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Just-In-Time Learning

You may or may not have heard the phrase, Just-In-Time learning. It’s the idea that you should only learn something the moment before you need to know it, and not any earlier.  It’s not something that I personally believe in, but you may find the ideas appealing and so I thought I would try to unpack it a little bit, figure out what it really means, and talk about the pros and cons to that approach.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you will know that I take a lot of courses (many at the same time), about a lot of diverse topics, and am always finding new things online to learn. I love youtube, the massive open online course (MOOC) movement, university lectures and resources provided online (like opencourseware), and all other types of online learning. I wake up every day with the desire to learn something new, and that makes me feel like I am not wasting my time here on Earth. If the continuous improvement (CI) model works for business, I subscribe to the continuous personal improvement model – a term which I will claim credit for inventing unless someone tells me otherwise.

This model of continuous or continual improvement is sometimes called Kaizen, and was made famous in Japan during the 1950’s to turn Japan’s post-war economy into the economic powerhouse it is today.

I am not sure if Just-In-Time learning runs counter to that, but they certainly are a bit different. The principle of JIT learning is that you only want to learn just enough to get you past your immediate need and no more. It has a strong emphasis on practical learning, as opposed to learning based on interest. And there’s very little room for the theory of anything.

Now, why would this been a good thing? For one, if your goal is to run a race, you do not need to learn the history of the race you want to run, nor how running shoes are made, nor the psychology of your opponents, nor how the human muscular system works. You just need to know how to run. You may be interested in how to pick the right shoe, and how to pace yourself for a race of that distance, but that’s very limited knowledge.  In fact, if you had a friend who could pick the shoe to use, you would prefer to ask him which shoes to buy instead of you learning how to choose on your own. With JIT learning, you are trying to get to the goal in as short a time as possible.

This serves to limit the time spent on unimportant tasks. So, in a more practical example, if you wanted to learn how to blog, you would have an up-and-running blog faster if you did not spend time learning how to write HTML or design wordpress templates. In that sense, it’s all very practical, very goal focused, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Why would this be a bad thing? Well for one, it sets the ideal amount of learning for an adult at zero. From the age of 21 til 99, if you follow the just-in-time learning process as your core philosophy, you would accomplish all your goals with as little learning as you possibly can. That’s sad, to me. I think learning is itself a goal we should all have, and I don’t even care what that learning is. It’s so individualized. What limited lives we would have without learning! What limited goals we would have! We would have no vision beyond what we can see! Like growing up inside a cardboard box and having no interest in understanding the world outside that box.

Second, what kind of a world will we live in if we don’t understand how cars work? We don’t understand where rain comes from? If you are adept at math and science, it can only help you to take an art course! If you are afraid of using a computer, it can only help you to overcome that fear. By limiting ourselves, we allow others to control us. Yes, we can leverage the expertise of others to get us to our goals faster, but we are at the same time totally dependent on others as well.

I didn’t mean for this to be such a rant. Ultimately, learning is both for practical purposes, entertainment, and to expand the limits of our vision (expand our horizons). I would not suggest you understand everything about the history of the internal combustion engine, and how it works, before learning how to drive. But at some point in your life you should understand what happens to the gasoline after you fill the tank. It’s good for you.


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