28 March 2009

A Fresh Perspective on Shu-Ha-Ri

Shu-Ha-Ri is a learning model. It is one of those timeless formulations that is both pragmatic and universally applicable. Like many good, ancient models, it is elegant and simple. Of course, misapplication of such a model can lead to oversimplifications and missed details.

I recently stumbled upon a passage in a book that made me think of Shu-Ha-Ri, although the author did not mention it explicitly. I'll get to that, but first...

What is Shu-Ha-Ri?
Shu-Ha-Ri is a very old way of looking at the way we learn and teach new things. Shu-Ha-Ri divides understanding into three levels, Shu (hold), Ha (break), and Ri (leave).

In more detail (and perhaps colored by my own interpretation):

Shu: The beginner, or apprentice, needs (and usually wants) to be given the rules, so that he or she can be productive. The Shu practitioner follows the rules, and wants to know when the crayon is moving outside the lines. Creative interpretations by a Shu practitioner can lead to disaster. At this level, finding a good teacher is essential.

Ha: The explorer, or journeyman, knows the rules, and when and how to bend them. There is more creativity involved. Exploration "outside the lines" by the Ha practitioner usually results in a high degree of craftsmanship. Self-learning can occur, but the practitioner is also thirstily seeking varied mentors.

Ri: The expert, or master, is not hindered by the rules. In fact, the master practitioner can create new rules, and sometimes these rules seem to conflict with old rules. Some have suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that this level can be summarized as "Rules? What rules?" This is not accurate: The master of a practice can see the underlying truths behind the rules, and thus does not need to consciously think about the rules. This does not imply that a master can do whatever she wants. The master's actions embody the truth discovered within the context of the practice. Being an expert at something does not make one perfect at anything.

No One is Perfect

No one is an expert at everything, and only a newborn is a beginner at everything. Each of us has a level of proficiency in a variety of skills. It can take a lifetime to reach mastery for even a single practice.

No one stays at one level. A beginner can have a creative insight that turns out very well. An expert can forget and relearn the simplest and oldest rules. I'm told that if you think you've mastered something, you probably haven't; and if you say you've mastered something, you certainly haven't.

A Strange Loop
Experts (Ri) may have a hard time teaching beginners (Shu). (I think it was James Shore who pointed this out to me while we were building a course together.) Training comes from at most one level "higher" than the intended audience. Masters (Ri) can provide excellent examples by how they live their craft, but are not always able (or willing) to communicate effectively with an apprentice.

So those who can train beginners in a practice have learned another skill: Training. It's not enough to be an expert alligator wrestler if you want to train others to wrestle alligators.

Since becoming an "Agile Trainer," I've realized that there is a whole new dimension to my interests. I try to absorb anything I can regarding software-development, process, and teaching.

Learning to be a teacher... Is that Shu-Ha-Ri applied to Shu-Ha-Ri?

Taking Our Places
I recently read a pleasant little book called Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up by Norm Fischer. In it, there's a section about teachers and teaching, and he outlines three levels:

Literal: We follow the rules to the letter.

Compassionate: "...we may find it necessary to go beyond rules, laws, or customs, motivated...by compassion, which sometimes causes us to transcend the literal level of good conduct for the purpose of helping others." [Fischer, p. 182]

Ultimate: "...we come to appreciate that the [rules] are deeper than we had ever imagined; so deep that they can never be completely understood." [Fischer, p. 182]

Sounds a lot like Shu-Ha-Ri, yes? Fischer never mentions Shu-Ha-Ri, but I suspect the parallels are not coincidental.

I'm quite inspired by the implications: I notice that the level that may be most suitable for trainers like myself (Ha) maps to Fischer's level where compassion is the primary motivation.

Further Reading
There has been a lot of "tweeting" recently regarding Shu-Ha-Ri:
Wikipedia has a (very) brief introduction:
Ward's good old (original) wiki has one of the best introductions I could find on the web:

Alistair Cockburn made some valuable clarifications: