Sunday, 16 January 2011

Just in time learning

At university much of what I was taught in my early subjects was the 'fundamentals'. Information and skills that might be of use to me one day. I would describe it as 'just in case' learning. I learnt about chemistry, physics, statistics and mathematics just in case I came across a situation, where I would need to use those skills and apply that knowledge.

I'm in my honours year now and I do need to use those skills and apply that knowledge. But you know what? I'd forgotten almost everything from those early years. Without a reason to hold onto those learnings, my brain sensibly threw them out the window to make room for things I did need to know.

Looking back on it, it was a real waste of time taking those subjects. A good 96 hours of my life went into every subject, into learning things that I didn't need. It wasn't an enjoyable learning process either. Without an interesting problem to solve, stats was a real drag.

A better way to teach
I reckon school and university would be a lot more valuable and a lot more fun if we ditched 'Just in case' learning and replaced it with 'Just in time' learning.

'Just in time' learning is all about learning things when and only when you need them. You learn to solve a specific problem or manage a project. Travelling to Mexico? Learn Spanish on the plane. Someone suing you for patent infringement? Learn patent law in the courtroom.

I find when I can use a skill or piece of information right away, it's a lot easier to learn and a lot more fun. I trust in my ability to learn things quickly.

A vision for a better school and university system
Imagine this: instead of doing projects that the teachers choose because they're tried and tested and easy to assess, students do projects that are actually meaningful. Chemistry students get challenged to synthesise a new molecule. Architecture students get given a real brief for a building for a real client. Economics students get tasked with finding a better way to do micro-loans.

These students struggle. Much of what they do in the project is outside what they've learnt in the classroom before. But they learn on the fly because they're interested in the project and they want to make it work.

The most important lesson:
The most important thing I learnt from university is not the content but the process of learning. I forget most of what I learn, but that's a good thing because it shows it's not useful.

If you trust in your ability to learn 'just in time', then you don't need classes. You need projects.

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