth-clenching frustration. Or to eating more of those lowest-bid-hotel pastries.

One of the unexpected outcomes of achieving an initial on-the-job goal is that you end up better able to visualize other goals.  In a sense, learning leads to new problems (or opportunites) because you’re better at grasping the current situation and at visualizing different ones.

In the course of my experimenting with the Organize Series plugin, I did find at least one way to display a list of all the posts in a series.  I can make a box like this appear alongside the title for each post:

Example of a 'series post list box' - a box listing posts in a series
The posts in my most complex series

You can click that image if you’d like to see the first post in the series, though I’ve turned this “series post list box” feature off for now, until I learn how to control the way it displays.  Having managed to produce it, though, I’ve picked up several more goals for myself.  I was about to write “learning goals,” but I want to stress that they’re all tied to accomplishment.

  • I want to learn how to use code that’s part of the plugin to, for example, display a list of posts like the last example where and when I want it.
  • I want to find out how to modify the plugin’s template (the tool it uses to display the full text of all the posts in a series).
  • I may even want to learn how to modify the PHP or CSS code to make things happen.

That last is quite a goal for someone who doesn’t really know how to program.  But my various experiments to date, and especially the things I see as successes, have taught me that I can learn to successfully modify small bits of PHP code and achieve relatively high-value results.

So I’m accomplishing what looks like real work to me.


2 thoughts on “Working at learning, or, pluggin’ for results

  1. Sounds like you’ll definitely have to learn PHP if you want to learn how to do Plug-ins. Look forward to watching you.

    My ‘solution’ for stuff like this is always to repeat bits of code and store them on something like Pastebin, which isn’t really a solution.

    For your ‘problem’ here, I’d probably write out the links as HTML once and assign it a CSS class on a ‘per-post’ basis using this marvellously useful hack:

    I’d forgotten about CTQ-type stuff. Our approach when building big ol’ websites (even little ol’ ones, when there’s the budget – opportunity for reading between lines there…) is to write User Stories: As a busy blogger, I want to be able to compose a ‘series’ of blog posts and easily create a way for readers to quickly navigate to relevant bits and understand the scope of the series.

    That type of stuff. We write literally hundreds with clients, and then theme them to make them more cognitively manageable.

    And then finally add in the CTQs (actually, ‘acceptance criteria’) which are testable and the stuff the technical bods actually implement.

  2. Simon:

    I don’t think I actually want to write plugins. “Wouldn’t it be cool?” was a kind of compliment for those who do have the skill. I think it’d be cool to hold a conversation in Gaelic, too, but in my case anything much beyond Ciamar a tha thu? Tha gu math; ciamar a tha thu fhein? is unlikely to happen.

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